A Thanksgiving Meal Haggadah

Call it the November dilemma.

Every autumn, as we sit down to Thanksgiving meals, a lot of us find ourselves silently pondering the same question: What are we supposed to do?

As Jews, we have our holiday routines: Shabbat dinners with candles, Kiddush wine and ha-Motzi over the challah. On Rosh Hashanah, we have apples and honey. Pesach? There’s a whole manual to tell us when to dip, when to drink, even how we’re supposed to sit.

Then there’s Thanksgiving. We gather to eat — the same people, at the same table, with the same enticing aromas wafting in the kitchen. But we don’t have a script.

Sure, we feast on turkey, argue politics and watch football. But what about the ritual? What about the meaning?

That’s where this Thanksgiving Haggadah comes in. It’s our attempt to help you focus, at least for a few moments, on gratitude, a theme that’s both deeply American and deeply Jewish.

The Passover Haggadah has its four questions. To enhance your Thanksgiving, consider these four, each designed to inspire conversation, storytelling and reflection. Then ponder these four blessings, included to help you carry these ideas into your life.

We hope you’ll find a few minutes between the appetizers and the pumpkin pie to ask, answer, learn and share. And then, after dishes are cleared and the guests scattered again, carry the gratitude into the days and months ahead.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Embodying Gratitude

When the Biblical Leah gave birth to her first child, she proclaimed, “This time I shall thank the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35) She named him Yehuda — Judah — Hebrew for “thankful.” To be Jewish means to be thankful. The Talmud teaches that a person should find reasons to say 100 blessings each day. When we exercise our hearts to appreciate, and train our eyes to take notice of the goodness all around, we invite in the blessings of wonderment, vitality and joy.

Discuss: How can you embody gratitude?

BLESSING: Giving Thanks

Some of Judasim’s oldest texts emphasize the centrality of gratitude: “Give thanks to God for God is good! God’s lovingkindness is eternal.” (Psalm 107:1)  “It is good to thank God and make music to Your name!” (Psalm 92:1). And traditionally, the first prayer we say every morning, Modeh Ani, expresses gratitude for the very act of waking up: “I gratefully thank You God, for You have restored my soul within me with compassion, abundant is Your faithfulness.”

Mending Divisions

It’s hard to imagine a time more divisive than the one we’re living in now. But President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, smack in the middle of the Civil War. Besides encouraging Americans to give thanks even amid difficult times, Lincoln also urged them to offer “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” In other words, he meant for Thanksgiving to be a day of both gratitude and repentance.

Discuss: What’s one thing you can do to mend our divided world?

BLESSING: Bringing Light

The idea that Jews are to be a “Light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) shines through the words of Emma Lazurus: “I lift my torch beside the golden door,” and the lyrics of Irving Berlin: “God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above.” May we act in virtue and goodness to bring light to our homes, our communities and our nation. May God’s love ignite our resolve to bring the light of peace to the world.

In the words of the Torah’s priestly blessing:

“May God bless you and protect you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God reach out to you in tenderness and grant you peace.”
(Numbers 6:23-27)


Welcoming Strangers

Thanksgiving and Sukkot are both autumn festivals that celebrate the bounty of the harvest. Both celebrate the courage of pilgrims escaping religious persecution and heading for a new land. Both are holidays of hospitality. On Sukkot, we welcome the ushpizin (“exalted guests”). On Thanksgiving, we recall the way the Wampanoag Native Americans welcomed the Puritans, feeding them and teaching them the skills they needed to survive.

Discuss: When have you welcomed a stranger — or been a welcomed stranger?

BLESSING: Opening the Door

Bruchim ha-baim, Blessed are you who have come here, exalted guests! Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed angelic guests by preparing a meal with the choicest ingredients, we welcome one another with an abundance of food, warmth and love. As our sages teach, “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.” (Talmud Shabbat 127a) and “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)

Mindful Awareness

“When you have eaten and are satisfied, give thanks to God.” (Deuteronomy 8:10) The word order in this verse is significant: We should eat, be satisfied and then offer blessing. We are often less inclined to pray — or acknowledge the source of what we have — when we are content, when our bellies and our lives are full. It is when we find ourselves hungry and in need that we more readily think to reach out in prayer.

Discuss: How can we be mindful even when we feel satisfied?

BLESSING: Marking the Moment

The Lakota people have a prayer thanking the mineral, plant, animal, human and spirit nations for sharing the sacred wheel of life. This day we are aware of the intricate weave of our lives and our connection to the changing seasons.

We Jews express gratitude to the God of Life who enables us to reach this beautiful day:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed be God, the Eternal Source of all life, for keeping us alive, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this joyous season!

Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

A solar eclipse deserves a blessing

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism.

An eclipse is, of course, a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces. It depends primarily on a few basic facts. First, at present and on average, the Sun is about 400 times farther from the Earth than is the Moon and, in a grand coincidence, the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the Moon. So, in general, the Moon now is just the right size at just the right distance to be able to block light from the disk of the Sun. Second, the orbit of the Moon is tilted slightly to that of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For there to be an eclipse, the Moon’s path must intersect with the Earth’s orbital (ecliptic) plane. Third, neither the orbit of the Earth around the Sun nor that of the Moon around the Earth is circular. Rather, both are elliptical. This means that one satellite or the other is sometimes closer and sometimes farther from the object around which it rotates.

Knowing the orbits of the Earth and Moon, astronomers can calculate when solar eclipses have occurred in the past and can predict when they will occur in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has created a catalog of solar eclipses of all varieties reaching back four thousand years and looking ahead another millennia.

Though solar eclipses may be visible up to five times a year somewhere on Earth, they are still a relatively rare event at any particular place on the planet. The last total solar eclipse to be seen in the lower forty-eight states of the United States cast its shadow over several states in the northwest part of the country on February 26, 1979. The next one will be on August 21, 2017. It will be observable as a total eclipse in a path extending east and south from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. We won’t have to wait as long for the total solar eclipse that will follow. It will be visible from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. The paths and dates for future total eclipses in the U.S. can be seen here.

Mentions of eclipses appear long ago in the early annals of human records. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have references to the Ugarit Eclipse dated to 1375 BCE and the Assyrian Eclipse of 899 BCE.  In the East, in China, eclipses were described in writings from the Shang Dynasty and the Bamboo Annals regarding events in the fourteenth and ninth centuries BCE, respectively. Further west, in Greece, the epic poem Odyssey credited to Homer refers to the obliteration of the Sun and unlucky darkness, perhaps inspired by an actual eclipse in 1178 BCE. Later in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the poet Xenophon spoke of eclipses, generally in connection with military engagements. Indeed, the interval between lunar eclipses, known as the Saros cycle, was apparently recognized by astronomers in Chaldea (now southern Iraq) as far back as 800 BCE.

So, it is quite surprising that eclipses are not mentioned directly either in the Torah or the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which were written, edited and canonized in the first millennia BCE. Are eclipses not mentioned because they were unknown to the authors and editors or were they simply understood to be natural and not supernatural phenomena and, therefore, not worthy of mention?

The curious absence of any mention is highlighted, perhaps paradoxically, by two passages, in the Tanakh, one in the book of Joshua and the other in the book of Amos. According to the book of Joshua, during a battle between the Israelites and five Amorite kings at Gibeon, the Sun stood still for twenty-four hours, presumably to allow the Israelites to win. (See Josh. 10:1-15.) Recently, some Israeli scientists have advanced the idea that the author of Joshua was really referencing an eclipse on October 30, 1207 BCE. This seems more than a plausible stretch, though. Putting aside whatever evidence may or may not exist concerning the historicity of the battle itself, to sustain their argument, the scientists must first translate the Hebrew word “dom” not as it has traditionally been understood as describing the Sun becoming  still or stopping, but as the Sun having been merely clouded over or darkened. True, translations are often, subjective, but then the scientists must also essentially disregard the biblical claim that the event lasted an entire day, not the very few minutes that would mark the duration of a total solar eclipse. (See Josh. 10:12-15.) If the author of Joshua was trying to describe a rare solar eclipse, the author could easily enough have noted the growing darkness and the re-emergent light and cast the scene as an omen for Israelite victory. But the author made no mention of an eclipse’s effects or progression, and claimed an entire day of shining sun to be unique – which indeed it would have been.

In the book of Amos, the prophet was railing against those who would defraud consumers. (See Amos 8:4-10.) He said that God would not forget the miscreants’ misdeeds and that punishment would come by making the Sun set at noon and darkening the Earth on a sunny day. Again, some might argue this is a reference to an eclipse, but, here, too, the description is wrong and the rhetorical point seems to echo an earlier message about the “day of the Lord,” a time when Israel would be saved. (See Amos 5:18-20.)

The earliest clear references to eclipses from Jewish sources appear to be the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, both of whom lived in the first century of the Common Era. In one work, Philo recognized eclipses as the “natural consequence” of rules governing the Sun and Moon, but also stated that they were “indications” of doom, such as the death of a king or destruction of a city. (See here.) In his treatise on the history of the Jews, Josephus mentioned an eclipse and did so as part of a story about Herod’s treatment of the high priest Matthias and Herod’s death. A reader could infer that the eclipse was an omen of Herod’s demise, but it was clear from Josephus’s account that Herod was quite sick anyway and had prepared his will in anticipation of his death. (See Antiquities 17, Ch. 6, Sec. 4.)

By the time the main text of the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the end of the fifth century of the Common Era, a negative view of a solar eclipse had clearly crystalized. In connection with a discussion of the view that rain on the festival holiday of Sukkot suggests heavenly displeasure, the rabbis engage in a series of analogies, including a discussion of eclipses. That discussion begins with the following proposition attributed to the Sages:  “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.” (See BT Sukkah 29a.)

For those involved in this discussion, that idea only raises other questions.

  • Why is it a bad omen for the world? According to the Talmud, because the Jewish people calculate their calendar primarily based on lunar cycles and other nations base theirs on the solar cycle.
  • Can we be more specific about those at risk? The Talmud states that when the eclipse is in the eastern or the western sky, it is a bad omen for the residents of that area. When the Sun is eclipsed in the middle of the sky, the entire world is in danger.
  • And what is the signal that the eclipse is giving? The answer found in the Talmud is colorful, literally: “If during an eclipse, the visage of the Sun is red like blood, it is an omen that war is coming to the world. If the Sun is black like sackcloth made of dark goat hair, then arrows of hunger are coming, because hunger darkens peoples’ faces.”
  • But why would the Sun be eclipsed at any time? The Sages have answers here, too, in fact, multiple sets of them. In one view, the Sun is eclipsed on account of (1) a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized properly, (2) a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and no one was available to rescue her, (3) homosexuality, and (4) two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. Alternatively, the sun is eclipsed on account of (1) forgers of a fraudulent document intended to discredit others, (2) those who provide false testimony, (3) those who raise small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area, and (4) those who chop down good fruit producing trees.

As the recognition grew that solar eclipses were predictable events, part of the natural order, traditionalists tried to square the philosophical circle and reconcile the regularity of such events with presumably irregular eruptions of bad times and occasions of sins requiring divine intervention and punishment. (See, e.g., here and here.) According to one of his followers, because he understood an eclipse as a warning, as a time to take care, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1904) explained that eclipses were “meant to be opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”

This approach, however, is insufficient and unconvincing, regardless of the value of prayer and introspection. It fails to acknowledge the reality that science confirms about the regular order of local orbits. It fails to dispel expressly and strongly the general – but totally false -notion of a causal connection between natural events in the sky and human behavior on Earth. It fails to reject specifically the unsustainable rationales in the Talmudic passages cited above speculating why eclipses occur, and it fails to refute the false equivalencies among the various circumstances noted there.

This approach is also inconsistent with the traditional practice of offering blessings, as noted above, for more frequent, often more terrifying and clearly more dangerous events. After all, a total eclipse of the Sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake. And, further, this approach runs counter to the long standing tradition expressed in the Talmud (Menachot 43b) which calls on us to recite b’rakhot frequently during our waking hours, even to the extent of one-hundred a day. On the day of a solar eclipse, we should focus on ninety-nine other things and not note that the disk of the Sun is being obscured?

Even more importantly, the preclusion of a b’rakha regarding an eclipse undermines the emotional and intellectual benefit of a blessing, a principal purpose of which is to raise the level of consciousness of the person saying it. The words give literal expression to the remarkable thing or event which the individual’s senses have encountered or soon will. A blessing, then, is an empowering act, and to deny an individual, any individual, the opportunity to acknowledge, realize, concentrate, appreciate and grow can only limit a person’s mind and spirit, stunting his or her humanity.

With an orientation of modern, reality based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change, sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.

All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:

     As the eclipse nears . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.

     When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anakhnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.

      As light reemerges . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.

     Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.

  A version of this essay was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

Amid roasted pigs, country music and rabbinical blessings, Romney seeks to define himself

Whole barbecued pigs, cheerleaders and elegies to skinny-dipping farmers’ daughters.

That was the organized noise Sunday night at the opening bash of the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

For those seeking Jewish content, a noted rabbi was set to kick off the formal proceedings on Tuesday, and scattered through the rain-drenched towns of Tampa Bay were a number of events addressing the pro-Israel community’s foreign policy concerns.

At the opening party, delegates availed themselves of free wine and dug into the roasted pigs, a Cuban delicacy, while watching cheerleaders grind to Rodney Atkins singing “Farmer‘s Daughter“ and “What I Love About the South” (“Hot women skinny swimming, barely belly button deep”).

Other noises reverberating across Tampa Bay: There were the winds roiling the waters that lap the bridge that links Tampa with St. Petersburg, echoes of Tropical Storm Isaac, heading west toward New Orleans. The storm mostly missed the Tampa region, but its threat was potent enough to shut down the convention’s first formal day on Monday.

And there was political noise, too: Tea Partiers met at rallies in the region to protest what they depicted as an attempt by Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential candidate, to marginalize the hard-line conservatives as he attempts to steer the party toward the center ahead of November’s elections.

“This is what the Tea Party is not: We are not an unwanted second-class political party,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of the movement, was quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as telling a packed church hall on Sunday.

There were reports that small groups of delegates in state delegations would protest either by not voting at the convention or by switching votes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only contender from the primaries who has not formally relinquished his nomination fight.

Followers of Paul unleashed their anger with the party’s establishment—and particularly its advocacy for a robust U.S. posture overseas—at a packed rally on the University of South Florida campus.

Paul, to cheers, blamed recent wars on “powerful special interests behind a foreign policy of intervention and the military industrial complex” and said “neocons” are “all over the place, and they’re not in one place, they’re in all of the parties.”

The rally was structured as a passing of the torch from Paul, 76, to his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), 49. When Rand Paul appeared, the crowd, estimated at 7,000, began chanting “16!”—underscoring the expectation that he would be a contender for the GOP nomination in four years.

The younger Paul has avoided the associations with bigots and the outright hostility to Israel that have frustrated his father’s multiple bids for the presidency. He has, however, embraced Ron Paul’s isolationism, opposing foreign assistance, including to Israel. And at the Sunday rally he posited a new challenge—an audit of the Pentagon—to a Romney campaign that has pledged increased defense spending, in part to make it clear to Iran that it was not reducing its profile in the Middle East.

“Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is sacred or well spent in the military,” Rand Paul said.

There also were remnants of the moderate Republican Party nipping at the edges of the convention. Events were planned for the Log Cabin Republicans, an umbrella for gays in the party, and Republicans for Choice, an abortion rights group.

The convention schedule, constantly shifting because of the weather, was a template of Romney’s struggle to define himself and to accommodate the party’s multiple strands. Organizers pointed reporters particularly to the primetime 10-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday that featured Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Both choices were aimed squarely at attempts by Democrats and the Obama campaign to depict Romney as a flip-flopper beholden to ultra-conservatives. Ann Romney, seen as his most appealing surrogate, would once and for all humanize him, and Christie would show how a moderate Republican could prevail in a Democratic state, as Romney had done when he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

The party’s conservative wing also will be present, with speeches by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney’s most pronounced social conservative challenger during the campaign, and Rand Paul. There also will be a video tribute to Ron Paul, an event that Jewish Democrats have derided.

Notably absent as speakers were any remnant of the past decade’s GOP bids for the presidency. Former President George W. Bush is not present or speaking, nor is his vice president, Dick Cheney. Missing also is the 2008 ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

Romney has, however, surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers from past presidents. Most notably for the pro-Israel community, his top Middle East adviser is Den Senor, who has close ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was the U.S. spokesman in Iraq in the period following the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

AIPAC, as it has at past conventions, was running a number of closed events with top campaign advisers in the Tampa area during the convention, and is planning to do the same next week in Charlotte, N.C., when the Democrats meet. On the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda in Tampa is a bid to understand how Romney would distinguish himself from President Obama in confronting Iran and a broader Middle East roiled by change—the principal source of tension between the president and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One signal of consistency with the Obama presidency emerged last week during platform debate when Romney surrogates, led by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), pushed back against bids to remove a commitment to eventual Palestinian statehood from the platform. Talent noted at the time that two states remains the official Israeli government position.

Jewish officials, committed to building bipartisan consensus on Israel and other issues, expressed concerns about navigating a polarized Washington. At an American Jewish Committee event on energy policy, Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged the difficulties of making the case for an AJC energy security policy that strives for a middle ground between exploiting U.S. natural resources, which Republicans favor, and alternatives to fossil fuels, the choice of Democrats.

“It’s our role as advocates to say we are not free to desist, even though we are dealing in a polarized and difficult time to move those agendas,” Foltin said.

The convention schedule also underscored Romney’s bid to make more diverse a party that has become increasingly identified with white Christians. Delivering Tuesday’s opening invocation is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family who has opined on (small c) conservative issues. He also is the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Also delivering blessings are Hispanic evangelical leader Sammy Rodriguez; Ishwar Singh, a leader in Central Florida’s Sikh community (who approached convention organizers about delivering an invocation in the wake of the recent massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin); Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, the president and matron of the Mormon temple in Romney’s home base of Boston; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Calif. synagogue holding animal blessing

A Southern California synagogue is having its third annual “blessing of the animals.”

Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego holds the event in honor of Tu b’Shevat, the 15th day of Nissan, which this year falls on Jan. 20.

Pet owners are invited to bring their pets to the Reconstructionist shul by noon Sunday, Jan. 9, where they will be blessed by Rabbi Yael Ridburg. Furred, winged and swimming creatures are all welcome—from cats to turtles.

Tu b’Shevat is known as the new year of trees, and is one of four “new year” celebrations on the Jewish calendar. Some Jews expand the holiday to include blessings for all living things produced by the earth, including plants and animals.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, last year’s blessing ceremony included the audience responding: “May they never suffer from ick, and may their fins and scales always sparkle in the light of your sunshine.”

The many miracles of the family menorah

Alex, Ryan, Josh and Ellie Dubin light about 25 menorahs every night of Chanukah

From painted-clay preschool classics to sterling silver family heirlooms, the eight bright lights of the chanukiyah have a unique and artful way of revealing our values, holding our histories and telling our stories.

That’s a Big Ball of Wax

As a preschooler, Alex Dubin was always mesmerized by Chanukah candles. Every year, he would sit and stare as the flames danced over his growing collection of menorahs — the projects he created in school; or the ones he made with his grandmother, a ceramic artist; or with his mother, herself pretty crafty.

Today, Alex, 17, and his three younger siblings — Josh, 15, Ellie, 12 and Ryan, 6 — still love to stare into the candles, and they still make their own menorahs — and light all of them.

Every night of Chanukah, the Dubin kitchen turns into a glowing testament to art, family and nostalgia, with as many as 100 menorahs (fewer on the candle-heavy later nights) burning on a foil-covered island and table.

Most of their menorahs are displayed year-round in little cubbies in the living room, which fits well in their house, where every inch is covered in homemade art.

Parents Cindy and Mark host a yearly Chanukah celebration, when friends and family come over to do art projects, eat and, of course, light the candles.

While the guests are content to light and then go eat dinner, the Dubin kids stay in the kitchen, staring into the flames and at the colorful wax stalagmites. For the past six or seven years, they have let the wax drippings build up — Alex has one with a square-foot mass of wax.

Some of the menorahs are favorites: the one crafted from pottery from an Israeli archaeological site, preschool clay ones, the double-glazed ceramics they made with grandma, and any number made from pipes, coffee cans, bolts, metal address numbers, old loaf pans and any other inflammable hardware they can spot.

Grandma Marlene Zimmerman, whose work is exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center, has one menorah that didn’t make it onto the Dubin family display: Her replica of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights is in President Bill Clinton’s museum in Arkansas. When Clinton was in office, his wife, Hillary, chose Zimmerman’s Breed Street Menorah for the National Treasures Collection, and in 1999 Hillary lit that menorah at the White House Chanukah reception.

The Promise Menorah

Isaac Bialik and Shawna Brynjegard were high school sweethearts and inseparable at UCLA in the early 1990s.

So when Bialik traveled to Israel in 1992 — without Brynjegard — he was thinking about her much of the time. When he spotted a blue-and-purple ceramic-pomegranate menorah made by the Israeli artist Avram Gofer in a shop on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he knew he had to get it for her.

He came home a couple of weeks later, and gave her the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.

“I told her that from now on we would use this every Chanukah together, and that we would never be apart again,” said Bialik, who works on communications for Deloitte, an auditing and financial consulting firm. Bialik didn’t officially propose to Brynjegard for another year, but today Isaac and Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik (or B2) still light that chanukiyah.

Isaac is himself a Judaic artist (www.nicejewishartist.com), and Shawna is a rabbi who performs lifecycle events for those not affiliated with synagogues. By now, their pomegranate menorah has been joined by others in their Santa Clarita-area home. Their daughters, Mira (9), Yael (7) and Aviva (5), have added their own signature pieces and the family has bought a few more menorahs. Each night of Chanukah they light about five menorahs from their ever-growing collection, and while the other menorahs rotate in and out of the ritual, the Brynjegard-Bialiks always light their “Promise Menorah” together.

The Uncle’s Menorah


Sheldon Ginns doesn’t even know the name of the great-great-uncle who gave him his brass menorah more than 60 years ago. He was known simply as The Uncle, the first of the family to come to the United States from Berdichev, Ukraine, around 1900. The Uncle was in his late 90s when he died, and just before then he divvied up his belongings between his closest relatives (his only child had died). The Uncle gave his chanukiyah, which he had held onto through years of poverty, to Ginns’ grandfather, who immediately passed it along to Sheldon, then 8 years old.

The cast-brass menorah, whose edges are worn down form years of polishing, features two lions holding up a heart inscribed with the blessing for the candles, topped by an ornate crown.

Ginns, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a retired architect, and he remembers lighting the brass menorah every Chanukah and playing with it as a toy the rest of the year.

The menorah took on a place of honor in his own home, as he and his wife and two sons lit it every Chanukah.

Today, the brass menorah is the only family heirloom Ginns has. His grandfather was the eldest of 12 siblings, and the only one to come to the United States before World War II; no one else survived the Holocaust. His grandmother was the eldest of 10, and also the only survivor in her family. Both looked for their family for years.

When Ginns took the menorah to the Los Angeles-based Lower East Side Restoration Project to have it cleaned and repaired a few years ago, he learned that the menorah dated back to the 18th century and was probably from Poland. He also learned that the reason the menorah had two shamashes — candle cups set higher than the rest — was because it was also used weekly for Shabbat candles, a sign that the family who first owned it was poor and couldn’t afford both a chanukiyah and Shabbat candelabra.

He found out that the chanukiyah was originally an oil lamp and had been converted to hold candles. The Restoration Project restored it to its original state for Ginns.

He lights the menorah every two or three years, and he plans to pass it along to one of his five grandchildren some day to continue the tradition of the Ginns family menorah.

A Blessing by Any Other Name

When Judy Stern (not her real name) was a kid, her mother always made sure to pull out the menorah in December, and she recited the Hebrew blessing. Stern’s father wasn’t Jewish — they had a Christmas tree, too — and aside from that little menorah, not much else Jewish happened in their lives.

Then Stern landed at Hamilton High School near the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and she made friends with some Jewish kids who invited her to the Jewish Student Union at school, and then to a youth group — where she made a disturbing discovery.

At a Chanukah celebration, the teens recited the blessing over the candles — and it was different from the one her mother had always said.

That evening, Stern realized that her mother, who herself grew up with little Jewish education, had been reciting the only blessing she knew — the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread.

Stern began saying the correct blessing, which she still does to this day. She married a rabbi (ironically, so did her brother), and has four kids. Now, every Chanukah, as they say the brachot over the candles, her mother is there to celebrate with them, and to say, Amen.

Blessings From Bullets


Zane Buzby has restored many menorahs at her Lower East Side Restoration Project, but one of her favorites is what she calls the Palestine Menorah.

The owner, Rivka Greensteen, brought it to Buzby badly in need of repairs and restoration. The dented and dirty silver-plated brass rectangle was shaped like a wall of Jerusalem and engraved with lions and a Jerusalem scene. The candleholders fronting the wall needed care.

Greensteen told Buzby what she knew about the menorah. It had been brought from Russia to America by her grandfather, and was passed down to Greensteen’s father, and then to Greensteen. The family always used this menorah, and always had a family gathering on the fifth night of Chanukah — but they didn’t know why.

When Buzby got the menorah, she immediately recognized it as one from Palestine — pre-state Israel. The candle cups, she told Greensteen, were made from bullet casings. Greensteen put the rest together. Her grandfather’s brother was an early pioneer in Palestine, and must have sent the family the chanukiyah. He was killed in the 1930s in an Arab uprising.

This brother was the fifth son in his family, and it is probably no coincidence, Greensteen guessed, that it is his menorah that brings the family together each year on the fifth night of Chanukah.

Which do you choose — blessings or curses?

As we journey through the month of Elul, it is customary to comment on the weekly Torah portions in light of the upcoming Days of Awe. Parshat Ki Tavo is
read a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and its overriding theme is one that we encounter several times during the High Holy Days: blessing vs. curse.

“And all of these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you, if you listen to the word of God” (Deuteronomy 28:2) Moses says as his introduction to a beautiful description of blessings presented as a reward for following the covenant with God. By way of contrast, Moses also warns: “If you will not listen to the voice of God … all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15), and for the next 53 verses Moses describes a list of dark and devastating curses as punishment for abandoning the word of God.

This “blessing vs. curse” motif, so prevalent on the High Holy Days, is uniquely expressed in Sephardic customs. For instance, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy opens the evening service with a poem whose refrain is “May this year and all of its curses come to an end, and may this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.”

When we come home from Arvit, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is the rooting out of curse and the aspiration for blessing. We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for “tear up” is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will “tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God.”

We eat pieces of a fish or lamb’s head, and in a blessing lifted straight from Moses’ blessings in this week’s parasha, we say “May we always be the head, and not the tail” (see Deuteronomy 28:13 — “And God will make you the head, and not the tail”).

One of the most popular expressions of “blessing vs. curse” on the High Holy Days is the image of God seated with two books open before Him: The Book of Life (Blessing) and the Book of Death (Curse). Our liturgy says “Oh God, the Books of Life and Death are opened before You today.”

In the Sephardic tradition, as an expression of alienating ourselves from curses, the custom is that when the hazzan chants this prayer, he changes it to “Oh God, the Good Book of Life is open before You today.”

I guess we assume that God does not have a High Holy Days machzor, or, perhaps it is the outgrowth of another custom, one associated with this week’s parasha. When reading the sixth aliyah, which begins with the blessings and then transitions into the curses, the custom is that when the curses begin, the hazzan lowers his voice and reads the entire lengthy section in a whispering voice. As much as the “Book of Death” or the curses are clear and present in the machzor and in the Torah, it’s unpleasant to chant them in a loud voice.

Throughout Moses’ dark description of curses, the theme of enemies is prevalent. This, too, is part of the curses we wish to obliterate on Rosh Hashanah.

Around the same Sephardic table, the Rosh Hashanah seder also includes dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say “She-yitamu oyvenu” (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu — consumed — sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say “She-yikartu oyvenu” (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu — cut off — sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say “She-yisalku oyvenu” (May our enemies disappear; yisalku — disappear — sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life’s most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.

The section describing the blessings continuously repeats the word mitzvot, associating the performance of God’s commandments (mitzvot) with a life of blessing. The Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder concludes with this theme, as we eat pomegranate seeds and sesame seeds mixed with sugar, both prefaced by saying “May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds” or “May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds and sweet as sugar.”

This fitting end to the seder is a reflection of our deepest yearnings to live a life filled with the blessings that can come when performing God’s mitzvot.

As I read this parasha going into the High Holy Days, I feel blessed with many things, one of which is my rich Sephardic heritage. Even if you’re not Sephardic, you might want to try bringing these blessings into your own home. It’s certainly more diverse than a mere apple dipped in honey.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

My Blessing, Your Blessing

As the years pass, certain aspects of memory tend to become a bit fuzzy. For
some reason, I can still remember many phone numbers, addresses and even credit
card numbers from decades ago, but other vital and significant facts and experiences have faded.

Yet, no matter how many years I live, I will always remember my bar mitzvah and the Torah portion that became my personal property on that auspicious day. You’ll have to pardon my possessiveness for Parshat Naso, which I have felt since that Shabbat morning at Encino’s Maarev Temple some 47 years ago.

I have noted hundreds of b’nai and b’not mitzvah who have stood proudly beside me on the bimah and declared “welcome to my bar/bat mitzvah, at my synagogue, as we study my Torah portion and my haftarah on my Shabbat.” In a real sense that is exactly what we rabbis, educators, and proud parents want our kids to feel: That the Torah, Shabbat, the whole package, is their intimately personal possession and legacy.

So each year, as I pass this way, by way of Bamidbar and Shavuot, and confront anew the unique concepts of the Book of Numbers, chapters 4:21-7:89, it is much like visiting an old friend. I still remember my entire haftarah, by heart, mostly due to the fact that I hold on to that stuff, not to mention the 78 rpm vinyl disk that was my loyal and dedicated bar mitzvah tutor. And, of course, each annual reunion with Naso reminds me that yet another year has passed, and that there are hopefully more uphill inclines and downhill grades ahead.

What did I think was important about Naso in 1960? I remember not truly understanding the concept of the nazir, the person who made a solemn oath to abstain from worldly indulgences as a means to affirm one’s faith in God. That’s a tough challenge for an early adolescent, even one who claims to be a fountain pen. I did like, however, the fact that the haftarah from Shoftim (Judges) spoke of the birth of the well-known nazir Shimshon, Samson of Delilah fame.

But then, there was the gift. Arguably, one of the most beautiful, most powerful, most utilized and appreciated passages in the entire Bible. And it was in my parasha. The threefold priestly benediction, or Birkat Kohanim, was a natural, the best theme for a bar mitzvah speech I could have ever hoped or prayed for. And though I do not specifically remember, I surely hope that I mentioned these exquisite blessings in my speech.

But like so many other things, it was only in later years, as I passed other milestones and life-cycle events, and embarked on my rabbinical career, that I began to truly appreciate the beauty and depth of this soulful blessing that has adorned myriad significant, sad, but mostly happy moments. A birth, a birthday, a wedding or anniversary, a graduation and countless other sacred moments have been enhanced and sanctified by these words which have sealed the most memorable experiences of our lives.

“Y’vare-ch’cha HaShem v’yish-m’re-cha” (May God bless you and keep you).

The ancient commentators, of course, always intent on extracting every morsel of meaning from the divine text, work hard to uncover the special meanings of every word of this prayer. The ancient midrashic collection, Sifrei, suggests that the two verbs in this first line of the blessing refer to different kinds of divine gifts.

“Yevarechecha” (“May God bless you,” in this interpretation) refers to money, or material gifts. Later commentators elaborate, however, that material wealth without inner peace is no blessing at all. So this blessing is a prayer for material comfort, along with the inner peace to recognize blessing, to know that you have all you need.

“V’yish-m’recha” (May God keep you) refers to divine protection from physical danger. As such, this first part of the blessing asks for basic safety and security, and perhaps, the awareness to recognize the source of all blessing. It might best be rendered, “May God bless you with all you need, and shield you from harm.”

“Ya’er HaShem panav ay-lecha vee-chu-neh-ka” (May God show you favor and be gracious to you).

The first phrase asks God to shed divine light on your face, to make your face radiant with blessing and holiness. The latter verb “vee’chu-neh-ka, comes from the word “chayn,” a word that is probably best translated as “grace.” It is that quality of lived experience when something beautiful shows up for absolutely no apparent reason.

It is when wonderful things happen unexpectedly, astoundingly, that they point to the hand of a higher power. My friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff expresses the sentiment of this blessing as “God giving us even more than we deserve.”

Finally, God is asked to bless you with peace. Not surprisingly, peace is the climax of the prayer. Without peace, one cannot enjoy any of the other blessings. Without peace, one can not focus upon or recognize the Source of all blessing.

“Yisa HaShem panav ay-lecha, veyasem lecha shalom” (May God face you with love, and give you peace).

For all those sacred moments, memories and hopes, may we continue to remember God’s precious blessings, first conveyed by the priests, then by rabbis, loving parents and many others who all feel privileged to bestow these hopes and promises upon a world that needs them now more than ever.

Mark Hyman is rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

Rabbi Pinto’s miracles

Growing up in Morocco, the word “miracle” was a familiar one. I remember how my parents, especially my mother, would bring up the great Moroccan mystics at alltimes of the day — either to pray for a miracle, or to thank them for one.

No miracle was too small. If a plate would break and a child was not hurt, or if a plate would break and a child did get hurt, whatever it was, mothers would immediately call out to one of the sages. Their names were our security blankets. For centuries, they provided a protective, spiritual cocoon for the Jews of Morocco.

These sages were different from the sages of the Bible or the Talmud; they were the sages of the hood. They were gone, but they were not long gone. You knew someone who had kissed their hand. Your father would tell you about a miracle that his own father had experienced with a certain sage. Somewhere in the neighborhood lived the grandson or grandnephew of another great mystic. We would sleep in tents at their burial sites during their yahrzeit. Their pictures were on our walls.

You could almost touch them.

Today, one of the great Moroccan sages, Rabbi Chaim Pinto of the city of Mogador, has a living presence right here in our own hood, on Pico Boulevard, just east of Robertson. It’s at a little shul called the Pinto Center.

It’s not uncommon for a Moroccan synagogue to be named after a well-known sage (a mile north on Fairfax Avenue is another Moroccan shul named after the great Baba Sale). What’s unusual here is that the heart and soul of the Pinto Center is a Pinto himself. He is Rabbi Yaacov Pinto, a direct descendant of the Pinto dynasty.

But I haven’t told you about the miracle yet.

Rabbi Yaacov opened the synagogue in the mid-1980s and built a thriving little community center of prayer and learning, attracting a high-intensity blend of Israeli, French and Persian Jews. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Rabbi Yaacov developed an irresistible urge to return to Israel, where he had been born and raised.

For a shul that revolved around the charisma and leadership of one man, this was a spiritual earthquake. Nevertheless, after much agonizing, Rabbi Yaacov and his family moved in the summer of 2003 to Ashdod, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv with a large Moroccan community, including the rabbi’s mother and several of his siblings.

(I knew Rabbi Yaacov well at the time, and from what I gather, the pressures of fundraising were starting to burn him out; he wanted a better education for his kids, and, like he said to me once, he simply missed the Holy Land).

It didn’t take long for the Pinto shul to unravel. Despite Rabbi Yaacov ‘s best efforts — he came back every six weeks or so and was here for all the holidays and stayed in constant contact with his people in Los Angeles — the Pinto Center was losing its soul. When the Shabbat minyan dwindled from more than 100 to fewer than 20, the end was near.

Rabbi Yaacov prayed to his ancestors, as he often does. That’s when an idea came to him: He would create an intimate “candle room” in the synagogue, where people could come meditate and light candles in the presence of the great Pinto tzadikim, and pray for anything they wished. Well, the word got out and they came from all over to light candles, and I guess somebody must have prayed for the revival of the Pinto shul, because that is precisely what happened next.

The “miracle” took about a year, but slowly the Pinto shul came back to life. It’s not a coincidence that Rabbi Yaacov chose as the ba’al habayit, or master of the house, someone whose family has been connected to the Pinto family for three generations. When this highly enthusiastic man, Maurice Perez, talks about the Pinto family, he sort of transfers the goose bumps over to the listener. His defining family story is when his mother and grandmother got an impromptu blessing on a street in Casablanca from one of the Pinto sages. This story happened 70 years ago, but when you hear him tell it, you’d think it happened yesterday.

Maurice, who joined the shul in 1997 and who currently does the chazanut, decided with Rabbi Yaacov to bring in a teacher (“Rabbi Raffi”) to give Torah classes during the week, and to speak on Friday nights and during the third meal of Shabbat. Maurice formed a small, core group of supporters to cover all expenses, which helped reduce the stress level and bring a general harmony to the shul. They upgraded the interior, with new seating built in Israel, and a new women’s section that features an ethereal, see-through crimson curtain for a mechitzah.

Rabbi Yaacov himself increased his visits to Los Angeles, but he did more than that, too. He made the shul think “bigger than itself,” and got it involved with two projects in the Holy Land.The first was a “supermarket” for the needy, which Rabbi Yaacov started in Ashdod and which has garnered attention for its unique approach: a system based on points, where the poor can keep their dignity while “shopping” for donated food. This project, called C.H.A.I., is a big source of pride for the Pinto shul, as you can see from the pictures on the wall.

The second is a recent decision to have a sister shul in Hebron, where the Patriarchs of the Bible are buried. A few months ago, the Pinto shul donated a Torah scroll, and they are planning regular activities and visits between the shuls.

And then, of course, there’s the dafina.

The Old Switcheroo

In Parshat Toldot, we encounter the remarkable event described in Genesis 27, as Yitzhak prepares in blindness to confer an eternal blessing on one of his twin sons.

He wants to extend that blessing to the viscerally evil Esav, who nevertheless always has acted with the utmost respect for his father. Esav has Yitzhak figured out, and Yitzhak really loves him. By contrast, Rivkah is devoted uniquely to the simpler, gentler, less charismatic Yaakov.

Why the dichotomy? We have met Rivkah as a kind, young lady, offering water to slake the thirsts of Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, and his camels. We have heard a midrash that her father, Betuel, attempted to poison Eliezer’s food but died himself when an angel sent by God switched the plates. Later, we have learned of Rivkah’s difficulty in conceiving and of her travails in bearing these particular twins to term.

We further will learn that her brother is worse than her dad. Besides her murderous father, Rivkah’s brother, Lavan, is a prototype for Simon Legree. Lavan will squeeze some 20 years near-slavery out of his nephew and son-in-law, Yaakov, after switching daughters on Yaakov’s wedding night, pulling the beautiful and desired Rachel out and slipping the sad-looking Leah in her stead. Even as Lavan steals from Yaakov for two decades, his own daughters will lament that he has stolen all he could from them, too, treating them as veritable strangers. That’s Rivkah’s bro.

So it emerges that although she is an incredibly sweet soul, Rivkah also grew up in a household with dramatic issues of dysfunctionality at its core. To put it simply, she grew up street-smart.

On the other hand, Yitzhak was intensively protected. Not only were his parents the progenitors and founding patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people, but they further protected the spiritual elevations of their home by expelling the Yishmaels and Hagars who threatened Yitzhak’s innocence.

The home was sterilized for spirituality, cleansed of any foreign influence. As a further protection, Avraham virtually hand picked Yitzhak’s wife by setting guidelines when he dispatched Eliezer, his servant, to find a suitable match:

1) No one from the surrounding environs, thus no one who will bring along in-laws and other corrupting and disruptive influences;

2) Only someone from Avraham’s own birthland in Charan, assuring both that the wife would be alien to the local environment, thus impeding assimilation into the morally perverse Canaanite culture, and that another set of prospective in-laws would be kept far out of reach.

Thus, Rivkah was raised in a streetwise milieu, while Yitzhak was extremely insulated. So Esav easily played to Yitzhak’s innocence.

By contrast, Rivkah had the tools to read Esav like a roadmap. It then devolved on her to draw on her own street-smarts to save the day, to move her own intensely protected son, Yaakov, to the fore. For this, she drew on a tactic that seems unique to her family — the switcheroo.

Few families practice the kind of prevalent switching that seems to have been endemic in the Betuel-Lavan-Rivkah family. Betuel switches the plates, trying to poison Eliezer. Lavan switches and disguises his daughters on Yaakov’s wedding night. And Rivkah switches and disguises Yaakov for the blessing.

In time, as the family legends grow, Yaakov’s sons one day will deceive him with animal blood they will say is Yosef’s blood on the precious striped coat. And then Yosef will disguise himself from his brothers in the Pharaoh’s palace.

In the end, is the switching of the brothers justified to assure that Yitzhak’s blessing was conferred properly? The commentators are not all of one mind. What if Rivkah had tried reasoning with Yitzhak, even months and years earlier, trying to use her street-smarts to enlighten him, in his protected spiritual innocence, as to Esav’s true character of evil? Perhaps she did try unsuccessfully, and we do not know. Perhaps not.

Yitzhak ultimately is satisfied that he acted correctly in blessing Yaakov; he reiterates Yaakov’s blessing later with full scienter. But consider the price: Esav feels cheated and pledges to murder Yaakov as soon as his father dies.

Rivkah, hearing of the intent, desperately persuades Yitzhak to dispatch Yaakov to Lavan’s house to find a wife. Yaakov ends up exiled for 20 years, victimized incessantly through two decades by an uncle and father-in-law so heinous, that the haggadah recounts that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh.

It is not clear whether Rivkah had an effective alternative to switching and disguising Yaakov to obtain Yitzhak’s eternal blessing. But it does seem that the idea of switching may well have come from the culture of her upbringing, reared in the house of Betuel and Lavan. When in doubt, switch them out.

Sometimes it is useful for each of us to pause, too, and to wonder what practices and shticklach we practice in our homes, in full view of our children, with the attendant consideration of whether these behavioral quirks and anomalies that we sanction as normative and convenient will be passed down through our children and theirs in generations to come.

And in that light, we well might ask: Is it worth it? To deceive? To live by incessant white lies? To constantly criticize? To yell? To measure people by money? To deny fault and refuse ever to apologize? To always be the one who takes and never the one who gives? To be arrogant in one’s self-estimation?

With children watching and emulating — is it worth it?

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

Brotherhood in a Sukkah … in Iraq

Three long, narrow white boxes with Hebrew and English writing were laying on the chapel floor at my Air Force Base in the Persian Gulf.

“What’s this?” I wondered aloud. When I looked closer, I noticed the words “Sukkah” and “U.S. Government” stamped on each package.

“A sukkah kit for the Jewish service personnel at our overseas American Air Force base!” I exclaimed. “It’s not often one comes across these sorts of things in an Arab country!”

As the sole Jewish chaplain at the base, I eagerly shared the news with the Jewish personnel who serve here. We agreed to meet late Friday afternoon, before Sukkot began, to erect the booth.
Due to busy schedules, only two of us showed up. Determined to get the help I needed, I asked the chapel staff for volunteers. A Catholic chaplain and a Protestant chaplain offered to assist.

The three of us, accompanied by the Jewish airman, picked a spot for the sukkah in front of the chapel. We felt the location was perfect because the outer chapel walls would protect the sukkah from the high desert winds.

We hastily opened the boxes and pulled out the disassembled white metal frame, the white-and-navy nylon tarp used for the walls and the reed mat for the roof.

As the Jewish airman read the assembly directions to us, the other chaplains and I interlocked the floor frame, and I used a rubber mallet to hammer the corner wall pieces into the slots of the floor frame.

We stabilized the sukkah with four bungee cords, then stretched the tarp around the perimeter of the structure. Two parallel wooden beams were laid for roof support, and the reed mat was unraveled on top of the beams.

To prevent the schach, as the roof is known, from blowing away, we tied it to the frame. We completed the project by placing a wooden pallet outside the front door as a makeshift “welcome mat.”

The airman, Protestant chaplain, Catholic chaplain and I stepped back, wiped the sweat from our brows and admired our handiwork.

What a beautiful sukkah! And probably the only one in this entire Muslim country.

We first used the sukkah that night. After participating in Shabbat/Sukkot services in the chapel, we walked outside and made Kiddush over grape juice and made the blessing over the bread in the sukkah.

Together we recited the blessing “Lashev b’sukkah,” blessing God for commanding us to dwell in the sukkah, and sat down on metal folding chairs.

While feasting on brownies, cookies and pecan pie, we discussed how lucky we were to have such a beautiful sukkah. We continued to talk throughout the evening until the others excused themselves for bed.

Before leaving the sukkah, I looked through the roof at the stars above.

“How appropriate it is to observe Sukkot in the Middle Eastern desert,” I thought.

Being a service member in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I also realized that life, like the sukkah, is temporary. One never knows how long one might live or when one might die.

For this reason, we must truly make the most of each day that God grants us. As the Psalms say, “Teach us to count our days wisely so we may attain a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12).

With this in mind, I stood up to leave the booth. As I walked out into the warm, moonlit night, I smiled at the thought that Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chaplains had worked together as brothers-in-arms and friends to build a sukkah.

Before joining the Air Force in 2004, Rabbi Gary Davidson served as rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach. Security precautions prohibit identifying the air force base where Davidson is currently stationed. He can be reached by e-mail at Mensch613@msn.com.

Within Us

Once upon a time, as God created the world, He decided to make beings in His image. As he generated his own reflection in man and woman, the angels got word of the
project, and were consumed with jealousy.

“How unfair!” they cried. “Those humans will have it all. They get to experience life on earth with all the perks: laughter, tears, ice cream, wasabi, softness, scratchiness. And as if that ‘being alive’ stuff weren’t blessing enough, they get immortality as well!” (If God is eternal, so, too, would be anything made in God’s image.)

The angels were furious; no being should merit both ice cream and infinity. If heavenly beings were denied earthly experiences, why allow humans celestial ones?

So, they plotted against the humans. They decided to hide immortality from them, and assembled to determine how it could be done. One angel suggested, “Let’s hide it far up in the mountains; I hear humans don’t like to shvitz much.
They’ll never climb that high.”

Another disagreed: “That won’t work. Those granola hippie Jews God put on the West Coast will surely hike to the top of the mountains and discover it. Better we hide eternality far out in the sea. Most folks won’t go farther than a cruise ship will take them.”

Again, others dissented. They realized that any God-like being would eventually access the heights of heaven and the depths of the ocean.

Finally, a wise old angel made a brilliant suggestion: “Let us hide the infinite between and within the humans. That will be the last place on earth they would think to look for it.”

And so it was.

Parashat Nitzavim illustrates the result of the angels’ prank. They succeeded in ensuring that the last place we look for God is right in front of us. The text beseeches the people to take a stand “this day” in testament that the “only God is Eternal,” but acknowledges that we have no idea how to affirm that truth. It speaks to our ignorance of accessing the Infinite, and tries to remedy our delusion. We need not struggle to reach the Divine.

Lo bashamiyim hi.

“No, it is not in heaven,” God explains. “It is very near to you.”

Contact with the Eternal is between us and within us.

The parsha speaks to our fantasy that we must search far and suffer long to retrieve this blessing. Were it not, the wording would be different. God would simply state: “Hey guys, check out this groovy commandment I’ve placed right in front of you.”

Instead, He addresses our misconception that good things are hard to come by. He elaborates: “[It is not] beyond the sea that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us that we may do it.”

In other words: “No need for drama, difficulty or complication; you don’t need a personal assistant to get this for you. Just open your eyes and see: infinite life is right here, within you.”

But we remain blind, instead assuming that if something good happens easily, it is suspicious. We spit three times, even knock on wood, or mumble a “God forbid.” We prepare for disappointment, assume a mistake, because in our estimation no blessing comes effortlessly. Life is hard. Good fortune takes work. Right?

Not according to the text.

Lo bashamyim hi.

Our divine legacy is found within us and between us: “See, I have set before you this day life and blessing or death and curse. Choose life.”

Easy. Stick with God for an endlessly good time. You’ll receive immortal prosperity through generations that will flow through you, always have what you need, and live a life of endless possibility.

Still, we continue cursing ourselves with dissident struggles — idolizing dramas of the difficult and inaccessible rather than recognizing the abundance we have now. The angels shake their heads as we look everywhere for our hats except our heads, running away from God while He waits within us; She is right here between us.

We need only see that the trees surrounding us don’t struggle to grow, they just grow; fish don’t try to swim, they just swim. It is their nature. And it is our nature to exist eternally in God’s image.

The angels are tired of laughing at us. They forgive us our good fortune and seek to help us remember. We stand this day, testaments of the infinite Divine presence. There’s nowhere else to look, no place else to be, nothing else as perpetually filled with blessing. We need only accept this present of a moment, this gift of being human.

We can stand here and now, present to all the feelings that the angels so covet, in eternal gratitude for having them. We can “Choose life, therefore that [we and our] descendents may live – by loving [our] God; listening to God’s voice.”

By adoring our experience, by hearing His voice in one another’s words. We choose life and death: by dying to our attachment to what was and will be.

By surrendering to this moment as being nothing but what it is, by appreciating the blessing of our curses. We choose it all, for it is revealed to us as One and the same present from our creator. Eternally within and between us, and we don’t have to shvitz or swim to get it.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch will be teaching at the University of Judaism’s continuing education program this fall. You can reach her at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

First Person – Like Any Other Child

By his size and handsome impression, our son, Max, appears to be like any other boy his age, however when you meet him in his wheelchair, you quickly learn that he is severely disabled, both cognitively and physically. He’s unable to talk, use a device to communicate, propel himself or use his hands. You realize that he’s dependent on others in every aspect of his life. Yet, that didn’t stop our family and friends from all over California, our community and Max himself from celebrating his becoming a bar mitzvah. In January, 160 people gathered for a Havdalah service at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes to recognize our son’s turning 13 and to share in the joy and inspiration he has stimulated within each of us.

As my wife, our 9-year-old daughter and I proudly joined Max to sit on the bimah, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Cantor Sam Radwine conducted a beautiful service filled with tradition. Music, an aliyah, prayers and sensitive words recognized the significance of the evening. With the intent of highlighting the joy of the occasion rather than focusing on the uniqueness of the situation and Max’s disabilities, the service was purposely kept simple and accented with lots of singing. On the bimah, we sat in a semicircle just one step above the congregation. With Max seated between my wife and me, and, with our daughter, the rabbi and the cantor all sitting alongside us; we were so close to family and friends that I felt as if we were at home, in our living room, for a family event. It was a warm, supportive and loving environment that everyone was able to share in, up close and personal. My wife and I, the cantor and the synagogue president each were called for an aliyah. Then, as Max is fortunate to have a 92-year-old great-grandmother, four grandparents, six aunts and uncles and seven first cousins, each was called upon to participate in the Havdalah ceremony. Max’s grandparents held the candle, his cousins held the Kiddush cup and his sister and great-grandmother held the spice box. The support of our families was overwhelming.

Appreciating the sensory stimulation, Max laughed and smiled throughout the 45-minute service. Building on the moment, I shared an interpretation of the relevant Torah portion to speak of how our family has matured from having Max in our lives and experiencing his disabilities. Max has taught us, both figuratively and literally, the value of being kind, doing mitzvot, not taking things for granted, liking people for who they are and recognizing that there is purpose and meaning for everyone in what we do and in everything that happens. I acknowledged that through Max’s disability, he has demonstrated a kind of strength we all need to make the best of situations, to welcome and invite diversity and to appreciate how people, even when they cannot communicate in the ways to which we are accustomed, can enjoy life in different ways.

For me, Max’s bar mitzvah was a very emotional event. It was not just the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah that was momentous. It was the feeling and recognition that our son, who doesn’t understand and is not easily included in regular activities and holidays, was being recognized and confirmed. For several years, I had found myself becoming very emotional during bar and bat mitzvahs as the 13-year-old would read from the Torah and recite his or her speech. I couldn’t imagine how we could enable Max to have the opportunity to experience such a crucial life-cycle event. However, about nine months ago (prior to Max’s bar mitzvah), my wife and I had a conversation with Cantor Radwine. We talked about a simple, creative and musical service to recognize Max turning 13. Then, following a discussion with Rabbi Jeret, we decided to have a bar mitzvah; the date was set for a Saturday night when we could all share in the experience of Havdalah. So, there we were, with Max, my wife and daughter on the bimah and I could not have been happier.

As with any bar mitzvah, the service and reception is tailored to child’s abilities and interests. The reception, in the motif of a carnival atmosphere, was dinner with live background music. The theme for the evening, inspired by a Yiddish proverb, was “Each child carries his own blessing into the world.”

“Inclusion” for the disabled has many different meanings. In the broadest sense and as demonstrated in our son’s bar mitzvah, it means to open doors and provide experiences and opportunities for people of all abilities. The value of inclusion is in the pleasure we know the recipient receives. Equally as important, however, is the value that the community experiences from the event — particularly the support we offer one another.

Max’s bar mitzvah celebrated our rich Jewish traditions; recognized Max within the community; reflected on the significance of life, family and friends; and illustrated how, thinking outside the box, we can celebrate life-cycle events with people of all abilities.

Anton Dahlerbruch is deputy city manager of the city of Beverly Hills.


First Person – My Upfsherin

The upfsherin (hair cutting ceremony) took place on the last day of Shevat — an auspicious time for a healing ritual. The day before Rosh Chodesh (first day of the month) is observed, in the medieval mystical practice of Yom Kippur katan (little Yom Kippur) — a day for cleansing, purification, and preparation — just what shaving my head represented, as I began my fifth week of chemotherapy.

The upfsherin fell on the cusp of the months of Shevat and Adar — also propitious. The landscape of Shevat, in which we celebrate the rebirth of the trees, is a vegetative mirror of a bald head. Yet inside those leafless trees the sap is rising, life-giving elixirs watering it back to life. While we know that spring will come, the trees of Shevat often look like brittle sticks. Healing seems unlikely. This same feeling is hard to escape amidst chemotherapy’s limitations.

But Adar comes, with its joy and celebration. Lifting the weight of winter and of the fluids that run through the trees, swelling the buds and propelling green shoots in preparation for spring, Adar is the month of reversals. In Megillat Esther, stories of gloom and doom surprise us with happy endings. Destruction that seemed determined is overturned. The Jewish people survive and flourish. I embrace these metaphors for my healing journey, linking my bodily resurrection to that of the sycamore tree in my garden.

This is not the first time I have turned to that tree for guidance. In 1995, for the year after my father died, I retreated to the company of the tree. I sat for long periods, looking at the tree, thinking about my father. Looking through the skylight in my office, the seasons’ changes in color and texture against the California sky reflected my internal changes. The tree’s efforts to hold onto its leaves, as the autumn winds pulled, became my own resistance to letting go of my father and facing the starkness of winter without his protection. The hole in the trunk, where a branch had been cut away many years before, became my early wounds, reopened with this new loss. The burst of green, that appeared overnight to propel my tree into springtime, expressed my own rebirth of energy. By the summer, I was ready to leave my tree companion to teach and to study.

Once again my tree teaches me of the paradox of constancy and change that is the grace of the seasons. Embracing my tree as a companion weds me to life — and to the life-affirming progression of the seasons. It carries me forward, on the wings of time, beckoning me to use time as a healer.

For the upfsherin, I decorated a chair with ribbons in purple, green and gold — Mardi Gras colors — to mark the mutual healing for my beloved hometown and my own body as we confront the floods of toxic chemicals. I put a sheet on the floor to catch the falling hair. I explained the ritual’s intention and plan and introduced a prayer, affirming my vision for healing, encouraging others to join in:

Dear God:
Gimme a head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there
Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy daddy
Hair, hair, hair,
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair

Then the cutting began. People held a lock, made a snip and gave a blessing. I received my blessing and asked each person to cut a length of ribbon for themselves, requesting that each sight of the ribbon move them to pray for my healing, the healing of New Orleans, the planet and all those who suffer.

The blessings ran from heart-rending pleas for my safety to humor. One friend told me, that he had just purchased a tree and was going to mulch it with my cut hair. My ex-husband reminded me of my mother’s dictum, “There’s nothing more temporary than a haircut.” Between blessings, my guests chanted the short healing prayer of Moses when his sister was stricken with disease: “El na rafana la (God please heal her).” I responded — to the blessings and to each crunch of the scissors — with tears and laughter. When the blessings were finished and my hair lay in piles on the floor, Peter, my hairdresser for 25 years, swooped down with electric clippers and completed the job.

Newly a woman with a buzz cut, I spoke about being a walking testimony for the disease of the planet. I prayed for the courage to not cover the truth in order to protect those uncomfortable with the anomaly of a bald woman and perhaps in denial about the state of the earth. I spoke of the link of my healing to the healing of my city of New Orleans and to all those who suffer.

Then we took the sheet out to the garden. And while we sang the “Misheberach,” we sprinkled the hair among the roots of my tree — to nourish it as it nourishes me. I hope a bird chooses some of my hair for a nest.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Sephardic Dinner Spices Up Holiday

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, I am reminded of our trip to Italy a few years ago. We arrived in Milan in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel, planning to attend Rosh Hashanah services that evening at the Sephardic Synagogue.

We were relaxing in our room, and were surprised when the phone rang, because we did not think any one knew where we were. It was Adina Cohen, inviting us to her home for dinner after Rosh Hashanah services.

Cohen was born in Beirut, and her husband, Rabbi Eliezer Cohen, the retired chazan (cantor) of the Sephardic synagogue, is from Cairo. They now live in Milan, and both have strong Sephardic backgrounds. They had heard from their nephew, Moshe Salem, who lives in Los Angeles, that we were traveling in Italy and might be in Milan during Rosh Hashanah.

After services, we met them outside the synagogue and walked to their home, along with several members of their family. We were seated in the living room and met their three daughters, Melitta, Sharon and Elisheza, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, as they arrived from the synagogue.

The Cohens welcomed their guests, and we were all invited into the dining room, where a large table that almost filled the room was set for the holiday meal. Almost everyone spoke English, but they made sure that we sat close to their daughters, who were educated in Israel and spoke several languages. They made us feel welcome, and explained many of the Sephardic customs with which we were unfamiliar.

The evening began with washing of the hands, and a blessing was recited over the two round, home-baked loaves of challah. The rabbi broke off pieces of the challah, dipped them in salt and sugar and passed a piece to each guest. Adina Cohen explained, that for this special bread, the dough is left to rise only once and takes less time to prepare. The unusual texture, crusty on the outside, yet light and soft inside, comes from kneading the dough to its maximum elasticity, and is quite different from the challah that I make for my family.

Then the ceremonial foods were presented. Each dish was served separately, and a special blessing was said. First a plate of sweet dates, representing peace and beauty, was passed around the table. Then a bowl of fresh pomegranate seeds in rose water was served, the symbol of fertility and worthy deeds.

Next, slices of candied zucca (pumpkin) were eaten, representing a full year of good blessings for the family. Hubbard or butternut squash is the closest to Italian zucca, and may be used instead.

Also, during the New Year celebration, leeks are eaten to bring good luck, and Adina Cohen brought out a large leek frittata that was cut into wedges and served. The final dishes consisted of apple slices cooked in honey to symbolize a sweet year, and bowls of black-eyed peas, expressing hope for the future.

We thought the evening was over, but it was just beginning. The formal dinner started with a whole poached salmon, that was cut and served at the table, topped with homemade mayonnaise. Cohen told us that some of the foods that she serves now, such as fish, were not usually eaten in Lebanon, because they were considered a luxury and almost impossible to find. Since her marriage, many of the dishes she prepares for Rosh Hashanah are her husband’s family recipes from Egypt.

Roasted veal stew was the main course. Cohen mentioned that often lamb is eaten during Rosh Hashanah, but since it was not available, they substituted veal. Crusted rice, first steamed and then fried, was the perfect accompaniment for the veal, and was served along with stewed zucchini and sauteed Swiss chard.

Dessert was simple and refreshing — platters of sliced melon and cactus pears garnished with mint leaves.

Sharing and friendship were at the heart of this wonderful evening, as well as the special role that the foods played. It was a family affair, Cohen a talented cook, baked the challah and prepared the entire dinner herself. Her daughters, were in charge of setting the table and responsible for doing the dishes, and Eliezer Cohen performed the service.

Inspired by the hospitality of the Cohen family in Italy and fascinated by our experience with the Sephardic foods they served for Rosh Hashanah, we have added these dishes to our family holiday dinner.

Symbolic foods are: dates, pomegranate seeds with rose water, candied pumpkin, leeks, apples cooked in honey, black-eyed peas, baked beets.

Rosh Hashanah Challah

2 packages active dry yeast

3/4 cup warm water

2 tablespoons sugar

3 to 4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

Sesame seeds

Combine yeast with water and pinch of sugar. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, remaining sugar, salt and two eggs. Add yeast mixture to flour mixture.

Dough will be moist and sticky. Knead about 10 minutes, adding flour or water as needed, until maximum elasticity. Dough should still be moist. Sprinkle dough with flour, cover with plate or towel and let it rise until double, about one hour.

Divide dough in half; place each half on a lightly floured board and lightly knead into two round loaves. Place on a greased baking sheet, leaving space between loaves as they will rise when baking.

Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350 F for 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and completely baked inside.

Makes two loaves.

Leek Frittata

4 eggs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 medium leeks (about 3/4 pound), white part only, split and washed well

4 tablespoons olive oil

Mix the eggs, salt and pepper with a fork.

Slice the leeks into thin slices. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat olive oil and cook over medium-high heat until tender for six to eight minutes.

Pour the eggs over the leeks, mix and cook over medium-low heat until the eggs are set on the bottom but soft on the surface, three to four minutes.

Put a plate over the frittata and invert the skillet to reverse the frittata onto the plate. Slide the frittata back into the pan to cook the other side. Cook for about five minutes. Slide onto a platter, cut into wedges and serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves eight to 10.

Veal Stew

This stew can be prepared a day ahead and tastes even better after the flavors have a chance to meld.

4 pounds veal shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes


Freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

2 celery stalks, sliced

1 cup dry, white wine

3 cups veal or chicken stock

1 large tomato, chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 bay leaves

10 whole black peppercorns

4 sprigs fresh parsley

8 sprigs fresh thyme, tarragon or oregano

4 long sprigs fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 tablespoon dried thyme, tarragon or oregano

10 pearl onions, par boiled for 5 minutes and peeled

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Season the veal on both sides with salt and pepper. In a large heavy pot or casserole, heat the oil and saute the veal on both sides until brown.

Add the onions and garlic and saute until soft, about five minutes. Add the carrots, celery and saute for five minutes. Add the wine and simmer for two minutes. Add the stock, tomato, tomato paste and bring to a boil.

Combine the bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley and fresh and dried herbs in a piece of cheesecloth; tie with a string and add to the pot. Cover and bake for 2 1/2 hours or until tender.

Toss in the pearl onions. Remove the cheesecloth bag. Serve in soup bowls.

Serves eight to 10.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

Will She Marry Him?

In my last Singles column, “Change of Heart,” I left off with one important question for my girlfriend, Carrie: “Will you marry me?”

Did she say yes?

Well, let me back up a bit.

A few days before the column came out, I drove over to Carrie’s parents to ask for their blessing. Carol and Roy were watching “24” when I got there, so I waited until the commercial break — odd priorities, but I suppose it’s more riveting watching Kiefer Sutherland trying to stop the explosion of a nuclear warhead than watching me trying to stop the nervous trembling in my right leg.

Roy stood. Carol took a seat. I dove right in.

“You guys know I love Carrie very much, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. I’d like to get your blessing.”

They both seemed to gasp slightly, but then Carol gave me a hug and began repeating the phrase, “Oh my God!” Roy stiffened his body and seemed to freeze slightly. He didn’t give me a hug. Luckily, I did see some blinking. Carol teared up a little, and I answered all her rapid-fire questions about the ring, and how I was going to propose.

And then suddenly, she admonished me for coming in the middle of her favorite TV show: “You better save it on your TIVO for me.”

Roy relaxed a little, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come on a Friday, when there’s nothing on TV.”

I laughed, although I’m not sure he was joking. Carol hugged me again, and they quickly ran back to catch the last 10 minutes of their show.

The next day, Roy called me to meet him for lunch. I got a little nervous as I drove over to meet him. I get along well with Roy, but wondered what kind of warnings would he have for me before I married his daughter. Although he’s a peaceful man, I imagined him chasing me through the house, swinging his belt if ever I hurt his baby girl.

It turned out he just wanted me to know that he was happy for us. “I don’t show a lot of emotion,” he confessed. “Do you believe how Carol was acting?” he asked me, referring to her “overemotional” display of teary eyes and a hug. I nodded knowingly. I mean, this is my future father-in law. As we left, I thanked him for lunch. Then, just before getting into my car, I grabbed the guy and gave him a big, fat hug.

The morning that the column came out, I drove over to The Jewish Journal office to get a fresh copy of the newspaper. Jumping back into my car, with a new parking ticket flapping on my windshield (so maybe I don’t always read the signs), I drove over to the Farmers Market to pick up some food.

I really wanted to take Carrie on a picnic, but it was still drizzling outside. I stayed optimistic and went to Loteria, our favorite Mexican place to get two of their finest burritos (considering the cost of the ring, I contemplated buying one burrito and splitting it in half).

I picked up Carrie from work and, amazingly, as she walked out the door, the rain suddenly stopped. I quietly thanked God. We drove to a nearby park and spread out the picnic.

“Oh, before you eat, guess what?” I said nonchalantly as we sat down. “I wrote another column in The Jewish Journal,” and gave it to her. Of course, given my last columns, she didn’t know what was coming — especially with this one titled, “Change of Heart.”

She took one look at the title and said, “Uh oh.” I hovered nervously behind her, waiting to pop out the ring. As she read, she occasionally looked up to laugh or nod her approval. And then I saw her body stiffen as she got to the last line. She froze, just like her dad.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, just like her mother.

I grabbed the ring, got on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?” She cried and answered, “Yes.”

We kissed. Two pot smokers nearby clapped. I waved back to them.

Then Carrie went through a rainbow of emotions, the likes of which I have never seen. She laughed, she argued, she protested, she cried, she smiled, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

Suddenly she stammered, “Ar … re you sure about this? We’ve been arguing lately.”

We had been arguing, but mostly because I was sneaking around trying to deal with the engagement preparations. We’ve never really had secrets before, and the months I was planning all of this were hard for me. It’s strange to not be able to discuss one of the biggest decisions of your life with the woman you love. But Carrie had always wanted to be surprised.

Carrie started to cry. “I love you so much. Of course I want to marry you,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I guess I don’t really like surprises,” she said. Speaking of which — she hadn’t even looked at the ring on her finger.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Is this real or is this cubic zirconia?”

Was she kidding me? “Cubic zirconia? I sure wish I had the option….”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Time to Go Home


When my wife and I woke up on the day we made aliyah, we talked and decided that we felt good. Natural. Normal. A little excited. A bit eager. Somewhat tired from some late-night, last-minute packing. Above all, we were ready. It was time to go.

The family dressed in T-shirts that we had made for the day. The white shirts were emblazoned in blue with our Hebrew slogan for the trip: “Bashana Hazot,” which in English means “this year.”

Our shirts were inspired from the central motto of the Jewish people: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Thanks to some terrific support from friends and family, “Next Year” was now.

We had been staying with my parents, who could not have been more encouraging and supportive, for a last precious drop of a week with them. We will next see them in three months, at our new home, in Israel.

At LAX, our porter saw the boxes we were sending, asked a polite question or two and soon knew that we were moving. Before he left us, he said something very formally in Gaelic, which he translated as: “Have a safe trip home.”

Once at the gate, my 4-year-old saw the El Al plane with the giant Jewish star on the tail. He yelled: “Abba, that’s a Israel plane.” Exactly.

As the plane thundered down the runway, my wife looked a question: “Can you believe this is happening?”

I smiled and shook my head from side to side.

Like all flights to Israel, this one lasted a long time, but it did not end until I filled out the Israeli visa entry forms. Under reason for visit, I wrote, “Aliyah.” Under planned departure date, I wrote, “None.”

As we approached Israel, we dropped through a storm. Our 4-year-old saw a rainbow. I held my wife’s hand.

When we crossed over the Tel Aviv coastline, I experienced a flurry of emotions, which were magnified by a sense that this return was final.

I felt a great, humbling appreciation that I was now doing what so many of my ancestors had wished to do for thousands of years. I thought of the millions of Jews who had prayed to God for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. I was grateful for the sacrifices of the early Zionists, who took sand and mosquitoes and made milk and honey. I considered the multitudes of people, both in America and around the world, who have prayed and worked for Israel’s safety. I recalled all of our friends and family who wished us the absolute best. And, I understood that the thoughts, prayers, dreams and hopes of all those people, going back all those years, were with us, right at that moment, right at that single point in our lives. It was overwhelming.

When our plane landed, my wife and I said the “Shecheyanu” blessing, and thanked God for allowing us to reach this day.

As we entered the terminal, we were met by a smiling official from the Ministry of Interior, who was holding a big blue and white welcome sign, and a volunteer who had previously made aliyah from the United States.

At the airport office of the Ministry of Interior, the kids got candy, flags and pins, and the parents got a new-immigrant identity card called a Teudat Oleh. My cousins brought us not one, but two cakes welcoming us to Israel and drove us to our new home.

As we left the airport, some 26 hours after our day had begun, our boys tried to imitate Hebrew. They laughed as they babbled together: “Cha-cha-cha, cha-moosh, cha-cha-cha.”

They sounded just great.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter lives in Rehovot, Israel.


A Single Thread Links Generations

Becoming a grandparent is a very exciting event. Being able to create an heirloom pillowcase out of heirloom pieces for the britim, or covenant ceremonies, of our first grandchildren was an equally humbling and exciting adventure.

Our daughter and son-in-law, Alisha and Ahud Sela, became the proud parents of twin babies, Yael Shira and Gavriel Yair Sela, on May 4, 2004. Knowing beforehand that they were giving birth to twins, a girl and a boy, set the wheels in motion for planning a brit milah, ritual circumcision, and brit mikvah, ritual purification — a relatively new ceremony for a girl, for the two babies. It was planned that the babies would be carried in on pillows for the ceremonies.

While researching what should be written to enhance a bris pillowcase, I found the suggestion of using old family tablecloths for the construction of the pillowcase. I had a tablecloth and napkins given to us by my husband’s grandmother for our wedding, which were now 33 years old. I contacted Ahud’s mother, Rita, and found out she had tablecloths from her grandmother and mother that they had used regularly and were packed up in her attic. Rita sent me a full box of beautifully cross-stitched tablecloths, well worn with loving holes from regular use. I looked at the cloths for two weeks before I had the nerve to make my first cut.

I carefully looked at the cross-stitch designs, imagining what would be the best use of the pieces so lovingly stitched so many years ago. Making the first cut was the hardest, but once that was done everything else fell into place. The back of the pillowcases consists of the edge of a green tablecloth with white fringe and white thread on the cross-stitch design. This was stitched by the baby’s great-great-grandmother, Minnie Aronow (mother of Joel, father of Rita).

Attached to this is a piece from the center of a white cloth with brown cross-stitching created by the baby’s great-grandmother, Yetta Aronow (mother of Rita).The bottom portion of the front of the pillowcase is a white cloth stitched with Shabbat symbols in many colors by Yetta. Rita remembered using this cloth “all the time.” I attached a white napkin from the set given to my husband, David, and myself by the baby’s great-great-grandmother, Anna Robinson (mother of Sandy, mother of David). In one corner of the napkin I attached three white crocheted rosettes that were part of a tablecloth made by great-great-grandmother Anna Robinson and great-aunt Rachel Vorspan (David’s sister). In the other corner is part of an embroidered and crocheted doily made by Bessie Wolfson, first cousin of great-great-grandfather Kopel Kaminsky, who died in the Shoah (father of Sime, my mother).

Before our grandchildren were born, I embroidered in Hebrew, “L’Torah, ul’chupah, ul’ma’asim tovim” on the napkin portions of the pillowcases. This is a prayer for them to study Torah, arrive to the marriage canopy and do good deeds in their future life. I used blue variegated Brazilian embroidery floss for one pillow and a pink, yellow and lavender variegated floss for the other pillow. After the babies were named, I was able to fill in their names in English and Hebrew with their English and Hebrew birth dates. I will be stitching a label inside each case that identifies who made each piece.

Rita and I had the privilege of carrying the babies into the ceremonies on these pillowcases lovingly stitched by the generations that came before them. How delighted these ancestors would be to know that the work of their hands would embrace the future of our families with such love. Our husbands, Nadav and David, held the babies during their britot cradled in the pillowcases.

Alisha and Ahud asked each of the grandparents to share a blessing with their grandchildren. They wanted the blessing to take place under a canopy held up by the baby’s aunts and uncles, Ben Vorspan, Shaina Vorspan and Amitai and Rebecca Sela. I was asked to make this canopy during Passover when Alisha could have had the babies any day (they were born three weeks later). Stitchery was out of the question, so I painted a family tree on a Battenburg lace small round tablecloth. I was able to include some names of great-great-great-great-grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. What a holy moment to stand under so many generations and bless our precious jewels.

David and I and Rita and Nadav are truly blessed with these new additions to our beloved families. I can’t wait to add more names to the heirlooms we have created, but for the time being, we’re all very delighted to enjoy the newest blessing.

Bonnie Vorspan is an educator at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills.

Philosophical Blessings

While on a summer vacation on the East Coast, my family and I visited some spectacular sights in northwestern North Carolina, especially near Ashville. On our way to Ashville, we stopped and asked directions from a gentleman who turned out to be a Methodist minister.

During our conversation he told us that four years ago he received "the calling from above" to leave his 20-year practice of law and join the ministry. Upon hearing this my wife remarked, "That is strange because I have been praying that my husband would receive a calling from above and become a lawyer." Confused, the minister asked, "But what does your husband do that you want him to become a lawyer?" When my wife told him that I am a rabbi, he was astounded and said, "Oh no, your husband is working for the right law, and his boss is honest. Make sure he stays a rabbi."

Whenever I read this week’s Torah portion I think about that blessing from the Methodist minister because Balak also contains blessings from a non-Jew, Balaam, worthy of our consideration. The sages of the Midrash link the name of Balaam with a contemporary heathen philosopher of their time, Oenomaus of Gadera, claiming that Balaam and Oenomaus were the two greatest philosophers that non-Jews ever had.

Oenomaus was a member of the younger school of Cynics who lived in second century C.E., during the latter part of the reign of Hadrian, after the Bar Kochba War. He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition, and he is identified in rabbinic literature with befriending the great Rabbi Meir. As a result of his close relationship with Rabbi Meir, he became familiar with Judaism, and the Midrash (Eicha Petihtah 2) records that the Romans therefore turned to him, just as Balak turned to Balaam in the Torah, and asked for advice on how to defeat the Jewish people.

We must appreciate that this request was presented to Oenomaus not only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., but also after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 C.E. The Jewish nation was beaten and almost destroyed, yet the Romans wanted to know the secret of our amazing survival.

Oenomaus answered, "Go through their synagogues; if you hear a hum of children’s voices studying Torah, you cannot prevail over them; otherwise you can." Alluding to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau as recorded in Genesis, Oenomaus commented: "As long as the voice of Jacob persists in synagogues and houses of study, the hands are not Esau’s hands; but whenever synagogues and houses of study miss the hum of those voices, Esau will prevail. The hands become Esau’s hands."

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash realized that Oenomaus had discovered the secret of Jewish survival. They therefore accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had probed and revealed the truth about our faith.

How sorely we need to recognize that truth today when so many Jews believe that the Jewish mission is synonymous with social action. "Save the Whales," they say, but they permit Jonah to drown.

When our community leaders recognize that only commitment to Jewish values will insure Jewish survival, only when children study Torah; only when the voices of both children and adults reverberate in our synagogues, will we once again be worthy of the blessings that both Balaam and Oenomaus bestowed upon us.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Love the Stranger

The freeways were quiet and the city seemed peaceful at 4:30 a.m. as I drove to the hospital. I was going to see Thelma before she was taken in for surgery. I thought about the time just over a year ago when Thelma arrived at our house at 3 a.m., tiptoeing in so as not to wake Rachmiel as my husband Jonathan and I slipped out to go to the hospital. My water had broken and our daughter, Kinneret, was on her way.

Thelma has been our children’s nanny for four years, and I always thought of her as a member of our family. Then I considered the words of Leviticus 19:34: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

It is interesting that the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," is reiterated here with the stranger who resides with you. The verse would make sense without it, however by nestling the positive commandment to love in the center, we realize that it is not enough to act justly toward the stranger who resides with you. It is not enough to pay her on time, treat her with respect. It is not enough to say, "It is as if she is family," or "as one of your citizens." Rather, strive to love.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and it turns out, she was, too, for just as God redeemed us with an outstretched hand, God also redeemed her from her own land.

But how can I love her if I don’t know her story?

Although Thelma’s English is good, I hired a translator and invited her to my office so that I may learn her whole story, the stranger who resides with me.

Thelma spoke of the illness of her 10-month-old son, Carlos, the way he looked at her when he was placed in isolation at the hospital, his angelic face, longing for her to comfort him. He died before she ever held him again. I thought about the day when my son was 10 months old and closed a drawer on his finger. He cried so hard he passed out and his lips turned blue. I now understood better the layered terror that Thelma experienced in reviving him.

When she spoke of the reasons she ran from Guatemala and the journey to full citizenship in America, I felt as if I was hearing the Exodus firsthand.

She told me of the Jewish families she worked with: the family for whom she worked 12 hours a day, who, when her own shoes wore out, bought her a new pair and deducted it from her pay. The family with whom she lived that would lock the house so she could not come "home" and withheld her pay while they enjoyed vacations. And she was never invited to eat with the family.

I filled pages and pages of notes listening to her story.

You shall love the stranger as yourself.

Thelma was in her hospital bed when I arrived. She was in pain and had been diagnosed with ampullary cancer — cancer of the bile duct. I sat on the edge of her bed.

She took my hands and said she felt in her heart she was Jewish. She had questions about Judaism and months ago I had bought her a basic Judaism book in Spanish, as well as a stack to leave in our synagogue lobby where many nannies wait while their charges are in class.

Just then her cell phone rang, and I was shocked to hear "Hava Nagila" as her ring tone.

She said she did not want to go into surgery without a blessing from me. I lay my hands on her head and recited "Misheberach." She opened her eyes and there were tears in them.

"I had a vision of Jerusalem," she said. "Everyone was wearing white, praying in a great courtyard."

I felt as if I had been blessed by her.

Thelma started chemotherapy last week. Someone said to me, "You should keep her away from your children to protect them from being sad while she is sick."

I couldn’t even understand the terrible advice. "The stranger who resides with you … you shall love [her] as yourself."

Think of the people who "reside with you," who work with you, for you, beside you. Ask them for their stories, and consider not only treating the stranger "as citizens," but how our love can indeed make them strangers no longer.

The Smart Choice

Recently, I came across a story about a man who made the "unforgivable" mistake of missing his wife’s birthday. When the wife expressed her anger, the quick-witted husband responded, "Sweetheart, how do you expect me to remember your birthday when you never look any older?"

If only that were true, and we could find the secret elixir for everlasting youth, we would all be happier. Although some French winemakers would like us to believe that imbibing one glass of French wine each day will do the trick, most of us realize that, considering the alternative, aging is a blessing.

And yet we must wonder, how does one make the best with the time we are given on earth? This question is as old as man himself, and the Torah did not shy away from offering us some essential advice. Moses, on his last day on this earth, summed it up for us when he declared, "Therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

The late 13th century biblical commentator, the Baal HaTurim, notes that the Hebrew word used in this verse for life wasn’t the usual "L’chaim," but "B’chaim." He suggests that the reason "B’chaim" was chosen is because its numerical value equals 70, and the number 70 teaches us three lessons about life that are important to remember:

First he notes, the normal life span of man is 70, as Moses taught us in his famous Psalm, "The days of our years are 70, and if with strength, 80 years" (Psalm 90:8). Moses wanted us to realize first and foremost that we must use every minute of the life that we are given to its fullest. Seventy years passes way too fast for one to ever be able to say, "I have time to kill." No ethical society can tolerate murder, and likewise no one should murder time, for the ultimate gift is time itself.

Second, 70 is also associated with another concept that is basic to Jewish life. Our sages tell us that there are "70 ways to interpret the Torah."

Simply put, that means that there is a lifetime of study awaiting each Jew. I recall how the late great talmudic scholar and philosopher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, reminded us that if we wished to remain young we should never stop learning. On one occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik, reflecting on his many years of teaching, explained: "My classroom is crowded with boys who, as far as age is concerned, could be my grandchildren. When I enter the classroom, I am filled with despair and pessimism. I always ask myself: Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a rebbe in his Indian summer and boys enjoying the spring of their lives? I start the class without knowing what the conclusion will be. Let me tell you, at the conclusion of the class, which can sometimes last three or even four hours, I emerge young. Younger than my pupils. They are tired and exhausted. I feel happy. I have defeated age. I feel young and rejuvenated" (Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Aaron, The Rav, Vol. 2, pp. 186-189).

Finally, the Baal HaTurim notes that "B’chaim" equals the numerical value for the Hebrew word sod (mystery). Life is worth living because it offers the excitement of uncovering the mystery of our very existence. There is so much to discover, so much to learn, that there is no time waste.

As we prepare to end one year and begin another, the three-fold lesson of the word, "B’chaim," is worthy of our notice. Maybe that is why this Torah reading is always right before Rosh Hashanah, reminding us to choose wisely.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Power of a Blessing

If you were told that you had only a matter of days to live what would you do?

Write out a will? Eat your favorite meal? Try to repair troubled relationships? In our Torah portion this Shabbat, Jacob knows he is dying. Faced with this knowledge, there is only one thing he wants to do: bless those he loves.

We learn early on just how important blessings are to Jacob. When we first meet up with Jacob, he buys the birthright from his brother, Esau, with a pot of lentils. Later, Jacob disguises himself as Esau in order to deceive his father, Isaac, and receive the blessing he has so longed for. Given the lengths that Jacob was willing to go to in order to gain his blessing, it makes perfect sense that his final act should be to bestow blessings. How could Jacob possibly leave this world without passing along the blessing he had worked so hard to acquire?

Why was Jacob so obsessed with blessings? I think he understood better than most the power of a blessing. He believed that through a blessing, one could transmit not only love, but status, strength, leadership, reassurance, hope and even divine favor.

We are the Children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob. We too can bestow blessings on the world and on one another.

When was the last time you blessed someone? Today, most people feel uncomfortable blessing others. They assume that blessings are formulas that rabbis are supposed to offer. But they are mistaken. Anyone can offer a blessing.

Through a blessing you can turn a mundane experience into a holy encounter. When a loved one is ill, you can visit and bring flowers or stand before that same loved one, place your hands on his or her head and offer a blessing for healing. Imagine the strength and comfort such a blessing would convey.

Below, I’ve included four blessings. I have written for healing, for our children, for a new grandchild and even one for our parents. Please feel free to use them, alter them or, better yet, create your own.

A Blessing for Healing

May God heal you, body and soul.

May your pain cease,

May your strength increase,

May your fears be released,

May blessings, love, and joy surround you.


A Blessing for a Parent to Say to a Child

I wrote the following blessing to accompany the priestly blessing that parents bestow upon their children each Shabbat. If you are a parent, don’t be timid. Approach your child and say, "I’d like to bless you."

May all the gifts hidden inside you find

their way into the world,

May all the kindness of your thoughts be expressed in your deeds,

May all your learning lead to wisdom,

May all your efforts lead to success,

May all the love in your heart be returned to you,

May God bless your body with health and your soul with joy,

May God watch over you night and day and protect you from harm,

May all your prayers be answered.


A Grandparent’s Blessing for a New Grandchild

Gift of God, precious child, miracle, my little one. Lay your head on my shoulder. It seems that it was yesterday that I held your mother in my arms just this way. You are a sweet blessing to me, a tiny messenger of joy. Welcome to this magnificent life.

May God grace you with all things that are good and shield you from all harm.

May the bonds of our family be your strength. May our love be your comfort.

May our faith sustain you. May God be with you, now and always. Amen.

A Blessing for Children to Say to Their Parents

At my mother’s 75th birthday celebration, she asked me to bless her. When I stood up, placed my hands on my mother’s head and blessed her, I cannot describe the feelings that passed between us. All I can say is, bless your parents. You won’t regret it. You will never forget it.

You gave me my life. You give me your wisdom, your guidance, your concern, your love. You are my mentor, my protector, my moral compass, my comfort. There are no words to express my gratitude for all the blessings you have given me. Still, I tell you, thank you.

May God bless you as you have blessed me, with life, with health, with joy, and with love. Amen.

Now that I’ve encouraged you to go out into the world and bless others, I’d like to conclude by blessing you.

May God be with you, may health and strength sustain you. May nothing harm you, may wisdom and kindness enrich you. May you be a blessing to this world and may blessings surround you now and always. Amen.

Blessed With Talents

Everybody’s good at something. The trick is to discover what it is. In Parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses each of his 12 sons. They each receive a blessing that is appropriate to their skills. Judah is blessed with leadership, for from him will be born kings. Benjamin is told he is a wolf, because his descendants will be mighty warriors. Asher is blessed with richness — his descendants will grow the best olive trees.

Think about what you’re good at. Now think about a kid in your class who is good at something else. Your challenge is to find out what it is: paper airplanes? miniature golf? crossword puzzles? And then you and your classmate can get together and help each other learn a new skill.

What You Leave Behind

Can you think of someone who used to live in your neighborhood or went to your school but moved away? How did you feel when they moved? Was the person who left someone who did nice things for people? Was he or she helpful?

Inventive? Was it fun to play with that person? Then you probably miss him or her a little bit. Now think: What if you moved away? What kind of impression would you leave behind? Would people miss you?

Answer that question to yourself — and be honest. It might be time to say: “I should be a little more helpful” or “Yeah, I’m a good kid.”

Riddle Me This!
Here’s a Riddle.
E-mail the answer

Charan is the name of the town that
Abraham left and Jacob returns to in order to find a wife. Mount Ararat is where Noah’s Ark landed. In which country can we find both of these biblical sites?

Hint: The answer has something to do with an upcoming holiday.

The Jewish
Joke Box

Moishe was
walking in the woods.
Suddenly, a bear appeared
and chased him. When the
bear cornered him, Moishe
thought his life is over until he
saw the bear take out a yarmulke
and put it on his head.
“Oh, good,” he thought,
“he’s a Jewish bear.
He won’t eat me.”
Then the bear said:
“Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.”
(The blessing before eating a meal.)

Submitted by:
Camille Fagan, 10
Oak Park

Have You But One Blessing?

It began with the first two human born into this world, the world’s first brothers.

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil. Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell (Genesis 4:3-5).

How did Cain know? The offerings are placed upon the altar. As each is set aflame, the smoke rises. How can one possibly ascertain that God accepts one and rejects the other? No, here the Torah tells us something deeper — not how it really was, but how it appeared to Cain, the world’s first aggrieved brother. In my fantasy, Cain crosses the field to his brother. "Say Abel, show me how you did that." But alas, when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother, Abel, and killed him (Genesis 4:8). And so it began.

Sigmund Freud proposed that the dynamic of human personality is shaped in the Oedipal complex — the young boy’s adoration of his mother leading to conflict and ultimate identification with his father. The Torah, as well, locates the primal human drama within the family, but in a different relationship — in the struggle among brothers. The Torah itself is structured around a set of tense brother stories: Cain and Abel; Noah’s sons; Abraham and his brother’s son, Lot; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and Aaron. They struggle for position, power, priority, but most of all, they struggle for their father’s blessing.

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son, Esau, and said to him, "My son."

Esau answered, "Here I am."

And Issac said, "I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die" (Genesis 27:1-2).

Esau, faithful but thick, is supplanted by his trickster brother, Jacob, who hides his smooth skin beneath his smooth words to seduce the father into granting him the family blessing. Esau returns with the hard-won venison and prepares his father’s dish, only to discover that his blessing has been taken.

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Bless me, too, Father!"

But Issac answered, "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing."

And Esau said to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:34-35, 38).

For the first time, we can feel sympathy for him. Crude, violent, impulsive, there is nevertheless something genuine and good in Esau’s ferocious loyalty to his father. And something moving in his vulnerability. So into his mouth is placed the Bible’s harshest critique of its own monotheism: Have you but one blessing, Father? Who told Father Isaac there was only one blessing to split between two sons? Must one God imply only one blessing, only one birthright, only one way, only one truth? Does God accept only one brother’s offering and reject the other’s? Is there room for only one brother in this land, in this world? If so, teaches the Torah, we are doomed to reiterate an endless cycle of fratricide, generation after generation.

The Messiah will not arrive, according to an old tradition, until Esau’s tears are exhausted. Redemption comes when Father Isaac and all his descendants find in the infinite heart of God a fitting blessing for Esau — a place for the other brother. Redemption comes when the ehad (oneness) of monotheism is read as the most inclusive of theologies. Only then will we fulfill the prayer of the Psalmist, "How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together" (Psalms 133:1).

Show Me the Way

Not long ago, a friend of mine called me and said, "Naomi, I need your help.

I want you to teach me how to pray to God." She told me whenever she goes to shul, she tries to sing along, but she feels nothing. Just words. She said she’s been trying to meditate in a quiet spot, hoping for some kind of communication with God, but she feels nothing. Just silence. My friend’s problem is a familiar one. So many of us sit in shul on Yom Kippur feeling lost or bored. We want to pray, but we don’t know how.

The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, because on it we read the haftorah that begins with the moving words of the prophet Hosea: "Shuva Yisrael" — "Return, Israel, to the Lord your God." But returning to God is no simple matter. How can we return to God when we don’t know how to reach God? Like my friend, so many of us long to feel God’s presence in our lives, but we feel cutoff from God. We don’t know where to find God.

In our Haftorah, Hosea offers us a path to God. The prophet says, "Take words with you and come back to God." I told my friend, "This problem you’re having, tell it to God, and you’ll be praying." There are many forms of prayer we can learn, but the one we can all start with is the prayer of our souls. We don’t have to introduce ourselves to God; God already knows us. Notice that Hosea doesn’t say, "Come to God." He says, "Come back to God." We aren’t strangers to God. We don’t need to begin a relationship with God. God is already in a relationship with us, God already loves us. Every day, God is waiting for us, calling out to us: "Return to Me." We don’t have to say anything profound; we don’t have to sound smart. God doesn’t care. We don’t have to be sitting quietly in a state of prayerful devotion; whenever we speak, God listens.

Many people tell me that they feel overwhelmed by the depiction of God on Yom Kippur. They are frightened to approach a mighty King on a throne who sits in judgment over us, who knows all our misdeeds and decides who shall live and who shall die. But our haftorah this Shabbat offers a much more intimate picture of God. God is the One searching for us. God is lonely without us.

When we return to God, our lives start to open up. Answers start to appear. We begin seeing things we never noticed before. Days that used to feel empty are suddenly infused with meaning. Anxiety gives way to calm, despair gives way to hope, fear gives way to faith, frustration gives way to peace, sadness gives way to joy. Most of all, through prayer our indifference gives way to action.

Prayer reminds us that we are connected through God to one another, to all those longing for our help. Our souls are tied to the souls of all people. Our souls are tied to the souls of all those who have come before us. We are not alone. We are not cut off. We have not been forgotten: God is with us. God has filled us with enormous potential. But God has given us only limited days. God is praying for us, hoping we will learn how to take care of one another. The world is waiting for us to bless it.

Each of us has a prayer in our hearts, a prayer of singular importance. Chances are, we will find it only by opening our hearts and speaking it directly to God. This Yom Kippur, as you are sitting in shul, when the moment is right, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and, as you breathe out, relax. Without censoring or editing, look inside yourself. Look deep down inside. Find the prayer of your soul. Find it and speak it to God. Tell God your pain, your hope, your joy. Share your deepest longing. Express your anger. Ask for God’s help. Tell God your secret. Thank God for your blessings. Shout, sing, whisper, talk to God. And listen closely for a reply.

May you receive an answer that will bring you joy and peace. May God be with you, may health and strength sustain you, may nothing harm you, may wisdom and kindness enrich you, may you be a blessing to this world, and may blessings surround you now and always.

May this be a sweet year filled with health, joy, blessings and peace. Amen.

Blowing the Shofar Is a Blast

"Go away!" Gabe, 15, yells at his two younger brothers, having been rudely awakened by a blast of the shofar.

Jeremy, 13, the shofar-blower, dives under the adjoining bed.

Danny, 11, the instigator, explains, "We need you to play Monopoly."

Normally, the shofar is not blown until the first day of the month of Elul, which this year fell on Aug. 9. It marks the start of the long process of introspection and self-renewal that culminates with a single long blast at the close of Yom Kippur.

But in our house, shofar-blowing began in late June, when Jeremy received three shofars as bar mitzvah gifts. They rest on the living room mantle beside the two that Danny already owns.

"Five aren’t enough," Danny says. "We need one for every person in the family."

While shofars double in our house as alarm clocks and noisemakers, failing to increase our popularity with our neighbors, they originally served as primitive communications and early warning systems.

The shofar is first mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:16): "On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled." It was also sounded, among other biblical references, to proclaim the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), as a summons to war (Judges 3:27), as a call to repentance (Isaiah 58:1) and to announce new moons and festivals (Psalm 81:4).

Later, the rabbis of the talmudic period decreed that the shofar be blown during the penitential month of Elul, every day except for Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashana. They also specified that the shofar be a ram’s horn, in remembrance of the animal that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, or a horn from a goat or other kosher animal, except for a cow, on account of the Golden Calf episode.

But it is Rosh Hashana itself that is known as Yom Teruah, or The Day of the Shofar Blast. In Leviticus 23:24, God commands, "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." The commandment is to hear, rather than blow, the shofar, and it is traditionally heard 100 times on both days of the holiday. When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, however, as it does this year, the shofar is blown only on the second day in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, due to the prohibition against carrying. That doesn’t apply to the Reform movement, which observes only one day and which allows carrying.

Curiously, while we are commanded to hear the sounds of the shofar, we are not told why.

Sa’adia Gaon, the 10th-century rabbi, offers 10 reasons, from proclaiming that God, in remembrance of creation, is king to recalling the binding of Isaac and the ram in the thicket to reminding us that the shofar will be sounded at the end of time, when the Messiah resurrects the dead.

And Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, interprets the commandment to mean: "Awake from your slumber, you who have fallen asleep in life."

And awaken we have, with a jolt. For the past two years, the shofar has roused us to a world of hideous evil and senseless destruction. On Erev Rosh Hashana 2000 (Sept. 28), violence erupted in the Middle East, the start of the current intifada. And less than a week before Rosh Hashana 2001 (Sept. 18), Muslim extremists ferociously attacked the United States.

This year, the shofar, with its eerie, piercing and surreal sounds, awakens us to a world of continued sadness, fear and seemingly irreconcilable conflict. To the knowledge that no matter how much we repent and resolve to improve ourselves, that no matter how many safeguards we erect or military strikes we carry out, tragedy can occur unpredictably and uncontrollably.

This year, the words of the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer, "who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who by water and who by fire," are frighteningly real. And there is no guarantee, as we have painfully witnessed, that repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil of the decree.

Nevertheless, we still need the shofar to summon us to repentance and prayer. But this year, in addition, we need the shofar to awaken us to new possibilities and new ways of thinking, to new hopes and new strengths. We need the shofar to pierce the darkness of the world and to help realize the Rosh Hashana blessing: "May the year and its curses end; may the year and its blessing begin.”

For our family, five shofars are a good start.

Joined by a Kidney

On the anniversary of Sept. 11, we offer a pancultural exchange with a happy ending.

Back in November, UP FRONT reported about Patricia Abdullah, a Caucasian woman of Muslim faith who, after leading an unsuccessful search for a type O-positive kidney donor for acquaintance Mike Jones, an African American Christian, ultimately donated her own kidney. The Sept. 25 procedure was performed by Jewish and German surgeons at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a hospital founded by Jews.

Nearly a year after their surgeries, Abdullah and Jones are leading happy, healthy lives and stay very connected.

"She’s truly a blessing," Jones, 42, said. "She’s one of God’s angels. She gave me the ultimate gift that a person can receive."

"It’s been amazing," Abdullah, 54, said. "Mike and I seem to share an uncanny knowing of how one another is doing. The doctors told me, the only way we could’ve been a closer match [is] if we had been born together from a single cell."

Following their surgeries, Jones and Abdullah participated in a triathlon to raise awareness and money for the Dina LaVigna Breath of Life Fund. They are now training together for the L.A. Marathon.

Jones is currently working on a book, "One Miracle," and spreading awareness about kidney disease on cable TV ("The Wright Place") and online (wrightplacetv.com).

He shares what he has learned.

"If you believe in your God, everything is possible," Jones said.

So why bring all this up again now? Due to conflicting schedules of the two transplant teams, the surgery was rescheduled to Sept. 25. The original date of surgery? Sept. 11, 2001.

The Long and Winding Road

A young friend of mine switched career paths, giving up on an industry that she did not find fulfilling. She is now working in a field that she finds challenging, has potential for growth and gives her opportunities to contribute in ways that are important to her. This week she received a call from someone begging her to return to her previous career, offering to even double her salary. Obviously, this was an extremely tempting offer, one that is not only lucrative, but that validates her worth and talents in the field. Yet, she declined the offer. She made a choice to stay in a career that brings fulfillment to her life.

She is choosing to live a life of blessing. This blessing is precisely the kind we are encouraged to seek in this week’s Torah Portion. As Moses continues his farewell charge to the people, he calls out, "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." Moses informs us that we each have the ability to choose living a life of blessing.

To actively make this choice, the verse tells us we must see what is set before us. It is often a tremendous challenge to see what is in front of us, because our complex reality is not solely physical. Often we must see the world and our place in it through other eyes, through the eyes of knowing, feeling and understanding. Bitterness, doubt, pain can blur our vision. Then, we must see with our heart, intuition, insight and intellect to comprehend what is right for us.

We have the power to choose blessing or curse. Choosing a life of blessing means using the circumstances God has placed before us. If we use the particulars of our situation to fulfill our potential, then we choose blessing. If we squander them and do not find the path to attainment of the unique way we can touch the world, then we feel discontent. We search, we wander, we cannot "find ourselves." This is the curse.

A Midrash, a rabbinic legend, describes life as a crossroads. It says there are two roads to walk down, the road of blessing or the road of curse. One road begins straight and ends with curves, the other begins with curves and obstacles, yet ends straight. The straight road often seems easy and more direct, but yet can have obstacles, and even lead us astray. The curved road symbolizes the difficulties and trials and errors we must endure before we can set ourselves on a straight path. Often, only after we have acquired insight and understanding can we utilize our special gifts.

The world, with its challenges and blessings, is given to all of us. Yet, how we live in and respond to it is uniquely up to us. God invites us in to be ourselves, to avail ourselves of all the conditions of life, the wondrous along with the hardships and the challenges. Yitzchak Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist, teaches that we are each here to do a specific task. No one else can make a difference, do a job, approach a kindness or perform a mitzvah, exactly the way we can.

The Torah says, "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." It urges us to use "this day," today; to respond to the uplifting and to the oppressive. Every day the possibilities of life are renewed.

A man I know is on kidney dialysis. His entire lifestyle has been altered. Three times a week he must spend most of the day hooked up to a machine. He has had to reduce his business, his social life, his traveling. Yet instead of bitterness, he maintains an outlook on life that is positive, vital and filled with contributions to others. As he sits in the clinic, he shares entertaining anecdotes with the healthcare workers and the other patients. He continues to run his business on a limited basis, he maintains his leadership role in his synagogue and is devoted to family and friends.

As a step toward helping others see and understand their world, he takes time to counsel others suffering from kidney failure about living with the realities of dialysis. Just like my young friend who made a deliberate choice of a fulfilling career, in his own way, every day, he is choosing the path of blessing.

Rabbi Mimi Weisel is assistant dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Birth Pangs

The other day, I got a sample of Pampers in the mail. It doesn't happen very often now, fortunately. For a while there, almost every day brought free diapers, coupons for baby food, baby lotion, baby photographs. I passed them on to my sister, who has a year-old son, and told myself that it's not their fault. How could they know, after all? It's just that I'm on some kind of list — a “new mothers” list, probably through my doctor's office — and so they keep sending me these products, products I'd rather not think about just now.

It happens to people all the time. That's one of the things you learn when it happens to you. Suddenly, you're part of a new sisterhood, a new brotherhood — people who have gone through a miscarriage, lost a baby, suffered a stillbirth. You had no idea how many people around you had such an experience, because most of them never said a word. Only now, when it happens to you, do they let you in on their secret.

They tell you about their losses because they want you to know they understand. They don't think you're ridiculous for mourning over something that wasn't even really a baby — just a coiled-up ball of life, maybe half an inch long. Except that, for you, of course, it was a baby, and it belonged to you, and you loved it. They understand the crushing sense of failure, and the guilt, and the questions that you know are irrational and pointless but you ask yourself anyway: Did I do something wrong? Could I have prevented this if I'd taken better care of myself, stayed off my feet, cut down on stress?

Later, when the pain eases and you stop tormenting yourself with questions, you find yourself dwelling on one simple idea: how many people have walked this path before me. How very common pregnancy loss is, and what a miracle it is to carry a healthy baby to term.

“Women don't need to lay tefillin,” a traditional Jew once said to me. “Your womb is your tefillin. Your power to nurture new life within your body is what connects you to God.”

If we come to this week's portion expecting a lyrical celebration of women's special bond with the Creator through the miracle of childbirth, we may be sorely disappointed. Parashat Tazria spells out all that the Torah has to say about rituals for the new mother — eight verses in all. For more than a month, she must undergo “blood purification,” forbidden to touch any sacred object or enter the holy sanctuary. After her period of separation, the woman brings two sacrifices — a burnt offering and a sin offering — and she is then reintegrated into the community (Leviticus 12:1-8).

Nothing of the joy and wonder of childbirth seems to rise up from this brief legal passage; it speaks instead of ritual impurity, isolation, purgation. But under the dry, compressed language courses a river of emotion. The emergence of a new human being is awesome, tremendous — a mysterious, soul-shattering event. Surrounded by blood taboos whose precise meaning we can no longer decode, childbirth in the Torah is fraught with danger, electric with the energy of life and death, touched by the sacred. It changes a new mother permanently — separates her from who she was, and from all those around her. For a while, she withdraws, dazed and disoriented, from normal life; her world consists of nothing but the baby. Only gradually does she return to herself and her community. Spiritual, psychological and cultic processes merge in the Torah's ritual of reintegration.

At the tail end of the 20th century, human reproduction has become “domesticated” — subject to scientific understanding and manipulation. But for the Torah, birth retains its primal strangeness and elemental power; it is outside the human domain; it belongs to the Holy One.

We are taught: “One must offer a blessing over the bad just as one offers a blessing over what is good” (Mishna Berachot 9:5). I'm still wondering what blessing can come from the loss of a baby. But maybe pain, as well as joy, can awaken us to the miracle of birth. Maybe if we learn how often things go wrong with the intricate, elegant process by which life comes into the world, we'll cherish, all the more, those times when everything goes blessedly, stupendously right.

Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.

Torah Portion

Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather’s dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he’s outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father’s emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: “Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!” And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.

Two brothers. One blessing. But who told FatherIsaac that he had but one blessing to bestow upon his sons? Who toldhim that blessings must be hierarchical — setting one brother overthe other, declaring one the victor and the other a loser? Why can’the see where this leads? Has he no sense of the bitterness andturmoil that will come of this? Is his spiritual imagination so smallthat he cannot find a unique blessing for each of his sons? Is thisthe blindness that afflicts him?

Two brothers, one blessing. This is the darkunderside of Genesis. Cain murders Abel. Abraham must separate fromhis brother’s son, Lot, because there can be no peace between them.Ishmael is cast out of the family to make room for Isaac. Jacobdeceives his blind father and steals his brother Esau’s blessing.Joseph’s brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery. Beneath theenchanting tales of Genesis, the charming Bible stories we love toread to our children, lies this legacy of hatred, rage, estrangement,murder and pain.

More than the stories of our dysfunctional family,Genesis is an alarm — a plea, a warning — against the humanpropensity to think in binary terms: Us/Them. Our People/ThosePeople. The Good Brother/The Evil Brother. The Children of Light/TheChildren of Darkness. This calculation always yields the sameproduct: The Other. Who is The Other? We call him by many names, buthe is always the same. Cast out for his unrighteousness. Undeservingof blessing. Evil. Dark. Alien. Excluded. Estranged.

Why do we human beings need The Other? Whatemptiness within our soul does it fulfill? What comfort does it giveus to identify, to isolate, to castigate, to scorn The Other?Politicians love him. Demagogues thrive on him, for there is noeasier way to the heart of a people than through our fear, ourdisgust, our rejection of The Other. Just listen to theirrhetoric.

But remember Genesis. Who is The Other? He is ourbrother. Ignore him and watch as his rage consumes everything we holddear. We will never have peace, and we will never be whole until wemeet him and make peace with him. Be careful. His rage is potent. Butif we have the courage to confront him, to meet and embrace him, wewill find him ready to receive us.

“Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by400 men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the twomaids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and herchildren next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on aheadand bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near hisbrother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, falling on his neck,he kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:1-4).

Again, Esau weeps. But this time, different tears.For the years consumed and wasted in rage, hatred, bitterness andfear. For the brokenness endured until each brother realized that hecould have his own, unique blessing. And for the generations of theirchildren who will yet live by dividing — believing in theirblindness that there is only one blessing. For those who have yet tolearn the ultimate lesson of Genesis.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

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Joseph is drawn from the pit.

Photo from “The Jewish People: A PictorialHistory.”

Read a past week’s torah portion!

ParashatVa-Yeze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

Shabbat Thanksgiving

Parashat Chaye Sarah (Genesis23:1-25:18)

Parashat Va-Yera(Genesis 18:1-22:24)

Parashat LechLecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

ParashatNoah (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

Bereshit,Genesis 1:1-6:8