To let go and to pray

Lech Lecha begins with God telling Abraham, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.”

But why does God say it in this particular order?

If you’ve left your country of origin, haven’t you already left your hometown, let alone your father’s house? You leave your house first, and then arrive at the edge of town and finally the country’s border.

So why is the order reversed?

Nachmanides believes that it is in ascending order of difficulty. It is hard to leave your country — the language, the culture, the currency. Harder still the place you were born — your friends and familiar places. Hardest of all is to leave one’s parents. Why? Nachmanides does not say. Might it be because parents won’t let go?

My eldest son flew by himself for the first time this summer. He dreamed for weeks about his trip from Los Angeles to Florida to spend a month visiting his grandparents.

Still 8 years old, he was proud of this approaching independence. He filled his MP3 player with music, and he uploaded pictures of his ema and abba and brothers to look at when he missed us. When the day arrived, he packed his carry-on bag with his favorite book, “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” and looked forward to being able to order Sprite after Sprite, for free.

He left while I was at work. I called to wish him a good trip as he sat at the departure gate with my wife, Jen. Over the noise of the airport terminal and the commotion of camp, I asked him to listen to me read tefillat haderech, the traveler’s prayer, over the phone.

“May it be Your will Adonai our God and God of our ancestors that You lead us in peace, guide our steps to peace, and guide us in peace….”

And as I read, “May You rescue us from adversaries and ambush and robbers and animals along the way,” I thought to myself, “Am I crazy?” I finished the prayer but my mind wandered to thoughts of abusers lurking on planes and robbers who would steal from a defenseless child. I prayed God would shine His sheltering presence upon him, would appoint the flight attendants as His angels to watch over him.

“Give him all the Sprites he wants!” I pleaded. “See in him the image of God that I see in him. See the precious, holy, special, beloved child who I love so much it aches to think of him alone out there in the world, without me.”

I do not know if he heard my voice crack or if he could tell that tears were streaming down my face. I felt him slipping through my grasp as he proudly set forth into the world without me for the first time.

Why must parents let go?

Nachmanides explains, “It is difficult for a person to leave the country where he has friends and companions. This is true all the more so of his native land, and all the more so if his whole family is there. Hence it became necessary to say to Abraham that he leave all for the sake of his love of the Holy Blessing One.”

Family is important, but God tells Abraham to leave his parents’ home because he needed to become himself, not only his parents’ child. Abraham needed to leave his idolatrous father to become the “father of many peoples” (Genesis 17:5), the father of monotheism and the Jewish people. The legacy of the Righteous Gentiles teaches that a good person must be willing to reject the world around him or her. But one need not always reject the teachings of one’s country or community or family, just take responsibility for them.

For our children to find God, they must take responsibility for themselves, their own beliefs and, ultimately, their own relationship with God. We love our children so much it hurts, but we risk making of ourselves an idol if we fail to teach them to love God and encourage them to find their own path to the Holy One.

The modern Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis said, “True teachers use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.” I did not collapse joyfully when I hung up the phone and thought of my son as he boarded the plane. But I am grateful for the glimpse I was given of the task that awaits me: not to make of myself an idol. To point him along the way, to let go and let him grow, and let him find God for himself. And to pray God will protect him along the way.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the Jewish summer camp for the Conservative movement serving the Western United States, and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel): The biggest Jew in country music [VIDEO]

CRAPONNE SUR ARZON, France (JTA)—Think Jews and country music and you’ll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.

The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.”

He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky,” he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. “I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here ‘til I die.”

Now 57, Benson was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.

“Kinky’s not a country western singer—he’s Kinky!” Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.

Unlike Friedman, however, who makes playing with stereotypes part of his in-your-face persona, Benson has—until now—kept his religious identity out of the limelight.

“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country western singer; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
“You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage,” he added. “For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”

Benson got his musical start as a child in suburban Philadelphia, where he grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he was only 11 when he played his first professional gig.

“In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to school, you go to college or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.”

Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 along with several friends, including his former Philadelphia schoolmate Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel guitar player born Ruben Gosfield, who now lives in Australia.

The band based itself in West Virginia and California before moving to Austin in 1973. Over the decades, Benson has remained the anchor of the group, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of its line-up.

On the road much of the year, the band has criss-crossed the nation, playing everywhere from down-home dance halls to the White House—they were, in fact, scheduled to perform there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Asleep at the Wheel has played at inauguration parties for Presidents Bush and Clinton and expect to play for whomever is elected in November. Earlier this year, they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama where the Democratic presidential nominee joined them onstage for a chorus.

In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain—period,” and he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.

He cites as an example a member of Tammy Wynette’s entourage, who blamed “the Jews in New York” for failing to promote her career, and had a hard time believing Benson when he told him he was Jewish. Then there’s the wife of a musician who had never heard of Judaism as a religion.

“I asked her what she thought a Jew was, and she said, ‘Someone who’s cheap,’ ” Benson recalled.

“So the stereotypes are there, and they’re still there,” he said.

“I always felt myself to be an ambassador,” he added. “I’m not a great practicing Jew on a daily basis, but I’m Jewish. And so I try to bring to them that we’re just people.”

Recently, for the first time, Benson started doing this publicly, making explicit reference to his Jewish identity on stage.

The revelation comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,”  a musical that Benson co-wrote, based on the life of Benson’s musical hero, the Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who died in 1975.

Benson stars in the play, along with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Since its premiere in 2005, it has played to audiences all over Texas and elsewhere, including a sell-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills. In it, Wills asks Benson how “a Jewish boy from Philadelphia” can play western swing music. Benson responds: “The same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from the West Texas panhandle” can play, as Wills did, blues and jazz.

“Basically in this play I confront the issue, and I let the cat out of the bag—hey, I’m Jewish and happen to be the leader of the ‘modern kings of western swing,’” Benson said.

“In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context,” he added.

The point he wanted to make, he said, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion or background is in terms of music, art or other creative endeavors. What’s important, he said, “is what’s in your heart or what’s in your mind or what’s in your talent.”

Asleep at the Wheel: ‘Route 66’ (live)



This week’s portion is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. Moses is exhausted because he spends the whole day talking to anyone who needs counseling or judgment. Yitro, who is visiting him, says: “You’ll kill yourself if you keep up at this pace. Get some people to help you.” And that’s exactly what Moses does.
Do your parents ever seem too exhausted to pay any attention to you? The best way you can help your parents out is by telling them you understand, that you know how much they love you and you know that they will give you the attention you need as soon as they are able.

Moses took care of 600,000 Jews. Today, there are 13.2 million of us in the whole world. That’s still not very many.
Here is a list of a few Jewish populations around the world.
Can you match the city or country to the amount of Jews who live there?
Send your answer to

Israel   5,000,000
Los Angeles   600,000
India   120
France   360,000
Canada   2,000,000
New York   6,000
Tahiti   600,000

A Jewish Memory
Here is a story written by a sixth-grader.

A few years ago, my dad took me to visit my grandma, Helen, at the nursing home. She was 92, and had had a stroke four years earlier. No one could talk to her much because she was always sleeping. Through the years, she just got worse and worse until she couldn’t even open an eyelid.
When we got there, it was kind of a shock to me, since I hadn’t been there for so long. We finally found Grandma in a wheelchair in the patio. As usual, she was fast asleep. With her pale face and thinning hair, she did not look like the beloved grandmother I used to know. My father told me to talk to her. I tried but she didn’t move. I told jokes, laughed, whistled; I even acted out something funny that I had recently seen on TV, but my grandmother stayed still as a rock.
My dad saw my impatience, and said sympathetically: “Come on, honey, we can leave now,” he said.
But I didn’t budge. I felt I had a goal to attain, so I wouldn’t just let go.
“Let me try one last time,” I answered. I thought and thought, and just when I couldn’t think anymore, I remembered I knew a little Yiddish.
A few months ago had been Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. I, together with the rest of my class had sang many Holocaust songs including, “Zog Nit Keyn Mol.” I knew Grandma grew up speaking Yiddish with her five sisters in New York, so I gave it one more shot. I sang the song. Surprisingly, it worked. Grandma opened her eyes and smiled. And even though it was only for a brief second, I knew I would treasure that moment forever. I did.
Grandma died on Oct. 26, 2003.

What’s Portuguese for Cohen?

A major new tool can help Brazilians learn about their possible Iberian Jewish origins: the "Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames," a 528-page tome featuring some 17,000 surnames of Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal, Spain and Italy and their descendants.

Written in Portuguese and English, the dictionary is the fruit of a research project started in 1995 by Brazilian historians Guilherme Faiguenboim and Paulo Valadares and Italian historian Anna Rosa Campagnano. Faiguenboim and Campagnano are Jewish. Valadares is of Portuguese "New Christian" — or Marrano — ancestry.

According to Faiguenboim, a founding member of the Brazilian Jewish Genealogical Society, the initial idea was to explore about 1,000 Sephardic surnames. After seven years of work, the team had more than 16,000 names.

The first part of the book features a historical introduction. The second tells about the Sephardic dispersion from the edicts of expulsion until the 20th century. The book ends with the dictionary itself, preceded by an explanation of the names’ origins.

For each entry, readers can find where the first references to the family name were found and the name’s subsequent path around the world. It also lists famous bearers of the family name through history.

According to Faiguenboim, historians say that 10 percent to 30 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish before Jews were forced in 1496 to leave the country or be baptized. Many of them fled to Northern Africa and, beginning in the early 1500s, also to Brazil, Portugal’s major colony. According to historians, several Jews were among the sailors on the very first Portuguese caravel fleets to the New World.

Most non-Jewish Brazilians presume that they have Jewish ancestry because they have surnames that Jews were known to have used in the past to hide their Jewishness. However, such names — like Oliveira, Souza, Cardoso, and even Silva, the most typical Brazilian name of all — often are common among non-Jewish Brazilians.

Faiguenboim says that not everyone with a family name in the dictionary is of Jewish ancestry.

"But if a person is recognized as Jewish, his or her name will certainly be there," he said.

The (Very) Few, the Proud

When Jeffrey Ullman’s son broke the news, Dad was more shocked at his own reaction than he was at the actual decision itself.

Drew Ullman, age 20, after two years at college in Santa Barbara, had announced that was putting college life on hold and would join the Marines. He heads to boot camp in January, and said he wishes he could go sooner. His father, a former anti-war activist and full-fledged liberal, said at one time he would have talked his son out of it. Now he realizes he couldn’t be prouder.

“My father and I have similar thinking,” said Drew, who grew up in Beverly Hills and the West Valley, “what we call our 9-10 and our 9-12 thinking. I feel like I owe a lot to this country, more so than someone who needs to go into the military as a way out. I grew up with money, with a great education, had a lot of advantages that other kids don’t have, so I really owe a lot to this country.”

Drew’s parents now live in Brentwood. His dad explained it this way: “For years I thought the military wasn’t the right thing for ‘my kind of people.’ That came from my politically liberal background and socioeconomic class…. I was a big anti-war activist and student radical at USC and Berkley. I continued my political activism throughout the ’70s. But now my thinking about many things in the world has changed, including my thoughts about the military. In World War II, where my dad was a doctor with the Navy and the Marines, it was good versus evil. The only right thing to do was to participate, whereas in Vietnam and other battles, even Afghanistan, I wasn’t a supporter. Now, again, it’s very clear-cut. It’s a matter of morality. Drew is beginning a journey that few Jews choose to make.”

Only some 3,000 out of 1.4 million active duty servicemen and women are Jewish, about two-tenths of one percent. When it comes to Marines, the numbers are even more startling. It’s one out of 1,000. One-tenth of one percent. That gives new meaning to the term “minority.”

Yet for Drew and his father, who both have a strong Jewish identity, that wasn’t really a factor. To them, the idea is to serve your country as an American who’s Jewish, not as a Jew who’s American. At his first interview with the recruiter, Drew remembers them asking: “Do you want to be one of the best or one of the rest?”

Drew said: “That helped clinch it for me. If I can be a Marine I can do anything. Being Jewish in the Marines wasn’t really an issue. I can’t imagine too many boys like me that are raised to be doctors, lawyers or accountants becoming Marines, but if I’m going to serve my country let me serve my country. I like defying stereotypes. That’s my favorite thing to do. There’s a stereotype, more of an American stereotype, that Jewish men are not tough, they’re nerdy. That’s not true.”

Of course, with the current war in Iraq, and with troops on the ground in Afghanistan, being a Jew is very much an issue. Jews have taken steps to protect their religious identity in case of capture by the enemy. The chances that we’ll still be fighting in those locations by the time Drew finishes 13 weeks of boot camp and further training is remote, but real. He claims he’s not worried.

“Most likely I’ll be initially be stationed in Camp Pendleton. I could be on ship duty, embassy duty or, yes, I could be in a war like Iraq. I’m not looking for a fight, but I’m not signing up to sit on my ass stateside,” he said.

Sounds like he’s already a soldier.

Dad put it this way: “My attitude is this — to the extent he’s able to wear his yarmulke and practice Judaism while fighting under the American flag, then do that. He always calls me every single Friday night … so I asked him ‘Are you still going to call me? You better call me or you’re in trouble.’ He said ‘I’ll do what I can.’ So no, I’m not worried about him being a Jew going into the military. He’s going to be part of an elite club. Many of my friends, both liberals and those who are conservative politically, might be surprised by my new attitude. They think they know me so they would not have expected it. I say to them, ‘what are your sons and daughters doing for this country?'”

Good question.

Phil Shuman is a reporter and substitute anchor for Fox 11 KTTV News. He is also hosts news programs for Channel 35’s “L.A. Cityview.”

Explaining the Argentine Enigma

Several years ago, economist and sociologist Paul Samuelson proposed dividing the world into four categories: the rich countries, the poor countries, Japan and Argentina. Everyone knows the state of rich countries and poor countries. However, no one understands why Japan is doing so well and Argentina so badly.

These days, experts around the world are biting their nails trying to find an explanation for the Argentine enigma. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was the seventh-richest country in the world. It was considered the breadbasket of the world. And so it remained until a decade after World War II. For European emigrants seeking a better future, it scarcely mattered if the boat they were boarding was headed for New York or Buenos Aires. Both were golden paths toward hope, freedom and growth.

The Argentine Jewish community began to organize itself at the end of the 19th century. The French philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch invested a great deal of money to support the resettlement of persecuted Jews in Argentina’s rich agricultural regions. An Argentine version of the Jewish cowboy was born, the Jewish gaucho. The writer Alberto Gerchunoff immortalized them in a book of admirable literary breadth bearing this very title. It was published nearly a century ago, in 1910. Even Theodor Herzl, in his seminal work "The Jewish State," mentioned Argentina as a possible homeland for the Jewish people.

The Argentine Jewish community grew rapidly and became the largest and most vibrant in Latin America. When Israeli sociologist Arie Tartakower visited the country in the 1950s, he was impressed by the dynamism of the community’s institutional life and the vigor of its educational system. He said it constituted the best Jewish communal model in the entire Diaspora. Jews were involved in science, law, art and the media. First-generation Argentine Jews became national figures. Jewish poets, composers and singers contributed to Argentine culture, even enriching the tango.

Politically, Jews imported their ideological trends from pre-Holocaust Europe. They began to participate in Jewish and non-Jewish institutions, in synagogues and in secular organizations. In the middle of the 20th century, Argentine Jewry’s Zionist ideals were evidenced by the community’s strong support during the crises weathered by Israel and the Jewish people. The participation was massive, honest and generous.

This healthy Jewish climate was nevertheless confronted with a latent anti-Semitism. The wonders of integration were sullied by the first pogrom in the Americas, which took place in 1919 during Argentina’s so-called "tragic week." However, the fear that those deadly events would repeat themselves did not weaken the resolve of Argentina’s Jews to continue developing their communal life and pursuing their integration into Argentine society.

The Perón presidency was an ambivalent period for Argentine Jewry. On the one hand, Juan Perón guaranteed Jewish rights and established a friendly relationship with Israel. On the other hand, his administration was complacent toward Nazi war criminals. The rightist nationalism that accompanied Perónism began to create problems in the 1960s, after an Israeli commando team captured Adolf Eichmann. The military dictatorships, especially the last one, were decidedly cruel toward Jews. And there are still pockets of ignorant and dangerous fanatics who from time to time desecrate cemeteries and who may have contributed to the bombings of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994.

Through history, one can see a parallel between the fate of Argentina and the fate of its Jews. Until the middle of the 20th century, Argentineans were a successful and optimistic people. In the second half of the 20th century, however, a decadence set in, slowly at first and then quickening. Argentina collapsed because of authoritarianism and corruption. The Jewish community was no more the model touted by Arie Tartakower. The educational system, which every year reached new milestones, started to decay. Economic problems, which were never seen as an obstacle, started to weigh heavily. And some unthinkable developments took place, most notably an atmosphere of suspicion regarding the loyalty and honesty of our communal leaders, which was very worrisome and disillusioning.

Until about three years ago, Argentine emigration was motivated exclusively by politics. Persecution at the hand of the dictatorships prompted thousands of scientists, artists, educators, journalists and even students to flee. The sad reality of the new emigration is that it is not due to politics, but to the economic situation. For the first time, Argentineans are abandoning this land because there is no work, not even food.

Some sort of cycle is coming to a close. A century ago, despair prompted massive emigration from the Old World to Argentina. Now despair is causing massive emigration, this time from Argentina.

The change is reflected in Argentine aliya, the emigration of Argentine Jews to Israel. In the past Argentine aliya was undertaken for idealistic reasons. Tens of thousands of Jews filled kibbutzim and Israeli towns to contribute to the national resurrection effort. But now they do it because they don’t see any future here for themselves and their children.

The reasons for this general decadence are difficult to discern. Several months ago, I published a book whose title could be interpreted as a joke, "The Atrocious Charm of Being Argentine." Contrary to the fears of my publisher, the book was a hit and has remained on top of the best-seller list since its publication. The people, far from being annoyed by it, are reading and discussing it with passion. It is good news to see that we Argentineans are leaving behind us our old and odious arrogance. We want clear diagnoses in order to find the right remedy.

Argentina’s difficulties can be overcome if the corruption and transgression are not protected by immunity. Illegality is the worst evil in a society that respects the law.

Jews suffer, like other Argentineans, from the "corralito," the limits imposed on money withdrawals from banks. The country is going through one of its worst crises, fueled by the severe economic depression. But if there is international comprehension and if the decaying trends can be progressively reversed, Argentina will wake up. Its "hardware" — natural and human resources — are intact. What is missing is the "software," the management.

And this holds true for all Argentineans — including the Jews.

Marcos Aguinis is an Argentine writer and commentator. He is the author of eight novels, including "The Saga of the Marrano," available in Spanish and Hebrew. This article is reprinted with permission of The Forward.