Rabbi Hayim Herring

The Leading Congregations exchange, part 1: The challenges facing 21st century Jewish communities


Rabbi Hayim Herring is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist. Rabbi Herring has worked with over 300 rabbis and congregations of all sizes and denominations throughout North America on issues including assessment, volunteer leadership development, strategic planning, organizational foresight and innovation. He has served as a senior rabbi of a congregation, assistant director of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and has published dozens of scholarly articles on the American Jewish community. Rabbi Herring holds degrees from Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he was ordained, and a doctorate in Organization and Management from Capella University’s School of Business.

The following exchange will focus on Rabbi Herring’s new book, Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes (co-written with Dr. Teri Elton).

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Dear Rabbi Herring,

Your new book is entitled Leading Congregations in a Connected World. Our introductory question: What type of congregation and organization leaders did you have in mind when writing this book, and what would you like them to learn from it?

Yours,

Shmuel

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Dear Shmuel,

My co-author, Dr. Terri Elton, and I wrote Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes, for two broad audiences: professional and volunteer leaders of congregations and nonprofits, and teachers of current and future leaders. We defined two categories of congregations and nonprofit organizations. We studied both “established and adapting” organizations, namely, those with at least 25 years of history, were structured primarily as top-down hierarchies, but were trying to adapt to a more decentralized, socially networked world where people co-create their own personal meaning and community. We labeled the second category, “emerging and maturing,” that is, those congregations and nonprofits that were at least five years old, were reaching the age of early organizational maturity, and recognizing that the socially networked DNA that gave birth to them was not going to be sufficient to keep them growing and sustainable.

We realized that existing studies on congregations and nonprofits took an “either/or” approach. They looked at “the new kids on the block,” those newer congregations and nonprofits that garnered a lot of attention for their creativity and freshness. Those stories were usually about growth and flourishing. The other side of the narrative was one of decline and decay, and focused on legacy congregations and nonprofits that were losing members and lacking in vibrancy.

We thought that both sides of the equation needed to be studied. While it’s true that many legacy congregations and nonprofits are struggling, we also knew of some that had pivoted to a 21st Century social engagement way of working. (That doesn’t mean just having cool social media tools, but knowing how to use them strategically to deepen community.) Second, even though many established organizations are having difficulty making that pivot, they still command a lot of attention and resources. Was there a way to accelerate their likelihood of becoming more responsive?

Conversely, while many of the startups rightfully gained a lot of attention, we were hearing stories of some that were now between five and ten years old that were struggling. How could they maintain their unique, organic and socially networked attributes now that they had to worry about a larger budget, more staff, and perhaps even a building? They certainly didn’t want to become like the more rigid congregations or nonprofits against which they had rebelled, but they also needed to support a broader base of people who held a shared vision. We wanted to test the commonly held assumption that hierarchies are dead, and that social networks are the only future way forward of organizing spiritual and nonprofit communities. Indeed, we found that both elements of hierarchies and social networks existed within old and new organizations and both are needed.

What was especially appealing to me was to conduct research and write together with a Protestant colleague. Jews are part of a dynamic religious landscape in America that’s undergoing a revolution. So why not contextualize our changes into the broader context of which we are a part? Terri and I are both committed to blending academic theory and empirical research with practical tools and resources for immediate use.

Here are five key takeaways, although I still hope that you and your readers will read the book and call me with your responses!

1. Authenticity and innovation are compatible, although challenging to achieve. Congregations and nonprofits that thrive in the 21st-Century will go back to their core mission, but then pick one of four different pathways that we identify to practice innovation, and make innovation a part of their new organizational DNA.

2. The values of a socially networked world, that include enabling people to co-create their own experiences and have maximum self-choice, are here to stay. These values need to show up digitally, in the synagogue or nonprofit’s bricks and mortar space, and wherever people gather under their auspices. That means leaders must learn to relinquish some control, but in return, gain the joy of watching participants grow as they own their Jewish experiences and purpose. By letting go and enabling others to share and enact their Jewish dream, leaders also expand the influence and impact of their congregational or organizational mission.

3. Disruption doesn’t discriminate by age. Today’s disruptors will be tomorrow’s disrupted, and today’s disrupted can easily become tomorrow’s disruptors. So it’s a good idea to redefine leadership not as having the ability to respond quickly to trends, but to anticipate and favorably shape them.

4. Engagement isn’t a goal or a checklist. It’s an orientation for congregations and nonprofits. That means engaging individuals with a significant mission, and then putting them into community with those who share the same passion for mission, a mission that must connect to the broader world.

5. Community is fragile and trying to hold people with diverse views together is becoming increasingly challenging. Nonprofit CEO’s and clergy have the tremendous task of keeping people focused on mission and bringing people together in face-to-face contact where they can see that others who are not exactly like them are still partners for holy work.

6. Without dismissing the incredibly urgent work of social justice, congregations have another great, and I would say unique, opportunity. There are four generations and soon to be five generations of people alive in large numbers today. Where are the opportunities for people from so many different generations to develop sustained, meaningful, multi-generational relationships? Where are the opportunities where mutual mentoring can happen, if not at congregations? To the best of my knowledge, no other institution has potential access to so many generations over a lifetime. For congregations to claim that role, they’ll have to rethink congregational life, priorities, values, budgets, staffing – and I can’t think of anything more important today given the isolating challenges that each generation faces.

There’s more to say, and I look forward to the next parts of the exchange! Thank you for contributing to this conversation on the disruption and reconfiguration of our communities!

Rachel Bloom. Photo by Nino Muñoz/The CW

‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ star Rachel Bloom brings a fresh, feminist approach to Jewish comedy


When it comes to Rachel Bloom, it’s hard to know whether to start with the sex or the Jewishness. Both seem to ooze out of her, like a classic starlet of the Yiddish theater in which burlesque comedy could arrive in a voluptuous feminine package.

Consider the music video “You Can Touch My Boobies,” which has more than 5 million views. Bloom plays a Hebrew-school teacher who appears in a dream to seduce her kippah-wearing bar mitzvah student, Jeffrey Goldstein. Clad in a black bustier and fishnets, she rides around in a toy car shaped like a giant breast — with a nipple for a hood ornament — crooning, “We’re gonna have some fun tonight.” No need to check the locks, she tells Goldstein, because — wink, wink to American Jewish dining habits — his parents are out at Benihana. But Jewish guilt is never far behind, and suddenly, Golda Meir appears to scold Jeffrey for his fantasies: “You have brought shame on your family and the Jewish people!”

In the tradition of Woody Allen, she has deftly translated the American-Jewish experience — its neuroses, obsessions and culturally distinctive lexicon — into mainstream entertainment. As a writer and actress, Bloom routinely probes aspects of her identity — relishing, mocking, exuding sexuality and Jewishness — both in the prolific collection of music videos she posts on YouTube, as well as on the CW show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a musical romantic comedy that she co-created and stars in.

[Watch Rachel Bloom’s Jewiest music videos]

In Rachel Bloom, we have a female heir to the neurotic, outsider Jew who is constantly negotiating identity through sex and ethnic baggage. There are strains of Philip Roth in her work — a sex-obsessed Jew feeling ever out of place, trying to grow up and fit in. And what we gather from Bloom, a millennial, is that although political frissons have somewhat altered the American-Jewish makeup, a generation later, communal preoccupations are the same.

The 29-year-old is an expert at channeling the tropes of her male artistic and literary forebears, where sex and Judaism coalesce and collide as integral, paradoxical and indispensable to the human experience. But she upends theses legacies with something new and utterly transgressive: a female point of view.

“I think a lot about Fanny Brice’s aesthetic,” Bloom told me when we met for coffee last month in Silver Lake. “Her whole thing was Yiddish, Yiddish, Yiddish. I did 23andme [the genetic test] and I’m 97 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Yiddish is what I connect to.”

The comparison to Brice (the comedian-actress immortalized in the movie “Funny Girl”) is apt — except for the fact that Bloom, unlike Brice, writes all of her own material. In just two seasons of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Bloom has written or co-written more than 80 original songs. “That’s more than four Broadway shows,” she said.

Rachel Bloom (second from left) is Rebecca Bunch in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Photo by Mike Yarish/The CW

Rachel Bloom (second from left) is Rebecca Bunch in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Photo by Mike Yarish/The CW

 

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, a tenacious, Harvard-educated Manhattan lawyer. After a chance encounter on a New York sidewalk with a guy she dated at summer camp, she becomes unmoored, determined to pursue her crush all the way to the West Coast. She walks out of her high-paid, partner-track job and follows the object of her affection to his hometown — West Covina. Last year, the role earned Bloom a Golden Globe award.

The day we met, Bloom had just wrapped the show’s second season, which is now available in its entirety on Netflix. She declared a recent episode “the most Jewish episode we’ve ever done.” In Season Two, Rebecca finally ensnares her lifelong obsession, the under-employed, none-too-bright Asian-American Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), and makes him her boyfriend. Before long, they’re heading together to Scarsdale for a bar mitzvah, and Rebecca frets nervously over how her family and friends will receive them. “Will Scarsdale Like Josh’s Shayna Punim?” asks the episode’s title.

What Rebecca does not expect is that her overbearing mother (played expertly, as always, by Tovah Feldshuh) warms quickly to Josh, learning to call him a “Pacific Islander” instead of “Oriental,” and teaching him how to make and pronounce challah. But rather than quell Rebecca’s anxiety, her mother’s acceptance intensifies it, as if to say: If a Jewish mother approves, something is definitely wrong. Rebecca’s anxiety then shifts from Josh’s outsider status to her own: At the bar mitzvah, it isn’t the non-Jewish Josh on trial, but Jewish tradition itself.

Far-fetched? More like autobiographical. Bloom herself never really felt she belonged.

“I’m a West Coast Jew, so there’s always this feeling of, like, ‘What are my roots?’” Bloom said of growing up an only child in Manhattan Beach. Religious observance was anathema at home, but, Bloom said, “We talked about being Jewish a lot, we talked about Christian oppression a lot, and for as long as I can remember, my father’s been telling me to read ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.’

“[My] family felt like East Coast Jews: I was not allowed to swim in the ocean because my mother was afraid I’d drown. My parents were wary of me being in the sun because of skin cancer. I loved musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, Woody Allen. Plus I had obsessive-compulsive disorder,” she said. “All of these things combined made me feel like an outsider living in a beach community where everyone is surfing and bleach-blond. They don’t even have a word for anxiety.”

During the episode in Scarsdale, which aired in January, Rebecca is on edge the entire time. At the bar mitzvah party, she is constantly rolling her eyes and whining about how “miserable and terrible” Jews are. When her childhood rabbi, played by Patti LuPone, asks if she’s found a synagogue in California, Rebecca replies that she doesn’t believe in God, so it’s not on her to-do list. “Always questioning,” the rabbi replies gleefully. “That is the true spirit of the Jewish people!”

Rebecca is most disheartened that the boy she brought to shield her from Jewish communal rituals is actually quite enjoying himself. She can’t understand why Jewish psychological mishegoss is not blatantly apparent to him.

“You don’t understand,” Rebecca tells Josh. “You are — forgive me — a non-Jew from the West Coast. Let me explain how it goes. East Coast: dark, sad. West Coast: light, happy. These people don’t understand what fun is. Trust me.”

Josh and Rebecca (Vincent Rodriguez III and Bloom) sing to each other in an episode where Josh later meets her family and friends at a bar mitzvah party. Photo by Scott Everett White/The CW

Josh and Rebecca (Vincent Rodriguez III and Bloom) sing to each other in an episode where Josh later meets her family and friends at a bar mitzvah party. Photo by Scott Everett White/The CW

 

That’s when the horah begins — “a fun dance!” Josh exclaims — but while the traditional klezmer music plays and everyone happily clasps hands, Rebecca’s view that tragedy is never too far from the Jewish psyche is proven when the rabbi sings: “Now it’s time to celebrate / Grab a drink and fix a plate / But before you feel too great / Remember that we suffered.” The song, appropriately titled “Remember That We Suffered,” is not only the defining Jewish number of the series so far, but perhaps the most Jewishly astute musical number since “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Ironically, Bloom said it is the absence of personal Jewish suffering that has enabled Jewish exploration in her work.

“People who came over here from Europe watched their families being murdered because of Judaism,” she said. “They were terrified for their lives because of Judaism. And they came to an America that was still quite anti-Semitic, so of course they wanted to assimilate. I’ve never really suffered anti-Semitism. Sure, sometimes people call me a kike online or whatever — because people say horrible things on the internet to everyone. [But] I have never been afraid for my life because of my heritage. And that gives me the freedom to talk about it.”

Like most American Jews, Bloom fits firmly into an assimilated framework, describing her Judaism in mostly cultural, secular terms. Being Jewish is “Mel Brooks!” she said. “The feeling of being an outsider, the being cold in restaurants, the guilt, the anxiety.” She said her husband, Dan Gregor, grew up “Conservadox” on Long Island and attended yeshiva until eighth grade, but ultimately left the religious life. As a couple, they celebrate with occasional holiday meals, but a question about shul attendance got a deep, resounding “Noooo.” Not even on the High Holy Days?

“I love thinking about the fact that it’s the High Holidays,” Bloom said. “But at end of the day, he and I are both secular people. I do not believe the Torah is the word of God — I believe it’s very interesting, and that it informs my entire heritage, and there are things to be learned from it, but I do not believe the universe cares if I have a cheeseburger.”

Bloom earned her musical theater bonafides at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she led the school’s sketch comedy group, Hammerkatz. A year after graduating in 2009, she made a splash with the self-produced music video, “F— Me, Ray Bradbury,” about a young woman who fantasizes about the science fiction author and masturbates while reading his stories. Bloom’s character alternates between sex kitten — dressed like Britney Spears in “ … Baby One More Time” — and sci-fi geek, turning down a date to stay home and read.

“When I started doing musical comedy, I realized that a lot of pop music, even though I love it, does not represent how people actually are,” Bloom said. “Bradbury” was her attempt to “reconcile what I thought I should be like with what I actually was like. And I found more people [related] to the latter. More people feel like outcasts, and feel like they don’t fit in. All of us feel some form of imposter syndrome.”

After “Bradbury” went viral, Bloom continued to release a string of music videos, as well as the album “Suck It, Christmas,” a collection of Chanukah songs co-written and produced with her husband and her writing partner, Jack Dolgen. In “Chanukah Honey,” a parody to the tune of “Santa Baby,” Bloom again plays come-hither sex kitten to a Jewish love interest who “got an MBA from Penn — Amen” but, unfortunately for her, dates Japanese women. Replete with references to the JCC, bat mitzvahs and camp, Bloom tempts her crush to “Come and flip my latkes tonight” as she rolls around on the floor in a blue-and-white Santa outfit. Of course, with Bloom, being a good Jewish girl, sex isn’t all she’s after: “But seriously,” she asks as an aside, “do you want kids?”

In “Can Josh Take a Leap of Faith?” — the Season 2 finale — Bloom’s character, Rebecca (right), is all dressed up for her big day when complications ensue. Photo by Michael Desmond/The CW

In “Can Josh Take a Leap of Faith?” — the Season 2 finale — Bloom’s character, Rebecca (right), is all dressed up for her big day when complications ensue. Photo by Michael Desmond/The CW

 

On her first trip to Israel last year, Bloom said, she played her Israeli tour guide some tracks from the Chanukah album, thinking he’d get a kick out of it. “We wrote a song about cantors, but no one in Israel talks about cantors,” she observed. Bloom was surprised to discover that even though she “loved” visiting Israel, she didn’t really relate to it. “It was really crazy to be in a country for all Jews, but Israel is not my culture,” she said.

Because she is an Ashkenazi Jew, European persecution is much more her thing, and it pops up in the animated video “Historically Accurate Disney Princess Song,” a feminist send-up of Disney fairy tales. While searching for her prince, Bloom encounters little Jews hiding out in the forest. “I never did ask you, why do you hide in the forest? Oh, I see, to hide from people trying to kill you!”

The video caught the attention of screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, who penned “The Devil Wears Prada” and “27 Dresses.” She arranged to meet Bloom; together, they solidified the idea for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and promptly sold the pilot. Bloom had her big break into Hollywood.

What followed was a crippling period of anxiety and depression. “Mental illness runs rampant in my family,” Bloom said, “and no one has ever dealt with it.” The actress speaks openly and publicly about her struggle with anxiety — and not the kind treated as a kitschy Jewish trait, but a debilitating affliction. To tame her illness, she does cognitive behavioral therapy and practices meditation. She also sees a psychiatrist.

“I think keeping things taboo, keeping things secret, for me, that’s when things get bad,” she said. “When you learn to deal with anxiety, you think about what you actually know to be true versus what you tell yourself. These catastrophic thoughts, do you actually think those things are going to happen?”

The angst dates back to middle school, where Bloom said she was bullied. “I never felt pretty,” she said. “I wanted to be pretty, but I felt disgusting. And people told me, ‘You’re ugly; you’re a loser.’ It was the way I dressed, I cut my own hair. Then in eighth grade, I started to get boobs and I got more positive attention. And that only continued to grow. So I feel like I have a perspective on being a sexual being, as someone who hasn’t always been that. I appreciate it, but I also see the absurdity of it: Suddenly I have value because sacks of fat on my chest grew?”

Bloom’s interest in the way sex shapes identity is a constant theme in her work, a trait she shares with male Jewish predecessors like Woody Allen and Philip Roth. But her approach to sex constitutes a radical departure from the conventions of Jewish sexuality that have been canonized in film and literature — mainly by men. Whereas Jewish men typically have dealt with feelings of extreme sexual alienation, Bloom offers the bliss of sexual possibility. Where her male counterparts were ensorcelled by sex, Bloom is determined to demystify it.

At the end of the “Bradbury” video, instead of allowing a reference to Bradbury’s book “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to serve as pun, Bloom trades the erotic for the mechanic: “And by come, I mean ejaculate,” she declares, as if giving a science lesson.

Sex gets the same biological treatment on her show, which has featured numerous musical numbers that deal with the more visceral, uncomfortable truths about sex. “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” is about the difficult, unpalatable things women do to groom themselves for a date — and includes a bloody scene of anal waxing. In the sardonic hip-hop number “Heavy Boobs,” Bloom salutes and ridicules her ample bosom by dressing as a scientist holding up plastic bags filled with breast fat. The song “Period Sex” needs no explanation.

“The reason I’m so open and honest and brassy and ballsy about this s— is because my goal, if there’s a goal that I have as an artist, would be to make us all realize we are all just animals on this earth made of guts, who are all just trying to survive and get along,” she said.

If the defining feature of Jewish sexuality until now was sexual inadequacy, Bloom has rewritten the script. A child of the post-feminist generation, she is fully awake to her sexual power. But rather than use it strictly to seduce, she subverts the male gaze by drawing attention to the body’s anatomical indignities. It’s as if she’s trying to warn young Jeffrey Goldstein that his sexual fantasy will likely end with a urinary tract infection.

“There might be a tiny part of me that’s still a little afraid of being sincerely sexy because then you risk looking foolish,” Bloom said. “It’s much easier for me to be brassy-funny-sexy because there’s a protectiveness to that, and I don’t want to feel taken advantage of. It’s all about control.”

Bloom at the Golden Globes in January. Twice nominated for ‘Girlfriend,’ she won in 2016. Photo by Jen Lowery/via Newscom

Bloom at the Golden Globes in January. Twice nominated for ‘Girlfriend,’ she won in 2016. Photo by Jen Lowery/via Newscom

 

With lipstick and a dress, Bloom can easily play the bombshell. But off-screen she’s content in a gray T-shirt and bomber jacket. When we meet, she isn’t wearing an ounce of makeup, another way she peels back the curtain on the many façades of being female.

“When I learned sketch comedy, I felt like I suddenly had to become a dude, because that’s the culture of comedy,” she said, lowering her voice to sound like man. “Dude, bro, f—.’ There is a certain adopting of a façade when you are anything other than the majority, and I think that gives you an understanding of others who are oppressed.”

If feminism bequeathed to her a creative benefit, Bloom said, it is “the freedom to say what I want.”

Her fearlessness certainly resonates with her Jewish audience, which goes bananas every time Bloom explodes an old stereotype. After she took on the meaning of Jewish American Princess in the “JAP Battle” rap, a female writer for the Jewish online magazine Tablet ecstatically declared, “I am FINALLY THE DEMO OF A THING. I have never been the demo of a thing!”

But ultimately, a Jewish audience may not be enough to sustain even a critically acclaimed show.

“I’m not afraid to make my show Jewish,” Bloom said, “but at the same time, my show is the lowest-rated show on network television. So while specificity is important to good art, I don’t know how much of a mass appeal there is in openly talking about Judaism.”

In the past, Jewish artists like Allen and Roth could be rueful about their Jewishness, perhaps a little bit ashamed. But not Bloom. Instead, she seems to revel in it. And she’s not prepared to stop anytime soon. At the end of our meeting, Bloom was rushing off to start work on Season Three. It’s not just a job for her, but a community, a purpose, a spiritual salve.

“For most of my life, I’ve kind of felt like I don’t really have a place, and the success of this show not only draws me to people who have also felt like that, but it makes me feel I have a place to fit in. It’s cathartic to realize I’m not alone.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy

Jews against the Muslim Ban


Last Friday night, my rabbi got all political on me.

It came as something of a shock. I know Rabbi Naomi Levy really well — we’ve been married 25 years. During that time, I’ve heard Naomi give at least 1,000 sermons. Not one took an overt stand on a hot political issue or candidate. She would call for understanding between Israel and her neighbors, for instance, but the words “two-state solution” never escaped her lips.

It’s not that she hasn’t always had passionate and astute political opinions. I know. We talk.

But inside the sanctuary, her focus always has been on helping people grow spiritually, to find their life path through faith, tradition, learning and community. When she calls for social action, it is of the nonpartisan sort: feed the homeless, plant trees, engage with other faith communities. Her sermons move people to tears, laughter and introspection, not to petitions.

“That’s what people come to shul for,” she always told me. “That’s who I am.”

She also understood that politics could easily divide a congregation, or alienate some members. Both when she was the senior rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, and after she founded Nashuva, an outreach congregation based in Brentwood, she wanted everyone to feel welcome and accepted. If people wanted a pundit, they could watch cable.

So imagine my surprise this past Friday night:  The usual standing-room-only crowd, some 400 people, packed inside Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Nashuva holds its services. Naomi began her sermon as she often does, with something true, funny and personal.

“I’m a neurotic Jew from Brooklyn,” she said. “I’m scared of so many things. I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of snakes. After my bout with skin cancer, I’m scared of the sun.” Then she asked, “But you know what I’m not scared of?”

Voices from the congregation responded, “No, what?”

Muslims,” she said. “I’m not scared of Muslims.”

There was a momentary pause.  We didn’t see it coming.  It took a split second to clock the punch. The rabbi was speaking out, loud and proud.

And all at once, applause. A loud, long spontaneous ovation.


Listen to Rabbi Naomi Levy’s sermon:


Naomi went on to hammer away at President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and all refugees from Syria. She spoke of her own mother, Ruth, who arrived from Poland at age 6. The rest of Ruth’s large extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins — all were murdered in the Holocaust.

Naomi urged her congregation to fight the ban and to oppose the administration’s efforts to demonize Muslims. When she finished, the applause went on for a while. One couple did get up and walk out — maybe they had to use the restroom?

Why now? I asked Naomi. Why is this issue the first one you chose for making a strong political stance?

“I had no choice,” she said. “Welcoming the stranger is at the core of what it is to be Jewish.”

Of course, I agree. As an American, I know our country’s success is tied directly to immigration. As a Jew, I know how our country’s open doors literally saved our lives. And I know how many more Jews would be alive today — helping make America even greater — if the voices of fear and hate hadn’t all but closed the door to Jewish immigration after 1924. Those same forces tried to shut out Iranian Jews in 1979, and Soviet Jews in 1989, but thankfully they failed.

There is something in this immigration ban that is particularly noxious and motivating. It’s why Jewish organizations ranging from Yeshiva University to the Reform movement have taken stands. Why leaders who don’t ordinarily bring politics to the pulpit, like Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein and Stephen Wise Temple’s Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, have spoken out.  Why many disparate parts of a very diverse, fractured community are fighting it together.

That unity makes the silence of some leaders and institutions even more apparent.

Without naming names, it’s all too clear that many rabbis and leaders who deeply oppose the cruel, hateful and self-defeating order cannot publicly say so, for fear of alienating some supporters. Some worry it will tear congregations or boards apart along partisan lines. Or, they worry about upsetting large donors.

I don’t envy any rabbi or community leader this choice. There are costs to speaking out, and those of us who don’t have to pay shouldn’t be so quick to expect others to foot the bill. Their silence in any case should not be an excuse for our inaction.

At the same time, there is a cost to not taking a public stand. How dare we do any less than we would want others to do for us? History will record who stood by and let the doors slam shut, and who, even if they failed, tried to jam them back open.

I’m proud of my rabbi, my wife. I hope to be proud of us all.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: B’nai David will not accept new OU policy barring female clergy


This Shabbat morning, with God’s help, Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn will be offering the drasha at B’nai David – Judea, the Orthodox shul of which I am the senior rabbi. As I am presently on a study trip in Israel, this is not really news. Rabbanit Alissa is the only other member of our clergy. The news is that this is the first time that her words of Torah will be not only inspiring, but they will also be of historic importance. Though not intended or designed as such, they will constitute an act of sacred civil disobedience.

The Orthodox Union issued a policy statement today, forbidding its member shuls from employing women like Rabbanit Alissa as members of the clergy. They based this policy statement upon the findings of a panel of very distinguished rabbis, which determined that women in the clergy was contrary to the “Halakhic Ethos”, in that tradition provides no precedent for ordained women clergy, and in that – in their opinion – women serving in clergy is inconsistent with traditional Jewish gender roles.

The panel also cited an opinion within Halakhic literature that forbids the ordination of women, and interpreted Maimonides’ restriction on women being appointed to positions of “serarah” (authority) in the broadest possible sense, such that it includes even positions that do not have coercive authority, and even positions in which a person serves completely at the will of the employers who hired her.

In coming to the conclusion that it did, the rabbinic panel chose to not give weight to the ruling of Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) in the Code of Jewish law that distinguishes between the ancient ordination of the days of the Sanhedrin, and present-day ordination. Rama rules that the latter is simply a designation that a person is learned and qualified to answer halachic questions, a designation that does not distinguish based upon gender. And the panel also chose to dismiss the ruling of Rabbi

Moshe Feinstein and numerous others, who limited the definition of “serarah” to positions of coercive power which are imposed upon a community without its consent. And it also chose to not solicit the mounds of empirical evidence that all of us who have women on our clergy staff could have provided, concerning the ways that these women have vastly increased the amount of Torah study, Mitzvah observance and spiritual sensitivity within their respective Orthodox congregations. Would this evidence notpowerfully change the calculus for determining the “Halakhic Ethos” in this case? One cannot escape the feeling that from the outset the rabbinic panel deeply believed that women in the clergy was one concession to modernity too many for our deeply traditional system. And that the rest was simply justifying a pre-ordained conclusion.

Please do not misunderstand me. I would be the first to say that a female clergy member would not be the right fit in many, many Orthodox shuls. My contention is not at all that the OU should have endorsed the idea as recommended for everyone. My contention is simply that imposing one perspective on all of its member synagogues, when a Halakhicly valid alternative exists, is divisive, counter-productive, and just plain contrary to the OU’s own values of supporting Torah and Mitzvot. It constitutes a leadership error of historic proportions.

Our Orthodox synagogue, along with the several others who proudly have women on their clergy staff, will obviously not be accepting the new OU policy. I do not know what action the Orthodox Union will take against us. But I do know that we will be strong, and that we will be resolute, because that’s what you do when you are right.

That’s what you do when your driving value is the service of God and of the Jewish people.

Activists gather at Portland International Airport on Jan. 29. Photo by Steve Dipaola/Reuters

Invite a Muslim for Shabbat


It will be a very long time before I forget the news I heard this week of a 5-year-old Muslim child handcuffed at Dulles Airport on Saturday because he was deemed a security threat. News outlets later reported that this boy is a U.S. citizen who lives in Maryland.

While that news continues to disturb me, I can only imagine what it does to Muslim children living in our country.

This past Monday night my wife came home and told me that a Muslim acquaintance of hers who she knows through work told her that his child is very scared and is crying non-stop since Saturday.

We started talking about what we could do to help this child.

Every Friday night we host lively Shabbat dinners in which we usually entertain members of our congregation.  But after hearing that story, my wife and I decided that we should invite this Muslim family for Shabbat dinner.

A Shabbat dinner is a powerful opportunity to connect while breaking bread together.

Recently the Washington Post wrote a story about a former white supremacist who changed his racist views and entire world view after celebrating Shabbat dinners with his classmates.

In our case we would have a different goal. Our goal in inviting Muslims would not be to convert each other or to engage in interfaith dialogue or to give each other political litmus tests. Indeed, the best Shabbat meals we have are the ones that accept an informal policy of not talking politics.

Rather, we must simply demonstrate that we are embracing and giving respect to our Muslim neighbors.  In this specific case, our goal would be to tell this Muslim child that there are people in this country who are not Muslims but who care very deeply about him and his well-being. Not only do we not want him to leave our country, we want him to grow up and be one of our future leaders. Nothing says I care about you and I believe in you like freshly baked challah bread and homemade bread.

From the perspective of Jewish law the Talmud specifically authorizes inviting a non-Jew to a Shabbat meal (Beitzah, 21b).

Indeed the Midrash (Bereishit 11:4) tells of the time that the Roman ruler, Antoninus went to visit the great sage of the Mishnah, Rebbe for a Shabbat meal. He was so impressed with the lukewarm Shabbat food that was served that he returned during the week for another meal. But this time the food was served piping hot and it wasn’t good. He asked Rebbe what was missing. Rebbe said, “We are missing one spice. The spice of Shabbat!”

We should all follow Rebbe’s lead and share the spice of Shabbat.

Now that I think about it I am embarrassed to admit that through no specific intent or plan it so happens that we have never had a Muslim join us for Shabbat dinner. We just don’t run in the same circles.

It feels like now is the time to change that. Now is the time for people of all faiths to reach out and give some extra love to our Muslim neighbors.

The President campaigned on the promise of putting a ban on Muslims coming into this country. This past week through his Executive Order many law abiding Muslim citizens including green card holders, students, and people who have served the US Army, were handcuffed at airports and detained like criminals. Even though many were released, I don’t remember hearing an apology.

In light of what happened this week, Muslims in this country have every right to feel scared and marginalized.

It is our job as citizens, whether we are Republicans or Democrats, to reach out and embrace our Muslim neighbors. We must tell them that having a 5-year-old boy in handcuffs is not what we want our country to be. We must say to our Muslim neighbors  that we want you in this county.

For this reason, I am asking my fellow Jews this week to reach out and invite a Muslim family to their own Shabbat meal this week.

Now is the time to show our love to those who are scared and marginalized.


Shmuel Herzfeld is the Rabbi of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics conducting a brit in November. Photo by Lynn Abesera

Flying mohel goes above and beyond to offer his service


It’s not all that rare for apparent strangers to approach Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics on the street, in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport or even when he’s checking out cucumbers in the supermarket.

“Hey, I know you!” they will say. “You’re the mohel who did the brit for my son!” And, on occasion, a man might add: “And mine, as well!”

Lebovics usually will answer: “Yes, how are you, and how is your baby?” But there is a slim chance he remembers the man or his son. After all, Lebovics has performed more than 20,000 brit milahs during the almost 40 years he has provided the service.

Lebovics may just be the busiest and most-traveled mohel in California. Sometimes he is asked to perform two or three brits a day over a large region, with little time to spare in between. So you can understand why he has chosen the fastest means to get around — by airplane.

For 20 years Lebovics has been flying to remote areas of the state, relying on his friend and amateur pilot Yehuda (Yuda) Hagouel to get him there.

“We flew to small towns where there are no temples around, and if there is one, there is no mohel,” Lebovics said. “There are different reasons why [a Jewish couple] live in such small or remote areas. I remember getting to a small town in the San Joaquin Valley where there was only one Israeli guy. He was working there as a drip irrigation expert.”

Hagouel, a professional videographer who owns a single-engine Cessna 182 Skylane aircraft, added, “Many times we land and then we need to take a car and drive another half an hour to an hour to get to where the brit is going to take place. I’m always amazed to find people living in such remote areas, let alone Jews.”

The two had met during a brit Lebovics was performing and Hagouel was videotaping. When the rabbi found out the guy with the camera also had a pilot’s license, he immediately recruited him as his personal pilot.

They’ve had their share of adventures.

“One time, we were about to take off, and in the middle of the runway the motor started making funny noises and then completely died,” Lebovics said. “We were going to be late for the brit ceremony, so we quickly ran to the airport’s office and chartered a fancy helicopter with a pilot. I asked Yuda if he still wanted to come with me, and he did, so we flew off to San Diego. On the way back, I noticed it’s getting late. It was Friday and I needed to get home in time before the Shabbat. I live close to [CBS Television City in the Fairfax District], so I asked the pilot to do me a favor and drop me off on CBS’ roof so I could get home quickly. He asked permission to land and they granted it, and I was able to get home safely before the Shabbat entered. Then he continued to [Van Nuys Airport] and dropped off Yuda.”

Lebovics, originally from Connecticut, studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he learned shechitah (the ritual of kosher slaughtering) and how to perform a brit milah. Upon his return to the United States, he studied education at Trinity College in Connecticut, where he earned a master’s degree. He moved to Los Angeles and became a ninth-grade teacher at Valley Torah High School in Valley Village, where he also served as the first assistant administrator.

“I loved being a teacher but I noticed the need for a mohel in town,” he said. “There were hardly any mohels around, so I quit my teaching position and became a full-time mohel.”

That was almost 40 years ago.

One of the main concerns for parents of a baby boy, of course, is that something will go wrong during the brit. So they search for a mohel with a long history of performing successful circumcisions. Lebovics was able to build such a respected reputation, spread by word of mouth, that he said he never needed to advertise (although he now has a website at torahview.com).

Muslims also have sought his services, which he readily provides. “As long as it’s a religious ceremony, there is no problem for me to perform a circumcision,” Lebovics said.

At times, he performs the ritual in hospitals with adult clients.

“Those are men who have converted to Judaism and [also] many Russians who didn’t have brit milah as babies and now want to do it,” he said. “The oldest man I circumcised was a 76-year-old Russian. I first did the brit for his son who became ba’al teshuvah [a more religious Jew], and he told his dad, ‘You are a Jew and you will die as a Jew.’ And so the father, who was Jewish but never circumcised, came to me and said that he wants to be circumcised. It was very important for him to feel and become full Jewish.”

Lebovics has many children but declines to say how many. Among religious families, it’s believed to be bad luck to count the number of your children. None of his sons, by the way, has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Lebovics said he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon. “I am very busy, Baruch ha-Shem,” he said. “Sometimes more busy than others. … June through September used to be very busy months, but I don’t see it anymore. Now, the brits are scattered evenly throughout the year.”

He has performed brits for all types of Jewish families — secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox — but none moved him as much as an encounter he had with a Russian woman who had never met a rabbi before.

He tells the story:

“One day, I get this call from a Russian-Jewish woman who asked me to be the mohel in her son’s brit. The night before the brit, I called her and asked her to say the Shema Israel prayer over the baby’s crib. It’s a Jewish custom to say this prayer before the brit. She told me she has no idea how to say this prayer. She never heard it. So, I asked her to place the phone next to the baby’s crib and put me on speakerphone. I started reciting the prayer, and the woman started crying. It was such a deep cry, from the bottom of her soul. She was sobbing hard as I was reciting the Shema.

“The prayer awakened something in her — her Jewish soul — and if my entire career was for this one single night, it was well worth it.”

Leon Wieseltier

Leon Wieseltier on Jewish journalism: ‘Investigate and analyze Jewish identity’


Leon Wieseltier is one of America’s best-known public intellectuals and has spent the better part of his career critiquing the values that underlie American culture and politics. For three decades, he served as literary editor for The New Republic, where it was common for Wieseltier to bring his Jewish background and education to bear upon the pressing issues of the day.

Educated at Yeshiva of Flatbush in New York City, Wieseltier is firmly rooted in Jewish study, even though he broadened himself in other subjects at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard. Author of the 1998 book “Kaddish,” Wieseltier has demonstrated throughout his career how a grounding in Jewish particularism is a useful lens through which to view the world, both because it encapsulates the wisdom of a long-enduring people and because Jewish values are the progenitors of universal humanism.

On the occasion of the Journal’s 30th anniversary, we caught up with Wieseltier to talk about why, in an increasingly global world, Jewish journalism still matters.

Danielle Berrin: You’ve said that Jewish journalism is essential because it gives the Jewish community a sense of itself and captures the lived experience of the Jewish people. Why does it matter to American democracy? 

Leon Wieseltier: In an open society, the reporting of unpleasant truths and the criticism of leaders is an essential feature of [democracy]. It’d be impossible to imagine democratic life without journalism, and since Jews in the United States have been among the groups that have kindled most ferociously to democratic habits and practices, Jewish journalism is our community’s way of affirming its belief in democracy and in an open society.

“In an open society, the reporting of unpleasant truths and the criticism of leaders is an
essential feature of [democracy].” — Leon Wieseltier

DB: What do you make of the argument that critical Jewish journalism makes Jews look bad?

LW: For a variety of reasons, [Jews] have had mixed feelings about airing truths about their communal realities. For a long time. they worried that the goyim would overhear and it would somehow weaken the position of the Jews in the host culture of wherever they were living. There is something about the ethic of journalism that defies certain traditional Jewish ethics — I sometimes think of Jewish journalism as the professionalization of lashon harah [gossip]. We are taught not to say bad things about people, not to circulate the bad things that we know about people even if they’re true. And then along comes this profession that basically consists of that; that has to have a critical and skeptical attitude if it is to meet its own standards. It would be a travesty if Jewish journalism consisted merely of the praise of important Jewish figures and institutions, because it would violate the principles of journalism and it would deprive members of respective communities of information that they need. People used to complain in the old days that Jews suffer from self-hatred; the problem now is that they suffer from self-love.

DB: You’ve said, “Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community.” But how do you encourage self-criticism when the Jewish self-understanding has been shaped, in part, by an excess of outside criticism?

LW: There’s a sentence in Maimonides that is fundamental in many contexts, including this one: Qabel et haemet mimi sh’amra — “Accept the truth from whoever utters it.” The first question is: “What is true?” Not: “Who is saying it?” It may be that this truth is being directed at us by enemies, but we cannot use the motives of certain critics to discredit what they say. If it’s true, it’s true. The American Jewish position is the strongest it has been in any Diaspora community in Jewish history — the eruption of the anti-Semitic sewer in the Trump campaign notwithstanding. If Merrick Garland had been confirmed to the [Supreme Court] as he should have been, there would have been four Jewish justices on the Supreme Court [and] pretty soon we would have had to worry about establishing a goyish seat! Given our security here, I’m not especially worried about external criticism.

DB: Since the Jewish community as a whole is more powerful than at any other time in Jewish history, should our standards for self-examination change? 

LW: Insofar as we have become more powerful, we can expect more interrogation and more hostility. [But] our security and our strength in this country doesn’t absolve us of our ancient Jewish obligation of self-reckoning. That obligation applies to the strong as well as to the weak — none of us are exempt from it, individually or communally. The Jews in the exile never used the fact that they were surrounded by hostility as an excuse to lower their standards for themselves. In the Torah, [it says] “Hoche’ah tochi’ah et amitecha — You must rebuke your fellow” — Leviticus 19:17. If anyone wondered about the ultimate license in Judaism for critical journalism, it’s in that verse.

DB: How would you characterize the landscape of American Jewish journalism today? What are we getting right and what can we do better?

LW: Oh, I think American Jewish journalism is never as good as it should be. I think there are a few islands of excellence and it’s better than it was 30 years ago. Sometimes I think there’s too much noise and not enough sharpness. And every evidence of Jewishness has suddenly become charming and fascinating. I probably wish there was less, but better.

DB: If you were running a Jewish newspaper right now, what issues would you cover?

LW: The most important subject facing the American Jewish community is the new financial and power structure of the community. The Jewish community and its institutions have never been more dependent than they are now upon the largesse of spectacularly wealthy people — families and foundations — and I think that the prestige of wealth has never been greater. So one of the things Jewish journalism should cover in a very, very strict way are the foundations [and] the benefactors. It should also make an extended effort to cover the nature of Jewishness of American millennial Jews, because they are the successor generation; it needs to cover the impact of the internet on Jewish life and identity; the condition of the various rabbinates in the various denominations; and the holy grail would be the kosher meat industry. I don’t want to read about Jewish celebrities. I don’t want to hear that some Jewish movie star or non-Jewish movie star was seen eating kreplach. I’m tired of the reduction of Jewish journalism to a celebration of ethnic tics. Enough Seinfeld. Enough Larry David. Enough Barbra Streisand.

DB: You’ve said that the people who own and operate media companies have a responsibility to publish articles with which they do not agree. But in our online age, the public finds itself in so-called “echo chambers” where we can consume journalism that confirms what we already believe and rarely do we have to confront other perspectives. How can Jewish journalism bypass this?

LW: Too many people think that the purpose of Jewish journalism is to strengthen Jewish identity. I think the purpose of Jewish journalism is to probe and investigate and analyze Jewish identity. All Jewish life cannot be an experience of affirmation.

DB: Does journalism need to reassess itself in the age of Trump? 

LW: Relations between the president and the media are going to be bad. The role of the press in covering power is adversarial, and it should be adversarial. My working rule is: The more power, the less pity. I think the media has some self-reckoning to do about the astonishing gift of free media to Donald Trump during the campaign. And the other thing they have to think about is the religion of data, and the reverence for numbers and polls. Because something went badly wrong. So they have a cheshbon [accounting] to do.

But they also have a job to do, which is to cover the new president as obnoxiously and relentlessly as they can, which, by the way, was their job in covering Obama. The obligation remains the same. The media has to be pitiless about every powerful individual in our society, because power has to be held accountable. And one of the main instruments of our accountability is public opinion, and public opinion will only be as good as its sources of information. Journalism plays a central role in that. And so, in order for Americans to have a shot at correct, knowledgeable and factual options, they need the institutions and the people that govern them to be covered ruthlessly.

Jewish Journal at 30


This is a rhetorical question: Has there ever, in recent history, been a more important time for a professional, fearless and independent Jewish press?

Of course not.

This week’s issue celebrates our 30th birthday. And if the past few weeks, or years, have convinced me of anything, it’s that a media company rooted in the values of Judaism, anchored to an exceptional community, and willing and able to reach out as widely as it can, matters more than ever.

When I started at the Journal 22 years ago, as a reporter, I sensed that the issues we wrote about were big, but the newspaper was small. It was a good community paper but limited in circulation to local Jewish Federation donors — as too many Jewish community papers still are.

In 2000, the Journal ended its distribution relationship with the Federation. That began a process of getting our content in front of Jews (and everyone else), wherever they might be. We did this through free print distribution — the first community Jewish weekly in the world to do so — and with aggressive use of the internet, social media and live events. What began as a little community paper now has millions of readers each month around the globe.

As our scope expanded, two momentous changes spurred the Journal’s growth. First, the world changed. The kinds of stories that were always important to our readers — religious extremism, terrorism, the Middle East, the role of faith in civic life, science and entertainment — became important to everyone. If you didn’t have to be Jewish to eat Levy’s rye, as the commercial said, you certainly didn’t need to be Jewish to read the Jewish Journal.

At the same time, in a world glutted with fake news, Facebook rants, one-sided “journalism,” and PR and puffery disguised as news, the value of professional journalism to inform, educate and inspire community is even more valuable.

Last year, we extended our reach by adding JewishInsider.com, with full-time reporters and editors in Washington, D.C., and New York, and a morning newsletter read by diplomats, activists, philanthropists and journalists globally.

Also in 2016, we began to expand our real, non-virtual presence in the community through live events. At a time when it is so easy to retreat to our computer screens to talk only to those with whom we agree, TRIBE Media Corp. (the parent of the Journal) is embarking on a series of events that will bring our diverse community members to face challenging issues — together.

And this week, we roll out our new jewishjournal.com website with even more features, including mobile-friendly compatibility, that will make it easier than ever to access news of the Los Angeles Jewish community and beyond.

As a nonprofit, we also have embarked on community fundraising. Our advertisers have been our lifeblood for years, and we are forever grateful for their support. But as the reality of the media market has changed, we have reached out to foundations and you, our readers, to sustain our nonprofit mission.

None of this has happened, or can happen, without you. It is your stories that we are here to tell. If there is a single reason the Journal has survived, and thrived, through incredibly challenging times, it is that you trust us to tell your stories.

Our ability to do that is a direct result of the people whose talent and dedication got us here. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set the standards high from the very beginning for quality writing and editorial independence. Previous publishers, from Richard Volpert to Irwin Field, have dedicated themselves to creating a sustainable enterprise.

TRIBE Media staff works constantly to put out not just a weekly newspaper but ever-changing websites, videos and events — all under the demands of pressing deadlines and breaking news. This enterprise has been blessed with editors, reporters, columnists, contributing writers, graphic designers, digital directors, administrators and advertising reps who have shared its sense of mission and given ceaselessly of their talents. Take a moment to read the masthead and give credit where it’s due.

Our board, led by our chair, Peter Lowy, has backed us in the most difficult times and allowed us the freedom to do our jobs to the best of our ability. Peter stepped in exactly when he was most needed and has been an astute, steadfast and indispensable supporter.

My partner in crime here, Journal President David Suissa, has deepened and broadened the organization‘s impact. If anything embodies the spirit of TRIBE Media and the Jewish Journal, it is that David and I — despite our very different backgrounds, practices and political opinions — never question each other’s love for this community, country or Israel.

No matter what side of our country’s — and our people’s — divides you are on, you no doubt see the danger of these times and the precarious place where American Jewry and Israel stand. But please know that your voice and your story will continue to be reflected and honored in the pages of this newspaper. We will strive to be the place where strong community begins.

Thank you for helping us get to 30, and thank you even more for helping us go forward — to 120.

Safety tips when celebrating Passover in Europe


This Passover, travelers to the Tuscany region of Italy can soak up the sun on the beach and eat special, kosher food certified by the Chief Rabbi of Brussels while staying at the Gallia Palace Hotel. 

Or they can celebrate with a whiff of the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or by soaking up the glamour of the French Riviera, where they can stay at the four-star Novotel Cannes Montfleury.

But while Europe may be calling this Passover — resorts offer top amenities and beautiful accommodations — some travelers may be hesitant to celebrate the holiday there due to the recent violence in places such as Turkey, Germany and Belgium. 

There’s also the growing anti-Semitism throughout the continent that could give rise to safety concerns. According to a 2016 Jerusalem Post article, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said anti-Semitism in Europe has increased to an “unprecedented” level. He referred to a statistic that anti-Semitic occurrences in London increased 60 percent during 2015. In the first quarter of 2015, they rose 84 percent when compared with the first quarter of the previous year. 

Despite these concerns, travel agents specializing in Jewish and kosher travel said there is no reason to avoid Europe this Passover. 

“The people who go to Passover programs for a vacation … there is no need to have more security than usual,” said Sam Kroll of Melrose Travel in Los Angeles. 

This goes for both common destinations and remote ones. This year, Eddie’s Kosher Travel and Tourism is offering a remote Passover program in the Italian Alps. CEO David Walles, who is based in Israel, said there should be no worries about anti-Semitism because, “Nobody knows what a Jew is over there.”

When going in and out of the European airports, however, Walles said it may be safer to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, if the person is comfortable doing that. “You have to be sensible. There is no reason to stand out,” he said.

According to Kroll, Jews going to France, especially, are wearing hats or caps instead of yarmulkes in public. When Jews are in the country for Passover and staying with a host family, they should simply follow the precautions the family is taking. He said he heard feedback from travelers who went to England and said they detected an animosity toward Jews, but they didn’t have any safety concerns. 

Even though Bennett said anti-Semitism has risen, Kroll hasn’t experienced the same on his end. “I’m not aware of any [attacks on Jews in Europe] recently. I don’t see any changes.” 

Sophia Kulich, owner of Jewish Travel Agency, said that in places such as Eastern and Northern Europe, it is safe to wear religious items. “I see people in the airports there who wear yarmulkes,” she said.

Walles said that, in general, when traveling around the globe there are basic precautionary tips that everyone should follow. “You need to be vigilant and not hang around public areas unnecessarily. You have to be aware that we live in a very different world than it used to be.”  

And when traveling anywhere, Kulich said, it’s important to buy travel insurance for emergencies and register the trip through the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The trip is registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the traveler is going so that they know about it. The website for STEP (step.state.gov/step) features travel alerts and warnings as well. For example, the latest travel advisory for Europe, released in late November, says to “exercise caution” at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets, and to avoid large groups. 

Travelers should note, though, that when the government puts out travel advisories for certain places, sometimes they are generalizing, Kulich said. “There are many different countries in Europe. Iceland is the safest country in the world. I take groups to Poland, the Baltics and Armenia and it’s pretty much always safe.”

Kulich, who goes to Europe every two months, said that if travelers plan to go to Europe this Passover, they shouldn’t showcase that they are American, either. “It’s also better to avoid political conversations, especially now,” she said, referring to the recent presidential election results.

Europe is just like everywhere else, Kulich pointed out, and people could say that the United States is not safe to travel around because of the recent Florida shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Europe is as safe as anywhere else in the world,” Kulich said. “Unfortunately, the violence that is taking place is the new normal that people are getting used to.”

Pause to reflect, spiritually focus


Today we live in a frenetic world that harbors no distance or separation between our range of emotions. With the complete infiltration of technology and media in this information age, our life experiences are “always on.”

We only need to flick our thumbs through our timeline on Facebook on our smartphones to see the frenzied, teetering nature of our entire world. Sometimes it’s funny. We flick our thumb and see a friend’s weekend post of her family at a local farmers market petting chickens. And then we flick again and see another friend taking a selfie with his omelet breakfast. If those chicks only knew …

But sometimes it’s not funny; it’s utterly tragic and bitter. With a flick we see 3-year-olds holding a sign saying “First Day of Preschool” with happy and bewildered faces — and then we flick our thumbs again and see the photos of children bloodied and bruised because of terrorism. 

Flick: flowers in a garden. Flick: melting ice caps.

Flick: kid’s first baseball game. Flick: another kid killed by a stray bullet.

Flick: getting promoted. Flick: losing a business. 

Flick: fact. Flick: fiction.

Flick: goodness. Flick: terror. 

Flick, flick, flick.

It is, by definition, what Nietzsche called madness.

This is the moment we find ourselves in now more than any other generation in the history of Jews. In our freedom we’ve achieved amazing success and access to almost anything in the world, and we can see it anytime and anywhere. And yet, why have I heard from so many saying that life feels too dizzying and out of control?  Why do I speak to so many who live in a beautiful home and have a successful career but feel so empty and bored with life? It appears that freedom is no freedom at all.  

I find that this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, hints at this very real life challenge. In it, the major turn of events that leads to the degradation of spirit begins when a “new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Much more than a political shift is the internal spiritual drama hinted at here that can be applied to each one of us. As the Chasidic master, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (the Slonimer Rebbe, 1911-2000), teaches, “This is the first verse of galut, exile … which is spiritually always considered a separation from God … not to know Joseph means not to know what is sacred. And Pharaoh is a symbol of a world without sanctity.” 

In other words, there is a Pharaoh in every one of us who commands us to forget what is important by drowning in the noise of the world. In the chaos of the ever-present now, every idea — no matter how crazy — becomes white noise to our moral eardrums. It leads us to flitter about without purpose and direction. It enslaves us to the bitter cycle of action and reaction with no time to think and no time to reflect. 

The antidote to such a poisonous condition also is found in Shemot. Moses, now a fugitive of Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave, takes flight to Midian. There he makes a life and gets married. There he finds quiet. There he can pause. There he finally takes notice of the burning bush, which, according to rabbis, was there all along waiting to be discovered. In the time of reflection, he finds God and the spiritual geulah, or redemption, that each of us looks for.

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this when he famously wrote, “In each pause I hear the call.” It’s when we quiet our minds that we hear what is truly important. Only when we take the time to pause and reflect do we find the path to defeat the internal Pharaoh with the power of the Divine. 

In this ever-connected world, when we are always on, we need to take the time to quiet ourselves, to pause, and then we can reflect and truly free ourselves to become better, stronger and more purposeful.


RABBI NOAH ZVI FARKAS is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, founder of Netiya, and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

Safety tips when celebrating Passover in Europe


This Passover, travelers to the Tuscany region of Italy can soak up the sun on the beach and eat special, kosher food certified by the Chief Rabbi of Brussels while staying at the Gallia Palace Hotel. 

Or they can celebrate with a whiff of the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or by soaking up the glamour of the French Riviera, where they can stay at the four-star Novotel Cannes Montfleury.

But while Europe may be calling this Passover — resorts offer top amenities and beautiful accommodations — some travelers may be hesitant to celebrate the holiday there due to the recent violence in places such as Turkey, Germany and Belgium. 

There’s also the growing anti-Semitism throughout the continent that could give rise to safety concerns. According to a 2016 Jerusalem Post article, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett said anti-Semitism in Europe has increased to an “unprecedented” level. He referred to a statistic that anti-Semitic occurrences in London increased 60 percent during 2015. In the first quarter of 2015, they rose 84 percent when compared with the first quarter of the previous year. 

Despite these concerns, travel agents specializing in Jewish and kosher travel said there is no reason to avoid Europe this Passover. 

“The people who go to Passover programs for a vacation … there is no need to have more security than usual,” said Sam Kroll of Melrose Travel in Los Angeles. 

This goes for both common destinations and remote ones. This year, Eddie’s Kosher Travel and Tourism is offering a remote Passover program in the Italian Alps. CEO David Walles, who is based in Israel, said there should be no worries about anti-Semitism because, “Nobody knows what a Jew is over there.”

When going in and out of the European airports, however, Walles said it may be safer to wear a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, if the person is comfortable doing that. “You have to be sensible. There is no reason to stand out,” he said.

According to Kroll, Jews going to France, especially, are wearing hats or caps instead of yarmulkes in public. When Jews are in the country for Passover and staying with a host family, they should simply follow the precautions the family is taking. He said he heard feedback from travelers who went to England and said they detected an animosity toward Jews, but they didn’t have any safety concerns. 

Even though Bennett said anti-Semitism has risen, Kroll hasn’t experienced the same on his end. “I’m not aware of any [attacks on Jews in Europe] recently. I don’t see any changes.” 

Sophia Kulich, owner of Jewish Travel Agency, said that in places such as Eastern and Northern Europe, it is safe to wear religious items. “I see people in the airports there who wear yarmulkes,” she said.

Walles said that, in general, when traveling around the globe there are basic precautionary tips that everyone should follow. “You need to be vigilant and not hang around public areas unnecessarily. You have to be aware that we live in a very different world than it used to be.”  

And when traveling anywhere, Kulich said, it’s important to buy travel insurance for emergencies and register the trip through the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The trip is registered with the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to where the traveler is going so that they know about it. The website for STEP (step.state.gov/step) features travel alerts and warnings as well. For example, the latest travel advisory for Europe, released in late November, says to “exercise caution” at holiday festivals, events and outdoor markets, and to avoid large groups. 

Travelers should note, though, that when the government puts out travel advisories for certain places, sometimes they are generalizing, Kulich said. “There are many different countries in Europe. Iceland is the safest country in the world. I take groups to Poland, the Baltics and Armenia and it’s pretty much always safe.”

Kulich, who goes to Europe every two months, said that if travelers plan to go to Europe this Passover, they shouldn’t showcase that they are American, either. “It’s also better to avoid political conversations, especially now,” she said, referring to the recent presidential election results.

Europe is just like everywhere else, Kulich pointed out, and people could say that the United States is not safe to travel around because of the recent Florida shootings in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Europe is as safe as anywhere else in the world,” Kulich said. “Unfortunately, the violence that is taking place is the new normal that people are getting used to.”

Roman holiday: Pesach vs. Pizza


Ever since I was a teenager, I had dreamed of an Italian honeymoon. Cuddling on a gondola, exploring ruins, feasting on pasta — those to me were the definition of marital bliss. 

So when my husband, Sean, and I booked our post-wedding tickets for nonstop pizza in the piazza, we were rattled when we realized that it was going to coincide with Passover. Neither of us had ever skipped a seder, and we always tried to avoid chametz during the holiday. And yet, would canoodling in Italy be complete without noodles?

We thought hard, and instead of returning our tickets, we made a Passover plan that ensured both a unique and beautiful honeymoon.

We started in Venice a few days before the holiday and began to eat unlimited amounts of pasta and pizza, as well as visit the Jewish museum and the historic synagogues. My idea of Venetian Jewry previously had come from only “The Merchant of Venice” (not the best source material). Despite being ghettoized for centuries (and even inventing the term “ghetto”), the Jews of Venice had a rich, beautiful history and tradition. Unfortunately, we also learned of the dramatically fading Jewish life in Venice: the struggles to put together a minyan, the challenges of getting kosher food, and the community’s aging population. 

Our next stop was Florence, where I had heard so much about the Great Synagogue (or Tempio Maggiore) — its iconic dome, rich mosaics and stunning stain glass windows. So before we headed out on our trip, I bought two tickets online for the synagogue’s community seder. 

We traveled by train and arrived with only enough time to quickly drop our bags, change clothes and walk to the synagogue. We arrived as services were nearing the end. What I had forgotten was that, like nearly all historic synagogues of Europe, this one was Orthodox. Sean and I, both raised Reform, were separated and I had to sit along the side behind a mechitzah, able only to see most of the stunning building through a wooden-gated divider. 

While my view was limited, it also was breathtaking — and not just for its beauty. The building was filled with the chazzan’s boisterous voice, children running around, and even disenchanted teenagers loitering in the lobby. This synagogue was alive — not a beautiful old relic, like so many of Europe’s other old synagogues. 

As services concluded, the majority of the congregants left to attend their family seders. About 40 people stayed behind to attend the community one, which was held in the basement/community room of the synagogue’s administrative office building. Sean and I found a table with a few other English-speaking folks, including an American expat who had been living in Italy for 27 years and, it turns out, used to carpool to Hebrew school in Flint, Mich., with my former boss! 

The seder was led by the synagogue’s rabbi and his family. Little of what was said was comprehensible to Sean and me since it was in Italian, but we got by with the help of our tablemates and the fact that the order of a seder in Italy is the same as one in Los Angeles — some wine, four sons, some plagues, some miracles, some more wine, next year in Jerusalem. 

For the rest of our trip, which was all during Passover, we knew it would be impossible for us to keep strict observance. And considering that our love of pasta is what made us book our trip in the first place, we made the decision to not keep the holiday for every meal but to designate one meal each day as chametz-free. And there were little things that required little sacrifice — instead of getting our gelato in a cone, for example, we ate it from a cup. These sacrifices, though minor, kept us thinking about Pesach even as we spent our days touring the Vatican and exploring seaside villages.

It also helped that we spent the rest of our honeymoon trying to incorporate as much Jewish tourism as we could. Among our stops was Pitigliano, a small Tuscan village known as “La Piccola Gerusalemme” (Little Jerusalem). More than 1,000 feet above sea level, the village was once home to a small but thriving Jewish community for hundreds of years. Now, fewer than 10 Jews live in the city. 

Still, the community’s historic synagogue, Jewish museum and ancient caves that once housed matzo ovens, a mikveh and wine cellars are the top tourist attractions for the otherwise remote and decaying mountain fortress. After a lovely tour, we walked into the gift shop and bought our first box of matzo, which had a sign in English that read “ancient bread.” 

In Rome, we toured the Jewish museum and the historic synagogue located in the famous and thriving Jewish ghetto neighborhood. During the tour, I asked, “Is the shul Sephardic or Ashkenazi?” “It’s Roman!” the tour guide replied, explaining that Jews have been in Rome since before the Diaspora and so they predate the concepts of Ashkenazi or Sephardic. 

We spent that afternoon — our last in Italy — shopping in Judaica shops, where we met people who said their families dated back to the days of the Colosseum, when Jews were brought as slaves. As the curtain descended on our Italian-Passover honeymoon, I turned to Sean and joked, “We were once slaves in Egypt; then God freed us. We were once slaves in Rome; then we became tourists.”

(((As Dreamers)))


‘President Trump.’ It’s still, for many, an incredulous combination of words.

The specter of a transition from President Obama to President Trump is scarcely imaginable, even now, nearly two months after Trump’s victory. It is inconceivable that a person who rendered truth an irrelevant yardstick by which to measure personal character or qualification for office will soon assume the office of President. His inflammatory rhetoric toward or about Muslims, Mexicans, women, and those with disabilities, will now be the preamble to a refashioning of the United States’ highest office. During this liminal period between the election and the inauguration, President-elect Trump’s tweets and cabinet appointments have only reinforced the sense of disbelief and anxiety regarding the next four years.

This period of limbo has been especially trying for Jews, the vast majority of whom did not support him. Even more, mainstream Jewish organizations have had to ask themselves how to position themselves toward the person who will, after all, soon be President of their country. The very need to enter this complicated morass of balancing between moral commitments and political necessity in dealing with such basic questions as to whether or not to invite the President-elect’s senior advisor Stephen Bannon to a ZOA event, or whether or not to hold the Conference of Presidents Hanukkah party at the new Trump Hotel within sight of the White House – offers an alarmingly clear indication that United States Jews find themselves in a moment of profound, and I would assert, unprecedented significance.

But part of the reckoning of the morning of November 9 involves the shocking realization – or perhaps, admission – that nothing “happened” the night before. The outcome of the elections was profoundly unsettling, because it reflected, not effectuated (though it may well do that, too). That is, Trump’s victory offers a surface indicator of the movement of tectonic plates below. Although sensitive pundits knew enough on the morning after to identify what Peter Beinart called “political vertigo,” the time has come to begin an accounting of the significance of Trump’s victory from a Jewish perspective.

I offer these reflections as a Jew who was blessed to grow up in the United States but who decided, as a young adult, to make my home in Israel. Since moving to Jerusalem in 1992, Israel has so much been my center of gravity that I have deemed it inappropriate to vote in the United States elections. Since I do not live there, I reasoned, my political proclivities should not hold sway, even if the law grants me the right to vote. This year’s presidential election, however, was different, as I considered the issue at stake not one of policy but of the danger that Trump presented – as a candidate, as a social phenomenon, and as potential President. But long before November 9, I was keenly aware that United States Jewry was finding itself in a watershed moment. I hope that perhaps my love for and appreciation of the American Jewry, combined with my distance from it, will allow my words to penetrate the heart and the mind of the reader.

Never Better

At the heart of the American Jewish ethos and consciousness is the conviction that Jews have never had it so good – anywhere, at any time, in our very long history of wandering. Never have the Jews been afforded such amazing opportunities to thrive societally and financially as individuals, while contributing vitally to the well-being and fashioning of their host society. Never before have Jews arrived at the highest echelons of society and inhabited the most powerful positions of influence: Presidents of Ivy League schools and prominent academics in nearly every discipline, key players in major industries such as finance and film, justices on the Supreme Court, Chair of the Federal Reserve, Vice Presidential candidate, fashioners of culture and art – in music, literature, and the visual arts, key cabinet positions, prominent journalists in the printed and electronic media. The list is astounding.

But the measure of the sui generis nature of the American Jewish experience is not merely a function of the integration of Jews, qua individuals, into society. Jewish life itself has, according to this narrative, thrived in a way never experienced before. Never has the organized Jewish community achieved such political influence; never have there been Jewish initiatives and experimentations of such diverse and bold nature. Never have so many non-Jews found interest in, and express the desire to participate in, Jewish ritual and Jewish life. Never have Jews been as sought-after as life partners by non-Jews. Never has it been so easy for Jews to integrate their sense of Jewish self and their sense of civic self.

The ease of this integration, I would argue, is a function of the confluence among Jewish and American aspirational ideals, to the extent that many American Jews view them not just as confluent, but as coterminous. The American aspiration for social justice parallels the Jewish pursuit of tikkun olam; human dignity, on one hand, and b’tselem, being created in the Divine image, on the other. One culture places the central text of the Constitution at its legal and moral core, while Jewish tradition does the same with the Torah. And both societies build upon that central text a rich, rigorous, interpretive tradition that develops and extends its reach.

U.S. currency is imprinted with the ideal e pluribus unum, while the literature of the High Holidays is punctuated time and again with the vision that, “my house will be a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56 7). What in American culture is cast as a deep belief in the possibility of moral progress is, in Jewish parlance, the central category of redemption – a deep-seated commitment that good can eclipse evil in this world.

A Brave, New World of Hybridity

These last two points have emerged as forged together at their deepest levels in an important way for many American Jews. For them, the greatest and deepest aspirational truth of the United States is that it is constantly progressing toward the formation of an unprecedented model society that expresses the great oneness which undergirds all of humanity. Precisely here, the United States and the Jews combine efforts to form a joint City-on-the-Hill and Light-unto-the-Nations.

Though its early history may be marked by cruel treatment of Native Americans and slaves from Africa, post-Civil War United States freed its slaves and eventually granted suffrage to women and civil rights to all of its citizens. By this account, the United States was still a white, Christian society, but one that tolerated minorities of diverse persuasions.

The melting pot ideal that would emerge entailed the absorption of diverse communities and ethnicities which would blend together, losing a bit of their distinctiveness but – as a part of the process – transforming hegemonic society. At some point, however, the United States progressed toward a more robust model of a pluralism, rejecting the ideal of a melting pot, instead fashioning itself a multicultural society committed to preserving pockets of diversity.

Most recently, it has taken the next step of post-ethnic hybridity, where each of these cultural-ethnic pockets opens its borders, spawning new fusions and iterations of existent cultural, ethnic, and religious life. Each particularity – exposed, as it is, to other cultures and ethnicities – undergoes numerous transformations, evolving constantly into new forms, while society as a whole achieves new heights of oneness.

The aspiration and the promise of the United States allow for a peculiarly American iteration of Jewish life that accentuates a quasi-messianic ideal, according to which the loftiest aspirations of the United States join with those of the Jewish tradition – of human dignity, of shared humanity, and of the deep-rooted belief that these ideals can receive expression and realization in our reality.

The United States has thus offered a double promise of Jewish fulfillment: as individuals, to be sure, but also as Jews, as carriers and fulfillers of the deepest ideals of their country.

The Cracks

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously wrote. With these words, Cohen, for many a kind of post-modern priest, captures a Jewish – and a specifically American Jewish – sensibility of redemptive possibility. The fissures of brokenness in this world are nothing less than openings through which light – the tender, ambient glow of the potential goodness in this world that inheres just below its rough, fractured surface – can pour in. For Jews in the pre-Trump United States, I would assert, the cracks in the veneer of American society were the cracks of which Cohen sings.

Cohen the poet is right. But poetry and politics all too often ignore each other, each disparaging each other’s blindness, and there is a political truth that Cohen neglects to mention.

There’s a different kind of crack in everything – one that opens to an unfathomable depth of darkness.

From our everyday experience, we learn that staring too intently at light prevents our eyes from adjusting to darkness and being able to see in it. The anxiety of post-November 9 results from extreme vulnerability during those critical moments when our eyes must readjust to the muted light of the room into which we are thrust.

Obviously, the United States of 2016 is not Weimar Germany of 1932, and Trump is no Hitler. But it is undeniably the case that German Jews spoke of their place in Germany in glowing terms that echo, nearly precisely, the sensibility of Jews of the United States. Herman Cohen’s “Germanness and Jewishness” argued, in philosophical terms, for the shared pursuit of those two great cultures. German Jewish intellectuals, tycoons, and artists were no less sanguine: never had there been a place better for the Jews, and never had there been such a deep harmony between Jews and their host country. They were right: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Herman Cohen, Heinrich Heine, Moses Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt…the list goes on. “The pity of it all,” as Amos Elon termed it, entailed not only the full-scale liquidation of the Jews of Germany, but also the annihilation of the German-Jewish symbiosis.

Even more pitiful than this “pity of it all,” was the inability of German Jews to look clearly and honestly at the cracks through which the darkness poured in. As Thomas Kuhn describes so cogently in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, what characterizes the period leading up to a paradigm shift is the amassing of enough “anomalous” data that does not fit neatly into our current understanding of reality. Time and again, Jews have learned that it is not merely political folly or bad science to ignore such anomalies: it is supremely dangerous.

I cannot imagine that, even with all of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, we will find the United States engaging in full-scale deportation of all illegal immigrants, blocking entry of Muslims, or forcing Muslims to register. Nor will the scattered swastikas or the virulent anti-Semitic trolling lead to death camps.

But it is an undeniable truth that approximately 50 percent of the electorate in the United States was able to ignore Trump’s vile suggestions and his rhetoric of hatred, dismissing the waves of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism that it released – and deciding, despite it all, to cast a ballot for Donald J. Trump to be the President of the United States of America.

And so the Jews of the United States must, after November 9, give an honest accounting, peering actively into the cracks in the thick veneer of the United States, and its own communal institutions and self-conceptions.

What if the United States as a society contains in its depths silos of incorrigible hatred, not just toward African Americans, which continues to be painfully present and visible, but also toward others qua others? What if those others, exposed to hatred, could include us, as Jewish individuals and as a Jewish community? What if they have repeated what Jews did in the Golden Age of Spain and in Weimar Germany in convincing themselves that it was a host country in which Jews could truly – for the first time in Jewish history – achieve full and total acceptance? What if the effort to limit and sometimes deny Jewish distinctiveness was motivated by a desire to lower any barriers that would divide between them and a post-ethnic, post-tribal host society?

What if they ignored anti-Semitism on the left, often joining in its acerbic critique of Zionism, viewing it as an unseemly outpost of tribal, ethnic Judaism? What if they ignored anti-Semitism on the right, forging partnerships with Christian fundamentalists and other “friends” of the Jews and of Israel, either out of political opportunism or, perhaps worse, out of a deep-seated relief that someone is able to accept and even admire otherness, daring to call Jews what they refuse to call themselves, chosen?

What if, at this very moment, as backward and reactionary as it makes them feel to even entertain the thought, they find ourselves, once again, alone, eclipsed by hatred of Jews both from the left and the right?

What if everything Jews have accomplished in the United States, as committed members of a host society, as individual Jews, and as a Jewish community, were to be bracketed – placed in parentheses within the context of the history of the United States and, as such, marked as other?

(((Mark Rothko. Leon Wieselthier. Janet Yellen. Bob Dylan. Peter Beinart. Ira Glass. Roger Cohen. Jack Lew. Jon Stewart. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Jeffrey Goldberg. Phillip Roth. Natalie Portman. George Soros. Steve Mnuchin. Paul Auster. Lawrence Summers, Amy Guttman, Neil Rudenstine, Harold Shapiro, Peter Salovey. Steven Spielberg.)))

Waking from Slumber

“When God returned the captives to Zion, we were as dreamers,” writes the Psalmist (Psalms 126:1). Though the modern State of Israel adopted Hatikva (literally, “The Hope”) as its national anthem, these words captured the spirit of modern Zionism: there was a sense, throughout the years leading up to the founding of the State, and in fact, well beyond it, that the Jews were living out a dream and in a certain sense, living in a dream.

At the same time, the Jews of the United States – the Goldene Medina – were no less than those of Israel, living as dreamers.

The past 20 years, however, have seen a shift, as the Zionist enterprise seems to have lost its moral luster, with Israel increasingly seen not only as political aggressor, but at a deeper level, as the expression of and contributor to an outdated, bigoted, tribal Jewish self-understanding. At the same time, the Jews of the United States have more than ever, felt themselves to be living as dreamers.

Dreams are an integral activity during our sleep, and our waking “dreams” are acts of imagination vital to our spiritual and moral well-being. But sometimes when we slumber we are overcome by nightmares, moments when what receives expression are our fears, an immersion in a world of fantasy not necessarily any more delusional than that of our dreams. Our daytime “nightmares” are acts of imagination equally vital to our political well-being and our physical survival.

Trump’s ascendance to power does not alter the supreme importance of simultaneously engaging in the acts of fostering our dreams and of allowing our nightmares to surface. We must continue to let the light in through the cracks, while being mindful of those cracks that open up to reveal a threatening darkness.

A loud alarm clock rang on November 9, waking us from a long slumber, requiring that we engage in each of these modes with heightened awareness.


Leon Wiener Dow is a research fellow and a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at Bina's Secular Yeshiva. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their five children.

Let my people in: The case of the Venezuela Nine


In a small city in Venezuela, there are nine Jews. Five adults, two teens, two children. They pray the same prayers you do. They celebrate the same holidays you do. They worry about the safety of their children and of the Jewish people, like you do.

And yet, they do not have the same rights as a Jew that you do. With rising levels of crime, political unrest and anti-Semitism in their native country, they have decided to seek refuge in the Jewish homeland, under the Law of Return. But as of now, this refuge has not been granted. As their rabbi and mentor, I would like to share their story with you. 

In 2011, I was contacted by a small chavurah in the city of Maracay. These people had been meeting in private homes for quite a while to practice Judaism, celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and learn Jewish text. They were now seeking rabbinic guidance to take their chavurah to the next level, since, without exception, none of the people in the group had been born Jewish. 

A synagogue with no Jews might seem like an odd idea, but it is one that is being replicated in hundreds, if not thousands, of places throughout the globe. As you read these lines, there are countless people reading your rabbi’s blog in Nigeria, studying Talmud through YouTube videos in Bolivia and learning to kasher their kitchens in Serbia from a Chabad website. The Jewish community has invested the past 20 years in filling the internet with Jewish content destined for Jews. But the internet, unlike some of our institutions, has no doors, and our message has ended up resonating in the most unlikely of places. These emergent communities, made up exclusively or for the most part out of converts, are a new, wonderful and challenging feature of the global Jewish landscape. 

As a rabbi whose passion is to assist emergent communities in the Spanish-speaking world, I was very happy to get to know these amazing Venezuelan families and honored to be their rabbi. After a long process of virtual and face-to-face learning (averaging five hours a week for over three years), I led a rabbinic court of three Conservative rabbis, which converted them to Judaism in February 2014. Finally, this group of people went from practicing Judaism to being a Jewish community. As such, they continued to live their Jewish lives in their small chavurah, learning weekly with me (which they do to this very day), celebrating Shabbat together, defending Israel among their neighbors and acquaintances as the official narrative in their country turned more sharply against the Jewish state, and sharing the joys and the pains of everyday life.   

In early 2015, they started attending an ulpan offered by the Zionist Federation in Caracas (a three-hour car ride each way). Through this experience, they were invited to do something that most people in emergent congregations in Latin America never even dream of doing: join a historical, established Jewish community. A small congregation in a neighboring city invited them to complete their minyan, and they have been active members of this congregation since June 2015.

Last April, with the crisis in Venezuela escalating, with food and medicine shortages, with rampant crime in the streets, the community decided to make aliyah and move to Israel. It is a founding principle that the State of Israel offers a refuge to every Jew. Per a decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, this includes anyone who converts to Judaism in the Diaspora, regardless of the denomination through which they converted.  

Despite this basic principle, the Ministry of the Interior denied the rights of the Venezuela Nine on the grounds that “they have not been members of a recognized community.” This simply is not the case, as they have been members of an established Jewish community for more than 19 months (which goes beyond the amount of prescribed community participation required by the standards of the Ministry of the Interior). Furthermore, they have been living Jewish lives in community and under rabbinical supervision for far a longer period. In similar cases in Latin America, people who have converted in emergent communities (even people who converted in the same beit din as the Venezuela Nine) have been approved for aliyah. It is clear that the laws that regulate the aliyah of converts are not being applied with the same degree of stringency across the board. 

Some cynics may suggest this community converted only to escape the challenge of living in Venezuela. After having worked with this community for more than five years (beginning before the current economic crisis), I know its members converted out of a clear sense of love for the God and the people of Israel. There would be no other reason for them to open themselves to the anti-Semitism that they now experience. Anyone who has experienced the deep beauty and power of Judaism need not be surprised that others have found meaning in this tradition, even when they have discovered it in contexts that might not be familiar to most Jews in established communities. 

The case of the Venezuela Nine is not a theoretical question about the nature of Jewish identity or another protracted appendix of the “Who is a Jew?” debate. It is a situation of pikuach nefesh — the obligation to save life. This is exactly the situation for which the State of Israel was founded: a group of Jews are seeking refuge from danger in their home country.

If institutionally or personally you have any sway on the conversation in the Jewish community and, especially, in Israel, I ask you not to forsake these nine amazing Jews. Our tradition states it very clearly, but the following truth needs to be repeated today: Converts are Jews, part of our people; they share in our tribulations and should be warranted the same tools of consolation and safeguarding, whether in Israel or abroad. 

Every Jew who cares about our community and about the future of the State of Israel must stand with them. 


RABBI JUAN MEJIA is a Jewish educator and activist on behalf of emergent communities in Latin America and around the world. He is a rabbi in residence for Be’chol Lashon.

Open letter: Rabbi Hier, please do not go to the inauguration


January 12, 2017

Rabbi Marvin Hier
President, Founder, and Dean
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Los Angeles, CA

Dear Rabbi Hier,

I write to you out of respect for the work you’ve done in fighting intolerance, bigotry, and specifically anti-Semitism in Los Angeles and in this country.  While you and I have serious political differences in some areas, that does not detract for a minute from my admiration for you, Rabbi Cooper, and your team in making the Museum of Tolerance an important shield against prejudice in this country. 

I have resisted writing to you because I had believed that you have the right to choose whom you bless.  Your decision to offer a benediction at the inauguration of Donald Trump reflects, as you’ve stated, not a political preference, but your own commitment to the peaceful transition of power, a hallmark of democracy in this country.

And yet, what changed my mind was Mr. Trump’s tweet yesterday—and follow-up comment at his “press conference”—suggesting that his treatment at the hands of the press was reminiscent of Nazi Germany.  This was the last straw for me.  And, frankly, it should be for you.  As someone who has dedicated his life to fighting to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, you cannot be associated in any way with this kind of cheap and inaccurate invocation of Nazism.

There were clear warning signs about the danger Mr. Trump posed when he refused to denounce unequivocally the alt-right antisemites supporting his campaign.  And many of us, yourself included, were jolted to attention by his hinting at the prospect of a registry of all Muslims in this country.  And of course, his dismissive or inappropriate comments about women, African Americans, disabled people, and Jews shocked us to the core.

All of this was cause for grave concern.  But now the claim about Nazi Germany.  In the first instance, this remark betrays a complete ignorance of history.  Shortly after assuming the role of Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Hitler began to suspend the normal rules of democracy by granting himself the power to override parliament; boycotts were introduced in April of that year against Jewish businesses and then Jewish civil servants, professors, and university students.  As we know well, his assault on democracy, the rule of law, and the Jewish people bore ahead with ferocity from that point onward.  While there are danger signs about the health of democratic institutions in America today, we are a long way from the oppressive dictatorship of Hitler’s Germany.  To lend your support to someone with such blatant disregard for an historical chapter so central to your life’s work would be, I’m afraid, a very serious error of judgment on your part. 

What is perhaps more galling—though sadly consistent with Mr. Trump’s bullying personality—is that he is not the victim here.  To the extent that there are new authoritarian trends in American society, they do not emanate from the free press or supporters of Hillary Clinton.  They emanate from Donald Trump himself.  He is not the chief victim of fake news, damaging insinuations or disparaging rhetoric.  He and his team are the perpetrators of all of these tactics, and in a way rarely seen in American political culture.  And in a starkly personal way, these tactics add up to the opposite of what stands at the heart of your institution: tolerance. 

In light of Mr. Trump’s most recent degradation, I urge you, Rabbi Hier, to announce that you will not grace his inauguration with your presence.  I fear that if you were to go to offer a benediction, you would lend credence to Mr. Trump’s willful distortion of history and bring injury to the principles and institution on whose behalf you have labored so tirelessly.

Sincerely,

David N. Myers

Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History, UCLA

Katie Piel: She kept hearing a message


On Nov. 9, about 12 hours after Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to become the president-elect, the mood at a West Hollywood Starbucks was somber. Sullen strangers were exchanging supportive hugs. And in this raw moment, Katie Piel — there to be interviewed by the Jewish Journal about her journey to Judaism —  articulated an emotional action plan.

“It’s devastating on a lot of levels for a lot of people, but the only thing you can do about it is get spiritual,” she said. “Because it’s such a big, massive event on a world level that I think you have to dig back into the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And realize that the universe is shaking things up. First it’s a whisper; then, if you don’t pay attention, it’s a little louder. It is what it is, and getting to the future is what we need to do. Everyone needs to galvanize and get together and reorganize to put aside their pettiness — that’s why we got to where we are. This is the reality now. So how do we protect people from [their] civil rights being taken away? That’s what is on the table.”

Piel, 39, grew up in New York City in a “happy, liberal family on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, depending on the decade — a bunch of intellectuals who had the planet’s good at heart,” she said. Early on, she learned that “the environment in which we live is as important as who we are on the inside and is created by who we are on the inside.”

Piel’s family didn’t have any religion, but awareness of Judaism permeated her early life. “The Upper West Side is the seat of Judaism in New York City,” she said, remembering that her family celebrated Chanukah because “I was demanding it because I had made a menorah” in nursery school. When she was 6, her aunt converted to Orthodox Judaism. Piel went to Passover seders and had many friends whose families were “half and half.” Her grandparents lived next door to the young Barbra Streisand.

“Judaism had always made an impression on me,” she said.

Piel moved to California 16 years ago to pursue an acting career, but discovered that “being [cast as] ‘Woman No. 3’ wasn’t the most fulfilling thing that had ever happened for me.” She then interned for a casting director and realized that in such a position, she could be creative and continue to be a storyteller. She’s now been casting for more than a decade and has her own company. 

Piel also had begun a spiritual journey with Transcendental Meditation, during which she kept hearing a message: “It’s time to explore Judaism some more.”

She consulted with rabbi friends, who advised her to “ ‘Take a class, chill out about it, go to synagogue and see what Shabbat is like,’ ” she said. “This fit perfectly with my own sort of philosophy and ideals about faith and spirituality and organized religion.” 

Piel said her family didn’t believe that a person needed organized religion to instruct them on morality, just that a person should live a good life. “Of course, there’s always morality in universal truth and, of course, any religion is built on inner and outer peace and caring for your fellow human beings,” she said. “[But] the overriding understanding and knowledge [is] that love and God are the same thing.” 

Piel described herself as a person who “holds my nose and jumps in the deep end,” pointing to her move to California and her impulsive habit of adopting dogs. (“They kept appearing, and I’m not going to send them to the pound. … If I do something, I tend to go all in.”)

So, when she finally had the time and inclination, she enrolled in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s “Judaism by Choice” course. 

Last March, on her birthday, she immersed in the mikveh, the ritual bath to signify her transition into Judaism. 

“Besides seeing my niece and nephew emerge into the world, it was the most powerful experience I’d ever had,” she said. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Cantor Lizzie Weiss served as her beit din, the panel of clergy overseeing her conversion.

Piel said her family wasn’t terribly surprised by her big Jewish announcement. Her sister initially was taken aback, but then was fine with it. “If it had been any other religion, she would have been horrified,” Piel said, “but if it’s Reform Judaism and you’re still a Democrat, no big deal.” Piel also recalled that one of the most beloved books in her family had been “The Joys of Yiddish.” About a month before Piel converted, her sister sent her the new edition.

Since her conversion, Piel has had moments she described as “definitely overwhelming” but that helped her discover that the Jewish journey is about finding one’s own interpretation. For Piel, right now, what’s resonating is the idea of l’dor va’dor, that Judaism is passed from generation to generation. As someone who is musically engaged, Piel called this “the Jewish melody that goes backward and forward through time.”

“This is the Jewish fabric that binds every Jew in the world together,” she said. “The deep knowing and feeling of that connection to community is kind of mystical … the care with which Jewish people recall their ancestors. Every Shabbat we are praying for those who have come before us.” 

She also appreciates Judaism’s reverence for the past.

“If you think about how Judaism sits in your life, you have to think about the connection to the future and the connection to the past. We have a deep responsibility to each other and to the world,” she said, connecting this concept with tikkun olam, the responsibility of healing the world. “What are we going to do to leave this place better than we found it? This is a call back to our ancestors, to experiences in the Torah. How do we leave a legacy for those who come after we do?” 

At Temple Emanuel, Piel found her community. When she first walked into the synagogue, she saw Michelle Aaron, an actress she had known for a long time and who is married to Rabbi Jonathan Aaron. “I felt instantly at home,” she said. “And with Sarah and Jon and Lizzie having presided over my entrance into Judaism, it seems sort of ridiculous to go anywhere else.” 

She has found a place at Temple Emanuel’s Saturday “silver minyan” — so called because it is attended mostly by senior citizens, whose knowledge she admires and respects. “As a new Jew, getting to sit there and listen to the Torah portion and discussion afterward, I try to say nothing because I have nothing valuable to say. …  I have 39 years of Jewish education to make up for.” 

Piel joined Temple Emanuel’s intergenerational choir for the High Holy Days, which gave her the opportunity to sing sacred music with a group of people who reminded her that “people have hidden talents. Who would know that this soprano who’s on the violin was in a Tim Burton movie, happens to be a convert and is in the choir?” 

Although improving her Hebrew is on her agenda, Piel noted proudly that “more and more, I’m ‘off book,’ even during services.”

“There’s something spectacular about being able to read texts in the original language, no matter how good a translation is,” she said. “There’s much debate about what a particular word choice means, the tense of the verb, etc. — all of that is kind of fascinating.”

Shabbat is very important to her. Although she doesn’t unplug entirely, she said the day provides a spiritual pause. 

“I try to turn my phone off before services and take Friday and Saturday reflecting on the week,” she said. “Saying the prayers is something I find soothing and comforting. You can pray all the time in any language anywhere, but connection to the Jewish fabric is saying those prayers and knowing that, for centuries, the same prayers have been said by people in your community every Friday and Saturday.

“That connection is miraculous.”

Syria and the scandal of our Orthodox synagogues


“Lord of the Universe, I beg You to redeem Israel; but if You do not want to do that, then I beg You to redeem the gentiles.”— Rabbi Yisrael Hopstein, Maggid of Kozhnitz and legendary Chassidic leader in Poland (1733-1814) (1)

When Rabbi Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), the famous American Chassidic thinker who lived a fully Orthodox life, was once asked by a journalist “why he [as a religious leader] had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam,” he said “’I am here because I cannot pray’.…Confused and a bit annoyed, the journalist asked him, ‘What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to a demonstration against the war?’” Rabbi Heschel replied, “’Whenever I open the prayer book, I see before me images of children burning from napalm’” (Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011] p. 17).

On another occasion, while walking with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, at the famous Civil Rights March against racism, he felt a sense of holiness that reminded him of his younger years when he would walk with the great Chassidic rebbes in Poland. For him the march was a deeply religious undertaking, a mitzvah. “I felt my legs were praying,” he said (Ibid p. 35).

His message was clear: We forfeit our right to pray when we become indifferent to the atrocities done to our fellow men (1).

Indeed, how dare we come before the Lord of the Universe with our personal prayers asking Him for His kindness and gifts, when we ignore the enormous atrocities done to other human beings?

“Prayer” said Rabbi Heschel, “must never be a citadel for selfish concerns but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight” (Susannah Heschel, idem page 17).

To this very day, we Jews are justifiably outraged beyond description when we remember how the world was silent as six million of our brothers and sisters – including more than one million Jewish children – were slaughtered during the years of the Holocaust. We feel great animosity toward Pius XII, Hitler’s pope, for failing to call on millions of his Catholic followers to protect the Jews and stand up against this ferocious murderer.

This came to my mind when I read about the terrible atrocities that are now being committed against hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians, including tens of thousands of children, who are being killed and mutilated (not to mention the savagery and barbarity in so many other countries). No, this cannot be compared to the Holocaust, but the brutalities in Syria defy all description.

Fortunately, the Government of Israel and members of the larger Jewish community in and outside of the State of Israel have not sat idle in the face of this crisis. They have arranged medical and financial help for the victims, organized solidarity marches and have been taking to the streets, and much more. What Jew would not join these noble acts?

Yet, one place that seems to be totally indifferent to what is happening in Syria and in other parts of the world is the Orthodox synagogue, the most Jewish place of all, and of which I am a proud member.

While I have been informed that synagogues of different denominations have introduced special prayers, it seems, as far as I have been able to investigate (and I hope I’m wrong!), that most Orthodox synagogues (including those in yeshivot) have failed to introduce any prayer, or even the reciting of tehillim for the Syrian victims. These terrible atrocities have, in general, not even been mentioned. All we hear is thundering silence.

Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of Petach Tikva, Israel, whom I consider to be a Gadol Hador (a great religious and halachic leader of our generation), wrote a special prayer related to the Syrian catastrophe, but it seems to have been ignored by most if not all Orthodox synagogues.

Several months ago, a prayer for world peace was sent to thousands of people and hundreds of Orthodox synagogues, which, except for some hesder yeshiva students, was totally ignored by those Orthodox synagogues, including the Modern Orthodox. This prayer is a plea to God to have mercy on all victims of war, terror attacks, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, raging fires, tornadoes, starvation, homelessness, and population displacement. (2)

The only communities that responded were Reform and Conservative synagogues and, to the great surprise of many, several churches, the leaders of which said they would include the prayer in their services. (This prayer takes no more than a minute to recite.)

In the introduction to his magnum opus, Ha’amek Davar on the Torah, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (1817-1893), the last Rosh HaYeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, makes the powerful point that the greatness of our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and no doubt the matriarchs, was the fact that they cared about the well-being of the gentiles in their day, even if they were idolaters. One example is the famous story of Avraham arguing with God to save the people of Sedom, who had fallen to the lowest possible level of moral behavior. Nothing stopped him from trying to save these people, even when it meant having to fight with God Himself (Bereishit 18: 23-33). No doubt this is why Avraham is called the “father of a multitude of nations” (Ibid 17:5). But this is not merely a compliment; it is a deeply religious mission for all the People of Israel. To be an example to the world, and to stand up for all those innocents who have fallen victim to the unspeakable evil of others.   

It is for this reason that Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his monumental codex, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 576:1), legislated the law that in times of catastrophe one should fast and lessen one’s pleasures (including sexual intercourse), based on the Talmudic statement:

“When the community is in trouble, a person should not say: I will go to my house, I will eat and drink and all will be well with me” (Ta’anit 11a).

This is not Reform or Conservative; it is Orthodox law. So why ignore this important ruling?

The worst sin toward our fellow human beings is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them. People are not aware of their own insensitivity. Conscious insensitivity is almost a contradiction in terms. But one begins to sincerely wonder whether that’s true when there is a call to our synagogues that is completely ignored.

Sure, the members of Orthodox synagogues are generally sensitive people, but they don’t seem to realize that as a community that believes in prayer, and constantly prays for its own welfare, they cannot stand idly by and fail to pray when great evil is heaped upon their fellow humans. I cannot think of a stronger form of narcissism.  

The point is not whether our prayers for all these victims will be answered. This is left up to God. But the message we send to ourselves and our children is that we’re not even prepared to take the time during our synagogue service to draw our attention to the plight of thousands and thousands of children who are being killed, who have lost their arms and legs, and whose bodies have been burned beyond recognition.  

How can we be outraged by the world’s silence in the face of six million of our brothers and sisters being murdered in the Holocaust when our synagogues can’t even take a moment to say a prayer for other human beings, especially children, who are suffering beyond imagination? Do we, the Orthodox, start praying only when the atrocities are as bad as the Holocaust? Or only when it relates to our fellow Jews?  

Millions of people are occupied with physical pleasures, the need for honor and comfort, their hates and loves, all of which are for the most part not worth our time and energy. Yet synagogues refuse to take time for the real issues, which will determine the well-being of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

As Jews, we realize that since the world has “failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology, Samuel H. Dresner (Ed.) [New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983] p.95).

In all honesty, as an Orthodox Jew, I wonder how anyone can believe that God will listen to our prayers when we can’t spare even one minute to pray for the women and children of Syria and the millions of others living in unimaginably devastating circumstances.

Maybe it would be more honest to stay at home and forfeit our right to pray. When we become indifferent to the atrocities done to our fellow humans, then, as Rabbi Heschel teaches us, we had better be silent and live in shame.

As American actor and author William Redfield (1927-1976) once said, “To try may be to die, but not to care is never to be born” (The Book of Bill: Choice Words, Memorable Men, Tom Crisp (Ed.) [Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2009] p. 72).   

******************

  1. Martin Buber's “Tales of the Hasidim” volume 1, p. 289 (New York: Schocken, 1961)
  2. See also the powerful poem by Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, “Shir Meruba” (The Fourfold Song), in which he pleads to pray for all human beings and all of creation. Orot HaKodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1985) pt. 2, sec. 3, essay 30.
  3. It was suggested to say this prayer Shabbat morning after the prayers for the State of Israel, the Israeli soldiers on the battlefields, and those who are missing in action.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

Versace, Joseph and Chanukah


Perhaps the most famous historical article of clothing is Joseph’s multicolor “dreamcoat,” but it’s not the only one that appears in this week’s parsha, Vayeshev. The wife of Potiphar grabs onto the cloak of Joseph as he tries to elude her seduction, and near the end of the same Torah portion, we encounter the challenging story of Tamar, as she takes on the guise of a prostitute.

Begadim, or the clothes we wear, are a fundamental part of our religion. They have ramifications in so many different areas of Jewish law and ideology. 

When one goes through the heart of Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26), you almost are inundated by the lengthy discussion pertaining to the clothing of the High Priest. Why? Because on Yom Kippur, the High Priest must stand in the Holy of Holies, and it is imperative that God be on his mind and not himself, hence the clothing.

There is the notion of hikon, which posits that we pray before our Maker in clothing that is prepared and respectful — sometimes that takes the form of a special jacket, or simply being tucked in and neat. And when one is in mourning, one rips one’s clothing. 

Why do Jewish sources spend so much time discussing clothing?

The 18th century’s Vilna Gaon left us with a secret as to how to understand many of the more complex concepts in the Torah. He notes that if we want to truly understand a perplexing subject, we should locate the first time that idea is discussed and there will lie the key to understanding.

When is the first time we encounter clothing? Right at the beginning, in Genesis, with Adam and Eve. Vahayu shneihem arumim, hadam veishto, vahayu shenihem labasar achas (“Both of them were naked, man and his wife, and they were of one flesh”). Rashi comments that they were not embarrassed about this for they didn’t know the way of modest dress. 

But then comes Genesis 3:7: “And both their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked.” Sin created the knowledge that they were naked, and at that moment they knew they needed clothing, for they needed something, some symbol, to remind them that they were not God. Begadim, the clothes we wear, are the eternal reminder that reflect our awareness and loyalty to God.

Now we stand at the eve of Chanukah, a holiday that commemorates our victory over the Hellenistic ideology that attempted to make us forget God. They wanted to tear away our connection. One of the decrees against the Jewish religion was that they attempted to abolish the observance of the Sabbath. Why? It is a day when we come out in our splendorous clothing. The Sabbath is a constant reminder, through begadim, that God is greater than us. The Greeks tried to take that away.

We now also understand the sections pertaining to Joseph, whose brothers knew they could not destroy him physically. The only way they could hurt him was by talking away the Torah their father had taught him. How would they do that? By ripping his coat, which represents a connection to God. It was the very same coat given to Joseph by his father, who taught him all his Torah.

And we understand why the wife of Potiphar rips Joseph’s clothing as he is leaving. She’s trying to tell him, “Forget God. Live a little bit.” She’s trying to break his connection with God by attacking the clothing.

Another important example of clothing in Jewish literature beyond this week’s Torah portion occurs in the Book of Samuel. As Samuel is leaving after chastising him, King Saul, in a moment of defiance, pulls the cloak of Samuel and accidentally rips it. Samuel quickly turns to Saul and utters the chilling statement, “Now I know the Kingdom will no longer be yours.”

It makes perfect sense that when King Saul rips the cloak of Samuel, he no longer can be king, for a position of such power demands that one realize who stands above.  

On the other hand, at the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob turns to his children and gives them all blessings. Only one child is blessed with clothing, and, tellingly, it is Judah, the father of the future Kings of Israel!

The clothing we wear, like almost all seemingly mundane things that we do, brings with it such significance. And so, the simple act of putting on a nice button-down shirt can reflect something as powerful and important as our connection and respect for God.

Happy Chanukah!


RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).

“Stand up already,’ God is calling to you


“Then Judah approached him and said, 'Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh’ “ (Gen. 44:18).

Years before, when his brothers wanted to kill their egocentric younger brother Joseph, Judah stepped forward suggesting they instead throw Joseph in a pit. “An important action that saved Joseph’s life,” Judah would say to console try to himself in the years since. “I did my best.”  

Yet his half-action, which ultimately led to Joseph’s begin sold into slavery and his father Jacob being sold a devastating lie, led to enduring suffering.  Even Judah suffered, sure that the deaths of his own children somehow were tied to that moment of sin.

Now Judah stood before Pharaoh’s prime minister — in truth, his brother Joseph, but he did not know that at the time. This powerful man sought to hold the youngest brother Benjamin as a hostage until Judah and his brothers returned with their father, Jacob. In that moment of truth, Judah stepped forward to protect his brother. Reconciling with the dishonesty of his past, Judah embraced a new truth. “I must do better. I must save Benjamin.” Judah offered himself up as a guarantor instead.  

Bi Adoni,” said Judah. Usually translated as “please, my lord,” connoting humility before a powerful human ruler, “bi Adoni” is understood by Sefat Emet, the late 19th century Polish Chasidic rebbe, as “bi Adonai.” Sefat Emet notices that hidden within the letters of Judah’s name (Yud–Hey–Vav–Dalet–Hey) is the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of the Holy One (Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey), an unpronounceable word usually vocalized as “Adonai.” “God is within me,” Judah said.

Sefat Emet imagines that as Judah stood before this all powerful human ruler, he finally acknowledged that there was a truth greater than his own survival. As we read in the Talmud (Shabbat 55a), Chotmo Hakadosh Baruch Hu emet” (the signature of the Holy One, blessed by God, is Truth). Judah remembered a truth, buried deep within himself, that the Holy One was within him.

In that moment, Judah stood courageous. He rediscovered his backbone. No longer would he take half-actions to save face (literally, to save his face and his very life). Where once Judah cowered before the crowd, now he stood up to the very seat of human power.

In that moment, Judah made teshuva, repenting for harmful actions taken years before. Faced with an analogous situation, he found the strength to push his ego aside, to let go of his own worldly concerns, and to act on the truth implanted within him by the Holy One.

We each face moments like that. When protecting ourselves, holding our own needs or safety as the priority, no longer can be sustained. When we who, like Judah, need to face our own self-deception and to stop persistently lying to ourselves.

These are moments when we, like Judah, need to face the hidden truths in our lives — the uncomfortable ones — about our moral failings, the declining health of our beloveds, the disappointments in our children, the struggles within our family, the dangers facing our nation and our world. These are the moments when, like Judah, we remember “bi adoni,” that God is within us, calling to us to take a stand, to stand up, to stand for something.

Back in Torah times, Judah allowed his brothers to tell his father a lie: that Joseph was killed. He lied to himself that he had done all he could at the time to rectify a complex dangerous situation. Because of their collective weakness, their father aged quickly and suffered greatly. Because of his specific weakness, Judah always felt that his own children died before him. Wholeness and peace came only later, when he finally faced the truth and stood up to protect others.  

When will you face your truth? When will you stand up and say, “bi adoni — our God, who is Emet – truth, is within me.”  

Don’t wait too long. The truth awaits you. Your loved ones, your country, your world needs you.

So go ahead. Say it: “bi adoni.”

Now go live it. Live like God is counting on you. And may we all walk the paths of truth.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He and his wife, Michelle November, are authors of “Jewish Spiritual Parenting” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015). He blogs at paulkipnes.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

Deck the halls or don’t: Jews and Christmas


Patrick Emerson McCormick, an entertainment attorney who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism after meeting his Jewish wife, Jessica. Even after their marriage, though, he continued to keep a small Christmas tree in his home office. He had grown up with one and felt the tree did not have any religious significance. 

“I struggled with it,” he said. “At first, I wanted one not for religious reasons, but it held personal meaning for me.”

He changed his mind after his daughter told him she’d been teased at school for celebrating Christmas.

“I really thought there was a way to have a Christmas tree in our house that was personal but without ‘celebrating Christmas,’ until one year, our daughter, who is now in sixth grade — I think this was when she was in third or fourth grade — she was complaining to me in the car that other kids were making fun of her. She goes to public school and other Jewish kids in the school, they were making fun of her because she was celebrating Christmas,” McCormick said. “I said, ‘We don’t celebrate Christmas.’ She said, ‘You have a tree in your office.’ 

“There won’t be a tree in our house this year and it’s a unanimous decision,” McCormick said. 

With streets and shopping malls decorated with Christmas lights, music on the radio playing Christmas music (much of which was written by Jewish composers), and decorated evergreens glowing in the windows of people’s homes, any Jewish person — particularly converts and those in interfaith relationships — would be hard-pressed not to experience an inner identity struggle. This year, with Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah coinciding on Dec. 24, the challenge may be more difficult.

Nick Soper, who was raised Episcopalian and considers himself non-practicing, and his wife, Stacy, who is Jewish and the owner of a jewelry company, are expecting their first child in January. Every year, they adorn their home with both Chanukah and Christmas decorations. 

“We get around to putting out a few Jewish decorations and a few Christian decorations; that’s about the extent of it,” Nick said. “Both members of the committee have to agree upon the aesthetic. She’s not usually too enthusiastic about traditional commercial Christmas colors, like green and red. We have wood and earth tones and the sprig of some sort of plant. She’ll do red or green, but usually not both.”

More complicated, however, has been dealing with their in-laws. Stacy’s parents celebrate Chanukah exclusively and Nick’s celebrate Christmas. Stacy recalled one Christmas at her in-laws’ home when she found the Christmas tree decorated with a Chanukah ornament.

“I thought it was thoughtful and kind. I knew where the intentions came from,” Stacy said. “I don’t have a personal connection to ornaments or any Christmas decorations, but I knew they meant it to be a recognition [of my faith].”

These types of situations are so commonplace that there even is a term — the “December Dilemma” — to refer to Jews grappling with identity during Christmas. Of the Jews who responded to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center titled “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 32 percent said they had a Christmas tree in their home the year before, and 71 percent of Jews who were intermarried put up a Christmas tree the previous year. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, which prepares individuals for conversion to Judaism, said he often interacts with people who are eager to embrace Judaism but continue to feel a connection to the tree. 

“They are very happy, even overjoyed, to be embracing Judaism, but the Christmas tree represents a transitional object, like a baby blanket, linked to memories and feelings in a profound way,” he said. “People express discomfort about giving up the Christmas tree in the same way a child feels about giving up a treasured teddy bear.” 

Greenwald also has a personal experience with the holiday conflict. His father-in-law — whom he describes as a “ragin’ Cajun from Louisiana” — celebrates Christmas. Greenwald said he believes the Jewish way of handling such a situation is to remember how much value Judaism places on family. 

“Christmas is an incredibly important time of the year to a significant portion of my family by marriage. … [However,] when I travel to be with my family for [Christmas] celebrations, it doesn’t challenge my Jewish identity,” he said. “It affirms my very Jewish commitment to family.

“I believe very strongly that religion should not be a wedge that divides people from one another,” Greenwald added. “If a family gathers to celebrate [Christmas], I can’t imagine God or Torah is served by us boycotting that.”

During a Nov. 29 broadcast of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, who has been married to her non-Jewish husband since 2012, said that this year she will be having a Christmas tree in her home for the first time in her life.

“It’s kind of every Jew’s secret wish to have a Christmas tree,” Portman said.

Her comment prompted a negative response from Aish, an organization committed to helping nonobservant Jews reconnect with their Judaism.

“How sad and painful it is that this prominent actress is sending such a wrong message at exactly the time we need to embrace our Jewish identity and distance ourselves from the powerful influences of the pervasive non-Jewish culture,” said a recent Aish.com article titled “Natalie Portman’s Christmas Tree.” 

The backlash to Portman’s statement struck a nerve with Rabbi Keara Stein, director of InterfaithFamily/Los Angeles, a resource for interfaith families and couples interested in exploring Judaism. Stein said identifying with Judaism and having a Christmas tree are not mutually exclusive.

“It is possible to maintain one’s Jewish identity while still admiring or even celebrating aspects of Christmas,” Stein, a Reform rabbi whose father was a Jew by Choice, said in an email.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, rabbinic director at Judaism by Choice, an organization that offers classes on Judaism for those considering conversion, said it’s possible for Jews to feel more Jewish during the holidays, not less. He recalled that when he was in his late teens, his Jewish identity intensified by his reacting against the Christmas season. When he moved to Israel at age 21, he felt like he missed Christmas — which isn’t celebrated there like it is here — because he had nothing to stand against in opposition.

Today, decades later, with two grown children, his perspective has evolved.

“I enjoy Christmas music, the season and the decorations,” he said. “I enjoy seeing homes lit up. I enjoy the season. But I don’t celebrate it in my own home.”

Merry Holidays!


Once upon a time, Americans were honest: They said, “Merry Christmas” and talked about “Christmas vacation.” Then, in an ingenious attempt to honor diversity, Americans switched to, “Happy holidays” and began referring to “the holiday season” – a purportedly all-inclusive, religiously and culturally appropriate, pan-American time of year that was still all about Christmas. True, the occasional Hanukkah, Ramadan, or Kawanzaa bone was thrown out there, but it was often at inappropriate times, such as two weeks after that holiday had passed, or with inappropriate greetings, such as “Happy Ramadan,” which, seriously, who wishes someone a happy fast?

Images and music are shortcuts for conveying ideas and eliciting feelings, and together they rally people around central themes. Images and music of “the holidays” center around decorated trees, Santa Claus figures, sleigh bells, reindeer, and – especially where there are no religious minorities around to bitch about it — nativity scenes and Jesus references. (Think “Joy to the World,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” for starters.) As an Iraqi-American Jew, those images and songs are a far cry from being culturally appropriate or even distantly relevant to me. And yet, I am expected to get all warm and fuzzy from them – ie, swept up in “the holiday spirit.”

Changing the language of Christmas was not a step toward multicultural celebration, but it was a brilliant marketing coup. The switch not only covered up America’s blatant preferential treatment of Christianity, which is decidedly unconstitutional, but it made Christmas (emphasis: Christ) even more insidious, taking the dissent-squashing Scrooge concept one step further:  Since “the holidays” are now touted as a universal, religiously- and culturally-inclusive celebration, what kind of asshole can possibly object to them?

Memories of Christmas Past

When I was a little girl, I attended orthodox Jewish day school. During late December, my mother, sister, and I would drive around our neighborhood in San Francisco, admiring the pretty Christmas trees in people’s homes and sharing which were our favorites. Because I had not yet been shoved under the Christmas bulldozer, I was eager to appreciate and, in my own way, participate in the celebration of someone else’s holiday. Then when I was eight, I was switched to public school, where it was compulsory for all students to make Christmas decorations and, for those of us in the music department, to sing Christmas carols and play Christmas songs. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas… It was like an hysterical mantra, all up in my face for an entire month.

I remember how, in fifth grade, a Jewish girl and I conspiratorially drew menorahs and Stars of David throughout the winter wonderland poster the class had to make. Debbie and I characteristically did not get along, but we were a team that day, the two of us with our markers, in a bold act of 10-year-old insurgence. We had complained to the teacher about religious discrimination, and while she would not back down from promoting Christmas, she did authorize us to “add [our] holiday symbols” to the poster hanging on the front of the door. Oh, we added them alright, giggling as we drew, and once we were done, there was no doubt that Jews were in da house.

Meanwhile, the only Jew in choir, I fought the fact that we were forced to sing the gamut of Christmas songs – from explicitly religious numbers like “Noel” and “Silent Night” to more symbolic ones like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When I raised my objections, the teacher justified these songs by pointing out that we also were singing “I Had a Little Dreidel.” I distinctly remember thinking how inane it was to compare a dreidel song (about a plastic toy) to a Jesus song (about the Christian god). In addition, I could not help but notice that the Christmas songs outnumbered the dreidel song by, oh, about a million to one.

As I recall, after back-and-forth negotiations, the teacher and I compromised by agreeing that I would not sing the explicitly religious songs but that I would sing the general Christmas songs. I have a vague memory of her telling me to just move my lips, though not necessarily lip sync, for the songs I was not singing, so that it would not “look weird” that I was just standing there. The teacher and I disagreed, but I am not sure how that matter was resolved.

I do remember really going at it with full gusto for the dreidel song, all the while aware of the irony: Iraqi Jews have nothing to do with dreidels, and it was in fact a source of contention at my Hebrew school that the Central and Eastern European Hanukkah traditions, including dreidel games, were pushed on everyone — touted as the Jewish traditions. My dad, in fact, used to re-educate my sister and me regularly after school, leaving me wondering why we bothered going in the first place. “What did you learn today?” he would ask us. “We learned about Chanukkah,” we would reply. “We don’t say Chanukkah,” he would inform us. “We say H’nikah. What else did you learn?” he would continue. “We learned how to play dreidels,” we would say. “We don’t play dreidels,” he would advise us. And so on.

Out of the pot and into the fire – from one hegemony to another, clinging to whatever pieces most closely resembled my identity.  But I digress. Let us return to Christmas.

Preferential Treatment of Religion

In high school, I was the first chair flutist in orchestra and band. As soon as I discovered that all the performances were on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath, I advised the teachers that I would not be able to perform with them, for religious reasons. Each teacher (one married to the other) publicly yelled at and humiliated me in front of the class in response, with the orchestra teacher kicking me out altogether and the band teacher demoting me to last chair.

Then, beginning in November, I was expected to play one Christmas song after another. I believe I refused, because I distinctly remember the band teacher cornering me when I was leaving class one day, informing me that such-and-such Christmas song was written by a Jew, and why couldn’t I be like that man. Parenthetically, another time, this teacher cornered me while leaving, advising me that so-and-so orchestra conductor was a Seventh Day Adventist but still performed on Friday nights, because he felt closest to Gd through his music; so why couldn’t I be like that man.

Meanwhile, I was barred from joining choir, because – as I then knew by then to clarify ahead of time – all the performances were on Friday nights, and the teacher did not want to accept anyone who could not attend performances. Then again, the choir got heavy into Jesus songs in late November, so perhaps it is just as well that I was not involved.

Because of the sabbath conflict, I also was barred from joining the theater group, despite the fact that understudies were used in case students got sick; I could not even think about joining any of the athletic teams, and I was kicked out of the debate team, despite the fact that numerous competitions were held on Sundays. In the latter case, my high school had one of the top debate teams in the state, and the coach wanted students to have enough practice with the Saturday matches so as to also win the Sunday events. 

In my junior year, I would not have been able to take drivers education class, were it not for a combined effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council and my friend Colleen, who walked across town just after dawn one Saturday morning (before the buses started running), to sign up on my behalf. The school had patently refused allowing me to sign up on Friday, and it had taken a major battle just to allow someone else to do it for me on the day of registration.

Not only did teachers systematically exclude me from all extra-curricular activities in school, in a decidedly unconstitutional refusal to accommodate my religious observance, but a number of them actively antagonized me for my religious observance. Take the example of my geometry teacher during freshman year:

In the beginning of each year, I approached all of my teachers with copies of a Jewish calendar, in which I had drawn big red circles around the dates where I would be gone for religious observance. The holy days came one week after another throughout September and October — R’shana, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Simhath Torah – what you might call the “holiday season” for the Jewish community. Being that these observances coincided with the beginning of the school year, it was always challenging to keep up with my school work. As an orthodox Jew, I could not do any studying during these days.

I was in the honors programs of the best schools in the city — including an exclusive magnet high school, where students routinely came to school sick, even with fevers, because it was so difficult to catch up with the copious amounts of work, after falling behind. I, meanwhile, not only took five or six challenging Honors and Advanced Placement classes each semester, but also missed about 10 days by the second month of school, because 1) the holy days added up to seven days, 2) people came to the synagogue when sick, 3) I slept as little as one hour a night when I was not observing sabbath or a holy day, so as to catch up on my school work, and 4) my body was worn down as a result of the exhaustion, stress, and exposure to illness.

To stay ahead as much as possible, I asked teachers to advise me of the lessons and assign me homework in advance. When I approached my geometry teacher, he literally threw the calendar in my face, barking at me, “If you want to take a vacation, that’s your problem!” Throughout the semester, he proceeded to deliberately assign quizzes and tests – including pop-quizzes and pop-tests that comprised significant portions of our semester grade – on the day of or the day after Jewish holy days. I was a straight-A student throughout my life, despite the fact that even in middle school, I was sleeping just a few hours a night, so as to catch up on my school work after the holy days. And yet, this man made it so impossible to succeed that I got the first C of my life.

Both academics and extracurricular activities count for college, and I got heavily dinged on both fronts. My parents complained to the principal of my school, but he did nothing. Meanwhile, the math teachers were so consistently awful that I ended up having to drop out of honors, and I struggled so much with chemistry that I quit just one semester before the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. And so, while my peers took the AP tests for math, science, and English, as I had planned to do, and while they were then exempt from freshman math, science, and English in college, as I had planned to be, I only was able to take the AP English test – not surprising, considering that my English teachers were the only ones to caringly accommodate my religious observance. In fact, it is not surprising that I ended up a writer today. People walk through doors, not walls.

On that note, I am forever grateful to my high school class advisor, for sticking her neck out on my behalf. My high school debate team was in fact so amazing that we did not have a high school valedictorian, but rather, a high school historian and salutorian – both of which were selected through speaking competitions. My school had no tolerance for speeches that were anything less than riveting. The original date of the competition was scheduled on Passover, to my exasperation. I approached my high school class advisor in tears, begging her to get the date changed. “I have not been able to do anything throughout all four years of high school,” I cried. “I just want this one opportunity.” Gd/dess bless this woman, she went to bat for me and got the date changed.

And so I competed against state champions from my high school debate team. And kicked their collective ass. As the class historian for Lowell High School circa 1987, I have this to say to the high school debate coach who would not let me compete on Sundays, because I would not have the experience on Saturdays: Suck it.

What does this all have to do with Christmas, you ask? As I was forced into the Herculean struggle of juggling my religious and school lives, and as I was punished in active and passive ways for being a Jew, those who celebrated Christmas got not just the day of the holiday handed to them on a silver platter, but an entire two weeks around it. To add insult to injury, Christmas does not even have prohibitions against working, studying, driving, turning on lights, writing, or any of the other myriad of things that makes it impossible for religious Jews to participate in school or work life on Jewish holy days. So while Jews and other religious minorities struggle to keep up their grades or hang onto their jobs while taking off just the very days of their religious observance, those celebrating Christmas get half a month off for partying. Talk about “taking a vacation.”

Which all goes to say, as Christmas cheer has been shoved down my throat at school, at work, in the supermarkets, on television, in government offices, and pretty much anywhere else I have turned, for an entire month (and now for ¼ of the entire year), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every year of the past four decades of my life, and as my tax money has gone to fund aforementioned cheer, well, let’s just say I have not exactly been “in the spirit” of things.

The Fascist Vibe of the Christmas Spirit

The question is why Christian and Christo-Secular people (let’s face it – there is no neutral secular culture) feel the need to celebrate Christmas in such an in-your-face, mass-hysteria, all-encompassing way. It is as if “Christmas spirit” cannot exist unless absolutely every single person gets into said spirit.

By way of example, let us bring to mind the story of a Jewish family living in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. All the neighbors were lighting candles and putting those candles in brown paper bags, then placing the glowing bags in front of their homes. The Jewish family politely declined to participate, explaining that they were Jewish and therefore did not celebrate Christmas. Well. The neighbors would have none of that, so a few of them lit an extra candle, put it in a paper bag, placed it in front of the Jewish home, and bolted.

Compulsory Christmas. Uniformity masquerading as universality. You. Must. Celebrate. Christmas.

Then there is the story that happened one fine December day at a public school with a predominantly Christian student body. When a Jewish student politely declined to participate in the Christmas festivities at school, one of the Christian kids violently slammed that Jewish child against a locker, yelling, “You just don’t get it! This is a holiday about peace, love, and good will!”

Need I elaborate on what is wrong with this picture?

When I think of Christmas, the following words come to mind: fascist, dogmatic, imperialistic, dissent-squashing, cultural-bulldozing, all up in yo business, pain in the ass, murderous day. Yes murderous. Over the centuries, across the Christian world, Christmas was a favorite day for massacring Jews. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, touted as the son of Gd who, according to Christian narrative, was murdered by scheming, crooked Jews. The entire premise of Christianity, in fact, is the scorn, hatred, and rejection of all things Jewish; after all, why be the spinoff religion, when you can be the real deal? Some justification must be created. While that is another article for another time, and one that most likely will get me into pretty hot water, the idea is that Christmas is loaded, and not just with shiny presents.

Speaking of loaded, about a decade ago in San Francisco, a politically-correct office manager invited all the employees to bring to work a symbol of their holiday. Because, as we all know, “the holidays” are about everyone. So this Jewish guy, with whom I am proud to say I am acquainted, brought a gun and placed it squarely on the table. Everyone, of course, was horrified. He advised them that Hanukkah commemorates the revolt against Roman occupation of ancient Israel; that it is a holiday of armed resistance.

Word.

And just how did Hanukkah come to be Christmas Jr.? In Iraq, Jews lit the Hanukkiah (special candelabra), sang a song or two, and donated money to yeshiboth (Jewish learning institutions) to preserve Jewish continuity; because, again, Hanukkah commemorates Jewish resistance to assimilation and therefore is all about preservation of Jewish identity. Here in America, however, Hanukkah has been blown up into the Christmas psycho-twin. You have one day of presents? Fuck you. We have eight.

Here’s the thing: While I do hold Jewish parents and the Jewish community accountable for resisting Christian temptation and Jewish distortion, I also hold the larger society responsible not only for making Christmas culturally mandatory, but also for creating such a frenzied Christmas environment that those who do not celebrate Christmas are outright pitied. Perhaps if there was a little more awareness of and value for diversity – true diversity, not just compelling minority groups to masquerade as the majority group – Jewish kids wouldn’t be so distracted by, and Jewish parents wouldn’t be so pressured by, all that Christmas bling.

Let me set the record straight: Not only do Jews neither control nor run the United States, but it is damn challenging to be an orthodox Jew in this country. If perhaps the leadership at our schools and places of work stopped wishing us happy holidays during Christmas and instead put all that good cheer into finding ways to accommodate Jews who miss school and work for Jewish holy days, without penalization, chances are that more Jews would celebrate said holy days. With solid identity and pride stemming from the practice of our own tradition, Jews very well might stop dabbling in Hanukkah bushes and otherwise denigrating our legacy by mutating ourselves into second-rate imitations of Christian and Christo-Secular Americans.

As public institutions close on Christmas, as public streets get decorated with Christmas symbols, as Christmas music blasts out of every loudspeaker of stores that characteristically decorate the shopping bags with Christmas images (thus forcing Christmas into every home, like it or not), and as everyone from the bus driver to the bank clerk to the café barista wishes customers “happy holidays,” without stopping to question whether the customers actually celebrate said holidays, the message being sent to religious minorities, around the clock and from every direction, is this: You do not belong. This is not your country. This is not your culture. You are “other.”

A core impetus behind Hanukkah bushes and the like is the desire to be “part-of.” We should, however, be able to belong as we are — without having to be subsumed by someone else’s identity and narrative.

The Christmas PR machine is not only so overwhelming but also so compelling (and I say this as a professional publicist: brilliant marketing) that one year in high school, I consciously chose to allow myself to be swept up in the “Christmas cheer” tidal wave, just to see what it felt like. I distinctly remember enthusiastically embracing my friend Amanda, as both of us jumped up and down, shouting “Merry Christmas” in the orgiastic fervor typical of Christmas spirit. Amanda looked radiant. I felt hollow. Far better to be the salmon fighting the current, I concluded, than to be a fish swept up in someone else’s tide.

For many years, I educated people when they wished me “Merry Christmas,” or more recently, “Happy Holidays.” “I don’t celebrate it/them,” I would reply, “but you have a good one.” Frequently, people responded with pity – either through looks or words. Finally I gave up. It was easier to just say “thanks” or just reply with “take care” or the like, instead of educating each and every single person crossing my Christmas-free path. But then when my neighbor Jill wished me Merry Christmas on December 25, as I was taking my bike out of my house to go for a ride, I just had to say something. “I’m Jewish,” I said, reminding Jill of a fact she knew perfectly well. “Can’t I just wish you Merry Christmas?” she replied, with a tone and body language indicating that she was bestowing me with a precious gift, and I was spitting it back in her face. “I’m. Jewish.” I replied, exasperated. And that was pretty much the end of Jill’s and my relationship.

I have no objection to the celebration of Christmas in and of itself. I object to the fact that it is celebrated in a way that steam-rolls over the identity of those who do not celebrate Christmas. It is touted as the universal pinnacle of human experience, as if there exist no holidays that offer comparable happiness or spirit or connection with others. It also, annoyingly, takes over the calendar. December 24 and December 25 no longer exist. They are, quite simply, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And everyone in this culture is expected to know not only the dates but also the lore, songs, and customs of Christmas, whereas those who celebrate Christmas are not expected to know the same for holidays of religious and ethnic minorities.

Imagine if I were to wish store clerks, Tizkoo leshanim raboth unemoth (may you merit many pleasant years) before R’shana (the Jewish New Year). Blank stares and oooh-kay confusion would ensue. Chances are that even you, dear reader, have no idea what I just said.

On that note, if someone really wants to be all-inclusive, wishing everyone “happy holidays” in December simply does not cut it. Instead, one should take a minute to find out what holidays someone in fact celebrates, and say the appropriate greeting at calendar-appropriate times. In the age of Wikipedia, there is truly no excuse. The information is all right there, on the mighty internet. But even a simple gesture in December, like saying “happy holidays if you celebrate them,” can go a long way. The implication is, “I recognize that you, Christmas non-celebrator, exist.” Pretty cool.

Meanwhile, Christmas has been extended from a month-long assault to a full-on seasonal one. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Christian new year have morphed into one gigantic “holiday” mush, and one can now purchase Christmas stockings in the aisles right next to the Dracula masks. Yay.

There are of course those who say that Christmas is not at all Christian, but rather secular or Pagan. I see the Christian stronghold in all of these assertions. Christianity conquered and converted Pagans, as Christianity conquered and converted, if not outright massacred, every other religious group it could get its hands on. Christianity not only co-opted the holidays and customs of these various groups, in yet another brilliant PR coup, but Christianity is in its very foundation based on the co-opting (and bastardization) of Judaism. And while most Americans celebrate Christmas not through mass but through exchanging gifts, it does not take away the Christian roots of Christmas. Just look at the name: CHRISTmas.

As a former client of mine articulately and succinctly states, “Religion creates culture.” Most Americans may not be Christian and may not celebrate Christmas for Christian reasons, but secular America is imbued with a Christian sensibility so deep at the core of this country that it takes a religious person of another faith to see it. Similarly, white people can’t see whiteness because white equals “normal” in our society. It is the status quo. It therefore takes a person of color to see how very white our culture is.

The blind imposition does not stop at Christmas. There is also the whole issue of “New Years.” All new years are qualified – Jewish new year, Persian new year, Chinese new year – except one: Christian new year. The Christian new year is simply “New Years.” As with Christmas, we are all expected to bow down to and celebrate this new year as our own. “But it’s secular,” people say, looking at me oddly, when they wish me, “Happy New Year,” and I inform them I do not celebrate it. Secular? Really? We’re now in 2013 AD – Anno Domini, ie, the year of our Lord. Anything before the year 0, which is assumed to be the year that Jesus was born, is “[insert year] BC” – Before Christ. Secular my ass.

Only one person, other than my mother, seems to have any awareness of this issue. “Does it annoy you that the world operates according to a Christian calendar?” my friend Danielle once asked – Danielle herself being an awesome, independently-thinking woman from a Christian background.

Christmas and the Jewish-Christian Relationship

Again, the central question is why Christians and Seculo-Christians cannot just honor their holidays privately. What is this compulsion to shove their holidays in everyone’s face, to make everyone celebrate their holidays with them? It is invasive, imposing, dare I say violent. One might even call it severely co-dependent. As in, I cannot wear a red dress unless you, too, are wearing a red dress; therefore, I will force you to wear a red dress, even if you virulently hate red dresses, so that I am able to wear my red dress in a sea of red dresses, which is exactly how red dresses should be worn at all times.

A telling example is the hubaloo over Christmas at my mother’s Jewish independent living center. The center accepts people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, the non-Jews of whom have launched, over the years, a mission to erode the Jewish character of the center. Dripping with Christian and Christo-secular entitlement, they have been offended not only by the presence of Jewish celebration – such the kosher kitchen – but also by the absence of Christian celebration. The Christian and Christo-secular residents in fact created such an uproar that today, when you walk into this Jewish institution, established and funded in large part by Jewish organizations, you are assaulted by a Christmas wreath, larger-than-life size Christmas tree, and miscellaneous winter-wonderland paraphernalia.

In addition, when residents were given permission to decorate their personal apartment doors, and only their personal apartment doors, with Christmas imagery, a few residents took it upon themselves to also decorate the walls surrounding and across from their doors. Now one is assaulted by Christmas imagery from all sides, while walking past certain units.

It is all par for the course of how Christianity has operated over the millennia. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, Catholic leaders routinely corralled Jewish leaders and forced them into compulsory religious debates. The juries, of course, were totally rigged, and the whole debacle was a setup to justify the massacre and expulsion of Spanish Jews. Catholics could not just practice Catholicism and allow Jews to practice Judaism. Jews had to practice Catholicism. Or else.

And so we come to a core issue at the root of Christianity in general and Christmas in particular: Christianity is founded not only on the rejection but also on the villainization of Judaism. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, not only said to be the son of Gd, but said to have been murdered by the duplicitous, scheming, deceitful, cunning, shrewd, and ultimately evil Jews who therefore cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted. Therein lies the reason people are so willing to believe that Jews run the media, banks, government, and fill-in-the-blank:

Jews killed Gd.

Seriously, you cannot be more of a scary, two-timing, butt-fuck asshole than if you have killed Gd. And herein lies the implicit, if not explicit, justification for the persecution of Jews throughout Christian countries, over the millennia. Jews are the perfect scapegoat, because Gd-killers are obviously evil and therefore are most certainly behind anything and everything unseemly in society. One can never, under any circumstances, trust Jews. They may seem warm and friendly, but that’s just the devil in disguise.

And here’s the kicker: If Jesus did in fact exist, he was a Jew – killed like other Jews, on the cross, by the Roman empire conquerors of ancient Israel, in a grotesque, brutal, horrific punishment for simply being a Jew. Not only were Jews murdered on crosses in their own land, but for the next 2,000 plus years, Jews were collectively blamed, punished, and massacred for the possibility that Romans murdered a fellow Jew on a cross, for the crime of being a Jew.

What?!

To make things even more perverse, Hanukkah specifically honors the Jewish revolt against the Romans during the very period that Jesus supposedly lived and died on that there cross. And now Hanukkah cowers in the shadow of Christmas. Unbelievable.

I could overlook the Jew-hating roots of Christianity and Jew-murdering history of Christmas, in the interest of knocking back a few eggnogs with all the shiny-faced, well-meaning Christian and Christo-secular types, if only Christmas were not shoved down my face 24/7, with the demand that I, too, revel in its halo of glory — as if Christmas were central to my very existence. But 1) the public celebration of Christmas is a blatant violation of the American Constitution, whose tenets I hold dear; 2) Christmas is compulsory, both culturally and financially, therefore stealing my freedom of choice; 3) religious minorities are penalized for celebrating their own holidays on the very day of said holidays; and 4) it is impossible to escape Christmas – not only on the holiday itself, but now, for an entire quarter of the calendar year.

Which all goes to say: Christmas cheer? Not so much. Christmas is, quite simply, a yearly assault that I do my best to power through – turning off all forms of mass communication where I do not have total control; avoiding all public gatherings that are not specifically of a religious minority (ie, Christmas-free); and shopping with earplugs, so that Frosty the g*damned Snowman stays the fuck out of my head.


A pioneering Jewish multicultural educator, writer, healer, musician, and public relations manager, Loolwa Khazzoom now synthesizes it all through music-driven programs with her band, Iraqis in Pajamas – facilitating irreverent motivational speaking programs. Her work has been featured in media including The New York Times, CNN, and Rolling Stone and can be found at Loolwa.com (new website launch in January).

Noodles flex their versatility in sweet, savory kugels


During a recent cooking class I was teaching, several students showed an interest in Jewish foods that could be served during Chanukah, aside from the traditional potato latkes.   

Sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, are another popular choice at this time of year, but I thought of something else. As far back as I can remember, old-fashioned kugel — one of the basic foods in Jewish cuisine — has been served at our family meals to celebrate the holiday.

In Germany, the name kugel has become synonymous with pudding, and the two words in Europe often are interchangeable. Most kugel recipes are based on noodles, rice or potatoes, and kugel can be served as a side dish, main course or dessert, hot or cold.

While the crisp Classic Potato Kugel is a hearty accompaniment for brisket, pot roast or roasted chicken, my personal favorite is a Noodle Fruit Kugel, accented with apples and raisins. 

Most kugel recipes can be prepared in advance and refrigerated until ready to bake and serve.

And don’t worry, just because kugel is on the menu this Chanukah doesn’t mean your family has to pass on those old-fashioned potato latkes. It’s easy to convert the potato kugel batter into latkes simply by spooning some of the mixture into a nonstick skillet and frying them until golden brown.    

CLASSIC POTATO KUGEL

This recipe also can be used to make Classic Latkes (see below).

1/4 cup olive oil
2 eggs
2 cups peeled, grated potatoes, well-drained and tightly packed (preferably russet)
1 small onion, grated
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Brush bottom and sides of an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with 2 tablespoons olive oil and set aside. 

Beat eggs in a large bowl until fluffy.  Add grated potatoes, onion, remaining olive oil, flour, baking powder and salt and pepper. Spoon the potato mixture into prepared baking dish.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 to 45 minutes longer, until golden brown and crisp.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

CLASSIC LATKES

Prepare potato mixture.

Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet.  Drop a tablespoon of the potato mixture into the skillet, then flatten with the back of a spoon for thin latkes. Brown on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how hot the burner under the frying pan is. Drain on paper towels.  

Makes about 24 latkes.

NOODLE FRUIT KUGEL

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup Concord grape wine or apple juice
1 (12-ounce) package flat egg noodles
1/4 pound unsalted butter
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
4 eggs, well beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon cinnamon-sugar or more to taste (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 F. 

Brush a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with olive oil and set aside.

In a small bowl, soak raisins in wine for 1 hour or overnight, drain before using.  

Boil the noodles until tender, drain into a large bowl. Combine noodles, butter, apples and  raisins and mix well. Add eggs and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar, if desired. 

Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until top is brown and crisp.  Cut into squares. Serve hot or cold. 

Makes about 10 to 12 servings.     

MIDDLE EASTERN RICE KUGEL

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter
Grated peel of 1 orange
Grated peel of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups cooked rice
1/2 cups raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 F. 

Brush bottom and sides of an 8-by-8-inch square baking dish with olive oil and set aside. 

Beat together sugar, butter, orange and lemon peel, cinnamon and vanilla in a large bowl. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well-blended. Stir in rice and raisins and mix thoroughly. 

Pour into prepared baking dish and bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

KUGEL SOUFFLE

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/4 pound flat egg noodles
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
4 eggs, separated
1/4 cup minced parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  

Brush an 8- or 9-inch round mold with melted butter. Set aside.

Cook noodles in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in saucepan. Add flour and whisk until blended. Add warm milk all at once, stirring vigorously with wire whisk. Season to taste, with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Transfer mixture to large bowl and cool slightly. 

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form and set aside. Beat yolks in separate bowl until foamy and add to cooled butter mixture. Stir in noodles. Carefully fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, then parsley. Spoon the mixture into prepared mold and place mold in a shallow baking pan partially filled with hot water.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes or until set. Unmold kugel onto a large platter. 

Makes about 8 servings.


Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com.

Robert Egger, LA Kitchen and the power of food


I’m in a vast professional kitchen, standing by a stockpot the size of a Jacuzzi. The chef ladles a bit of the pot’s steaming brown liquid into a Dixie cup, then holds it out.  

“Try that,” he says. 

I tip the stuff down my throat.  It is earthy, salty. “Beef broth?” I guess.  

“Celery and onions,” the chef, Ryan Stewart, says. “That’s all it is! Celery that was going to be thrown out!” He fishes out a piece of limp cooked celery. “See, we got all the flavor out of it!” He pauses. “Sorry, I get excited about this.”

Beside me, Robert Egger, the founder of L.A. Kitchen, finishes his cup of highly reduced broth. Egger has a trim graying beard and a full-blast demeanor — and he is charged up.

“I see big thermoses of this, instead of coffee,” he says. “You just hit people with all that flavor and goodness!”

I’ve only been at L.A. Kitchen for a couple hours, but I already I’m pretty charged up, too. Turning celery into something spectacular is just a small part of the place’s genius. In the 20,000-foot commercial kitchen space in a converted warehouse just north of downtown Los Angeles, Egger has created a model whose goal is not just to transform people, but to change lives.

“Wasting food is a tragedy,” Egger tells me. “But the real tragedy is that we’re wasting people.”

It’s a mantra familiar to anyone who’s ever been within whispering distance of Egger, but in a society that regularly discards both, a person can’t say it enough.

In 1989, Egger founded DC Central Kitchen in the nation’s capital.  The organization has since prepared 26 million meals and helped 1,000 men and women transition to full-time jobs. In 2014, Egger headed to Los Angeles, where an AARP grant enabled him to create a state-of-the-art kitchen and training center. The digs are fancier but the core idea is the same.

Local growers donate or provide excess or unwanted food. Volunteers and professionals join with people in need of job training — former prison inmates, emancipated foster youth and others — in a 15-week training program that concludes with an internship and job placement in the hospitality industry. 

The meals the trainees prepare are distributed to social service agencies serving L.A.’s most vulnerable residents. And a separate for-profit business, Strong Food, contracts with government agencies to provide meals to the region’s burgeoning senior population.  

As Egger describes the model to me, I’m struck by how all the pieces fit together to address so many problems at once.

“It’s the power of food,” Egger tells me. “ I would say there’s hunger, and then there’s the deeper hunger. You know, the deeper hunger is people want to feel engaged, involved, needed.”

Part of the training involves introducing interns to the different food traditions of the cultures that make up L.A. For Chanukah, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge came to discuss the holiday, then demonstrated latke making. I dropped in for that, then spent the next two hours with a half-dozen volunteers, taking the tips off two cases of organic green beans.   

This was not your grandmother’s soup kitchen. Interns in smart uniforms, nearing the end of their training, guided volunteers through the food prep.  

Egger has nothing against the soup kitchen model, where good-hearted people offer food to the needy. But L.A. Kitchen attacks the problem of hunger from all sides, with a focus on sustainability and job training.

“If you just feed somebody and you don’t liberate them,” he tells me, “it’s bondage. We want tzedakah,” he adds, using the Hebrew word for justice.

In Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike praised the program.  Attention from first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, both avid supporters, helped Egger land school food contracts, which grew DC Central Kitchen into an $11 million-a-year self-supporting nonprofit.   Without a high-profile champion in Los Angeles, orders to feed L.A.’s burgeoning senior population have proven more challenging.

Egger is out to convince the powers that be that a social enterprise model that replaces imported food, low wages and exported profits with local farmers, newly trained workers and profits returned to the community — all the while making healthy food that reduces health care costs — is better for all of L.A.

 “We’re the prophet in the wilderness screaming, ‘The seniors are coming! Let’s feed them better!’ “ Egger says.

Back by the celery broth, Egger shows off more of that food — pans of roasted root vegetables, bevel-cut and glistening with olive oil, and a garden of emerald-bright kale salad. 

 “I mean, this is beautiful,” Egger says. “It’s so beyond what most shelters get.”

I taste one last treat: a dessert truffle of rolled dates, nuts and honey. I walk out, knowing I’ll be back. 

A lot of people have been sitting shivah lately about the state of the union, paralyzed with anxiety or resolved to do something vague, like “resist.” But it seems to me the better plan is to find places like L.A. Kitchen, which offer a way to match our hunger to help with those who are truly hungry — then roll up our sleeves and dive in.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter ” target=”_blank”>@RobEshman.

Jacob and Esau: It’s complicated


Sometimes Torah simply refuses to give us the straight dope. Were man and woman created simultaneously from God’s command (Genesis 1:26-27)? Or did God sculpt Adam out of clay (Genesis 2:7) and then generate Eve from his rib (Genesis 2:21-22)? Does God require us to “remember” the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8) or to “observe” it (Deuteronomy 5:12)? 

Most of Torah’s apparent inconsistencies have inspired ingenious and spiritually enriching solutions: Every Friday evening, for example, we sing “Lecha Dodi,” which specifically marvels at God’s mystical power to express both “observe” and “remember” in a single utterance. 

Sometimes, however, when facing multiple possibilities in Torah, our post-biblical tradition chooses one option over the other — and not always the more uplifting one. This is the case with Jacob’s twin brother, Esau.

As with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Torah depicts Esau confusingly and with marked ambivalence. On the favorable side: Isaac prefers Esau over Jacob (Genesis 25:28); the Torah seems to acknowledge that Jacob swindled him (Genesis 27:36); and God grants him possession of the region called Seir as a rightful inheritance (Deuteronomy 2:22, Joshua 24:4). 

On the unfavorable side: Rebecca prefers Jacob over Esau (Genesis 25:28); Esau’s disposition seems slightly brutish (Genesis 25:27); Esau becomes a foreigner by virtue of marrying Canaanite women (Genesis 36:2); and the Edomites, the people named after Esau, refuse passage to the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 20:21).

By the Book of Judges, the biblical depiction of Esau settles on permanent antagonism, and in the main, the rabbinic and medieval traditions dig in against him. Esau and Jacob (and their descendants) become and remain enemies.

As Parashat Vayishlach begins, however, Esau still represents a complicated mix of conflict and brotherly love. Our weekly portion opens as Jacob returns to the Land of Israel from his uncle’s household in Mesopotamia. When he arrives in Esau’s territory, “Jacob was greatly frightened” (Genesis 32:8). According to the medieval commentary of Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 1085-1158), Jacob feared his brother because he expected Esau to harbor resentment against him. Presumably, Jacob acknowledged Esau’s gripe. So, Jacob propitiates Esau with gifts, and he also prepares for battle, if necessary.

The following morning, the dramatic tension rises with Esau’s approach. Jacob emerges from his own camp and “bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother” (Genesis 33:3). But the tension breaks in grand style, as Esau and Jacob fall into each other’s arms, in one of Torah’s most beautiful passages, replete with brotherly love, forgiveness and reconciliation. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

Sadly, however, our tradition seems unable to get out of its own way and simply take this reunion at face value. In his comment on this climactic moment, Rashi (1040-1105) quotes two midrashim, each negative in its way. In the first case, the rabbis and Rashi doubt the sincerity of Esau’s kiss altogether. In the second, they accept the authenticity of Esau’s embrace, but only because, in the glow of the moment, his anger succumbed to temporary warmth.

Other interpreters are even less charitable. David Kimhi (1160-1235) resignedly determines that “ … originally Esau had intended to bite Jacob’s neck, feigning an embrace, but God made his teeth as soft as wax and Jacob’s neck as hard as ivory.”

And the story does not improve. Over the subsequent centuries, Jewish authors adapted the Bible’s tradition of pegging biblical characters to contemporary nations. In this way, Torah establishes that our people, Israel, came from Jacob, and later traditions claim that Ishmael became the forebear of the Arabs. Meanwhile, over the course of our long history, Esau was associated with a few different peoples (Idumeans, Romans, etc.), all of whom shared one common trait: enmity with the Jewish people.

So it was that Esau, who fell into his twin brother’s embrace — our embrace — came to represent the ultimate enemy, a bit like another infamous oppressor of the Jews, Amalek. But unlike Amalek, Esau breaks our heart, not only because he is our twin brother but also because Vayishlach seems to promise reconciliation with a kiss.

Reading it year in, year out, perhaps we can make Vayishlach’s optimism our beacon, even if history sometimes threatens to get in the way. 


Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

How I learned to make latkes