Rabbi Larry Goldmark (left) passes on his Torah to Michael Cohen, who was ordained as a rabbi on May 14. Photo by Marvin Steindler

Now a rabbi, army chaplain will continue to serve

Michael Cohen is the first to admit his was not the typical path for a Jewish kid from Nashville.

After college, he enlisted in the Army with a plan to become an Army chaplain. He served five years before transitioning from active duty to the reserves to pursue his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles, and on May 14 he was ordained with 12 classmates at a ceremony at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

“In the Nashville Jewish community, much as in the national Jewish community, no one serves in the U.S. military,” said Cohen, 32, whose wife, Emily Hyatt Cohen, also was ordained on May 14. He added, recalling his childhood, “My parents are both from New York and were very anti anything that looked like military.”

Cohen attended Sunday school at a Reform synagogue but his parents were not particularly religious. In a community where Judaism was not universally embraced, he learned to keep his religion quiet. His father, who died when Cohen was 16, did become more observant toward the end of his life. “That inspired me,” Cohen said.

His parents’ military sentiments aside, Cohen was inspired by his Boy Scout troop leaders, many of whom served in the Vietnam War.

“I learned from an early age that national service is one of the highest forms of [giving] back to a nation that has provided freedom for us,” he said.

Cohen’s experiences in the military continue to inform his work as a chaplain — in 2015 he became the Army’s first Jewish chaplain to serve after receiving a master’s degree; all others had been ordained.

In the Army, Cohen served in psychological operations — or, in layman’s terms, marketing. The goal was to get the local population to embrace the Army’s objectives through various media. Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he was with the 82nd Airborne Division, on a four-month humanitarian mission in support of the United Nations. Later, he spent a year in Afghanistan.

His most memorable interaction with an Army chaplain during his early service was far from positive. “I had a chaplain try to convince me that Judaism was proven false, was an antiquated religion,” Cohen said.

Other experiences with chaplains, while limited, weren’t much better, with one major exception. During his last year of active duty, Cohen had the opportunity to shadow a chaplain, an Eastern Orthodox priest and former officer, who was consistently friendly, accessible and comforting, Cohen said. “He was the chaplain I saw myself wanting to be.”

Cohen met Rabbi Larry Goldmark during his second year of studies at HUC-JIR. Goldmark was the leader of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada from 1979 to 2008 and for the past eight years has been a volunteer at the college, working closely with rabbinical students.

As a member of the reserves, Cohen sometimes wore his uniform to school, prompting Goldmark to offer that he, too, had been an Army chaplain. “We shared stories,” Cohen said.

From that day, Goldmark became one of Cohen’s closest confidantes.

“At different points in time, I felt a little browbeaten for my choice in career, stance on the military and support of the military,” Cohen said of his years of study. He recalled several occasions when a faculty member asked to reschedule a meeting because Cohen wore his uniform, rather than civilian clothes. Another time, a professor told him that people who join the military are naturally more inclined to be violent. Cohen made clear his disagreement.

“I felt a little bit like a pariah,” he said. “I would go to [Goldmark]. I would talk to him. He would comfort me and console me. He would be the person who understood what I was doing. He helped me maintain my faith.”

Cohen attributes the negative responses he faced to liberal and progressive attitudes toward the military that harken back to the Vietnam era and the mandatory registration for the Selective Service draft. “I compare it to nowadays when we have a professional, 100 percent volunteer army,” Cohen said. “It certainly isn’t what it was.”

He also faced other kinds of prejudice in the Army. He recalled a  drill sergeant who called him “bagel” for four months. “A lot of things like that happened,” he said. “I had to push my Judaism aside and emphasize the soldier part. Now, I literally wear my religion on my chest.” Above his name on his uniform is an image of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments and a Jewish star.

Cohen’s experiences in the military continue to inform his work as a chaplain — in 2015 he became the Army’s first Jewish chaplain to serve after receiving a master’s degree; all others had been ordained.

One lesson he learned early on is the importance for a soldier to remain true to his religion.   

“When service members come to me and say, ‘Can we do a Shabbat service?’ or do a certain thing here, in one part of my brain I have to think, maybe this is the only point during the week or month that this soldier can act Jewish,” he said.

Cohen, who has a young child, will return to active service in June, based at Fort Stewart in Georgia, and will spend much of 2018 in South Korea with the Third Infantry Division.

Rabbi Larry Goldmark’s Torah was a graduation gift to Rabbi Michael Cohen. Photo by Marvin Steindler

This time, he will have a beautiful hand-calligraphed Torah to use for Saturday morning Shabbat services and other occasions. The Torah was a graduation gift from Goldmark, who received it nearly 50 years ago when he began his military service. It was part of a kit given to him by the Jewish Welfare Board, now the Jewish Chaplains Council, that also included a Kiddush Cup and candles.

“[Michael’s] dedication, to both the military and being a rabbi, I find so overwhelming,” Goldmark said. “It led me to this idea of giving this Torah to him. … I wanted it to be perpetuated with the next generation of Jewish chaplains rather than sit in my library. I want it to be used, to have an immediate impact on the people that Michael is serving.”

Cohen initially declined, believing it was more than he could accept. He suggested he would take it on the condition that it was a loan.

“His response was, ‘No, it needs to be with soldiers. I want you to have it,’ ” Cohen said. “Ultimately, I was very appreciative and grateful, and I expressed that to him. … To me, a tallit or kippah or a siddur, all these things are sacred and have these mystical qualities. So when someone says, I am going to give you a Torah, that just kind of blew my mind.”

Cohen added, “I have this really wonderful idea that when I am done with my 20 years and retiring, that I can pass it along to someone else. … It’s not like there’s an updated version with a new chapter. … It will transcend Larry and myself and have its own legacy [of] providing service to soldiers.”

Gunman fatally shot at Nashville movie theater, one injured -police

A gunman also wielding an axe opened fire at a Nashville-area theater showing of the movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” and was shot dead by police after slightly injuring at least one person on Wednesday, police and fire officials said.

More than a dozen emergency vehicles were on the scene at the Carmike Hickory 8 movie complex in Antioch, where one man suffered minor injuries from the axe and that man and two women were treated for exposure to pepper spray, possibly from the gunman, officials said.

“We believe the imminent threat has been ended,” police spokesman Don Aaron told reporters.

He said the gunman, a 51-year-old man, had a backpack or some other type of bag on him, and authorities were going through it to make sure that it did not pose a danger.

Brian Haas of the Nashville Fire Department said none of the injuries, including the axe wound, appeared to be serious and none of the victims were transported to area hospitals.

“It appeared to be nothing but a bad bruise,” he told reporters referring to the person struck by the axe.

Two employees of a nearby Starbucks restaurant said they heard three or four gunshots and saw several police, fire trucks and ambulance vehicles responding.

The shooting comes less than two weeks after three people were killed and nine were wounded when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. The gunman was among the dead.

In the Lafayette incident, the 59-year-old gunman opened fire on July 23 in a movie house during a showing of the comedy “Trainwreck.” Two theatergoers were killed before he took his own life as police closed in.

That shooting came almost three years to the day after 12 people were slain and dozens wounded by a gunman at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.”

The Nashville shooting follows the fatal shooting of five U.S. servicemen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the massacre of nine African Americans at a South Carolina church.

The Jewish Jane Austen

One of the remarkable things about Ruchama King Feuerman’s second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” (New York Review of Books, $9.99) is the fact it is only available as an ebook in the NYRB Lit series.  Such is the fate of literary fiction nowadays, and it remains to be seen whether authors and publishers will find their readership in the world of digital publishing. 

Feuerman is certainly worthy of attention. Her first novel, “Seven Blessings,” was published in a print-on-paper edition by St. Martin’s Press, and one reviewer hailed her as the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Her new book is more nearly a thriller, although it is, like her earlier work, much concerned with romantic intrigue, too. 

Born in Nashville, Tenn., Feuerman now lives and works in Israel, where her new book is set.  One of the great pleasures of her novel, in fact, is her rich and vivid evocation of contemporary Jerusalem, and especially the people and places in Jerusalem that would not be out of place in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists and other holy men.” Her protagonist is Isaac — “forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side” before he sold his haberdashery, boarded an El Al flight to Israel, and put himself in service to a charismatic rebbe in Jerusalem. 

Isaac soon encounters an Arab man named Mustafa, a trash collector on the Temple Mount who is reduced to his low labor by a physical disfigurement with which he was born. “Satan is inside Mustafa,” his mother observed. “Expect seven misfortunes from a cripple.” And his sister warned him against marriage: “How’ll you kiss your bride?” she taunts, referring to his twisted and frozen neck.

Isaac also befriends a worldly young woman, Tamar, a motorcycle-riding redhead who is seeking advice from the rebbe on how to find a yeshiva boy for a husband. “I wish you a lot of luck finding the best,” says Isaac, though life usually has something else to say.” But, inevitably, Isaac notices that Tamar appears to be interested in him. “A man is a human being, not an angel,” he reflects as he tries to talk himself out of “another entanglement, more trouble.” Says Isaac: “The two of them together, it was like milchigs and fleishigs, meat and dairy; they just didn’t mix.”

Between these three points of contact — Isaac, Mustafa and Tamar — Feuerman tells a tale of human beings who seek to make connections with each other against all odds against and with no inkling of the consequences. From the outset, Feuerman manages to inject a note of tension into her narrative, and it carries us through the suspenseful story that she has chosen to tell.

Along the way, Feuerman displays a sharp eye for the rhythms of real life in Jerusalem. She knows, for example, that the lobby of the King David Hotel is a favorite venue for couples whose first meeting has been arranged by a matchmaker, and that’s where Isaac goes on “blind dates” with “a stream of Rochels and Leahs and Mindys and Yocheveds … a decade and a half of shidduchs.” 

The author is interested in the lives of the religious, both Jewish and Muslim, and when she allows us to glimpse the wider world of contemporary Israel, it is usually through their eyes.  When Isaac rides a bus down Jaffa Road, the passengers fix their eyes on a dark-skinned man with a backpack until he opens it and takes out a volume of Talmud. “Too much bus drama!” Isaac muses. “If only those foolish boys — and of course Peres — hadn’t rushed off to Oslo to make their deals with Arafat, he thought. Because only then the party had started.”

Mustafa, as it happens, makes a gift to Isaac that turns out to the fatal link between them.  He finds an interesting object in a pile of rubbish on the Temple Mount — to Mustafa, of course, it is called the Noble Sanctuary — and innocently presents it to Isaac, who brings the object to an Israeli archaeologist. The little red globe of clay turns out to be an artifact that may date from as far back as the First Temple, a rare and even revolutionary archaeological treasure. Mustafa regards the whole notion as blasphemous because he has been taught that the Temple of antiquity was pure myth. “Crazy Jews, he scoffed. Talking, always talking.” But the significance of his gift cannot be overlooked.

Indeed, the artifact turns out to be a crucial but also volatile object, one that is capable of transforming the lives of both Isaac and Mustafa. Here the author shows that she may be the Jewish Jane Austen, but she is also something of a Jewish Graham Greene.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Evolution of Reform Judaism Progressing

At Temple Congregation Ohabei Shalom in Nashville, Tenn., congregants newly trained in the ancient skill of shofar blowing sounded the ceremonial ram’s horn for the first time this past Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time a lay member of the 150-year-old synagogue had blown the shofar.

“It was quite a pivotal moment” for the 800-family congregation, said its rabbi, Mark Schiftan.

Deeply rooted in classical Reform Judaism, the temple’s services until recently were marked by choirs and English-only prayer. This Reform movement charter synagogue is undergoing upheaval, and it is not alone.

A journey toward religious tradition, accompanied by musical innovation, is reshaping many of the more than 920 member synagogues of the Reform movement. The change is not new, but it marks a continuing evolution for the movement, which just officially changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism, shedding its old name, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).

The name change was one of several changes at the group’s 67th biennial convention in Minneapolis last week. Many of those changes have come from on high.

The union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie (see sidebar), signaled a historic shift in North America’s largest liberal Jewish denomination at its 1999 biennial, with a worship initiative urging synagogues to use more Hebrew in prayer and reassess communal worship. His call came after a statement of principles by the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, which had met in Pittsburgh earlier that year and sought “renewed attention” to Jewish commandments or mitzvot.

Last week, Yoffie tried to nudge the movement even further, calling for Reform Jews to log online daily to a “Ten Minutes of Torah” Internet program. The Torah, he said during his Shabbat morning speech at the biennial, “is the engine that drives Jewish life.”

“Such a commitment would enable us to meet our Jewish obligation to make Jewish study a fixed occurrence,” Yoffie said. “And if the answer is, ‘I can’t find 10 minutes,’ let me suggest that we need to take a good look at our priorities.”

Yoffie is the first to admit that many of North America’s estimated 1.5 million Reform Jews may find the idea foreign. Since his initial calls four years ago, Reform Jewry has embraced more intensive religious study “conceptually” but not in practice, Yoffie said in an interview at the conference.

“There is a core, committed elite that is studying,” he said. “On the ground, results are strong in some areas, less strong in others.”

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at the movement’s seminary in New York, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), said that when it comes to congregational worship, “Reform is all over the map.”

Hoffman spoke at a conference panel called, “Beyond the Worship Wars: Worship Change Four Years Later,” which examined how Reform congregations are responding to Yoffie’s 1999 calls. Change “is a process; everybody knows it takes seven to 10 years,” Hoffman said.

Exhortation to change has become a movement fixture. After World War II, the UAHC’s then-president, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, began moving Reform away from its classical roots. His successors, first Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then Yoffie, who took the helm in 1996, followed the path, with each one raising the bar further.

For many of the 4,500 movement leaders and activists who gathered in Minneapolis, change remains an article of faith. Daily and evening prayer sessions throughout the week echoed to crowds of dozens, with those praying donning yarmulkes and prayer shawls. The event also saw its first all-Hebrew prayer session.

The workshops on religious themes were crowded, too, including those on delivering a d’var Torah, or text-based teaching; learning to chant from the Torah; creating High Holiday liturgy; and experiencing a yoga minyan.

Some were not surprised by Yoffie’s renewed call for commitment, if only because it signaled another step in the movement’s evolution.

“Certainly the bar has been raised,” said Rabbi Joe Black of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M. “One of the things Rabbi Yoffie has done throughout his tenure is place Torah at the center of the Reform movement.”

However, Black said he and his 700-household congregation “haven’t necessarily responded to the call for more tradition — the call was a reflection of what was happening for many years.”

In his eight years at the 107-year-old synagogue, Black said he has seen a boom in adult education, with classes in Hebrew, prayer and Jewish history. Twice a month, the synagogue offers Shabbat Torah study, which alternates with two meditation sessions.

Many Reform rabbis and cantors in the movement lead services with a guitar — several even held a biennial workshop on music and prayer.

Black has produced several compact disks. He leads an informal, musical Shabbat service, which relies on a prayer book the congregation designed that transliterates the Hebrew and includes gender-neutral references to God. In addition, there is a monthly Friday night family Shabbat service, featuring a puppet show for children.

While 60 percent of the synagogue’s liturgy is now in Hebrew, he said, it also often runs a more formal service, with a choir and a sermon following the initial prayers, for those who prefer the old style.

A similar mix flavors the rituals at Nashville’s Temple Congregation Ohabei Shalom. Once a month, approximately 200 people typically gather there for “Blue Jean Shabbat,” featuring a five-piece band playing music by the likes of the renowned Debbie Friedman. The cantor, Bernard Gutcheon, strums guitar.

While about 40 percent of Ohabei Shalom’s services now contain Hebrew — using the “Gates of Prayer” book, which was published in 1975 and offers alternative Shabbat prayers — older members still attend more classical Reform services using the “Union Prayer Book,” first published in 1895.

The Albuquerque and Nashville temples are among those which have experimented with the movement’s new prayer book, “Mishkan Tefilah,” which is due to be published in 2005 for wider dissemination. The new prayer book includes prayers in Hebrew, with translations and transliterations, commentary on the prayers and source references, with music and songs throughout.

Beth Haverim, a 280-family congregation in Mahwah, N.J., is also experimenting with the new book. Beth Haverim’s Rabbi Joel Mosbacher said that while he believes the new prayer book’s inclusion of transliterated Hebrew prayers is a crutch, allowing people to avoid learning Hebrew, he found that prayer participation among his congregants has skyrocketed since its introduction.

“Even as we shift to the right, you have to acknowledge that people aren’t there yet with their knowledge base,” he said.

Like other congregations, Beth Haverim is trying to fill that gap, using about 60 percent Hebrew in its services, but offering adult education, such as Hebrew instruction, Friday night book reviews and an introduction to Judaism course that is popular in many Reform congregations. The course doubles as a refresher for Jews and a primer for non-Jewish members.

At the same time, Beth Haverim Cantor Barbra Lieberstein has created such services as a pop-infused rock Shabbat and has brought in a classically and jazz-trained pianist for the High Holidays.

Hoffman of HUC-JIR joked that in Reform worship, “the three most important things are music, music and music.”

In Reform spiritual life, Black said, “we’re moving from an emphasis on pediatric Judaism, where you drop your kids off at school, to lifelong learning.”

Despite all the signs of fervor at the biennial, Yoffie said he does not delude himself about what’s happening at the grass-roots level, because such summits largely draw the movement’s leadership.

At the same time, he said, “if you walk into the average Reform synagogue now as opposed to 10 years ago, you will see that worship is appreciably different. It’s more participatory, there’s more Hebrew.”

“Have we seen change?” he asked. “Yes. Are we done? We’re never done.”