Works of Renewal and Celebration


The Chasidic masters had a custom of creating short lists of practical spiritual advice for their followers, and some of the devotees would write these on small pieces of paper and carry them in their pockets as frequent reminders. These spiritual practices, or hanhagot, is a genre of Chasidic literature that hasn’t received much attention from scholars or seekers, as Or Rose explains in the introduction to his new book, "God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters," edited and translated by Rose with Ebn D. Leader (Jewish Lights).

"These brief teachings are designed to aid the devotee in applying the Hasidic ideals to daily life," he writes, noting that Chasidic rebbes emphasized the possibility of encountering the Divine everywhere, whether in traveling, the marketplace or in conversation.

Often, these hanhagot — dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries — are found appended to other texts. Rose, a doctoral candidate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University, culled, selected and translated them from Hebrew, and organized them thematically, from "Awakening and Renewal" to "In Speech and In Silence." Translations appear on one page, and a facing page includes commentary. Rose says — using contemporary language — that the hanhagot would be used for spiritual centering. Included is guidance on dealing with conflicts, fear, arrogance, sexual relations and prayer; the reader sees that even the most righteous people sometimes have problems with concentration in prayer.

At present, the tradition or writing hanhagot continues. At the back are two neo-Chasidic hanhagot, by Hillel Zeitlin, a writer and martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Arthur Green, a contemporary scholar and theologian, who is the author’s mentor.

Rose speaks of the power of these texts, particularly helpful at a time of introspection, like this period of preparing for the holidays. This might be a good book to tuck away and bring to synagogue as supplementary reading.

While there have been many books on the subject of forgiveness, there are few focused on apology. Aaron Lazare, chancellor, dean and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, has written "On Apology" (Oxford), a wise analysis of the vital, powerful interaction that is transformative, a process at once simple and entangled. For Lazare, apology is the acknowledgement of an offense followed by an expression of remorse and, often, expressions of shame and acts of reparations.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: "I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind."

His own interest in the subject grew out of an unpleasant personal experience. He looks at the relationship between apology and forgiveness, and focuses on both the individual level of apologizing and also at groups and nations, citing Abraham Lincoln’s apology for slavery, and the German government’s apology to the victims of World War II.

In China, as he notes, there are several apology companies and radio talk shows centered on apology on state radio. It’s possible to hire a paid surrogate to write letters, deliver gifts and offer explanations.

"Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah" by Rahel Musleah, illustrations by Judy Jarrett (Kar-Ben) is a book for the holiday table. Musleah, who grew up in Calcutta (her family traces their ancestry to 17th-century Baghdad), presents the seder that her family would conduct on the eve of Rosh HaShanah: saying blessings and eating traditional foods in a prescribed order. The tradition dates back 2,000 years to a custom suggested in the Talmud, that at the beginning of the new year people eat certain foods that grow in abundance and symbolize prosperity. The Rosh Hashanah seder is practiced in communities around the world, particularly in Sephardic communities from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East.

The book includes blessings, folk tales, activities, crafts and recipes for pumpkin bread, beets in ginger and honey, fruit salad with pomegranate, roasted leeks and other dishes featuring traditional foods. In her introduction, Musleah explains that the blessings may be based on a particular characteristic of the food to be emulated (i.e. the sweetness of the apple) or wordplay. She includes the traditional Hebrew blessings, although in the translations, she adds "positive wishes for peace, friendship and freedom."

She writes: "You might have to wait a few extra minutes before you eat dinner, but in that time you can literally ‘count your blessings.’"

Musleah, a Jewish educator, singer, writer and storyteller who lives in Great Neck, suggests these wishes for friendship in connection with leeks: "May it be Your Will, God, that our enemies be cut off. (She points out that karti, the word for leek, sounds like yikartu, the word for "cut off.") Without enemies, we hope for the blessing of friendship. Like we eat this leek, may our luck never lack in the year to come."

A Prayer Book of Many Colors


Lori Justice-Shocket thought that the traditional praying
experience was just a bit too black and white. Not the prayers, themselves, per
se, but the siddurim (prayer books), with their plain black typeface on white
pages and the archaic traditional language, made davening, for her at least,
formal, stiff and lacking in the visual and emotional engagement that she
thought prayer should have.

So Justice-Shocket, vice president of conceptual development
at the Los Angeles-based nail polish company, OPI, decided to take matters into
her own  presumably well-manicured hands  and create a prayer book that could
visually and intellectually inspire worshippers.

The result is the new Reform Shabbat morning prayer book,
“Mikdash M’at” (Behrman House Inc), which means “small sanctuary.” It’s a
prayer book unlike any seen before. The first page — the morning blessings — is
illuminated in deep reds and pinks, and thereafter the colors don’t stop.
Sometimes the graphics are superimposed on the text, other times they are
located at the side, but every page is replete with some design, either a
graphic of an old Israeli coin, item of Judaica or a vibrant and richly hued
modernist painting that causes one to look twice at the text it illuminates.

The text, however, is still the same. “Mikdash M’at” is a
traditional prayer book with traditional prayers — they’re just presented in a
funkier fashion. Justice-Shocket also worked to make the prayers easier to
follow. The book is divided into the seven parts of the Shabbat morning
davening. Many of the prayers are transliterated, but all are translated into
gender-inclusive English. Most are prefaced with a brief explanation of what
the prayer is about, to inhibit mindless recitation of the words. For those who
get distracted during prayer, this is the kind of book that keeps you looking
inside.

To order, visit www.behrmanhouse.com .

God, Prayers and Keeping the Faith


Rabbi Harold Kushner’s son, Aaron, died two days before he turned 14 following a battle with a rare and horrific childhood disease. The experience led the 68-year-old Massachusetts rabbi to write, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a comforting and deeply insightful book on the nature of tragedy and evil. Kushner’s latest book is “The Lord is My Shepherd: Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm.” While in Los Angeles last week, he spoke with Rabbi Naomi Levy, author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle and Celebration” (Knopf, 2002), about the nature of God, the purpose of prayer, and the power of the synagogue on the High Holidays.

Naomi Levy: It seems that people are so much more interested in a relationship with a personal God today.

Harold Kushner: There are a lot of people who wish I had written a book saying, “God is in charge of the world, and everything that happens is for a good reason, and it will all work out in the end, and God is there to provide happy endings.” I wish I lived in that world. I wish I lived in a world where children would be healthy, and good people got what they deserved, and bad people would somehow get in a traffic accident on the way to commit a crime and never get there. I happen not to. And I can either hide from the reality, or I can deny God’s goodness, or I can do what I’ve done. And that is to say that God is not there to control, God is there to comfort.

NL: I’m thinking of words in the 23rd Psalm: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.” Yesterday, I went to visit a young woman in the hospital who is dying. She believes in God and knowing that God is with her is a comfort. My presence and my prayers for her were also a comfort. But ultimately she’s dying and there’s no comfort in it.

HK: You’re right. That’s the shadow of death. We are unsettled about the fact of mortality. I’m sorry, but it’s a fact. What my pastoral experience has told me is that people can accept mortality. It’s partly the pain of dying that they’re afraid of, the process of dying. And partly the real fear, I think, is not just that they won’t live forever. I think people are concerned about, and this is what I finally realized what the book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], is not that he’s going to die, but that death will nullify everything that his life has been. And so the reassurance for people who are intimidated by the valley of the shadow of death is to reassure them that their life means something.

NL: When you’re that young and you’re dying, there’s also a sense of being cheated.

HK: Absolutely. That’s one of the only consolations that you can give those people is that they’ve had an impact. I had to talk to my 13-year-old son about the fact that he wouldn’t live very long after that, and he felt terribly cheated. The only thing I could say to him, and it was around the time of his bar mitzvah is that, “Yeah it’s a rotten deal,” and it’s not anything he deserves. But the fact is that a lot of people live a whole lot longer than 14 years and don’t change other people’s lives the way he did. And that was even before I wrote this book about what his life and death has taught me.

NL: Why do you think the 23rd Psalm has been such a comfort to so many?

HK: One of the reasons we recite the 23rd Psalm at a bedside and the reasons it’s comforting is it says, there’s a whole lot of suffering and unfairness in the world, but I can handle it because God is with me and not on the side of the malignant tumor and not on the side of the criminal and not on the side of the accident. So that the woman who’s dying of cancer doesn’t have to feel that God has condemned her to this death, but that nature, mortality, human frailty, power lines, chemicals, genetics, has caused her to die young and God is there to ease the pain. To invest her all-too-brief life with meaning. To give her loved ones whom she leaves behind immense resilience to mourn for her and get over it and find their way through the valley of the shadow into the sunshine again.

NL: Do you think Christians and Jews respond differently to the 23rd Psalm?

HK: You know what the biggest difference I found is? Jews are surprised to find out it’s a Jewish prayer. Maybe some Christians see it differently in terms of a promise of the world to come more than Jews do. But I think in terms of its comfort it’s the same for all people.

NL: Yet prayer seems so difficult for so many Jews, for those who are not involved in Jewish life and even for the Jews who go to synagogue every week.

HK: I think you’re right to separate out the problem for the Jews who pray regularly from the Jews who don’t. For those who aren’t familiar with the service, I think the answer is obvious. They don’t know what the heck is going on. It’s like going to a football game if you don’t understand football…. A non-Jewish friend of mine asked me recently: What do Jews pray for? And I said I don’t think Jews really pray for. I think Jews pray to and I think Jews pray with. I think a lot of what goes on at a service is davening the liturgy without paying close attention to the meaning of the words, because I think there’s a difference between the meaning of the words and the meaning of the prayer. The emotional impact of the “Mourner’s Kaddish” has nothing to do with what the words are. I think part of the difficulty is that Jews haven’t quite figured out what they believe about God. It’s very hard to make sense of prayer unless you know what you believe about God.

The other part of the difficulty is that we have excessively bought into the Christian perception of prayer as begging. And either we’re not comfortable doing that or we have reason to believe it doesn’t work. Prayer is congregating. Prayer is affirming. Prayer is gratitude. If we understood that that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, I think it would be a lot easier for us to pray. I go to shul not because there’s something I need to tell God, I go to shul because I want to be with other Jews who are in shul. And one of the ways I achieve that is by reciting the same liturgy in unison, whether or not I subscribe to the literal meaning of the words.

NL: What I see outside of shul are many Jews who have a deep need for prayer who find themselves at the Zen center or at the local church precisely because they don’t find shul to be a meaningful spiritual experience.

HK: I can’t tell you how many Shabbats I do not find shul to be a meaningful spiritual experience. When you go to a bar mitzvah and half the congregation doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t care, it’s very hard to get that sense of tzibbur [community], and I think that’s one of the things we go to shul for. I think the purpose of the congregational service is to become part of a congregation. The need for personal prayer, a relationship to a personal God, I think that’s something you either do at home alone or you do in shul when you tune out from the liturgy.

NL: In your book you say that the line in the 23rd Psalm: “He leads me along straight paths” is actually an incorrect translation of the Hebrew. And that the proper meaning of the Hebrew is that God leads us along circuitous paths that turn out to be straight in the end. Are you saying that God leads along circuitous paths, and then that we’ll look back and we’ll realize that it all made sense?

HK: I’m saying two things. One, it’s possible the psalmist believes that’s what God does. Secondly, I think God’s role is that when our life become tortuous, which of course means twisted, God will sometimes intervene to show us the way through. For example, a woman is dumped by her husband for a younger woman, and she feels terribly rejected. I cannot believe that God puppeteered this to teach her a lesson or to cause her to grow spiritually, or to make sure she ends up with the right guy. I think it happened because her husband was selfish and inconsiderate. God’s role, I think, is to give her the strength of character not to let that event define her as an unlovable, rejected woman, but to make her the kind of person who will be able to love again and ultimately to find someone to share her life with. God is not stage managing the whole problem the way a scriptwriter does.

NL: You don’t read divine intention into the path that our lives take?

HK: No, I don’t. Because, you see, that would force me to say that God wanted my son to die a horrible death so that I would write a book.

NL: This book is also a book of comfort, with, it seems, something important to say as we enter Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

HK: I think there are two messages. One is, with every scary thing that’s going on in the world the message of the psalm is don’t be afraid. Not because this will be a year of good news. Don’t be afraid because whatever happens you’ll be able to handle it. Did you know the mitzvah most commonly repeated in the Torah is, “Don’t be afraid?” I think that’s what the psalm comes to tell us. Secondly, when at the High Holidays, at Yizkor time or at any other time, even though the shul is so crowded, we are painfully aware of the empty seats, the people who once shared the holidays with us [who] are no longer there. I think God’s message is that there’s a sense in which they are still there. Death can take them out of our future, but not out of our past.

What God calls on us to do if we’re still grieving for them is to find our way through the valley of the shadow back into the sunlight again. And I think the question is: “What can God do to help me in an uncertain and scary world?” The answer I find is God can’t guarantee happy endings. God guarantees that He’ll be there to help you.

Power of Song Gives Hope to Mourners


A project that began 10 years ago as a tribute to a dead brother has been expanded as a memorial to the victims of terrorist attacks in Israel.

Chayim Frenkel, cantor at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, conceived “Nishmat Tzedek” (“A Righteous Soul”) in 1993 after his brother Tzvi, 39, died suddenly, the victim of an undetected blood disease.

He commissioned his friend, Meir Finkelstein, then cantor at Sinai Temple in Westwood, to write new settings for the liturgical passages of the Yizkor memorial service. The cycle — set for solo voices, choir and orchestra — filled with soaring melodies and lush harmonies, was first performed in November 1993.

More recently, the current intifada and the pain it has caused spurred the two cantors to revisit their collaboration and produce a new CD “Nishmat Tzedek.”

“Meir and I realized that we needed to make more of an impact than the few dollars we could give to Jews in crisis, using Meir’s talent as a composer and my talents as a chazzan and producer,” Frenkel told The Journal. “It was important to give these families something that would help them on the road to recovery.”

To that end, Finkelstein, currently senior cantor at Congregation Beth Tzedec in Toronto, composed three more movements for what he calls a “choral symphony,” including a setting of “Avinu Shebashamayim,” the prayer for the State of Israel found in most contemporary siddurim.

While pieces such as “Mima’amakim” (“Out of the depths I called”), “Kaddish,” and “Eil Malei Rachamim” are somber in tone, much of the music is optimistic in sound and impact, expressing hope rather than dwelling on the sorrows caused by death.

At the same time, Frenkel and Finkelstein, along with the project’s producer, Ellen Rudolph, decided to make “Nishmat Tzedek” a “multidimensional work.” They created a companion book of poems by local and national figures, including rabbis Steven Leder, Sheryl Lewart, Steven Carr Reuben and David Wolpe, artist Judy Chicago and Elie Wiesel, with the texts translated into Hebrew alongside the English.

“I feel your presence in a hundred comforts/Wrapping me in confidence/I concentrate on staying with you/A continuing act of will,” Lewart wrote in a passage.

The poems are illustrated by photos of Israel taken by award-winning local photographer Eric Lawton, images originally commissioned by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to honor the 50th anniversary of Israeli statehood in 1998.

Poignantly, the book includes a list of Israelis killed during the intifada from September 2000 to mid-March of this year. The project is dedicated to Frenkel’s mother, Shari, who died last December.

Because they want Jewish communities around the world to be able to perform the music in “Nishmat Tzedek,” the two cantors also prepared a piano reduction of Finkelstein’s score.

The CD, book and sheet music comprise a package that will be sent to the family of every Israeli victim of the intifada.

“From the get-go, the concept was not just to create the CD, the companion book and the music score, but to have them given to the victims’ families,” Rudolph said.

To locate the families, Rudolph got in touch last year with The Federation and the Israeli consulate. A Federation contact led her to Terror Victims Association (TVA), a support and advocacy group, whose Los Angeles staffer, Rachel Harari, happened to meet Reuben and others at Kehillat Israel around the same time and became interested in the “Nishmat Tzedek” project.

While families of terror victims receive financial help from the Israeli government, Harari said emotional support is harder to come by. TVA, founded in 1986, arranges for counseling for victims’ families, brings them together for social gatherings, organizes public memorials and lobbies on behalf of victims. Proceeds from American sales of “Nishmat Tzedek,” once costs are recouped, will benefit TVA.

Harari sees “Nishmat Tzedek” as a gesture that can have some real effect on the families’ spirits.

“They’re never going to be 100 percent,” she said, but “music itself is something that can help … so they’ll be able to get back to life.”

Frenkel said he sees the music, poetry and artwork of “Nishmat Tzedek” as “very universal in [their] healing powers for those who have suffered loss…. The project’s power goes beyond the loss that these families have suffered.”

Harari expressed wonder at how Frenkel was able to take his own grief and turn it into something positive.

“He found a way to express himself and feel something in common with the terror victims,” she said.

“It’s about finding light in darkness,” Frenkel said.

The “Nishmat Tzedek” package is on sale for $50 at
Village Books in Pacific Palisades and through the “Nishmat Tzedek” Web site,
www.arighteoussoul.org. Information about the Terror Victims Association is
available at www.terrorvictims.org .