Why does Judaism care about gratitude?


While Jews were able to enjoy the rare, simultaneous celebration of Thanksgiving and Chanukah this year, Judaism has long been had something in common with the American holiday.

It’s a theme that runs from Torah to Talmud, from Psalms to the siddur (prayer book) and into aspects of everyday life.

It’s gratitude.

Liturgically, there actually is a timely connection between Chanukah and thanksgiving — an additional prayer in the daily “Amidah” that references God’s role in defeating the Seleucids, after which the Jews entered the Temple “to give thanks and praise to Your great name.” But that message of gratitude to God is just one of many examples that pervades Jewish philosophy.

Biblically, there’s the example in Deuteronomy when God commands the Jews, upon entering Israel, to bring the first fruits of the land to the Temple and express gratitude for the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land.

There are more modern instances, too. As Rabbi Jocee Hudson of Temple Israel of Hollywood recently wrote in the Journal, Jewish tradition holds that upon waking, one should recite the prayer “Modeh Ani,” a prayer that helps “root us in gratitude, offer[ing] us a daily connection between thanksgiving and light.” Upon exiting the bathroom, drinking a cup of water or even snacking on potato chips, tradition holds that a prayer of gratitude and acknowledgment to God is in order. 

The last and final section of the “Shemoneh Esrei” — the climax of each of the three daily prayer services — contains three prayers whose purpose is expressing gratitude to God.

One question in response to Judaism’s lovefest is this: Why does an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God need to hear, “Thank you,” from his creations?

The answer offered by Rabbi Eli Stern, an instructor and the outreach director at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel, an Orthodox synagogue and kollel (place of learning), is that all of these expressions of gratitude aren’t for G-d’s sake.

“Obviously Hashem doesn’t need it,” Stern said. “We need to develop — for ourselves — the character trait of gratitude,” he said.

Rabbi Dov Heller, a licensed marriage and family therapist, calls blessings of thanks the “technology for helping us develop gratitude.”

And for people who have suffered particularly painful lives, so painful that blessings may not simply ease their pain?

Esther Hess, a developmental pediatric psychologist in Los Angeles and the executive director of the Center for the Developing Mind, explains that prayer can help people feel “they are not alone.” She’s seen this firsthand in counseling parents of children who have developmental disorders.

“I think they have a sense that there is a partnership with whatever difficult endeavor they are doing,” Hess said. 

And if God is a partner, as Heller intimated, then He shares in both life’s blessings and life’s curses.

“If you are going to blame God for the bad, also give Him credit for the good,” Heller said. “That can open people up to seeing their pain in a larger context.”

And so, he said, by thanking God for every seemingly little thing — waking up, drinking water — someone who views life in the context of its problems can begin to appreciate its many blessings.

‘Prayer isn’t boring — you are’


Jews often complain that prayer is boring. Young people resist going to synagogue — and older people drift away from prayer altogether — because they find it to be a chore.

In response to these oft-repeated criticisms, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once offered from the pulpit an admittedly cutting but nonetheless brilliant retort: “Prayer isn’t boring … you are.”

Of course, this aphorism by Rabbi Schulweis, who has served the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Encino since 1970, was not meant to insult people, nor to turn them away from Jewish prayer. Quite the opposite. He posed a challenge for every Jew to find himself or herself inside the siddur, which is filled with beautiful poetry, meaningful philosophy and provocative theology. At its best, Jewish prayer is an ongoing three-way conversation among the siddur, the person using it and God.

In Schulweis’ words, “Instead of looking outside and criticizing the relevance of a prayer — or perhaps even the process of prayer — look inside yourself to see where you may be lacking.”

Interestingly, many of the Jews who complain that the siddur bores them can listen to a rock song like “American Pie” or “Hey Jude,” or sing the national anthem at the stadium dozens or even hundreds of times without ever complaining once that they’re bored. Great musical compositions perpetually renew their meaningfulness as a person’s life and even his or her day develops. The siddur works the same way. Many of us who pray on a regular basis cannot say, “Baruch she’amar v’haya haolam” (“Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being”) or “L’cha dodi likrat kalah (“Go, my beloved, to greet the Sabbath bride”) without being a little moved each time.

I know some people in 12-step programs, and they tell me the meetings often start with the same readings week after week. But the readings are rarely boring to alcoholics and other addicts, because everyone in the room is working on his or her own recovery. The guidelines and steps that are recited remind people of their own addictions and compulsions, or at least those of their loved ones.

In a way, Jewish prayer is like another pillar of observant Jewish life: Shabbat. Just as tefilah involves letting one’s creativity conquer one’s boredom, Shabbat is about finding creative enjoyment on a day when cell-phones, iPods and DVD players are treated as hardly more useful than paperweights.

Some people think the real problem with prayer is Hebrew, which alienates English-speaking Jews. I disagree completely. Many, if not most, Israelis find prayer to be boring, and Hebrew is their first language. In addition, services at Reform temples in the United States and elsewhere involve a lot of English, and many Reform teens and adults still find prayer boring. Yet, Hebrew prayers can be moving to English speakers even if they only know the barest details of the meaning. Often, but not always, the key is the tune. Even so, don’t let anyone tell you that you must pray in Hebrew. The siddur isn’t even all in Hebrew. Important prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish are in Aramaic, and in Eastern Europe, Jewish women used to recite Yiddish prayers called tkhines. So vernacular prayers have a long history.

The answer to Rabbi Schulweis’ challenge is education. The more Jews learn about the pronunciation, order and meaning of services the more likely they are to find significance in them. But Rabbi Schulweis’ point still stands — a Jew who is boring is likely to find prayer boring. Luckily, most Jews, deep down, are not boring — they just need to find a path to access the siddur.

David Benkof is a doctoral student at New York University in American Jewish history. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.


Sukkot: the beauty of fragility


Nine years ago, my wife and I returned home from lunch in a friend’s sukkah on the first day of Sukkot. The phone was ringing as we walked in, and since we’d only
just arrived in Los Angeles we didn’t have an answering machine set up yet. Since we don’t use the phone on Shabbat or holidays, I did nothing as it rang four, five, six times.

I had gone to lie down for a nap when the phone started to ring again. Figuring it was a persistent telemarketer, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. The phone stopped again after another five or six rings. But a few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time I was worried.

I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was my sister, an internist in San Jose.

“Grandma is in the hospital; she is really sick. You should come,” she said.
Since my sister deals in matters of life and death, I knew it was serious.
I don’t travel on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, so after I hung up the phone I walked a few short blocks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s home to discuss my options.

If I waited until the end of the first two days of the festival, and then Shabbat, which followed immediately thereafter, I would likely be too late. We decided that, although we observe the second day of Jewish festivals, since the second day of Sukkot has a different status according to Jewish law than the first day and Shabbat, when the first day of the festival ended that night I would take the last flight out of LAX.

When I arrived that night in San Jose, I went immediately to the hospital to visit my grandma Lillian (z”l), who was in a coma. I made arrangements to spend Shabbat in the hospital, in her room at her side, an intimacy that the stringencies of Jewish law gifted to me.

Friday night, I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat at her side and made Kiddush with her. The next morning I donned my tallit, prayed the morning prayers and studied the weekly portion to the rhythm of a ventilator and heart monitor.

That afternoon, after one of many visits to my grandma’s side, my mother, sister and I, along with other close relatives, walked away from her door toward the waiting room for a few minutes of relief. As we headed past the nurse’s station, a nurse called out, “She is fading — you should come quickly.”

We hustled back to the room. I knelt down, took out my siddur, and began to recite the Vidui — the Jewish deathbed confessional — and concluded with the Shema. Before I finished those words, she had died.

I am grateful for many things from that weekend. I am grateful for the guidance and compassion of a wise teacher and friend in Rabbi Dorff. I am grateful for the gift — as Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a teacher of mine, would describe it a few weeks later — of holding my grandmother’s hand as she slipped from this world into the next. And, as the years have gone by, I am even grateful that she died during this season, on the third day of Sukkot, for through her death she taught me the true essence of what it means to dwell in a sukkah.

Martha Nussbaum, author of a book titled, “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,” once wrote, “Part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.”

Part of what gives this world its beauty, its goodness, is its vulnerability. Beauty in this world cannot be made invulnerable. We cannot be invulnerable, even though we try. We try so hard to protect ourselves, to protect our children. We build walls. We build strong, comfortable houses with roofs and heat for shelter and quiet. But we cannot be made invulnerable; we cannot keep ourselves safe and truly celebrate the beauty of this world.

On Sukkot, the time tradition tells us is zman simchateinu, the season of our joy, we dwell in a fragile hut, open to the winds and rain and cold of the world, to remind ourselves that our joy is enriched, is deepened, when we glimpse, if only for a moment, how weak and fragile we are.

Rabbi Israel Mayer HaCohen asked why it is that we celebrate Sukkot in autumn. Leviticus 23:42-3 teaches: “You shall live in booths seven days, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.”

If Sukkot commemorates what God did after the Exodus from Egypt, let us celebrate Sukkot in the spring. Alternatively, if Sukkot commemorates the clouds of glory with which God sheltered us in the wilderness (as Rabbi Akiba argued in the Talmud), let us celebrate Sukkot in the summer when the clouds protected us most from the searing midday summer sun.

Why autumn?

The Chafetz Chaim answers that we were not commanded to make Sukkot during the spring or summer because that was when most people would make sukkot for shade.

Instead, we make them specifically when the rainy season begins and the weather grows colder during the fall to remind others and ourselves that what we are doing is a mitzvah, a commandment from God. This mitzvah asks us to see and feel the world in all our weakness and vulnerability. The sukkah invites us to make our home amid the elements, to experience the chill of autumn, to get damp and wet and cold. After that we can feel the true joy of having lived another year in God’s beautiful world.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

A Life Interrupted, a Dream Fulfilled


Joan “Pessie” Hammer recently bustled through the crowd of hipsters and Chasidim at the first gallery exhibition featuring art by her late son, Moshe.

Clutching a siddur, the Lubavich mother animatedly chatted with patrons who admired his ethereal religious drawings: pages of a siddur and other texts he had fancifully calligraphied and illustrated. The tears came only when she stood alone before his work — which had been his sole and secret obsession before a truck struck and killed him two years ago at age 26.

Sixteen pages from his handwritten sefarim (religious books) are on display at the Jewish Artist Network gallery in Los Angeles, part of a show that also features four other artists.

Moshe Hammer’s pieces look like quirkier, black-ink versions of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The Hebrew letters dance and morph into images based on his intensive studies of commentaries on the sefarim.

A bedtime blessing depicts a gods-eye view of archangels guarding sleeping children; diverse, disembodied eyes decorate morning thanks to the Creator for opening one’s eyes, literally and metaphorically. A tempest-tossed ship, secured by its anchor, adorns the traveler’s prayer.

At the gallery opening, a middle age Orthodox woman held a magnifying glass to that piece, to see the meticulous detail.

“He had so much potential,” she murmured of the artist.

A young man wearing chains and black leather gazed at Hammer’s “God’s Deliverance Quick as a Gazelle,” noting how the letters leap in sync with the animal.

“Moshe’s work is both religiously and graphically compelling,” said Aaron Berger (a.k.a. Aaron No One), the exhibition’s curator.

Apparently, Hammer was feverishly working on such drawings when he took one of his late-night walks to clear artist’s block in July 2004. He had trekked miles from his Fairfax area apartment when the truck hit him at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, killing him instantly, according to a coroner’s report.

At the time, Pessie Hammer did not know that her intensely private son had dedicated his life to studying Chasidism and illustrating religious texts.

“He was very protective of his work and he refused to speak of it or to show it to anyone,” recalls Hammer, 55, at her Beverly-Fairfax home after the opening.

Her son had often been elusive about his art. She didn’t learn that Moshe, as a 9-year-old, had sold his handmade comics at yeshiva until one of his old classmate told her after the funeral.

While Hammer had excelled at school, his family, in keeping with traditional Chasidic views, was concerned that he was showing too much interest in popular culture: “He wanted to know about anything and everything — to be part of it all,” his mother recalled.

In grammar and middle school, he had scribbled superheroes as students gathered to watch, sometimes delaying teachers from starting class.

“We felt he could not properly distinguish between the secular and religious worlds, so we wanted him to focus on Judaism in order to be able to make good decisions in life,” she said.

After consulting the family rabbi, the difficult decision was made to send Moshe away to East Coast yeshivas at age 14; four years later, he returned home thoughtful, quiet and studious. Yet he still pursued his artwork, both secular and religious, striving to find his creative niche. Over the next eight years, he took computer animation courses and studied creative writing at Santa Monica City College. He penned poems and taught himself to write comic screenplays, which he registered at the Writers Guild of America. He would also draw cartoon characters as well as a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

All the while, he supported himself, with help from his parents, by working odd jobs that allowed him time to pursue creative endeavors. In the last years of his life, he drove hearses and guarded the dead for the Jewish Burial Society, which ultimately laid his own body to rest.

The Schneerson portrait hangs above the mantle in Hammer’s living room, which is adorned with a photo collage depicting Moshe, the third of Hammer’s five children, at various ages. Nearby, on an antique buffet, are professionally bound scrapbooks filled with his art: his mother’s effort to turn his drawings into completed sefarim.

She had not seen the vast majority of these pieces when she didn’t hear from her son for two days in the summer of 2004. Pessie Hammer and her husband, Yosef, a postal worker, frantically searched the neighborhood for information on his whereabouts. The bad news came when a rabbi, a rebbetzin and a police investigator knocked on the Hammer’s door the night of July 15, 2004.

“I saw their dark, contorted faces, and I told my children, ‘Go to your rooms,’ because I knew what they were going to say,” she recalls.

Once they had run upstairs, the rabbi said her son was gone. He had identified Hammer’s body in a morgue photograph.

“I wanted to see Moshe, but everyone said he was so mangled that they did not recommend it,” Pessie Hammer says. “I felt I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son.”

She received some closure as she helped clear out his single apartment on Formosa Avenue two weeks later. After numbly packing up his antique bottle collection and Judaica, she opened the bottom drawer of his pine desk and discovered more than 300 pages of drawings.

“I was shocked, because I had never imagined he had created this much work,” she says.

She spent the next week sorting the pages around the clock — and figuring out what they actually were. Turns out her son had written and illustrated a Passover haggadah, a Book of Esther and a “Song of Songs,” as well as a siddur.

Terrified that the pages might fade, she spent the following two weeks quizzing experts about how to best preserve the drawings and to duplicate the originals. She insisted that copy shop employees redo any page that cut off even a millimeter of his intricate work.

Her goal was to carry out what she believes was her son’s last wish: In his apartment, she had found a list of his aspirations, which included a gallery show. She saw her chance when the Jewish Artist Network opened in her neighborhood and its 31-year-old founder, Aaron No One, responded to Moshe’s portfolio.

“I consider his work to be a kind of spiritual graffiti art,” the curator, wearing a hose clamp and a ski cap, said while standing in the back doorway at the recent opening, framed by secular graffiti outside. “His drawings bring the intangible into the physical realm, for all viewers to see.”

Pessie Hammer, standing nearby, nodded and said she felt her exceptionally private son had intended one day to praise God in a most public way.

He hadn’t been quite ready to do so in life, so his indefatigable mother made sure he was able to after his death.

The exhibition will be on display through May 25 at 661 N. Spaulding in Los Angeles. For information and gallery hours (sometimes it is necessary to make an appointment), call (562) 547-9078 or visit www.thejangallery.com or www.exitnoone.com.

 

Beth Sholom’s New Siddur


For some, synagogue choreography is as mystifying as opera.
To enjoy an opera, though, aficionados know to review the scenes in a libretto
before the curtain rises. Yet the typical siddur prayerbook provides no such
guidance. “The prayerbook, rather than help them, becomes an obstacle,” said
Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom.

To address the needs of congregants not fully comfortable
with Hebrew liturgy, Donnell, along with a group of lay leaders, spent eight
years developing a new siddur. “Tfeelat Shalom,” the sum of that effort, will
be introduced Dec. 13.

In it, prayers in Hebrew are accompanied side-by-side with a
phonetic transliteration. “I made a 180-degree turn,” said Donnell, who
initially opposed the transliteration’s inclusion. For the Hebrew illiterate,
he believes the transliteration builds familiarity and eventually a thirst for
greater knowledge.

The siddur also provides clear instructions on the service’s
choreography, such as when to rise on tiptoe or bow. For example, “you’re not
supposed to bow with the leader, but in response,” Donnell said. Footnotes
provide historical insights, such as commentary excerpted from “Siddur Rav Amram
Gaon,” a recognized ninth century rabbinic authority.

English translations are purposely typeset like poetry. The
intent is to suggest to the worshiper, like a reader of verse, to supply their
own personal interpretation. “We have been trained to look differently at
text,” said Donnell, whose editing was influenced by Lawrence A. Hoffman,
author of “The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only,” and a professor and
dean of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Currently in use at the synagogue is the Reform movement’s
“Gates of Repentance,” last revised in 1972.

Challenging Hate


Two teenage boys were arrested Sun., Sept. 24, in connection with the ransacking of classrooms and painting of swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of the West Valley Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills.

Police officers, responding to a call from a neighbor who apparently heard glass breaking, found the two running from a classroom. They were charged with burglary, vandalism and hate crimes.

“I feel saddened, shocked, frustrated and upset,” says Rabbi Zvi Block, principal of West Valley Hebrew Academy, which offers schooling from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“The school children feel violated,” the rabbi continued. “To have a swastika painted on your siddur [prayer book], it caused some children to cry.”

The two boys, ages 14 and 15, are accused of breaking into and ransacking 14 classrooms. Police found several windows broken and computers spray painted. “Kill Jews” was also found painted on part of the school. The amount of damage is estimated at $75,000-$80,000, according to Rabbi Block.

The vandalism of the school comes one year after a white supremacist attacked the North Valley Jewish Community Center, wounding students and teachers at the center and killing a postal worker nearby.Neither juvenile is a known member of a white supremacist group. The two were living in a nearby “Sober Living House,” a home for wayward youth, according to Officer Jason Lee.

“I think this shows that the community is not immune to anti-Semitism,” says Aaron Levinson, director of the Valley office for the Anti-Defamation League.

In the aftermath of the attack, neighbors gathered to help prepare the school for the next day’s classes.”We would have never been able to open the school without them,” says Block.

“There is a groundswell of support,” continues the rabbi, who adds that local businesses have offered to help in the repair of the building and the computers. The school has also received $5,000 from an anonymous donor.

Ninety-eight percent of the school’s 200 students attended classes on Monday, according to Block. “I believe it is a testament to the courage our parents have.”

“I spoke with the students. I told the kids there is a lot more good in the world then evil,” says the rabbi.During a school assembly, Block told the students, “How do you fight back? By attending classes and learning Torah better and being more Jewish. They wanted to disrupt class, to close the school. We beat them.”