November 19, 2019

Teens Talk Teshuvah During the High Holy Days

When it comes to teshuvah on Yom Kippur, what does it mean to truly atone for our sins? Who do we apologize to? Will that person accept our apology? Will someone who hurt us apologize? How can we ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes?

Adults are told to answer these questions but what about teenagers? After their b’nai mitzvahs, they are required to fully engage in services, especially during the High Holy Days.

Now more than ever it’s important to talk to teens about teshuvah and the High Holy Days so it can become a personal journey for them, Open Temple Rabbi Lori Shapiro told the Journal. 

“After [the b’nai mitzvahs] we set teens off into the commencement of the Jewish adult spiritual journey [and] it’s just the first step,” Shapiro said. “High Holy Days [are] our annual alarm clock setting to check in and ask the question: ‘How am I doing?’ … It becomes a great opportunity for parents to engage teens in that conversation.”

Shapiro works with teens year round to integrate Judaism into their everyday lives and said, “We need to offer them a safe space to explore [Jewish themes] on their own.”

Ann Mizrahi, a senior at de Toledo High School, told the Journal she loves the High Holy Days because they enable her to spend time with her family and feel connected to renewal and Teshuvah. 

“I want to go into the New Year with the idea that those little moments mean so much and to channel that into helping our world and change it for the better and for those around me,” she said, adding that although  “we’re younger, that doesn’t mean we feel different toward the holidays. People look down on the younger generation because they think we don’t have enough experience or care enough but that isn’t the case. If people change their attitude, they can learn more and understand what the High Holy Days mean to us and what Judaism means to us.” 

Adam Sina, a senior at Milken Community High School, told the Journal that his appreciation for the High Holy Days has grown over the years because “the holidays remind me to think about my actions each day, and the implications of what I’m doing and how it affects others.” 

He also takes the responsibility of teshuvah seriously by making an effort to approach friends whom he’s hurt during the year. He said it’s impactful for parents and religious leaders to ask if teens are “having a meaningful High Holy Days like, mentally present throughout the services. … That way, you’re not just sitting in services for the sake of sitting in services. You’re actually there to think and be involved.” 

Another de Toledo senior — Noa Blonder — told the Journal she’s always had a positive experience attending High Holy Day services at Nashuva because her family encouraged her to think and grow. Her family also has a tradition of hiking trails and taking part in tashlich.

She also feels that it’s important to remember teshuvah is all about returning to your “purest, holiest, best self. Betraying ourselves and others is seemingly unavoidable, everyone makes mistakes,” Blonder said, “but one of the biggest mistakes we make is betraying ourselves because it’s so easy to become a traitor to your own body and soul and dismiss yourself from self-love. I’m really thankful that the Jewish religion gives us a chance to repent and reflect on where we went wrong in the past year and what we can do in the upcoming year.”

“People look down on the younger generation because they think we don’t have enough experience or care enough but that isn’t the case. If people change their attitude they can learn more and understand what the High Holy Days mean to us.” 

YULA Boys High School senior Ben Simon attends services at the Chabad in Tarzana and said the High Holy Days offer him relief from his hectic school life. 

“With the pressure of classes and college applications, we can step away from that for a second and step into our relationship with God,” he said. “Teshuvah can be an amazing and unique opportunity because no matter what you’ve done during the year, you can wipe it clean and start over. It’s something I always hope to take full advantage of. It’s very important to me.” 

He added that hearing the shofar during services really puts him into a “retrospective” state where he can think about “who I am as a person and what I’ve done and how I can make teshuvah for the following year.” 

Chloe Messian from Milken Community High School said her experience going into Yom Kippur this year will differ from years past because her recent trip to Israel gave her new meaning.

“I just got back from studying in Israel and it opened my eyes to Judaism in the spiritual sense instead of just learning about the laws in school,” Messian, who attends services at Stephen Wise Temple, said. “Sometimes when I was younger, I used to dread going to services just because I thought it was boring and I couldn’t find a connection, but after going to Israel and connecting to the land, I feel like this year will be different.”

Yaakov Willner, a senior at YULA, said attending services and feeling connected to Judaism always has been one and the same for him. His advice for those who find it difficult to immerse themselves in the holidays is to make it personal.

“Whatever denomination you come from, the High Holy Days are important. Try to fit yourself in the equation. Don’t just do it because you have to and it’s tradition, even though that’s a very powerful thing. Put yourself into it because it could help you in everything else.”

Shofar-Blowing Class Provides Lung Workout in Time for the High Holy Days

Yoni Workman (left) and Marcelo Kuperwasser at the shofar workshop.

While every Jew is commanded to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, thankfully we’re not all required to learn how to blow one. But for those wanting to give their lungs the ultimate workout, Hollywood Temple Beth El held a shofar workshop on Sept. 15, led by Rabbi Norbert Weinberg. A few hardy souls showed up to learn how to wail like Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho or, in this reporter’s case, blow oneself red in the face while bringing forth a sound resembling a dying moose.

Weinberg told the Journal that this was the second time he’s held the workshop. As part of the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah services, he likes to invite any member of the congregation to come up to the bimah and become familiar with the instrument. 

Unlike the trumpet or other horns, you don’t have to worry about hitting the right note. The ram’s horn’s unpredictable sound is a feature, not a bug. Maimonides called the sound of the shofar “penetrating” and its harsh, atonal sound is meant to unsettle. 

“The Rambam says this unsettling forces us to think about our actions for the year,” Weinberg said. It’s also why shofars are never equipped with a mouthpiece. “If you use a mouthpiece, it’s predictable,” Weinberg explained. “This is a wild animal and playing it is like taming a wild animal, so you need an untamed beast. You’re going to take it as it comes: natural. That’s a very important part.”

Shofars available at the workshop. Photos by Steven Mirkin

Weinberg demonstrated the three types of sounds heard on Rosh Hashanah, starting with the malchuyot, one long blast, representing the enthronement of God — the coronation. “That would be the original intention,” Weinberg said, “because you blow the shofar at the coronation of a king; God is King of the Universe.” Then there is the zichronot, three short blasts that represent remembrance. “This is very practical,” Weinberg said. “God remembered us in the past, maybe we’ll get a lucky break and escape the pogrom this year, too.” Finally, the shofarot, “the sound that comes at the end of history, when all existence is redeemed.” Taken together, he said, “you have the present, past and the future, and all of that is in the shofar.”

“This is a wild animal and playing it is like taming a wild animal.” — Rabbi Norbert Weinberg

When it came time to finally pick up their horns and blow, one player stood out. Yoni Workman arrived with his own very impressive shofar, and he sounded so adept, it was possible to believe he was a ringer. 

However, he told the Journal he bought the shofar only a few days earlier at a Judaica store on Fairfax Avenue, and he was able to produce that familiar keening wail from the get-go. He started to play as he walked down Fairfax to his car. “People were coming up to me saying how cool it sounded,” he said. 

Weinberg allayed the other would-be shofar blowers’ fears by stating, “The Baal Shem Tov wanted to find a person to blow the shofar for him at Rosh Hashanah. So he interviewed three candidates. He asked the first [candidate] what was on his mind when he played. He said, ‘I’m thinking of the Torah, the kabbalah, etc.’ The second one said he was thinking of all the great ones who came before him. The third candidate said, ‘I’ve got a wife, I’ve got 10 kids, there’s no money to feed them. If I get this position, maybe you’ll give me a few dollars to blow the shofar.’ The Baal Shem Tov said, ‘You are the one I choose, because you mean it.’”

Susan Karlin Carries on the Family Shofar Blowing Tradition

Susan Karlin; Photo by Gerri Miller

There are three shofars on display in Susan Karlin’s West Hollywood apartment, but to her, they’re not just Judaica. “When I look at them, it makes me smile and think of my parents and my lineage, and making people happy at synagogue,” she said. 

A fourth-generation shofar blower, she provides the teruah, tekiah and shevarim blasts every year at the Laugh Factory comedy club’s High Holy Days services.

“It’s a very majestic, powerful and spiritual sound. It can be chilling or very emotional,” Karlin said. “There’s something awe-inspiring about everyone gathering together and listening to that sound together. There’s an element of power and spirituality associated with it. It’s a profound ritual. That’s what draws me to it.”

Growing up in New Jersey, Karlin loved watching her father blow the shofar at their synagogue. “One Rosh Hashanah, we came home from services and I asked him to show me how,” she said. She learned on the smallest of her shofar trio, which her grandfather brought from Poland to the United States in the 1920s. 

“I had to keep practicing and practicing. It took a while to actually get a sound out of it. Then my dad taught me how to manipulate my tongue to get the notes. He taught me to blow it on the side of my mouth, not straight on. You purse your lips and you want to wet them and create a little airway so they vibrate a little bit,” she said. ‘You have to hit it in exactly the right spot.

“It also takes a lot of core work,” Karlin noted. “If you don’t take the breaths properly, you get really dizzy. I’ve learned over the years to slow down. My dad did it rapid-fire and I’d copy his pace but I found I couldn’t do it. It gives me a new respect for trumpet players.”

On a trip to Israel in the late 1970s, Karlin was with her father when he bought two shofars in Hebron, one 29 inches long and the other 12 inches. Each of the trio has a different sound. Her grandfather’s 10-inch shofar is “a bit shrill, and harder to blow because of its narrower opening. The large one has a deeper tone. The middle one is easiest for me,” she said. “It’s the one I play the most.”

“It’s very profound to be carrying on a family tradition like 

this. I like that I pushed this family tradition into the 21st century and broke some barriers. It started as a badge of honor, carrying it on. Now I derive more meaning from it. It makes me feel more connected to the ritual of gathering together as a community and taking stock of our lives.” 

— Susan Karlin

Karlin didn’t learn to blow the shofar with any intention of doing it publicly, but after she attended services at the Laugh Factory, she approached Rabbi Bob Jacobs and volunteered. She auditioned and was hired on the spot. She was aware that at that time, in the 1990s, there were no female shofar blowers. “Now it’s much more common. I’ve seen female rabbis, kids, fathers and daughters do it,” she said. She hopes to bequeath her shofars and teach the skill to her teenage niece.

“It’s very profound to be carrying on a family tradition like this,” she said. “I like that I pushed this family tradition into the 21st century and broke some barriers. It started as a badge of honor, carrying it on. Now I derive more meaning from it. It makes me feel more connected to the ritual of gathering together as a community and taking stock of our lives.”

A University of Pennsylvania graduate, Karlin is a journalist who writes “about the nexus of science, technology and the arts,” and whose work has taken her to every continent. She recently became recertified in SCUBA diving for an assignment and will go to Lake Como in Italy for a comic-art show this spring. She’s developing ideas for books, graphic novels and oral storytelling. “My goal is to continue to learn and try new things and to have as many adventures as I can,” she said. “I’ve always been more interested in experiences than things.” She attends the Burning Man festival every year and has turned her pet snails into Facebook stars.

Of Polish and Russian heritage, Karlin was raised in a Conservative, kosher home. Her father was Orthodox and her mother was Reform and, she said, the two “met in the middle.” She “still has PTSD from learning my haftarah at my bat mitzvah,” she joked. Pork and shellfish are still off the menu, and she defines her humor as “very Jewish. I see everything through that prism,” she said. Diagnosed with hypoglycemia several years ago, she no longer fasts on Yom Kippur. “I eat, but less than I normally would.”

Since returning from Burning Man in early September, Karlin has been practicing her shofar-blowing every day. She also is teaching herself to play the banjo, an instrument she received as a gift at the festival. “My neighbors are going to hate me,” she said. 

For Karlin, the High Holy Days are more than an occasion to pray and ask forgiveness, “even though that’s part of it. It’s more about taking stock of who I am, who I’ve become, how I’ve changed in the last year as a person, how I want to better myself, and whether I’m happy with the direction I’m going in on a spiritual level. It’s also taking stock of how I’ve wronged other people, wanting to ask their forgiveness and forgiving myself for how I’ve handled things in the past,” she said. 

“At the Laugh Factory, I feel a greater connection to the community and spirituality and my growth as a human being.”

Rosh Hashanah services will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 30, continuing with Kol Nidre at 5 p.m. Oct. 8, and Yom Kippur at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at the Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 656-1336. Admission is free.

The Family That Plays Shofar Together…

Father-son shofar duo Mitch and Max Dorf perform at the reopening of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo courtesy of Mitch Dorf

More than a few times, Mitch and Max Dorf have been out and about together when they are approached by a stranger who says something along the lines of: “Aren’t you the guys who play shofar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple?”

The answer is a resounding yes. The father-son duo has been playing together at the mid-city Reform synagogue since 2008, with a couple of years off because of the younger Dorf’s school commitments. They are as close as you can get to shofar rock stars. And they will be back on the bimah together this year.

It all started in 2002, when Mitch and his wife, Lynda, received a shofar for their 15th wedding anniversary from Lynda’s parents. The shofar was selected by their Milwaukee-based cantor during a visit to Chicago. 

Mitch, 56, a post-production sound mixer for television and film who played tuba in high school and college, tinkered with the shofar a bit. But mostly it served as a cherished decorative item. Then in 2006, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s (WBT) Rabbi Dennis Eisner held a shofar blowing class in advance of the High Holy Days. Dorf brought his. Shortly thereafter, he was asked if he would play at services. With multiple services sometimes taking place concurrently, it simply wasn’t possible for temple clergy to play the shofar at every single one. Dorf was honored to be considered and began practicing.

The first service where he was asked to play was a family service at the Wiltern Theatre near the synagogue. “It was almost packed,” Dorf recalled. Then he had a realization: “I’m going on the same stage where I saw the Rolling Stones and Jerry Garcia.”

When Cantor Don Gurney called out the first tekiah, Dorf began. However, he unintentionally played in a higher register than he had been practicing, resulting in a distinctive sound. 

“We go through the whole thing and the place erupts and starts cheering,” Dorf said. Dorf did several other services that year. When Max, then 7, expressed an  interest in playing the shofar, too, they borrowed a small ram’s horn from Gurney and Max joined his dad on the bimah at the end of the Neilah service on Yom Kippur for a single tekiah gedolah. The following year was much the same.

In April 2008, the Dorf family, including daughter Sadie, traveled to Israel. Among the items on Mitch’s to-do list was purchasing a shofar for 9-year-old Max at the shuk in Jerusalem.

“It was like a supermarket for shofars,” said Max, now 20, and a junior at UC Berkeley. He remembers buckets and buckets of them. “My dad would pick one up and play it for a second. He probably went through 150 or 200.” Eventually, Mitch found one that caught his fancy and that he thought would be suitable for Max. But it was pricey. So he engaged in the obligatory bargaining. Max was unaccustomed to the practice. “I thought we were going to get into a fight,” he said. Instead, he got a shofar. A photo from that day captures a very happy, shaggy-haired boy in a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap proudly carrying his shofar.

The commandment isn’t to blow the shofar, [it’s] to hear the shofar. We’re just the vehicle. It’s an extreme honor and privilege, and being able to do this with my son is unlike any other experience this father has with this son.” —  Mitch Dorf

That September, Mitch and Max brought their instruments to the Selichot service. Mitch expected a bunch of other players to be there, a sort of shofar choir. It turned out it was just the two of them. He also thought the service called for only 10 blasts. There were 30. Mitch remembers turning to Max: “Just blow and stay on your note in rhythm,” he counseled. “I’ll do the rest.

“After the first tekiah call from Cantor Gurney, we heard this amazing major chord [from mine and my son’s shofars] that sounded like a train rocketing through the sanctuary,” Mitch continued. “I looked at Cantor Gurney and saw in his eyes exactly what I heard. He then continued the calls and by the end we were all in tears. None of us had ever heard anything like it before. After, I don’t recall saying a thing but we embraced and maybe he said, ‘You two are hired.’ ”

It turned out that the shofar purchased in Chicago and the one purchased six years later and 6,000 miles away in Jerusalem, were a perfect, complementary pair.

A few days after their debut, the Dorfs played together at the family service, where they have become something of a fixture. In the years since, Mitch and Max have played dozens of more services. In 2012, they played at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where services were held while the sanctuary at WBT was undergoing renovations. The following year, they played at the community-wide celebration for the temple’s reopening and made the evening news. Max also took up the trombone along the way, although he has since transitioned to tuba, along with several other instruments. (He plays tuba for the Berkeley marching band.) 

For father and son, it’s been incredibly gratifying on multiple levels.

“The thing about blowing the shofar,” Mitch said, “[is] the commandment isn’t to blow the shofar, the commandment is to hear the shofar. We’re just the vehicle. It’s an extreme honor and privilege, and being able to do this with my son is unlike any other experience this father has with this son. The connection we have on the bimah — we don’t have to talk. We are listening to each other. As our sounds blend in this unique, wonderful chord, it kind of intertwines both of us together.”

“The experience and the evolution that this has gone through is something that I definitely would never have thought would happen,” Max added. “It’s cool that literally it was finding a needle in a haystack — this one shofar in a bucket stuck in the back corner of a shop in a shuk — and progressed into what it is today, and the effect it has brought into a lot of people’s lives.”

A High Holy Days Appeal for the Skeptics Among Us

I know about packing but what does it mean to “prepare,” especially my heart? What’s with everyone talking about their hearts these days, anyway? If it’s time to “prepare” for the High Holy Days, how about sending us a plane ticket to Hawaii, a gift card for a new air conditioner or taking my kids to their dental appointments? Or just put some gas in the car. That’s a fresh start.

This time of year, I hear my own inner skeptic say, “Why bother?” Isn’t this idea of starting the new year over a bit outdated? After all, we are Jews. There’s no Times Square fanfare or a ball to drop. Yes, there are apples and honey, but frankly, I’d rather eat a brownie. 

Where might this “preparation” lead me? I would get all gussied up, brave the traffic, miss work, fight for parking, struggle to find a seat, then what? I would sit in a big, old, echoing building we rarely enter because it reminds us of funerals and weddings turned into divorces. Then I would listen to a rabbi who has no idea who I am and what I’ve been through tell me, “Come on, you’ve got this. Have a little faith. Give a little tzedakah. Call your mother.”

Big exhale. Join me. Exhale. Yes, we are all in it together. 

We are all wondering: How can I begin again? What does forgiveness even look like, let alone sound like? What if I’m not interested in prayer, God or even the idea of being Jewish, especially in light of the news? I’d rather go to yoga. What if I commit to binge watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”? That’s culture. That’s tradition. Isn’t that what this time of year is all about? Oh, but I’ll fast on Yom Kippur. 

So why be a Jew this year? Because:

1. We need our tribe. The world is falling apart and many are laughing. The Jewish people have not survived this long to be made a mockery of. 

2. Your voice, your prayers, your questions, your doubts, your joys are needed in synagogues. It is up to us to fill our halls and sanctuaries with our voices. These are our Houses of God. We are safe as we stand together. 

3. We cannot Jew alone. Our existence is an act of revolution, audacity and hope. To Jew requires action, choices, a stand, a way of being in the world that reflects a commitment to contribute — not simply to exist. 

4. We change one another. When we come together, we galvanize our strength, even if wavering, to live with compassion, dignity, peace and justice. 

5. Just as we are searching, God is searching for us in one another. When we look into each other’s eyes, we see the source of all creation. Potential, possibility and peace are not found via our screens, only our screams: our doubts, our fears, our pounding hearts. 

6. Birth is not without pain and tears. Rosh Hashanah wails of infertility, fratricide, betrayal, sacrifice and new beginnings born out of the impossible. It is a deep immersion into what’s possible. Share your truth and be met by depth in our tradition. 

7. Yom Kippur pulls us to our knees and then onto our faces to sense our fragility, our mortality, our vessels of spirit fueled only by faith and grace. Yom Kippur is a chance to take our pulse and decide if we want to live or die and how. 

8. AtONEment. We gather to practice and reinforce what it means to be a community. It’s messy and layered with history, and, when we are all together in the same room, our houses of worship become the Holy of Holies, crucibles that forge our sense of messy and urgent oneness. Our fragile and fiercely vital organism, personal and planetary, depend on our (re)dedication.

9. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. You know the story about the person on the roof during the hurricane shouting at God? We are the firefighters. We are the police. We are the roof. We are the neighbors. We are the cat. We are the willingness to ask and receive, give and relish in one another’s desire to contribute and matter. It’s time to get off    whether it’s the roof, our resentment, our disappointment, our cynicism or our resignation. It’s time to create a new beginning.  

10. You never know what tomorrow may bring, so today we show up. Today we Jew up. All are welcome: Jews, those who love us, those with a grandparent who loved a Jew, those hungry for Spirit, hungry for justice, hungry for Torah, hungry for life. Every one of us matters. See you in shul.


Rabbi Alyson Solomon is the interim rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim. She hosts the Salty-Torah vlogs at thisisRAS.com. 

Mazel Tov Gift Guide

Do you find it challenging to find a meaningful present for a bar or bat mitzvah honoree? We’ve got you covered. Rather than a check or gift card in multiples of chai ($18), here are a few other options:

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Art
A laser-cut steel bar or bat mitzvah sculpture makes a beautiful special-occasion memento. The image sits atop a steel base and features a fused-glass accent bead. Personalize this keepsake to add an extra-special touch. ($30)

 

Aviva Torah Pointer
This beautiful Torah pointer from Nadav Art features a silver Jerusalem motif, which twists around the cylindrical shape. The top of the pointer has a cut-out decoration and the bottom features a textured design, representing the walls of Jerusalem, connected to a graceful silver hand. ($340)

Note: A variety of Torah pointers are available in multiple formats, from wood to pewter. Just do a search to find one to fit the recipient’s personality and your budget.

Shofar
Give your bar or bat mitzvah honoree a classic ram’s shofar. Its natural texture is intact through the base and it’s smoothly polished at the mouthpiece. A clear acrylic shofar stand is available for an additional charge. ($40)

Drone
What new adult wouldn’t want a drone? The Holy Stone F181 RC Quadcopter Drone with HD camera is not just a fun gadget. Space permitting, the bar or bat mitzvah honoree can use it to capture the celebration. Can you imagine the horah recorded from above? ($119.95)

Why I Blew the Shofar at the Nazi Rally Today

Photo by Matan Silverberg.

When the Nazis announced that they were planning on marching today in Washington, D.C., I knew I needed to go and be a counter voice. Where there is evil we must raise a voice.

Our group went with two signs:

1) Nazis= Evil

2) There are no good Nazis.

Our message was simple: Where there is wickedness, we must stamp it out.

I blasted the shofar – our sacred and pure sound- in order to drown out the evil shrieks of the Nazis.

Their plans were thwarted today. Few of them showed up. They were drowned out by the counter demonstrators. On top of that, at the first sign of heavy rains, they packed up and left.

We are fortunate that so few Nazis showed up, but we must always stay vigilant in our fight against evil.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.

A shofar master blaster shares his calling

Michael Chusid puts a blowhole into an African antelope horn in his shofar workshop. Photos by Ryan Torok

At first glance, Michael Chusid’s workshop looks like most any utility shed at the back of a house — a space somewhere between Tim “The Toolman” Taylor’s garage from “Home Improvement” and Jason Segel’s man cave from “I Love You, Man.”

Electrical cords run across the roof. A power drill rests on a wooden workbench. A loveseat that could use a good cleaning nevertheless appears comfy and inviting.

But Chusid’s Encino workspace differs from others in one major respect: It’s filled with the horns of rams and antelopes, piled up in bowls like pieces of fruit.

Chusid is a self-described ba’al tekiah, a shofar master blaster, and creator of the blog “Hearing Shofar.” He studies them. He buys them. He sometimes alters them. And he blows them.

Each year, Chusid blasts a shofar at synagogues on the High Holy Days, at American Jewish University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and as a member of Shofar Corps, which blows shofar for the sick and elderly who cannot make it to synagogue on the holidays.

“The most difficult thing for me as a blower is to remember to listen,” Chusid said. “Sometimes in shul, I start thinking, ‘Oh, I’m blowing it really good; I’m impressing people. Look at how great I am.’ And then I’m completely out of it. When I’m really into it, I disappear, I no longer exist, I feel the energy coming out of the earth, rising through my body and going out the shofar and connecting with heaven, like the [Hebrew] letter, vav.”

As he stood barefoot, wearing a sarong, with a rainbow yarmulke covering his gray-white hair, he demonstrated what he meant. He closed his eyes, held his hand to his face and said a prayer. Then he blew one of his shofars, sounding the three different bursts familiar to anyone who has attended a High Holy Days service: tekiah, one long blast; shevarim, three broken sounds; and teruah, nine staccato notes.

“I have a calling for shofar,” he said later. “I would be diminished if I didn’t teach it.”

Chusid, 64, knows almost everything there is to know about shofars. Archaeologists have discovered images of the instruments that date back at least 20,000 years, he said, and while the shofar blast awakens the spirituality of the Jewish people every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, other historical peoples also have created sounds for ritual purposes.

“Almost every ancient culture found a sound through which they heard and which they spoke with that which is unknowable,” he said.

How to make a shofar

If you have a ram's horn lying around, consider making a shofar:

Posted by Jewish Journal on Friday, September 15, 2017

 

Chusid purchases shofar horns online, from Amazon, eBay and Atlantic Coral Enterprise Inc., a Florida-based wholesaler of seashells and wildlife products that imports horns from South Africa.

“There is something dramatic about the long ones — you can get more pitches on them — but the short ones are just as functional and easier to transport,” he said. “I have some that I slip into my pocket so I can carry it with me all the time just in case the Messiah should show up.”

Atlantic Coral Enterprise sold Chusid the horn of a gemsbok, a large antelope native to South Africa that has horns longer and straighter than ram horns. One end of the gemsbok horn is ribbed, which creates a percussive sound when a tool is rubbed against it.

A variety of horns, from different animals, sit in a pile in Chusid’s workshop.

“This, I believe, is biblically accurate,” Chusid said of a gemsbok shofar he made. “And it’s showy and beautiful, and it’s versatile. We’re told to praise God with shofar and drums.”

Chusid said he first heard the shofar when he was 8 years old. However, he didn’t hear it as an adult until 1994, after he had entered his 40s.

“I went out and bought a shofar, and I’ve been hearing it since,” he said.

As he crafted the gemsbok shofar, Chusid threaded a wire through the horn to determine its hollowness and the location of its bone. He marked the horn with a Sharpie where it would need to be cut to create a mouthpiece at one end. He debated whether to cut off a tip of the horn, which would compromise its dramatic shape, or drill a mouthpiece hole on its side so he could leave the shape intact. He chose the latter.

“People ask me, ‘Did you make that shofar?’ and I have to say, ‘No, I didn’t make it. The sheep made it. Or the antelope. I just fabricated it a little bit,’ ” he said. “This comes from beyond me. The horns come from dead animals.”

And then, Chusid said it was time for my lesson.

As we walked outside, he began to explain technique: Buzz the lips and press the shofar’s blowhole tight to the place where the air comes out between your lips.

I managed a weak but on-point tone out of the gemsbok shofar. It wasn’t much of a blast, but it was something.

Chusid laughed and offered encouragement, adapting an expression of Jewish wisdom that, like the blast of the shofar, has resonated through the ages.

“The rest is practice,” he said. “Go and study.”

How to Jew: Rosh Hashanah

Wednesday, September 20 (evening) to Friday, September 22

BACKGROUND

Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year,” is the Jewish New Year. According to tradition, it is the day God created Adam and Eve, and it occurs at the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrei. The holiday represents the beginning of the Days of Awe, or the 10 Days of Repentance, which end with Yom Kippur. It is taught that Rosh Hashanah has an influence over our whole year, as it is when God decides our fates for the coming year.

TRADITIONS

A central practice of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn, which we are required to hear during prayer services. Its blast acts as a call for repentance.

A custom called tashlich, which comes from the word “to cast,” typically is performed on Rosh Hashanah at a body of water. It often involves tossing crumbs into the water, representing our sins from the past year. Prayers and appropriate verses are recited.

Special greetings for the holiday include, “L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’tichatemu” (May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year) and “G’mar chatimah tovah” (A good final sealing [in the Book of Life]).

SPECIAL FOODS

A number of symbolic foods are consumed during the festive holiday meals. The most well known probably are apples and honey, which represent wishes for a sweet new year. Pomegranates are eaten because, according to rabbinic tradition, they have 613 seeds, corresponding to the number of commandments in the Torah. Round challahs symbolize the cyclical nature of the years. Some Ashkenazi Jews place a fish head on the holiday table — replaced by a cow tongue by some Sephardic Jews — in the hope that God will make us “the head, not the tail” in the coming year.

Sources: Chabad.org, My Jewish Learning, The Spruce

A new year’s resolution: Emulating the shofar

Can the humble sound of a ram’s horn help unite our community? Can it encourage us to dialogue rather than to fight, to disagree honorably rather than to cut each other out? 

The communal rancor in the age of Donald Trump has been so ugly and intense, I’m not sure anything will help. Rabbis will surely weigh in on this subject with their holiday sermons. How could they not? I can’t recall our community being so divided. Never Trumpers versus always Trumpers versus sometimes Trumpers — the Trumpster hurricane is wreaking communal havoc.

What is behind this human rancor? In part, I call it the curse of being right. Something happens to people when they’re sure they have the whole truth on their side. They get on such a high horse they can’t see anything below. More than that, they refuse to see anything below.

I’ve seen family relationships break up over Trump. Why? Because we have become our ideology. More specifically, our political ideology. We have convinced ourselves that this is life or death, that we must all unite behind the same beliefs or a catastrophe will happen.

With that mindset, no civil dialogue is possible. If someone is not with you, they are worthy of contempt, or at least utter dismissal.

We have crossed the line from disagreement into rejection. It’s not just that I disagree with you, it’s that I am disgusted by your position. So disgusted that I am rejecting you.

When emotions are so raw, words can only go so far. To shake us up, we also need something transcendent, something nonverbal. That’s why I’m hoping that this year, the shofar will come to the rescue.

As we pray during the High Holy Days, we all will be hearing the same four sounds of the shofar: tekiah — one long blast; shevarim — three medium blasts; teruah — nine short staccato sounds; and tekiah gedolah — one extra-long blast.

I’d like to suggest that hidden in those four sounds is symbolic hope for communal healing.

Tekiah — the long blast — symbolizes the taking of a long breath before we speak. When we take that breath, we’re less likely to allow our anger to get the better of us, to say something that may irreparably damage a relationship.

Shevarim — three medium blasts — symbolizes the back and forth of a civil dialogue. Even if we are certain of our views, it behooves us to hear other views. Not because they will change our minds, but because hearing other views is an act of decency.

Teruah — nine short sounds — symbolizes sharp arguments. We can take on  each other, we can be passionate about our positions, but we don’t need to go as far as cutting people out of our lives, especially people we care about. Even, yes, if we are disgusted by their views.

On our deathbeds, will we think: I’m glad I stopped talking to this person who I care about because they said something good about Trump?

Tekiah gedolah — the extra-long blast — is, for me, the most meaningful sound. It symbolizes the long game. Why are we here? Why are we alive? What will we be thinking during the last few minutes of our lives?

Imagine, for example, that you are a liberal who is repulsed by Trump. You think he’s the worst thing that ever happened to America. You think he’s a racist and a bigot. You dream of his impeachment.

Now, you have a longtime friend or a relative who voted for Trump. Every time you see this person, it reminds you of their politics and it turns your stomach. Over time, it gets harder and harder to be in that person’s company.

Tekiah gedolah comes to remind us of the long game. We all are going to die, some of us sooner than others. On our deathbeds, will we think: I’m glad I stopped talking to this person who I care about because they said something good about Trump?

This is what turns my stomach: The notion that we can give politics the power to contaminate our relationships.

I have a friend who took me on in a nasty way recently over a political issue. Her Facebook comment shook me up because I adore this person. Not sure how to respond, I sent her this private message: “I am incapable of having any negative feelings for you. I’m trying, but I can’t.”

This is not kumbaya. This is a hard-nosed refusal to let ideology destroy a relationship.

So, here’s my suggestion: When we hear the four sounds of the shofar this year, let’s meditate on how those humble sounds can heal us. Let’s learn to express our views with passion but also with humility.

If the great Moses could do it, so could we.

Happy, sweet and peaceful new year.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

This factory makes thousands of shofars each year

Some of the thousands of horns lying around the Kol Shofar factory in the Golan Heights on Sept. 6. Photo by Andrew Tobin

Shimon Keinan has a business to run. He doesn’t have time to teach you how to blow the shofar.

But if you come all the way to his Kol Shofar factory here, Keinan is going to make sure you walk away with the horn that’s right for you.

“What should I do?” he explained to JTA. “If someone is going to blow one of my shofars on Rosh Hashanah, I have to make sure he doesn’t fail.”

Even now, in the busy weeks ahead of the Jewish New Year, Keinan spends much of his day helping customers pick a shofar — and how to make it sound just right. It may not help his financial bottom line, but it keeps him attuned to a higher calling.

On a recent weekday morning, Keinan, 70, was reviewing shofar orders when a family of seven showed up. The husband, Dror Yoggev, took the day off from work and made the several-hour drive from central Israel to buy his first shofar.

“My father-in-law said not to go anywhere else,” he said.

Sorry, Keinan said, but he could not possibly find the time to help at the moment. Why didn’t Yoggev call ahead?

Yet minutes later Keinan, whose work uniform consists of a denim apron and a black leather cap, was rummaging through boxes of shofars in the back of the factory.

“According to your skin color, you probably want a Yemenite shofar,” Keinan said, offering Yoggev a spiraling, unpolished kudu horn, the type traditionally used by the Yemenite Jewish community. (A kudu is a type of African antelope.)

Yoggev explained that while his parents are from Yemen, he would be blowing the shofar at the Ashkenazi synagogue of his wife’s family and thus was looking for the kind of shiny ram’s horn preferred by European Jews.

“So yalla,” Keinan grunted, heaving a box of dozens of ram horn shofars onto the table in the storage room. “If it takes more than 15 minutes to pick one, you’re doing something wrong.”

Over the next couple of hours, Yoggev blew shofars while Keinan offered guidance and criticism: “Chin up. Chest out. Blow from the center of your mouth, not the side.”

In the end, Yoggev settled on a medium-sized ram horn with a small mouthpiece.

“It suits that strange game you play with your lips,” Keinan said. “Now I have to get back to work.”

For Keinan, running Kol Shofar is the fulfillment of a lifelong obsession. He likes to say he was born with a shofar in his hand. But in reality, his parents, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco in 1949, when Keinan was a baby, never had enough money to buy him one. He learned to blow the shofar as a child at his Orthodox synagogue in Tiberias, a small, working-class city on the Sea of Galilee, and he built his own out of a funnel and tubing.

Shimon Keinan watches as a customer, Dror Yoggev, blows a shofar at his Kol Shofar factory, Sept. 6, 2017. (Andrew Tobin)

Dropping out of school at 16, Keinan worked as a welder and was finally able to save enough money to buy a real shofar, which he blew every Rosh Hashanah at his synagogue as well as at the nearby Ashkenazi one. After marrying, he moved to Givat Yoav in the 1970s, where he built a metal workshop that doubled as a turkey farm and raised four children.

In the 1990s, Keinan got a chance to turn his passion into a profession when his rabbi introduced him to an elderly shofar maker in Jaffa who wanted to retire. For two years, Keinan drove to the man’s factory twice a week, more than two hours each way, to learn his techniques. In 1998, he turned the turkey farm into a shofar factory.

Today, Kol Shofar, which still looks a bit like a farm, with thin metal walls and concrete and dirt floors, is one of just two in Israel — the other being the much older Bareshet-Ribak Shofarot Israel, which has locations in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

Keinan said he sells about 7,000 shofars a year, at least 90 percent of them mail orders. Half are sold to Israelis, he said, while most of the rest go to Jews in the United States and Europe. Among his clients are famous Israeli rabbis, he said, including current Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. The  months between Tisha b’Av and Sukkot are his busiest time of year.

According to Keinan, the hardest part of producing shofars is obtaining the raw materials. Every two or three years he travels to Africa to buy ram and ibex horns. He gets the ram horns — by far the most popular shofar material because of their recommendation by the Jewish sages – from his native Morocco, where millions of the animals are ritually slaughtered every year for the Muslim festival of Eid.

Shimon Keinan and son Hanan posing for a photo at their Givat Yoav factory, Sept. 6, 2017. (Andrew Tobin)

At the moment, the shofar factory is packed with thousands of horns. They fill boxes, shelves and shopping carts; some are heaped in huge piles on the floor. Keinan estimated that he has 20,000 ram horns, 2,000 kudu horns and a few ibex horns on hand. The ibex horns are rare because they come from Israel, where the wild goat is protected. An ibex horn shofar costs about $1,000, compared to about $100 for a ram horn.

Some 15 years ago, Keinan’s son, Hanan, 42, started accompanying his father on his Africa trips. Soon thereafter, he returned to Givat Yoav with his wife and children to join the family business full time. Along with his father, he handcrafts every shofar the factory produces. Three other employees help run the factory and the office.

While the younger Keinan acknowledged that he cannot match his father’s passion for shofars — and he’s also not religious, he added — Hanan has helped upgrade Kol Shofar’s production process with new techniques and machines.

Kol Shofar’s first two steps for producing shofars are family secrets, but they involve treating the horns to remove the gamey smell and applying heat to straighten them. After that, the narrow end of the horn is sawed off, a hole is drilled in the end and a special tool is used to expand the hole into a mouthpiece. The last step is buffing and shining the exterior.

Hanan Keinan has also pushed to expand the factory’s tourist business —  in recent years, he and his father paved the driveway and built a visitors center, parking area and restrooms. Some 7,000 people took tours of the factory last year, which at about $9 per person is a significant new revenue stream.

But while his son may have a head for business, Shimon remains the heart of the factory.

“He’s not afraid to give visitors a hard time, but when it comes to shofars, he has a serious desire to deliver knowledge and perfection,” Hanan Keinan said. “I think that is a big part of the reason our shofars are really the best.”

What the Eclipse Taught Me About the High Holy Days

Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

Every year my family and I go on a summer road trip. This year we chose to travel to Casper, Wyoming to experience the Totality of the Great American Solar Eclipse, 2 minutes and 26 seconds when the moon totally covers the sun. The temperature drops, the birds go silent, night falls, the stars come out and you have a 360 degree panorama of sunset. It is nothing less than a physical encounter with God.

We viewed the eclipse with a gathering of both veteran and amateur astronomers. These astronomers taught my family more about the universe’s planetary system in three hours than we could have otherwise learned in a lifetime.

The tension was mounting as we counted down the seconds to experience the unimaginable. With 80 percent of the sun being covered by the moon, we could feel the temperatures dropping and the wind picking up. At 90 percent we could sense the sunlight growing weaker like a winter day in the late afternoon. With a minute to go until Totality we noticed the western horizon darkening as a giant shadow raced towards us. It was impossible to see the leading edge of the 1720 mile-an-hour moon shadow as it engulfed us.

And then all at once the crowd roared “ooh” and “aah” as the moon completely covered the sun in the most spectacular sight I have ever seen in my life.

The moon, physically invisible up until now, was perfectly positioned over the sun as white wispy streams of light poured out of the entire 360° circumference of the sun beyond the edges of the darkened moon. It seemed as if it took up the whole sky.

The stars came out, along with Venus and Saturn. We were living Totality! It was the fastest and most spectacular 2 minutes and 26 seconds of my life.

We didn’t want it to end. Like the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur Day at the Neilah service when you just want to forever hold onto your breakthrough to God and His loving embrace.

It was a paranormal experience. Despite all my preparation for this instant, it was totally surreal. Everyone around us was in an altered state. Stunned. Euphoric. Holding onto the moment. Even the veteran eclipse chasers were overcome with awe. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of God revealing His presence on Earth.

The astronomers told us that before you go into Totality you have to have a plan. How would you make the most of the 146 seconds? What are you going to see, record, and think? Everybody had to know how to budget their time. Do we do that in life every 146 seconds? Shouldn’t we? Most of the time we don’t use our time this planned out, assuming for sure we will get another 146 seconds, hours, days or months.

I wish I could always be in this state of mind of total reality. No one was daydreaming. Smart phones were out of view.

I also made it a point of saying the Shema. I wanted to lock in this moment forever and anchor it to my relationship with God. I looked at my children and wife, Rochel. They were in their own world trying to process this.

We wanted to grab this for eternity. I will never let this moment go and will always thank God for it. But in truth God gives us Totality every second with all the blessings that fill our lives if we would just stop and consider.

Today God gave us a rare gift from on high. I hope to take it with me to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, into my Sukkah, and for the rest of my life!

I want every day to be Totality with my Creator. I want to be aware. I never want to daydream, rather to be excited by life always. I want to be striving for things that are so important and meaningful that pettiness and disappointment have no space in my mind.

The eclipse taught me that you can have the sun, moon and earth on different orbits and in a rare synchronistic moment, they create a phenomenon that seems beyond probability.

So too in our lives when we are challenged and trying to solve so many dilemmas. After much effort the moving pieces all come together in a harmonious solution that is beyond our imagination. In fact, sometimes we look back on our lives and come to realize that certain situations have resolved themselves, eclipsing the issue we were so worried about.

Isn’t that the ultimate message of the Days of Awe? At-one-moment – atonement! May you too reach Totality in your life.

 

Rabbi Aryeh Markman is Co-Director, The Western Wall Experience and Executive Director, Aish LA. Reprinted with permission from aish.com.

 

Shofar players breathe life into services

High Holy Days services are fast approaching, and the sounds of the shofar soon will fill sanctuaries throughout Los Angeles.

Teruah, nine quick blasts. Shevarim, three medium, wailing sounds. Tekiah, the long, breathy blast. 

But who are the brave souls standing in front of hundreds of congregants performing this mitzvah? They are trumpet players and lawyers. They are people such as Richard Weissman, who has been doing the deed for the past 15 years at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills — and in far-flung lands, too.

Last year on a trip to Tibet, the 68-year-old visited the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the 1,000-room, 13-story structure that formerly housed the Dalai Lama. The temptation to blow his shofar — which he had brought along for the trip hoping to find an idyllic locale to play it in — was too much to overcome. So the practicing lawyer brought his shofar to his lips and produced a long blast that turned heads and rang through the valley below. 

“When I got back and thought about the experience, I realized I need to take the shofar wherever I travel and blow it at the highest peak I can find,” Weissman said. “It’s for my spiritual connection. You blend yourself with nature and God.” 

The shofar’s roots go back to ancient Israel, where it was used to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), calling people together. The instrument, often made from a ram or kudu antelope’s horn, is used during High Holy Days services and during the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

Weissman’s tenure as his congregation’s ba’al shofar (shofar sounder) began when his predecessor took ill on the eve of services 15 years ago. When his rabbi called upon him, knowing of his musical background, Weissman couldn’t say no. 

“He knew I played trumpet. Brass horn players do a lot of shofar blowing,” he said. “Woodwinds are less inclined.” 

Weissman played trumpet in the UCLA marching band during his college years. Up until last year, Weissman blew the shofar alone in front of the congregation, before realizing that he missed the dynamic of playing with other musicians. 

“I was a loner and I needed a group,” he said. “I get more playing with the ensemble. I listen as I’m blowing my shofar. I want to hear everybody and I want to hear it melding together.” 

Weissman also believes that the congregation gets more out of experiencing Kol Tikvah’s shofar performance, in which shofar blowers — ranging in age from 8 to 80 — are stationed throughout the sanctuary, filling the room with different sounds. 

“When you do it alone, you’re the object of everyone’s attention, but the congregation loses sight of what’s really going on. They hear the sounds, but they’re watching me do it and not really hearing. I’ve played in symphony orchestras, marching bands — you’ve got this melding of sounds that makes the whole so much better.” 

Phil Ganz, 61, has been playing shofar at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills for over a decade now. He’s a data analyst for the state who has played trumpet his entire life — a skill he leans on heavily in his shofar blowing. 

“I play the shofar exactly the same way I play the trumpet,” he said. “I play with exactly the same embouchure. Some people have different methods, like blowing off to the side. I play exactly the same way. It helped me pick it up fairly quickly.” 

Although he doesn’t remember exactly how he came into the role, the reason he wanted to get involved was always clear. “I realized that I should put my trumpet-playing abilities to good use for the High Holy Days. It’s a good opportunity to give back,” he said. 

Ganz stays sharp in the month leading up to services by practicing during the month of Elul, blowing shofar at the end of Shacharit services every morning and lending his expertise to anyone looking to learn the craft. 

“Every morning during Elul, I try to blow at least one set of three notes, which keeps me warmed up and ready for Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “Oftentimes, I’ll also just blow it for the kids when they ask. It’s giving back to the community. People want and need to hear shofar.” 

Shira Bensonpeck, 25, has been playing the shofar at West Los Angeles’ Temple Isaiah for seven years. She too has a background in brass horn, playing trombone as a child. When she inherited her older brother’s shofar after he moved out, Bensonpeck never looked back. 

“My mom knew I had the lungs for it and signed me up to play at synagogue,” she said. “I guess I traded one instrument in for another.” 

Bensonpeck played at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC) for six years before moving to Temple Isaiah. She admits to being nervous in front of crowds, but the sanctity of the duty helps her overcome the butterflies. 

“When the cantor makes the first call, everything goes blank, and it’s just me and my shofar. It’s my way of connecting with God and doing a mitzvah for everyone else,” she said. 

Going back to her teenage days at PJTC, Bensonpeck has made it a point to visit the homes of congregants, often the elderly, who are unable to attend services. She credits her mother with coming up with the idea to include those who can’t experience the shofar blasts at synagogue. For Bensonpeck, the task enriches her personal High Holy Day experience. 

“I always get tears. It’s a good feeling. They love it,” she said. “They can’t come and for many of them it’s the most profound moment, especially the elderly. It’s what they miss. If they can’t hear it, it’s not the High Holy Days for them.” 

Troy Slaten, 41, a criminal defense attorney, has been blowing shofar at Temple Isaiah — sometimes with Bensonpeck — for the past 10 years. With no musical background, Slaten doesn’t view the shofar through a musical lens like some of his peers, but rather a way to break a language barrier with God. 

“I look at the shofar as a call out to God. We don’t know God’s language,” he said. “This is the primal scream out because we don’t know how God communicates. It’s asking God to listen, to hear us. It awakens everybody, and I’m so honored that I get invited to do this mitzvah.” 

Before his career in law, Slaten was a child actor and he still appears on television frequently as a legal analyst. However, he thinks of High Holy Day services as a separate challenge, one that lights and cameras can’t prepare him for. 

“I’m on television all the time with millions of people watching, but this is my congregation, my family, my tribe. I get nervous,” he said. “I don’t want to shake hands with people because my hands are clamming up. But the nervousness means I care deeply. It’s a good nervous, and it helps me put on a good performance.”

Hebrew word of the week: Teqi’ah

The root t-q-’ is mostly associated with blowing the shofar or trumpet, but a close examination of its uses shows it is much more varied. The original meaning is to “smite, push, thrust” (perhaps related to t-q-f, “attack, use force”). All the other meanings developed from that. It seems, that teqi’ah is the initial physical act of blowing, whereas teru’ah is the resulting sound part.

Selected examples: taqa’ ohel “pitch a tent”;* taqa’ yated / masmer “hammer a peg / nail” (as Judges 16:14); taqa’ stirah “slap”; taqa’ kaf “clap hands (rejoicing)”; give a handshake (as guarantor)”; taqa’ ’af “poke nose into, meddle”; teqa’ “plug, outlet”; nitqa’/ taqua’ “being stuck (in traffic, etc.)”; “being thrust.”

*The biblical place-name teqoa’ probably meant “pitched (tents), encampment” (Amos 1:1), in modern Hebrew ma’ahal (many towns began as a military camp, fort).

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA

Blowing the shofar can be a dangerous exercise in chutzpah

“Hold her tongue!”

That’s what I remember: my sister calling out for someone to hold my tongue. 

I remember how my vision turned black, how my knees buckled and my body collapsed — a thud onto the bimah like the drop of a heavy curtain.

My oxygen supply was cut off to my brain, something called cerebral hypoxia. I fainted and convulsed, my body uncontrollably jolting. I heard the members of the congregation, too, and how far away they sounded.

“Is there a doctor?” voices called out. (And for the first time in High Holy Days history, there were absolutely none.)

Not much later, I was sitting in an emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 

“I was blowing on a ram’s horn, and I lost consciousness,” I said while lying down in a curtained room with an I.V., as men and women in scrubs scribbled down notes.

“A shofar?” one of them asked. (And that’s when I found my Jewish doctor.)

This all happened last Rosh Hashanah, and I haven’t blown a shofar since. About a year after the incident, I decided to see where I went wrong and got on the phone with “master blaster” Michael Chusid, author of “Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn.” If there’s such a thing as a shofar professional, Chusid is the man. 

“Had you been practicing throughout the month of Elul?” he asked me.

“No,” I told him. I hadn’t practiced. 

Elul is the Hebrew month of preparation before the High Holy Days. A well-versed shofar blower such as Chusid, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, uses this month to exercise his pipes — the ancient instrument is traditionally blown almost every day during this time. Perhaps if I had done likewise, I could have avoided the spectacle.

“How could I have so much chutzpah to attempt to blow the shofar with no preparation?” I sighed.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself! That chutzpah was your preparation!” Chusid consoled.

To Chusid, the shofar is an act of devotion, for which he is the conduit. 

“It’s not me blowing the shofar. Yes, the air comes from my body, but that’s not where the sound comes from. When I’m sounding the shofar, I sometimes disappear. I’m not aware of my own body. I’m not aware of blowing the shofar. I’m just completely tuned into hearing it,” he said, taking long thoughtful pauses between words, stretching out the syllables.

“It took me 40 years and five minutes to learn to blow the shofar,” he said. “It’s about rite,” meaning that it’s a rite of passage; it happens when the right time comes.

I realized, suddenly, that I had never learned — or even tried to learn — to actually play the shofar. I’d taken a few trumpet lessons a few years back, convinced I was the next trumpet virtuoso — which, I soon found out, was not the case — so I used my cumulative three hours of training in that arena and tried to apply them to the shofar. Chusid made sure to mention that there are drastic differences in playing the two.

“Do you have a shofar there?” Chusid finally asked. “It’s Elul. I haven’t heard it yet today.”

He caught me off guard. I called him because he was a certified expert on the shofar, but now he was asking me to perform over the phone. I was hesitant — the last time I’d attempted this, my driver’s license got revoked. (It’s since been reinstated.)

“Not with me, but I can get one in a second,” I said. 

For the next hour, Chusid became the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. We switched from phone to Skype to commemorate the shift.

“When a student is ready, a teacher appears,” he said in a calm sage-like way. 

My grandfather’s shofar — the one I used in shul a year ago before collapsing during the tekiah gedolah — is yellow with striations and milk spots. The mouth of it, broken in from too much use, sinks down like a sealed cave. The shofar twists like a ring of smoke, spouting up and out. It smells like animal and tastes like sour bone.

“Are you wearing shoes?” he asked as I settled back onto the floor with the horn. I wasn’t. “Good,” he said, “the place you’re sitting is holy.” 

Here we were, centuries after Abraham and Isaac and the ram that got its horns stuck in the thicket, continuing an ancient tradition, taking turns sounding the shofar over Skype. We went through the scales, the mouth positions, the context (about echoing the tears shed by the mother of Sisera as she mourned the death of her son in the Book of Judges) and the mental approach.

“The shofar blower is supposed to blow as if this is his or her last breath,” Chusid said.

Tekiah gedolah is the last movement. After tekiah, after shevarim, after teruah, tekiah gedolah is the show-stopper, the final encore. When it’s called, the chazzan is crying, “This is the end.” 

The shofar is a siren. At this time of year, it is a wake-up call. In battle, it’s a cry. Joshua and his army circled the walls of Jericho seven times. On the seventh, they brought out their horns, pigeon-breasted. Tekiah gedolah broke through stone and mortar.

Dipping in and out of connection, and rattling through my computer speaker’s static, Chusid blew the shofar. The noise sounded pixelated and warped, but still, it sounded. 

“It’s magical to make the noise because it’s not far away on some mountaintop, or deep in the ocean, but on your lips,” he said. 

Together, we went through the movements in order: tekiah: unbroken and singular; shevarim: three hiccups; teruah: nine whiplashing stutters. And then the last, at long last, tekiah gedolah.

At first, I was anxious and unsure, my palms sweaty. But Chusid was right there with me, streaming through my webcam. I took a deep breath, filled my lungs to the brim with air, set my lips to the horn … and I wailed. 

Art, man and God

I wonder what our prayers sound like to God during these Days of Awe. As the earth spins on its axis and Jews across the globe gather together to worship, I imagine that God hears our longings as a symphony – each soul a note, singular, exceptional, and essential to the whole. Our hearts, the instruments; our words, music to God’s ears.
 
When the shofar sounds and our voices float heavenward, we give great reflection to, among other things, the power of something uniquely human: the power of speech. We ask for forgiveness for mistakes that originate as often from our lips as from our deeds. We repent for words that are negative, meaningless, traitorous, foolish, vulgar, and deceitful, for we understand the eternal truth in King Solomon’s observation, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21]
 
The very idea of prayer, however, recognizes the power of speech not just to harm, but to uplift and transform. We uplift and transform ourselves with prayer, each other with kind words, and the world through art.
 
Art, the universal language, touches us all; atheist and Orthodox, Christian, Muslim, and Jew. It is both earthly and divine; the gift of creation from the Creator. 
 
Tragically, today, art is under siege. With the cultural Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) effort against Israel, politically motivated organizations and individuals in free western societies are using censorship as a strategy to advance their agenda. 
 
Proponents of the cultural boycott want to prevent international audiences from experiencing Israeli art and want to cut the flow of world art going into Israel. They want to bar films from festivals, silence instruments, and take canvases off walls.
 
The risk posed to mankind goes far beyond Israel’s borders or the lineage of the Jewish people. Boycott proponentshave orchestrated a social media and on-the-ground campaign of intimidation that, left unchecked, poses an existential threat to the freedom of artistic expression.
 
Art is integral to the human experience. It is a connective tissue between people and places.  It simultaneously reflects the world in which we live and serves as a vehicle for change.
 
Artists challenge us, bring us together, and provide a bedrock for peace.
 
From the poetry of King David, to the writings of postmodern linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein, traditions both spiritual and secular recognize art’s unique ability to help us understand the world around us in profoundly deep ways that extend beyond the capacity of mere conscious thought.
 
A song can elevate a moment; a book can inspire one’s mind to new thinking. With a human’s breath, the ram’s horn shatters hearts of stone and washes away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means. 
 
The proximate target of the boycott effort is Israel, but freedom of artistic expression, fundamental to our humanity, is its ultimate victim. 

Lana Melman is the CEO of Liberate Art Inc., a leading expert and commentator on the cultural boycott effort against Israel, a Hollywood liaison, and a professional speaker and writer.

The shofar saves a rabbi’s life: a case study

My patient, an esteemed rabbi, underwent major abdominal surgery lasting several hours. Within one day postoperatively, he was instructed to blow into a mechanical device to help prevent respiratory complications. 

Pulmonary problems are not uncommon after surgery, and they include pneumonia, atelectasis, respiratory failure, prolonged mechanical ventilation, pneumothorax, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), pleural effusion and pulmonary embolus.

Atelectasis (collapse of part or all of the lung) is perhaps the most common, particularly in those patients with neuromuscular or chest wall disease. Because atelectasis in some patients appears to be due to repeated small inspirations, deeper breaths may be helpful. Incentive spirometers encourage expansion of the lungs as much as possible above spontaneous breathing — these have proved to be beneficial in controlled studies.

The dilemma

The rebbe blew and blew into the spirometer, but his profound weakness precluded successful deep respiratory excursions. Several doctors and nurses hovered over this frail, gentle, brilliant scholar but could not coax him into breathing deeply. As his attempts increased in frequency, his frustrations grew, as he knew failure could possibly transform into pneumonia or atelectasis, with their attendant consequences. More important, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were a few days away, and he was emphatic about not missing these High Holy Days; he never missed blowing the shofar during the Days of Awe.

I spoke to the rebbe. He shared his concerns, his fears, his hopes, but focused on his love for all humanity. He conveyed his dream immediately prior to surgery, when he “stood in court and was being judged.” He argued that he is merciful — that he is a good person. Because he is merciful, he wants to help others. He wants to “stay alive to continue to do good things.”

In this same dream, he is moved to another room, surrounded by books — thousands of books — that help convey the word of God. (This array of books is exactly a replica of every room in his house.) He continues to teach: 

“In Genesis, God blows breath in man.” 

“He gives him the ‘soul of life.’ ” 

“Life is ‘God blowing in and out of man.’ ”

“I have the answer,” he cried out. 

“The answer to what?” I asked.

The solution

“It is Rosh Hashanah!” he bellowed. “I need a shofar. Bring me a shofar!”

He put the shofar to his lips and the wailing sound permeated the hospital corridors. His respirations deepened: Full expansion of his lungs was successful. This new “breathing apparatus” may have saved his life. “How do you have the strength?” I asked. 

He replied, “The shofar is blowing itself.” 

Days later, he walked unaided to shul. He stood on the bimah, almost glowing, and he blew the shofar better than anyone could imagine. He felt strong. He felt connected to God.

The physical shofar is nothing more than the hollow horn of a ram. When the breath of a human being is blown through it, however, it undergoes a transformation. It becomes a living embodiment of the heart and emotion of the human being expressing the Divine Self, its sense is pulsing within, crying out to its Maker.

The shofar has an aura of awe and holiness about it. Its blasts can shatter hearts of stone and wash away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves, impenetrable by any other means. The Baal Shem Tov taught that the shofar is an emotional, intuitive way of gaining access to the deepest recesses of our heart and of divine experiential knowledge. Its blast — a wordless sound — speaks to the heart in a way all the greatest words and insights cannot approach.


Dr. Norman Lavin is a clinical professor of endocrinology and director of endocrinology education at UCLA Medical School. He writes the Jewish Diseases blog at

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Hipster guide to the High Holy Days

3 ways to find High Holy Day meals

 

Ask your Jewish friends’ parents to adopt you for a couple of weeks.

Call your local synagogue and have them match you with a family.

Check out Sinai Temple’s “Break the Fast” on Yom Kippur, Oct. 4, 8-10:30 p.m. It’s $10 for guests, free for members. Registration at atidla.com.

3 places to get great local honey

Bill’s Bees is located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. You can find their delicious honey made from bees fed native wildflowers at farmers markets throughout the region, including Glendale, South Pasadena, Burbank and Santa Monica.

Bennett’s Honey Farm is located in Ventura County, “home of the best sage and wildflower fields in California,” they claim. They are certified kosher and organic.

Honey Pacifica has been in the raw honey business since 1978. Pick up a jar at your local Whole Foods or at farmers markets in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica and other locations.

 

 

5 websites to help you bring in the new year

 

Jewels of Elul: Craig Taubman’s gathering of short stories and anecdotes to help us reflect and prepare for the High Holy Days.

Write for Your Life: A useful and accessible guide to writing about your spiritual practice.

My Jewish Learning: A clearinghouse of handy information about Jewish holidays, culture, beliefs, etc. Think of it as an interactive “Jewish Book of Why” —with more pictures.

Ask Moses: Get your pressing moral and spiritual questions from an Orthodox perspective answered from an Orthodox perspective by a rabbi with Chabad of California.

10Q: 10 days, 10 questions. Answer each one and next Rosh Hashanah you’ll have your answers sent back to you, so you can reflect on how much you have (or haven’t) changed.

 

 

5 books to read to get you in the mood

 

1. “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” by Alan Lew. A guide to self-discovery and contemplation, drawn from lessons in Judaism and Buddhism.

2. “The Book of Life,” by Stuart Nadler. In the daring first story, an arrogant businessman begins a forbidden affair during the High Holy Days.

3. “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” by Alan Morinis. A highly practical set of teachings for cultivating personal growth and spiritual fulfillment in everyday life.

4. “A Climbing Journey Towards Yom Kippur: The Thirteen Attributes of the Divine,” by R. Margaret Frisch Klein. A guided journal for climbing the spiritual mountain, with questions to help guide your thinking and writing.

5. “Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days,” edited by S.Y. Agnon. Compiled by one of the greatest Hebrew writers of the 20th century, this is a one-volume compendium of meditations — from the Bible, the Talmud, midrash and the Zohar — to deepen the spiritual experience of the holiest days of the Jewish year.

 

 

5 things to know about the High Holy Days liturgy
(by Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Jason Fruithandler)

 

1. It’s long for a reason — the liturgy tries to give as many opportunities for connection as possible.

Over the course of the High Holy Days, there are special extra prayers, special extra Torah readings, and even a whole extra book of the Tanakh — Jonah — is read. The length and diversity of the liturgy is an expression of the tension between the need for communal strength and individual reality. Each of us stands before God (however you define God) with our own set of deeds and misdeeds. Each of us needs a different kind of encouragement or support to embrace our broken, imperfect selves and make a plan to try to be better. Our prayer services offer a community of people reflecting on the year, medieval piyutim (liturgical poems) on the core nature of death, uplifting music about the possibility of being better, stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs doing the best they can, and many other entry points into the themes of the High Holy Days. Each year, I try to find one access point, one theme, one idea, one song to connect to and carry with me into the coming year.

2. Most of the High Holy Days liturgy is written by poets trying to understand the themes of the holidays.

The early rabbis laid out an outline of what themes the prayer leader should touch on. There were no siddurs for the community. There were traveling professionals who had beautiful singing voices and were masters of the Hebrew language. They would take the themes of that outline and elaborate. The siddur represents a collection, made over the course of 2,000 years, of the best work of those prayer leaders. Do you have a favorite poem? Is there a scene from a movie or TV show that moves you? Add your own to create your personal siddur.

3. The sound of the shofar counts as its own prayer.

Maimonides writes that an entire prayer is in his mind each time he hears the shofar. The powerful sounds of the shofar are meant to stir our souls. The content of that private prayer is going to be different for each person, yet the strength of the prayer is amplified — for all are sharing that moment together. The contrast between the short and long blasts gives us a chance to be individuals together in community.

4. Kol Nidre was extraordinarily controversial.

The early rabbis tried for centuries to abolish or at least to adjust the Kol Nidre service. In many ways, it seems to undermine the halachic (Jewish legal) system. Kol Nidre as a service either annuls all of the vows (promises that invoke God’s name) from the previous year or the coming year. It is possible to annul vows in Jewish law, but you need a rabbinic court. During the Kol Nidre service, we make a pretend court out of three Torahs held by three individuals. There is no halachic standing for such a thing. In addition, it seems to completely alleviate the responsibility of making promises. However, every synagogue in the world has a Kol Nidre service. The people overruled the rabbis. People love the moment of Kol Nidre — not because of its legal standing, but because it transitions us into Yom Kippur. What better way to start a day of forgiveness than by facing the fact that we don’t live up to the promises we make to ourselves and others? More than that, we forgive ourselves for those failings. That forgiveness becomes the foundation of an entire day of admitting all of our shortcomings.

5. Rosh Hashanah is the more somber of the two holidays.

It is the day God is our jury and we are found guilty. Yom Kippur is the “happy fast” — God serves as our sentencing judge, and our sentence is commuted. We have another year to try again.

 

 

7 places to “just do your own thing in, like, nature

 

1. The top of Point Dume in Malibu: You won’t see whales this time of year, but you’ll see Catalina Island, the far horizon and not a lot of people.

2. Sturtevant Falls in Sierra Madre: A four-mile round-trip hike with well-maintained trails; a perfect place to escape the city.

3. The Cobb Estate in Altadena: It’s home to the Sam Merrill Trail and is referred to as the Haunted Forest, with widespread reports of spooky sightings. Also, it was owned by the Marx Brothers in the 1950s.

4. Eaton Canyon in Pasadena: Don’t go chasing waterfalls — the trail to the upper falls was closed off in August after too many hikers fell to their deaths. But you can still hike to the lower falls for a breathtaking view.

5. Griffith Park in Los Angeles: A well-trod urban oasis, but still a great place to bring visitors and get a nice view of the Hollywood sign.

6. El Matador State Beach in Malibu: Even on weekends you can find this beach, near the Ventura County line, relatively quiet. On weekdays, it’s positively peaceful. Sit down, stare at the surf, and reflect.

7. Temescal Canyon Park in Pacific Palisades: Go on a sunset hike and watch a big ball of fire drop into the ocean. Stunning views of the coastline await.

 

 

4 ways to put up a sukkah at the end of Yom Kippur

 

1. Check out Instructables.com for a guide to building a free-standing DIY sukkah out of PVC pipes. SimplifiedBuilding.com shows you how to make a more heavy-duty one out of steel pipes.

2. Sukkot.com offers wood-frame or steel-tube sukkah kits, along with wall materials, bamboo roofing, decorations, and even a lulav and etrog. SukkahDepot.com and SiegerSukkah.com also offer easy-to-assemble sukkahs, but be prepared to shell out a few hundred dollars.

3. Go to a Home Depot or Loews with a budget in mind and the dimensions of your back porch or yard, and channel your inner Tim Allen.

4. Team up with some fellow Jews and build a communal sukkah. There’s no better way to break the Yom Kippur fast than with a nosh among friends under the stars.

 

 

Putting the “high” in High Holy Days – 7 “medical” marijuana strains we’d like to see

 

– Dread Lox

– Maccabuzz

– Pineapple and Honey Express

– Canniblintz

– Chabud

– Andy Coughman

– Jerusalem Stoned

 

 

7 best ideas for karaoke songs for the High Holy Days

“I Ran (Shofar Away)” — A Flock of Seagulls

Pour Some Manischewitz on Me — Def Leppard

Love Sukkah — The B-52’s

Son of a Rabbi Man — Dusty Springfield

The Horah Dance — Digital Underground

The Unforgiven — Metallica

Don’t Stop Believin —  Journey

 

 

4 ways to work out with your fellow Jews

 

Om Shalom Yoga

Vintage Israeli dancing at Anisa’s School of Dance in Sherman Oaks, Sept. 27, 8:15 p.m.-12:15 a.m.

Pre-High Holy Days Yoga Unwind & Detox at Sinai Temple, Sept. 21, 11 a.m.-noon.

– The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Tour de Summer Camps, Sept. 21

 

 

4 places to meet singles

 

Rosh Hashanah Party, Sept. 27, 10 p.m., at Whiskey Blu, 1714 N Las Palmas, Los Angeles. Including DJ Shay Silver, DJ Amit, DJ Yochai, DJ Final Cut and DJ Primitive. israeliparties.com.

Rosh Hashanah Party, Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m., at The Victorian, 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. There’ll be mingling, music, dancing, appetizers and a festive party spirit.

Apple Meets Honey Young Professionals Lounge at Sinai Temple, a place for folks in their 20s and 30s to stop by during or after services at Sinai for light bites (Rosh Hashanah only) and mingling. The lounge will be open on Rosh Hashanah Day 1 (Sept. 25), 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m., and on Yom Kippur (Oct. 4), 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah Apple Extravaganza Party, Sept. 18, 8 p.m., at Moishe House LA,110 N. Harper Ave., Los Angeles. There’ll be delicious apple cider, apple pie, caramel apple dipping, and a discussion on what Rosh Hashanah means to young Jews.

 

 

6 best places to get round challah

 

Got Kosher?: 8914 W. Pico Blvd. (get the pretzel challah!)

Diamond Bakery: 335 N. Fairfax Ave.

Bagel Factory: 3004 S. Sepulveda Blvd. and 8986 Cadillac Ave.

Eilat Bakery: 350 N. Fairfax Ave.

Schwartz Bakery: 433 N. Fairfax Ave.

Delice Bakery: 8583 W. Pico Blvd.

 

 

How to pray if you’re not sure you believe in God

 

“Our prayers are poems! Allow them to be experienced as poetry. It is not about believing or not believing — the question is, do they move me? Do they frustrate or challenge me? If so, that is great, and then we can wonder why.”

— Rabbi Susan Goldberg

  

6 places to do tashlich

 

Creative Arts Temple, at Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey, Sept. 26, 10 a.m.

Nashuva, at Venice Beach, Sept. 25, 5:15 p.m.

“Down to the River,” East Side Jews, at Marsh Park on the Los Angeles River, Sept. 27, 6:30-9:30 p.m., $40, includes food, drink and transformation.

Valley Outreach Synagogue, at Zuma Beach, Lifeguard Station 6, Sept. 25, 4 p.m.

IKAR, at Santa Monica Beach, Lifeguard Station 26. Sept. 28, 4:30-7:30 p.m.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Tashlich at the Beach, Will Rogers Beach, Sept. 28, 4-6 p.m.

 

 

Thoughts on tashlich and humility

 

“Water is a sign of humility. Our insecurities and weaknesses, which were blocking our growth, can be washed away like water and disappear. Living waters purify, and we seek purification by the mikveh of the sea.”

— Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

 

 

6 reasons to go to services

 

– Meet your bashert (soul mate).

– It’s a mitzvah!

– Make your bubbe and zayde proud.

– Practice your Hebrew reading skills.

– There’s usually free wine involved.

– Get in touch with yourself, get centered, start the New Year fresh and renewed

 

 

Where can I learn to blow a shofar?

Michael Chusid, a San Fernando Valley resident and synagogue Makom Ohr Shalom’s ba’al tekiah (shofar master blaster), offers workshops and classes and blogs about the art of blowing shofar at hearingshofar.blogspot.com.

Self-described “jazz comedian” David Zasloff also offers private lessons. Zasloff has staged shofar shows such as “Shofar-palooza,” and on Oct. 18 at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, he will perform on the shofar all the Christian songs written by Jews. davidzasloff.com.

 

 

3 places to see art and get inspired

“Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s,” at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. See the work of Jewish filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, who later immigrated to the United States and gave birth to film noir.

“Minor White: Manifestations of the Spirit,” at the Getty Center. This highly influential American photographer showed how the visual language can be a tool for spiritual transformation.

“Mandala of Compassion,” at the Hammer Museum. Learn the virtue of patience from four Tibetan Buddhist monks as they handcraft a colorful sand mandala before your very eyes. And then, at the end, they’ll sweep it up, for a lesson in impermanence.

 

 

5 places to break the fast

– On the floor of your pantry, because, dear God, your blood sugar is low.

– Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes, because it’s all-you-can-eat.

– Swingers Diner, in Hollywood and Santa Monica, because it’s open late, and you can wash down your lox and bagel with a milkshake.

– Art’s Deli in Studio City has a special High Holy Days menu.

– Brent’s Deli in Northridge and Westlake Village.

 

 

6 Jewish drinks to break the fast

 

Ashkenazi Jews: sweetened tea.

Greek Jews: pepitada, made with crushed melon seeds, water, sugar and rosewater.

Iraqi Jews: hariri, sweetened almond milk with cardamom.

Tunisian Jews: black tea with fresh lemon verbena leaves and sugar.

Moroccan Jews: mint tea.

Tripolitan Jews: tea with cinnamon and sugar or honey

The deep wellspring of the Shofar

Venerated Chassidic master Rabbi Hillel of Paritch (in his magnum opus Pelach haRimon) likens the Shofar’s simple but powerful “cry” to a mighty wellspring bursting forth from the depths of the earth. Such a wellspring, explains Reb Hillel, replenishes even a parched river, i.e. one whose flow has all but ceased. While the analogy is admittedly beautiful the question of relevance remains, for how are we Jews of the modern age meant to connect to Reb Hillel’s magnificent teaching? Let us analyze the master’s words a little further. To begin with, Reb Hillel clearly associates the use of Shofar with the unleashing of deep wellsprings, or, sources of flow that are normally concealed from our conscious experience. As is known in the material sciences, nature’s water cycle (hydrologic cycle) exists in two primary expressions: 1) Revealed waters and 2) Concealed waters. “Revealed” waters are simply defined as states of flow that are directly tangible/experiential to us, e.g. Precipitation (rain descending from the clouds above). In contrast, “Concealed waters” can be defined as states of flow that are utterly hidden, e.g.Percolation (water penetrating deep into the earth below). By stating the Shofar unleashes deep waters (waters issuing from the depths of the earth), Reb Hillel suggests that even the waters that are normally concealed (hidden below) come as a result of Shofar bursting forth. This is beautifully intimated in the word Shofar itself, wherein the numerical value of its letters (Shin = 300, Vav = 6, Pey = 80, and Reish = 200) equals exactly the Hebrew word for “wellsprings” (“Ma’ayanot” – Mem = 40, Ayin = 70, Yud = 10, Yud = 10, Nun = 50, Vav = 6, and Tav = 400) 

This phenomenon teaches us that there is an intrinsic relationship between the revealing of “wellsprings,” i.e. sources of hidden water, and Shofar. To help clarify the idea, there is a story told of my ancestor Rav Zev Volf Kitzitz (one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s closest disciples). As is known from Chassidic tradition, the Ba’al Shem Tov assigned Reb Wolf the awesome task of sounding Shofar every Rosh HaShannah. One year in particular, the Ba’al Shem Tov spent considerable time instructing Reb Wolf as to the appropriate Kabbalistic meditations to be used on Rosh HaShannah (in the hour of sounding the Shofar.) Diligently, Reb Wolf recorded every one of his master’s insights, careful not to omit even a single letter. A week passed, and on the morning of Rosh HaShanah, Rev Wolf confidently proceeded to the synagogue with both his Shofar and the paper containing the Ba’al Shem Tov’s sacred instructions. All of a sudden, a strong gust of wind dislodged the paper from Rev Wolf’s fingers and blew it away, never to be seen again. Trembling and disheartened, Reb Wolf entered the synagogue refusing to gaze upward lest he encounter the haunting eyes of his master. Ascending to the podium, Reb Wolf took hold of the Shofar and with tear filled eyes and a broken heart performed the Tekiot (blasts) as prescribed. The entire assembly trembled at the sounds emanating from the Shofar, for never before had they felt such explosive and penetrating emotion. Upon the conclusion of Rosh HaShannah, the Ba’al Shem Tov approached Rev Wolf and with a smile said, “I am aware of what transpired before Rosh Hashanah (with the loss of the paper), and you should know that with your simple broken heart you  managed to open in the heavens above more gates then my meditations ever could!”                 

From the above narrative we can better appreciate Reb Hillel’s timeless lesson, namely, when we learn to serve G-D like a Shofar, i.e. from a place of deep heartfelt emotion, we manage to reveal a “wellspring” of Divine “flow”, a powerful current of spiritual revelation that breaks through all created barriers and replenishes the “river” of our Jewish consciousness. Once such hidden depths become manifest, even the driest of rivers (the soul most distant/detached from Divine consciousness), erupts with life. This then becomes a powerful and useful meditation for the New Year (Rosh Hashannah) in general, and the sounding of the Shofar in particular, namely, in the hour of the Tekiot (Shofar blasts), to contemplate the hidden depths of your own heart (the hidden spiritual potential deep within you) bursting forth. Visualize, in particular, the light of the Divine flooding forth (like a river), flowing from the heavens above through your head, neck, chest, stomach, back, and extremities. As the Tekiotconclude, ask Hashem to aid you in your quest to reveal more of your Divine potential and strive daily to bring about your new awakening in thought (Prayer), word (Torah study) and deed (acts of kindness).

Rabbi Brandon Gaines is a Kabbalist, acupuncturist, herbalist, and martial arts master in Los Angeles.

The secret signal

Listen. There is a secret signal. It's sort of like a password, a code. And only we know it — we who sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Or at least some of us who sound the shofar know it. Others may know how to sound the shofar, how to blow their breath through the horn and make shofar sounds, but they don't know the secret signal, the password. Just blowing air through a ram's horn does not produce the secret signal. Anyone can do that. You don't have to be Jewish to do that. Ram's horns and the like, the ancient rabbis reminded us, abound everywhere and with most any people. And guess what? They all know how to blow them, how to sound them. Everyone knows how to toot their horn, so to speak. And if that is the case, as it obviously is, then what is the meaning of the psalmic verse we recite before sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: “Happy is the people who knows how to sound [the shofar]”? (Psalms 89:16). Excuse me? Did the writer of this psalm actually believe that we were the only people on Earth who knew how to sound a ram's horn? And that is the question the second-century Rabbi O'shia asked: “Do you really suppose that the nations of the world do not know how to sound the horn? They have countless horns, myriad trumpets and innumerable experts at sounding them, and we declare 'Happy is the people who knows how to sound the shofar?'”

And so Rabbi O'shia explains to us the meaning of that puzzling statement, that it implies a knowing that was transmitted to us as a people from the ancients, a knowing not of how to sound the shofar but a knowing of the secrets behind the sounds and their intent (Midrash Vayik'ra Rabbah 29:4).   Sounding the shofar without this knowledge and its intentions creates sound, but no different than any other sound emerging from any old horn blown by anybody at any time for any reason. On the other hand, sounding the shofar while imbuing your breath with this knowledge and intention creates far more than sound. It communicates. It sends a secret signal understood only in the spirit realm, only in the Realm of the Divine Forces, and becomes part of a vocabulary known only in the God Dictionary. It is the language of spirit. It is a personal mystery communication between the soul and its origin, between Creation and Creator, in a language that is absent any symbols or thoughts, any imagery or gesture. It is the language of דִבּוּר dibbur, of Resonance. It is the communication of breath with Breath, ofרוּחַ  ru'ach with רוּחַ אֶלֹהִים ru'ach elo'heem, of mortal breath with Divine Breath.

In one of the most ancient of our Kabbalistic source texts, we are taught that Sound, Breath/Wind, and Resonance are the three qualities of the Life Force that weaves the Divine Intent through all of Existence (Sefer Yetzirah 1:9 [oldest version]). The drama of these three qualities is played-out in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “And they heard the Voice [sound] of God journeying toward the Wind [breath] of the day…. And God then Called [resonance] to The Adam” (Genesis 3:8-9). Thus you have קול ורוח ודבור — Sound, Breath, and Resonance. Sound is carried by Breath toward Resonance. By Sound, writes the 12th-century Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, is meant primal expression, not sound as we know it in the mortal sense. קול [ko'l-sound] is inaudible to the human ear until it is enwrapped in Breath or Spirit or Wind — all the same meaning of רוח [ru'ach]. It then becomes graspable, translatable, when it is further manifested in דבור [dibbur-resonance]. And that quality of the Life Force that is Resonance, this is the Holy Spirit — the flux of the Divine Spirit that is weaving through all that was and is and will be ever since she first hovered over the primal waters of Genesis (Genesis 1:2). Yes, “She.” In the Hebrew, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters” is referred to in the feminine, by the way.

Okay. Stay with me. You’re old enough, or young enough. And you don’t have to be married with children or have a background in Kabbalah. This is for everyone.

The two most repeated, most common “names” of God in the Torah are י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים.

י-ה-ו-ה is the weaving Name of God, and it is un-pronounceable because it is always in flux, constantly weaving Creator’s intent for Creation to become.

אלהים (Elo'heem) represents that particular aspect of God that is immanently involved in the life of all beings and that was active at the time of Creation. It is therefore the only name of God mentioned in the genesis of Genesis.  אלהים according to the mystics is a plural word that implies “בַּעַל הַיְכוֹלֶת וּבַּעַל הכֹּחוֹת כֻּלָם Ba'al ha'ye'cho'let u'ba'al ha'ko'cho't ku'lam — The One Who Masters All Possibilities and Who Masters All the Forces” (16th-century Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 5:1).

We are also taught that the difference between these two primary qualities of the revealed aspects of God, י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים — besides one being God Transcendent and one being God Imminent — is that the quality of אלהים is about judgment (after all, creating or sculpting requires a great deal of judgment) and the quality of י-ה-ו-ה  is about mercy. Just like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the voice of אלהים resonates in Abraham as a request that he sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:1), and the voice ofי-ה-ו-ה  resonates in Abraham as a demand that he desist from so much as nicking him (Genesis 22:11).

Now to the point.

There is another psalmic verse we recite before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that goes like this: “אלהים has ascended in the blowing [breath]; and י-ה-ו-ה  [is] within the sound [resonance] of the shofar” (Psalms 47:6).

The intent of the one who sounds the shofar, then, is to conjure the sound of silence, the primal spirit language of which the mystics spoke that precedes audible, vocal sound, the sound of breath that then translates the primal intent into resonance. The intent? A plea, a spirit-signal, that it is now time for the Divine quality of mercy — י-ה-ו-ה  — to override the Divine quality Judgment — אלהים – and that the sacred blend of both qualities merge in unified balance, thus re-creating the First Sound ever mentioned in the Torah, which is described as the Sound ofי-ה-ו-ה אלהים    (Genesis 2:8).

You see, Rosh Hashanah is a ritual of re-doing the Adam and Eve scenario a little differently. The first human couple heard the sound of both י-ה-ו-ה  and אלהים  (Genesis 2:8) but — when asked “Where are you?” they chose to surrender to their sense of shame and respond only to the quality of אלהים. The question was a challenge to them: “Where are you?” as in which voice are you responding to? That of judgment, or that of mercy? They chose the voice of judgment, and thus did the voice of judgment respond in kind and kick them out.
On Rosh Hashanah, through the secret rite of the shofar, we endeavor to turn that around, to begin our new year with transforming that Karmic consciousness of judgment we too often project onto God to one of compassion.

Thus, the secret of the Secret Signal. And so may it be! Because, we need to bring in the New Year not so much with the dictates of the prayerbook as with our deepest, inaudible hopes. Else, every year is just same-old, same-old, and nothing indeed is new under the sun.

Women of the Wall, shielded by police, raises Torah scroll and blows shofar

Women of the Wall blew a shofar at the back of the Western Wall Plaza and raised a Torah scroll at the plaza’s gate under a heavy police barricade.

The police shielded the the estimated 300 women and their male supporters on Wednesday morning at the back of the plaza, facing the wall but distant from it, during Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

As many as six layers of fencing, a 15-foot buffer zone and two lines of police separated the group from a crowd of mostly haredi Orthodox protesters who blew whistles, screamed and chanted insults. In the men’s section of the plaza, a man chanted prayers and psalms into a megaphone, disrupting the women’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

As in recent months, thousands of mostly haredi Orthodox girls and young women packed the plaza adjacent to the wall and prayed quietly during the morning.

Women of the Wall has not been allowed to bring a Torah scroll into their monthly service, but before entering the plaza, the group sang together as one woman held a scroll aloft at the plaza’s gate.

By the time Anat Hoffman, the group’s chairwoman, blew the shofar at the end of the service, most of the protesters had dispersed.

Following the service, Hoffman said in a statement, “We will not forget that the Torah is exiled from the Western Wall, due to the discriminatory misuse of power by Rabbi [Shmuel] Rabinowitz,” the rabbi of the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall gathers at the beginning of each Jewish month for a women’s Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the wall. Members had been arrested in the past for wearing prayer shawls due to a law forbidding any practice that falls outside of the wall’s “local custom.”In April, a judge determined that the group’s activities did not contravene the law. Since then, none of the women has been arrested.

Last month, the women were barricaded in the plaza’s corner, far from the wall and next to a public restroom.

Shofars blasting, Bend the Arc urges yes on Prop. 30

Bend the Arc is urging Jewish voters in California to rally behind Proposition 30. 

Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure, which will appear on the November ballot, would collect almost $6 billion in additional revenue to support education, public safety and other public services by temporarily raising sales taxes by a quarter-cent on all purchases, while also increasing income taxes for the state’s top earners.

In their effort, the progressive Jewish group has used all manner of Jewish thematic elements. Bend the Arc launched its campaign in support of Proposition 30 in a sukkah on a Santa Monica beach at the end of September, and on Oct. 15 convened about 40 people in the hot sun at Valley College to hear why students, educators and advocates for public education are urging Jews and other Californians to vote yes on 30. 

At a few points during the press conference, a handful of attendees blew shofars; Bend the Arc called the blasts “a clarion call for justice.”

Symbolism aside, Eric Greene, the organization’s Southern California director, made his case by talking about what might happen if voters reject the measure. 

“The kind of cuts that we’re hearing about are absolutely terrifying,” Greene said. “Weeks being cut off of the school year, more layoffs of teachers.”

The situation facing California’s public institutions of higher education is already pretty dire, according to one Valley College student who spoke at the Oct. 15 press conference. 

Nicole Hutchinson had intended to spend just two years at the community college but is now in her third year of studies there because she can’t get into the oversubscribed classes that she needs. 

“I can’t catch up because the summer sessions have been canceled,” Hutchinson said. 

Should Proposition 30 fail at the polls — and one online poll taken earlier this month by a business group showed support for the measure had dipped below 50 percent for the first time — the situation will almost undoubtedly get worse. Los Angeles’ nine community colleges will have to cut $50 million this year if voters don’t approve the tax hike next month. 

Politics, poverty and prosperity

“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute laws for the indigent, and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will ever doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

So Charles Darwin opined in his “The Descent of Man.” Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” disapproved of relief for the poor on the grounds that war, disease and poverty are natural antidotes to the rapid explosion of the population. Adam Smith projected an ideal laissez-faire state that would not interfere with society, leading many to oppose government assistance to the poor. 

There is a considerable history of contempt for the poor. Its echoes sound even louder these days. “There must be something wrong with people who can’t or won’t take care of themselves, who live off charity, depend upon the public dole.” I never heard anything like this in my home. Poverty, if it was a disgrace, reflected poorly upon God, not upon the hungry. It raised questions not about the character of poor men and women, but about the powerful and good God who — as we are reminded by the grace after meals — nourishes the whole world with food and sees to it that we never lack for food. “Blessed are You, Lord, who feeds everyone.” The Birkat ha-Mazon (grace) concludes with the bold assertion: “Once I was young and now I am old, yet in all my days I never saw a just person abandoned and his children begging for bread. The Lord will give His people strength. The Lord will bless His people with peace.”

Poverty is no virtue. As Mendele Mocher Sefarim put it, “It is no disgrace, but neither can you be proud of it.” Incorporated in the grace after the meal is the poignant prayer that we “not be in need of gifts from flesh and blood nor of their loans.” However benevolent the donor, it is no joy to receive alms. “Make us dependent only upon You, whose hand is open, ample, full, so that we may not be embarrassed or ashamed.” 

In my home, not poverty but wealth was something of an embarrassment, and the tradition, for all its this-worldliness, kept us at arm’s length from opulence. 

A Torah written in gold is pasul, invalid, and legend reports that when Alexander of Macedonia ordered such a Torah written, it was discovered by the rabbis and summarily buried. God’s name in gold?

A shofar covered with gold may not be used, and its sound is invalid. The sound of the broken notes from a sobbing heart out of a shofar of gold would make it lose its voice. 

The high priest on Yom Kippur must shed his vestments of gold and silver before entering the Holy of Holies. Who could appear to ask forgiveness in gold and silver apparel?

On Shavuot, the bikkurim (first fruits) could be brought into the outer court in gold baskets, but into the inner court only in baskets of straw. 

On Shabbat, money is to be neither touched nor seen. Before the Sabbath, the mitzvah is to search one’s clothes, to break off relations with “the pocket.”

At home I was taught that if a piece of bread fell from the table, it should quickly be picked up and kissed. Bread was God’s gift. I heard wondrous stories about the sacredness of a shtikel broit — “a little piece of bread.” Once, around the third meal of the Sabbath, the disciples of the Rebbe persisted in asking him to tell them where God is. He remained silent, but at last recited the Motzi and pointed to the loaf of bread on the table. God in a piece of bread? There is theology in a piece of bread. And it is important, particularly for children of entitlement living in the Garden of Gucci, to understand Ben-Zoma’s observation: “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he obtained bread to eat? He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground, then sifted the flour, kneaded and baked, and then, finally, he ate. And I get up and find all things done for me” (Berachot 58a). 

Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz — that which brings bread out of the earth is godly. Consider the process, the givenness of earth and water and seed, as well as the human energy and ingenuity to turn sheaf into edible cake. “Which is greater, the works of man or of God?” the pagan Tinneius Rufus asked. Rabbi Akiva replied that the works of man are greater than those of God, and illustrated his contention by presenting Tinneius Rufus with sheaves of wheat and loaves of cake. The cakes are greater, not that the works of God are less worthy, but that the full measure of divinity is expressed through the interaction between God’s nature and the crown of His creation. The Motzi is not recited over sheaves of wheat and the Kiddush is not recited over clusters of grapes. The Motzi is recited over the bread, which is made through human effort, and the Kiddush is recited over the fruit of the vine, which human ingenuity cultivates. Both benedictions exemplify the power and goodness of God expressed through the works of human beings. 

Our sages knew that “a blessing does not prevail except through the work of human hands.” And it is in our hands to give bread to the hungry and to do so without ulterior motives, even for the sake of piety. Consider the Chasid who boasted to his rebbe that he had made a fellow Jew pray. A poor man had come asking for a meal, but the Chasid sought to save his soul. “First we must pray,” the Chasid insisted. They both prayed Mincha, then Ma’ ariv, and before the Chasid gave him the bread, he had him wash his hands and recite al netilat yadayim. Hearing his story, the rebbe grew sad. “You meant well, but you have not acted well. There are times when you must act as if there were no God in this world.” “No God in the world?” the Chasid wondered about this blasphemy. “Yes, no God. When a person comes to you in need, you must act as if there is no one, no God, no man, in the world except you yourself and that needy person.” “And what of his soul, his neshamah?” “Take care of your soul and his body,” the rebbe answered. 

Poverty is no blessing, but abstemiousness is no virtue. If you are blessed with wealth, you are bound to live accordingly. Once, some disciples overheard the rabbi chastising the village gevir, the wealthiest man in town, not because he was profligate with his money, but because he was stingy with himself. He would eat only black bread and drink water. The rabbi reminded him that he was a man of means and ordered him to eat fine meats and drink good wine. “Why such strange counsel?” they asked the rabbi. “Because if such a wealthy man is content to eat bread and drink water, he will be more likely to tell a poor man who comes to him, ‘If I, a man of affluence, can make do with food and drink, it is enough for you to eat rocks and sand.’ ” This wisdom the rabbi likely learned from the genius found in the book of Deuteronomy, where those who go up to Jerusalem with the second tithe are told to bestow the money “for whatsoever the soul desireth, for oxen or for wine or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul asketh of thee.” But in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical year, instead of consuming the second tithe, let the tithe be given for the “Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 14:22 f.). He who experiences the joy of food and drink may more likely feel the anguish of those who hunger. “Ye shall eat and be sated and bless the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The chronology is suggestive. On an empty stomach, blessings grumble in resentment. 

And whom are we to feed? For whom is the Passover Ha Lachma cry, “Let those who are in need come and eat; let those who are in need come and celebrate the Passover”? Why the redundancy? Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Ya’avetz, a distinguished talmudist of the 18th century, offered this explanation in his commentary on the haggadah. The first call to “all who hunger” refers to non-Jews who are ra’ ev la-lechem ve-lo ledvar ha-Shem, those who are hungry for bread and not for the word of God. The second call is for Jews who require the ritual celebration of the Passover, for whom matzah, not bread, is needed. Our obligation, Rabbi Emden declared, is toward both Jews and non-Jews. Here he cites the Talmud Gittin 61: “Our rabbis have taught: We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, console the bereaved of the heathen together with the bereaved of Israel, and bury the dead of the heathen together with the dead of Israel.” We do this for the sake of peace, for the sake of God. 

We begin the meal with bread, among other reasons, to remind us that we are men of flesh and blood, not angels. So it is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter that he would recite Shalom Aleichem, the hymn which greets the angels who visit us on Shabbat, after the Motzi, and not, as others practice, before the breaking of the bread. For angels do not eat or drink, but we and our family and the guests around the table are not angels. We have bodies and hungers. Eat first, and greet the angels later. 

There is much instruction in a piece of bread. 


More stories for Sukkot: 

At joint iftar celebration, Muslim-Jewish High School Council launched

A recent break-fast meal, held in the courtyard of the Westside Jewish Community Center, began with the blowing of a shofar. The sun hadn’t yet set, so the baskets of pita and dried dates placed on every table remained untouched.

And Yom Kippur was more than a month away.

“Ramadan Mubarak,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin to the 200-odd Jews and Muslims who had gathered on Thursday evening, Aug. 9, to participate in an iftar, the nightly meal that marks the end of each day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Bassin is the executive director of NewGround, a project aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust between American Muslims and Jews, rather than one of mutual suspicion. To that end, NewGround is in the process of assembling a fifth cohort of 20 young Muslim and Jewish professionals for its fellowship.

On Aug. 9, the organization officially launched a second, similar initiative, the Muslim-Jewish High School Leadership Council. During the coming academic year, eight Jewish and eight Muslim high school students will gather for biweekly seminars and other activities designed to foster relationships and teach them about Muslims and Jews in America.

But if the council’s work can be described in concrete tasks, at least some at the JCC spoke of far loftier goals.

“I want to prove them all wrong,” Natalia Jean Garatto, a member of the new council and president of her youth group at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, told the gathering. “The people who believe that the wars and mutual intolerance will never end and those that think that teenagers have no influence or ability to impact our world.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR began the evening by offering words of prayer, and acknowledged the poignancy of a group of Muslims and Jews gathering in the wake of the mass shooting that took place at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier in the week. It was a chance, she said, for people of faith to stand in solidarity, not just with the Sikh community, but with the Muslim community that the killer believed he was targeting.

“We stand together tonight dedicated to realizing the triumph of light over darkness, and love over all else,” Brous said.

The iftar was sponsored by a handful of Muslim and Jewish groups and was choreographed to demonstrate how the council hopes to achieve its lofty goals, but also served to illustrate for the attendees — including the 14 fellows, their families and other members of the local Muslim and Jewish communities — a number of commonalities between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The Muslims broke the day’s fast with dried dates; Imam Rushdan Mujahid-Deen of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center explained it was customary for the first food eaten each evening of Ramadan to be a natural food. Some of the Muslims then went upstairs for the Maghrib prayer while a handful of Jews stood in a section of the courtyard for the Ma’ariv service.

What followed was a substantial meal, with the crowd serving themselves plates of vegetarian Indian food from a buffet. Then, under the night sky, Muslims and Jews sat down together. They talked, listened and ate.

“Food always gets people together,” said Mirvat Kamel, whose daughter, Maha, is taking part in the council this year, “that’s what we said.”

Finding Torah in the American wilderness

When the sun set on Saturday, Zelig Golden blew his shofar, calling more than a 100 people of all ages and backgrounds to assemble in a giant circle in Bort Meadow, a campground in Chabot Anthony Regional Park.

“All our prophets had their epiphanies in nature,” Golden, 38, told to the crowd, marking the start of Shavuot and a program that he believes could spread across the American and even world Jewish community.

If those gathered wished to receive their own revelation, he said, they had to venture into the wilderness as well.

“Revelation is not a lighting bolt that fills your head with wisdom all at once. It’s when you look at a blade of grass and say, that’s amazing. When you see the specks of green in someone’s eyes,” Golden continued.

After music and dancing, participants were invited to grab the ends of the ribbons hanging from the “Omer Poll.”

They wrapped themselves around the attached 49 strands—each representing a day between the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Throughout the weekend long “Shavuot on the Mountain” event, organized by the Bay area-based Wilderness Torah, participants were encouraged to reengage with Judaism, nature and the relationship between the two.

Golden kept his head covered with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat or a knitted head covering, never a traditional kippah. His beard, hosting a few gray hairs, would suit either a traditional rabbi or an outdoorsy type who likes to camp and to keep a warm face.

Golden is a mixture of both, and he isn’t coy about Wilderness Torah being his idea.

Raised in a traditional home in a small Jewish community in Spokane, Wash., he moved to California to attend Berkeley School of Law.

Until 2010, he worked as an environmental lawyer for the Center for Food Safety, protecting farmers from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

He became depressed, he said, at his job, despite the positive impact he knew it had on the issues he cared about. “I lost my derech,” he said, using the Hebrew word for “path.”

His path to spirituality began with a non-religious meditation group for lawyers.

That ignited a spark. “I realized that it was something that was missing from my life and I wanted more of it,” he said.

His search eventually led him to Berkeley’s Jewish Renewal community, Chochmat HaLev, or “wisdom of the heart.”

The group partnered with Hazon, the Jewish environmentalist group, and engaged in issues of and programs on sustainability and the environment.

For Sukkot 2007, Golden and a handful of other Chochmat HaLev members organized a camping trip to the Sacramento Valley’s Eatwell Farm, their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) affiliate.

While only a few dozen people attended that first event, today Wilderness Torah is an independent organization that sees hundreds of participants in their desert camping expeditions and youth mentorship programs.

The latter include b’nai mitzvah programs that weave Jewish thought with outdoor skills.

At the Shavuot on the Mountain program, a popular joke was that Wilderness Torah events are like the Jewish Burning Man, the annual contemporary cultural held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

It’s another way of saying that these programs are open and welcoming, particularly to all things New Age.

In fact, both festivals aim to establish an idyllic village community in nature, leading to all sorts of creative expressions.

So it was not surprise to see someone strike a yoga pose or break out the Hula-Hoop during a Torah service that took place in the cool shade of pine trees.

But while Burning Man is partly fueled by psychedelics and clothing is optional, Wilderness Torah makes a concerted effort to be a child-friendly, family experience.

Indeed, the many kids in the “Children’s Village,” a kind of daycare where they were entertained and educated (with parents allowed to attend their activities), seemed to be enjoying playing outdoors for the entire weekend—not an Angry Bird in sight.

Most of the younger participants were asleep by the start of the night-long tikkun, or study session. It followed the 10 p.m. Shavuot celebration opening and Havdalah.

With the desert temperature dropping and the wind picking up, pages with sacred text were blowing in the hands of those who gripped them while reading by flashlight.

The adults broke into several nearby groups began their night of learning.

One, with Golden, studied writings on Shavuot in the Torah and other commentaries. Not far away, Rabbi Daniel Lev guided a group in an activity called “Shema Between the Sheets: Spiritual Intimacy at Bedtime.”

By 5 a.m., a handful of the hardiest had made it to the Shacharit sunrise services, led by Chochmat HaLev’s Rabbi SaraLeya Schely.

As that small group prayed, most people remained asleep in the tents dotting the surrounding meadow. Even Golden wasn’t in sight, maybe finally allowing himself a few hours of sleep.

Perhaps he was storing energy for what he hopes is next: Spreading the program around the globe.

Indeed, he said that process has already begun.

“What’s really exciting is that were being approached from people all over,” he said. “We get requests from Australia, the UK, Canada, Israel. We want to take what we’re doing here and spread it across the Jewish world.”

Make the shofar blast a call to serve

Those who observe the Jewish High Holidays have begun a period of intense introspection and “judgment.” On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, piercing shofar blasts will conclude a 25-hour fast, we will set a course toward making good our obligations to others.

This year when the shofar blasts, I hope it will be a call to serve.

As a national Jewish service organization, we are constantly questioning what we as a community can do to make good on our obligation to help improve our society—for the short and the long term.

The questions become ever more timely as we welcome the year 5772. Hunger, poverty and unemployment pervade our communities. Cities and towns across America face severe budget cuts that threaten the viability of crucial social service programs. Individuals and families are struggling.

Against this backdrop, momentum is building among young adults for a renewed commitment to having a positive impact on the world through volunteering. While the percentage of millennial volunteers is down from previous years, in 2010, 11.6 million young men and women in this cohort dedicated 1.2 billion hours of service to communities across the country. That’s a lot.

But today, more than ever, we need our young adults to engage in service on a sustained basis. And we all must work together to help raise a generation of citizens that gives back.

In Volunteering + Values: A Repair the World Report on Jewish Young Adults, a landmark survey of Jewish millennials and their attitudes and behaviors concerning community service, Repair the World found that while this cohort demonstrates an abiding commitment to volunteerism, it is episodic rather than long term.

In fact, fewer than three in 10 young adults volunteer on a monthly or more frequent basis. Just one in five have participated at some point in their lives in an intensive program of one to 12 weeks, such as an alternative college spring break or an immersive summer experience. And only one in 20 has participated in a term of service of three months or longer.

While the Repair the World study focused on young Jewish adults, its results can serve as a road map for nonprofit and community organizations to attract greater numbers of young adults to the tasks of bettering our communities, our nation and our world.

And as we and other groups embark on this road toward tackling the world’s issues, we must listen to what millennials are telling us about themselves, their passions and their motivations.

From the study, we have learned that young adults must think they can make a real difference in people’s lives by working on issues about which they care deeply. For young Jewish adults, these include eradicating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the environment.

We’ve also come to understand that organizational flexibility is essential. For those issue areas in which volunteer options are limited or nonexistent, new opportunities must be developed while existing service opportunities must be better communicated.

We know that short-term volunteering, if thoughtfully done, can lead to long-term engagement. Pathways should be forged that lead young adults from light interest in an issue to more graduated levels of commitment.

Of particular note, communication to millennials must embrace the centrality of social networks in their lives. More than 80 percent of young people utilize social media and other web-based communication tools. We, too, should use them.

Finally, collaboration is key. Faith-based organizations should invest in smart partnerships with other leading volunteer efforts—secular, faith-based and governmental.

Volunteers can help address critical needs—as service providers, advocates and change-makers. But our challenge—our imperative—is to ensure that we provide the tools to further the commitment of young adults to service, so that it becomes a defining feature of their adult lives.

Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year

Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time

 

Australian rabbi blows shofar at 9/11 ceremony

A Sydney rabbi sounded the shofar in a major cathedral in the Australian city to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, blew the shofar in St. Mary’s Cathedral Sunday as part of the anniversary commemorations for the victims of 9/11, including the 10 Australians who were killed on the fateful day.

Lawrence was preceded by an Aboriginal elder who opened the emotional ceremony, in the presence of the New South Wales governor and premier, with the drone of the didgeridoo.

The rabbi said in his address that one of the shofar notes, teruah, had three parts.

“At its heart is a cry,” he said. “But the wailing is sandwiched between two solid blasts of hope. Hope, sadness, hope—that is how we respond to the destruction of an iconic landmark.”

They have a blast at shofar-blowing class

It was like the beginning of a meeting for a 12-step program. One by one, they said their names, where they live and how they became addicted … to playing the shofar.

Mitch Dorf, a television sound mixer and self-described Grateful Dead fan, says he loves the opportunity to play his “ax” at The Wiltern for his congregation, Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “I’m on a stage where I’ve seen Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and the Stones,” he said.

“With the shofar, you can do it in a plain fashion or you can do it in a grand fashion,” said veteran shofar blower Alan Abelson, who led High Holy Days services for prison inmates for 30 years. “It’s all kosher.”

A crowd of approximately 25 male and female ba’alei tekiah (shofar master blasters) gathered at Shalom House in Woodland Hills to network, swap stories and exchange tips on getting the right sound. The Aug. 30 event, “Shofaron for Master Blasters,” provided experienced shofar blowers, who are in their respective congregations during the High Holy Days, with the rare opportunity to listen to each other perform and learn from one another.

“The idea was to get different shofar blowers from different synagogues throughout the Los Angeles area and to share techniques, to share stories and to talk about the importance of shofar,” said Michael Chusid, who organized and facilitated the workshop. “Since blowing shofar is a right that is hand-taught from one generation to next, there really isn’t a formal study of shofar.”

Between Aug. 29 and Aug. 31, meetings like these took place in 10 cities in the United States and abroad, including San Francisco, New York and London. Chusid, who has taught the shofar at American Jewish University, developed the idea for the International Day of Shofar Study along with three other skilled shofar blowers from around the country. Together they’re building Shofar Corps — a network of talented and committed shofar blowers who are willing to learn from each other and to share their passion for shofar.

“We realized there were a lot of shofarists who were doing the job but not with much skill or understanding. So the responsibility of people who are experts at shofar [coming together] to mentor others quickly developed [into] the notion of an International Day of Shofar Study,” Chusid said.

The shofar is traditionally made from a ram’s horn and is blown during Rosh Hashanah to mark the beginning of the High Holy Days and at the end of the Yom Kippur service. It is considered a commandment to hear the shofar blown.

Chusid says that too often, people in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons don’t hear a shofar during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. He hopes the development of Shofar Corps will eventually address this problem.

The shofar workshop in Woodland Hills drew an eclectic crowd, including an oboe player who had recently taken to the shofar, a Jewish Valley resident who works as a professional Santa Claus and a comedian who can play a shofar rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Local synagogues assisted with outreach for the Aug. 30 event, and e-mails referred people to the Shofar Corps Web site, shofarcorps.org, which Chusid helped launched in June. David Cooperman, owner of Shalom House, said he was happy to host the event at his Ventura Boulevard Judaica shop.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Cooperman said, “and something that, if we could be a part of, we would be.”

After introductions, the floor was opened up to participants’ questions.

“Are rams slaughtered solely for shofar or are they already dead?” Beth Chayim Chadashim congregant Lauren Schlau asked.

The rams were slaughtered for food, Cooperman said.

Sarah Fortman, a local cantorial student and one of the youngest members of the group, asked if a cracked shofar was acceptable. 

The shofar had to be fixed before it could be played, people responded. Melted keratin would do the trick, Abelson said.

When it came to sharing tricks of the trade, Joe Guttman of Shomrei Torah Synagogue, volunteered: “You use your lips, you use your tongue and you use, believe it or not, your stomach.”

“The diaphragm,” somone added.

At the end of the session, after showing off their own shofars, the participants stood and blasted in unison.

“The shofar is an ancient way of communication, something that is based biblically on the heritage of our people. Having the sound brings back images, Bible stories, of Torah, of coming together as a community,” Cooperman said.

For some, the evening provided inspiration to improve their shofar skils.

“All the stories that people were telling from our tradition about shofar, it opened my heart, opened my eyes, opened my ears,” Schlau said, “and I’m going to go home and practice.”

Additional informal shofar classes for the public will be offered throughout the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 11, at Shalom House.

Informal shofar classes for the public will be offered throughout the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 11 at Shalom House, 19740 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. For more information, call (818) 704-7100 or visit shofarcorps.org.

Yom Kippur Dilemma

Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.