Monthly Archives: May 2014

Remembering and Forgetting

There are lots of temples that celebrate Jewish holidays not on the day they fall, but on the Shabbat closest to the holiday, in order to assure at least someone is observing it. I hear about this happening with Sukkot and Purim and Simchat Torah. It’s all about the convenience factor.

We Americans love convenient. We love easy. Why not? But here’s the problem. When the actual day of the holiday is no longer special, then we lose its essential sacredness. Our week is disrupted, and things are thrown off. Which is the point. We’re supposed to be a tad inconvenienced for the greater good of a sacred observance.

Those who practice the “holiday by convenience” argue that if they didn’t do it that way, then they wouldn’t even get enough people to make a minyan. I’m sympathetic to that position. But I think it’s ok to demand more of ourselves as Jews. It’s ok to say I have to leave work an hour early or write a note and tell the teacher it’s a holiday and my kid may not get to his/her homework that night. It’s ok to acknowledge – what? – 4 times a year? – that I have to make a special effort. Everything isn’t supposed to be easy. Sometimes we have to show allegiance to more than just “what works.”

Memorial Day started in the late 1860s as a response to the horror and grief left in the wake of the Civil War.  600,000 soldiers died in that war and it traumatized our nation. Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, an allusion to the annual custom of going to the graves of dead soldiers and decorating them with flowers.

Memorial Day was on May 30th every year. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. This created the 3 day weekend for Federal workers. It also was a shot in the arm to businesses.

The late senator from Hawaii and decorated war hero, Daniel Inouye, tried every year until he died in 2012 to return Memorial Day to its original May 3oth date. Inouye lamented that “in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.” I’m not expecting any big calendar changes any time soon. Memorial Day is too commercialized to move. As for the Jewish holidays, you will find me here ready to daven on all of the appropriate holiday evenings and Yizkor services as they fall on the Reform calendar. Maybe it’s a bit quixotic, but these days truly are holy.

Who Loves You?

The ADL just published a most significant survey of international antisemitism. Their finding? Over 1 billion people on the face of the Earth harbor antisemitic feelings. That’s about a quarter of our planet. How to get on the antisemite list? Agree with 6 of the following statements:


* Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/the countries they live in].

* Jews have too much power in international financial markets.

* Jews have too much control over global affairs.

* Jews think they are better than other people.

* Jews have too much control over the global media.

* Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.

* Jews have too much power in the business world.

* Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.

* People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.

* Jews have too much control over the United States government.

* Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.


The details of the survey are on a fabulous website that displays and breaks it down. . You’ll find, for example, that the worst antisemitism, by ADL’s definition, was measured in the Middle East and North Africa, from the West Bank and Gaza (93%) and Iraq (92%) to Saudi Arabia (74%) Turkey (69%) and Iran (56%). Laos has an infinitesimal antisemitic index of 0.2%. Of course Laos has no known history with the Jews and less than ten permanent Jewish residents.  But the scarcity of Laotian Jews does not explain the number. In fact, the survey says countries with more than 10,000 Jews tend to hold fewer antisemitic views than those with no Jewish population whatsoever.


The survey reports that only 33% of those polled have both heard of the Holocaust and believe it has been accurately described by history. Ironically, the highest percentage of people who think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust are from nations deeply involved with the genocide: Lithuania (65%), Poland (62%), Hungary (61%) Germany and Austria (52%).


There’s a lot of data here to mull over – I know I’m still considering it all.  But I have few preliminary impressions. First and I hope you don’t find it flippant, is to say that when I heard the results announced, I thought, “Only a billion people hate the Jews?” That thought comes from a son of a Holocaust survivor who was raised with the subliminal message that everybody hates us! That the majority of the world doesn’t hate Jews is a profoundly variant weltanschauung. I feel like paraphrasing Sally Fields Oscar speech from 1985: “You like us! You really like us!”


Second is to respond to the intense antisemitism of the West Bank and Gaza by saying, “Duh!” Of course the more Muslims, the more antipathy to Jews. And this antipathy is exacerbated in schools, the press, and the mosques.


Finally I wonder the purpose of this high level, high cost survey altogether. Is it Abe Foxman’s legacy after leading the ADL for 27 years and retiring next July, to say to the Jewish people, “See? I’ve warned you about antisemitism for decades and here’s the numbers to prove its capacious grip.” Is it a clarion call about international Holocaust awareness? It’s true the Jewish people say never again, but should it be surprising that 55% of Thais never heard of the Holocaust?


In the end it seems to me that we worry a lot about the opinions of non-Jews. What will they say about us? has been a consuming question of Diaspora Jews for centuries. American Jews under the age of 30 actually don’t ask that question nearly as much as it once was asked. To ask another centuries old question, is that good or bad for the Jews?


What do we do with this information?






Do the Work

Every day is Mother’s Day. That’s what they say. I’ve never truly understood the sentiment behind that claim. Do we praise mothers every day? Do they receive their just recognition every day? Of course not. But then again, neither do fathers.

It’s fair to postulate that no one gets sufficiently appreciated day to day. The ones closest to us often assume our presence and our contributions to their lives. No one gets a gold medal for taking the garbage. People rarely cheer when we do what we’re supposed to do – unless we’re throwing a ball for a living…

Let’s face it. Life is about doing what must be done. “Just do the work, Don,” Freddy Rumsen says earnestly to Don Draper. Just do your job.

When someone recognizes the effort it feels so good. But even with no one is watching, no one praising us: the work must get done. That’s just the way it is.

This Sunday, we are reminded by Hallmark, Godiva, and the floral industry, is Mother’s Day. Despite the commercial angle on this, it would be a wonderful thing to go out of your way and tell several mothers you may know how thankful you are for what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. For carrying then caring for children. For drying tears and packing lunches. For cradling fevered heads. For tuck-ins and for monster-free zones.

Every day is no more Mother’s Day than it is Purim. Every day is an opportunity to do the right thing for no other reason than doing the right thing. Not for flowers, not for praise. Just because. Every day is the right time to praise another human for helping carry the load.


On Sunday, praise a Mom.