Monthly Archives: May 2016

Omer Counting

I imagine our ancestors, on the other side of the Sea of Reeds. They watch the waters collapse on the Egyptian chariots and realize that their enemy has been utterly vanquished. They sing, they dance, they celebrate. They must’ve felt like the end of the story. As it says in the Haggadah, once we were slaves, and now we are free.

But of course, the story isn’t over. Yes, we were redeemed, but much to the chagrin of the Israelites, the journey had just begun. We continued to March toward the Promised Land and en route, we received the Torah. Thus, our ancestors learned that with freedom comes responsibility. Lots of responsibility.

Since the Second Passover seder, we’ve been counting the Omer every night. Well, maybe we don’t count it every night, but we are aware that the tradition teaches us to count 50 days from Passover, ending in Shavuot when we received the Torah. The omer (“sheaf”) is an old Biblical measure of the volume of grain.

Being Jewish is not a static experience. It requires study and learning. It requires certain rituals and observances. It demands that we maintain a sense of family. It requires that we work toward a sense of connectedness that spans generations as well as class and socioeconomic differences.

To imagine that Judaism can flourish by asking someone else to do our Jewish practice in our name cannot work. It reminds me of the scams I see in the back of various Jewish magazines or online for that matter. It goes something like this: “Send us money and we will say the Mourner’s Kaddish for your relative.” That’s simply not how it’s done. If one wants to remember and honor a deceased loved one, paying someone off to do it in one’s stead is absurd and has no place in a Judaism of integrity.

Sometimes Jews who do not belong to synagogues will send lots of donations to Chabad. The thinking goes, “I don’t really want to take the time to live a Jewish life. But those guys, they do all the Orthodox practice and they look so Jewish, they’re the ones that will keep Judaism alive.”

Not that this is a competition, but the fact is that Judaism, at least Judaism in America, will only survive if Jews like us: Reform Jews, postmodern Jews, stake a claim for our own Judaism. We must commit not to maintaining a Judaism of the past, but nurturing a Jewish life that is about right now and about tomorrow. Otherwise, we become like the practitioners of the Druze religion, which is so secret that most people who call themselves Druze don’t know what the religion stands for.

TBA offers a prodigious set of tools that can be utilized to build a Jewish life of meaning. We provide opportunities to participate in Jewish learning. We provide the opportunity to engage in acts of social justice. We provide ways to better understand modern Israel and our connection to it. We provide a path to insight into identifying and cultivating Jewish ethics. And all of this, most importantly, in the context of being a part of a community.

None of these tools can be used without community. It is the medium that nourishes and shapes who we are, what we’ve been, and what we can be. While I fully believe in the principle of virtual community and the power of social media, there is something so profoundly powerful and necessary about people gathering together, seeing each other, acknowledging that we are part of some meta-family, some collective that spans over time.

This Jewish juggernaut only works when people share a common sense of why being Jewish is worth something. Because if it’s really not worth much, then why bother? And that, of course, is one of my biggest fears-that not enough younger people and not enough parents and grandparents will acknowledge the unique treasures of living a Jewish life.

Counting the Omer is a good metaphor to remind us that there’s always more to be found. There are always reasons to celebrate. There is so much to be learned. And it’s all there for us in our community, to learn together, to truly be a blessed people.

Shabbat Shalom


Let’s put on a show!

“We’ve gotta have a great show, with a million laughs… and color… and a lot of lights to make it sparkle! And songs – wonderful songs! And after we get the people in that hall, we’ve gotta start em in laughing right away! Oh, can’t you just see it… ?”

So says Judy Garland to Mickey Rooney in the Busby Berkley movie musical Babes in Arms.  Somehow all of that little speech has morphed into a single exclamation erroneously tied to Mickey Rooney, who supposedly says, “Let’s put on a show!”.

Putting on a show is a very gratifying experience for every big time or small time volunteer involved on stage. It’s a kind of bug that once in your system is hard to lose. Ask people like Judy Dorf and Bev Cohen and Harvey Weiner, who are veterans from over a dozen TBA shows.

We’ve been putting on a show for decades at Temple Beth Avodah. And by now, hundreds of us have felt that thrill of the spotlight. We’ve sung along with an orchestra, danced to a choreographer’s instruction, jumped, ran, crawled and tumbled across the stage.

The declaration, “Let’s put on a show!” is a powerful call to action and useful shorthand for the longer Garland quote. It captures the raw excitement of putting on a play. It reflects the rare feelings of joy, terror, and fulfillment that accompany an actor, amateur or professional, who stands before an audience and performs.

As much fun as it is, we don’t do it for the attention. When Amy Tonkonogy called out, “Let’s put on a show!”, a lot of people came running. They didn’t rush because it’s about putting on a fundraiser. We’ve spent a lot on putting on plays over the years, and some made money, and many broke even and a few lost money. To be very crystal clear, the TBA plays have never been about raising money.

When Amy Tonkonogy said, “Let’s put on a show!” like her mother before her, people came running because it’s about building community. Backstage at a TBA performance is all about collaboration and cooperation. The connection people feel after months and months of rehearsals is indescribable. By the time of the first performance it feels like a family reunion every time we gather before a show.

We put on a show because it has become a part of the fabric of TBA. We do it to express a kind of love for our temple. We do it so we can meet and make friends and create lifelong connections with others who are members of our temple. The play is a collective gift of the heart from the micro community of actors and painters and stage hands and seamstresses and dressers and musicians and the clean up crew to you, our fellow TBA members and friends.

You say you don’t like amateur productions. I get it. You say you don’t like musicals. I understand. But… it’s not about Broadway, it’s about Puddingstone Lane. So stop making excuses, and come see Barnum. Buy tickets online. Think about it as supporting your relatives and friends, because they are – even if you don’t know a soul in the cast. They’re doing this for you.

Shabbat Shalom




My Right Elbow

I want to talk about my right elbow. Now bear with me. There is a context…

I chose to fire up my grill for spring cooking last week. Of course, it was raining, but I would not be deterred. Soon I was literally cooking with gas on my Webber grill, getting it to about 700 degrees, to then clean the cooking surface.

In the process of prepping and scraping, I used my spatula to pry up the corner of a cooking grate. Somehow this action wreaked havoc with the tendon in my right elbow (diagnosis anyone?). In other words, it really hurt, like yell out loud cursing hurt. But the show must go on and dinner must be served. I managed to cook everything to the desired level of doneness.

My elbow still hurt. A lot. And I would be reminded of this every time I banged into something. Which was more often than I would have anticipated.  Apparently we – or at least I – regularly use our elbows to locate ourselves in space. It’s as if my elbow is a sensor that automatically keeps me at appropriate distances from various surfaces.

For instance, I have some steep steps in my home. I found out the hard way when carrying something big downstairs that I lean my right elbow against the wall as I descend to keep myself from falling. In fact over the course of a day or two, I learned just how vital my right elbow is to my well being.

That’s my elbow story, or in rabbinics what they call the mashal, the parable. The nimshal, the teaching or the lesson is all about gratitude. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the need to explicitly stop and thank God for my elbows. Other organs, yes. My elbows, no.

Elbows are so … plain. Or worse. Elbows are often plagued with dry skin or eczema or granuloma, or God knows what. They’re wrinkly. And then there’s the funny bone thing – which is not funny at all.

But we need these elbows for all the obvious reasons, like bending our arms for instance. Or, as I’ve learned, for keeping myself from falling down. It’s all these little things, so much of which I take for granted that mean so much. And so I want to give thanks for elbows, for all the things coalesce to enable me to navigate reality. It won’t surprise you to know that there is a blessing that helps us find the words to give thanks for our bodies. And even though it doesn’t specifically mention elbows, I think it sets the stage and the direction of offering thanksgiving.

Blessed are You, our God, Spirit of the World, who wisely formed the human body. You created it with openings here and vessels there. You know well that should even one of these stay opened, or one of those stay closed, we could not long survive. Blessed are You, Healer of all flesh, who makes the wonders of creation.

Blessed are You, our God, for all the little things that make such a difference in our lives. For taste buds and tear ducts. For ear lobes and eyelashes. For cones and rods and receptors. And yes: thank you, God, for elbows.

Shabbat Shalom