Monthly Archives: March 2017

Prepping for Pesach

Getting ready for Passover is not only an act; it’s a series of several acts. There are, of course, several lists online, because the Internet loves lists. They all pretty much boil down to the following:

  • Cleaning: In traditional homes, this means an aggressive, violent war fought against chametz using steel wool, blowtorches, boiling water, chemical solvents, and vacuum cleaners. It also requires severely beating rugs and pillows and cushions, etc. This is all done to make certain that there is no, no leavened products or crumbs stuck in the couch, on the counters, in the bedrooms, and so forth. No corner of the house is exempt.
  • Shopping: It’s all about the “Kosher for Passover” labels. You cannot use open products in a kosher for Passover home. Everything from sponges to cleanser to detergent to dish soap to bar soap to spices… In other words, anything potentially “contaminated” by chametz cannot be used during the holiday. Milk and eggs should be bought before the holiday and don’t need certification. Yogurt, cream cheese, etc do require certification. It’s a Herculean task, and the expense is no light load! I advise buying a few ‘out there’ matzos, made from different kosher for Passover grains. We always buy a box of “shmurah Matzo”, which costs a fortune because it’s a handmade, artisanal product. As near as I can tell, it looks like matzo did 2000 years ago. It also tastes like it was baked 2000 years ago…
  • Book buying: The right Haggadah is important. If you don’t like it, you feel like your seder is being held hostage by a book. Well, don’t let your celebration get bogged down by readings and songs you don’t know or don’t like. There are so many options now, at least 60 on Amazon! Call me if you need a hand. I can’t give a blanket opinion without knowing who’s coming to dinner…
  • Cooking: Cooking a beautiful Passover meal is a big part of the holiday. Don’t forget, we are to sit – no, loll around the table as if we were Roman aristocracy. That’s why we recline when we drink the wine – we are lords and ladies who are not in a hurry to finish to get back to work. We are free men and women and children; no one is telling us what to do.
  • As the head chef for Passover, I like to serve traditional dishes; for us that includes matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, chopped liver, brisket, apple matzo kugel, and tzimmes. I also add a few new things every year. I find that is a great source of ideas, as is
  • Prepping yourself. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the meal and the seating and the family issues that sometimes arise. And while that’s all real, so too is the underlying reason for us all to gather. We are retelling an ancient story of journeying from from one place to another, from one state of being to another. We move from the constricting limits of enslavement and oppression to the vast openness of freedom. We were once slaves – but no longer. However, there are still people in our world who cannot make the same claim, and their pain must lessen our loud shouts of joy. Solomon Burke sings, “None of us are free/When one of is chained/Then none of us are free.”

He’s right, of course. And how can we avoid thinking of the refugees in the world now, people struggling to find a safe place for themselves and their children and their parents? The HIAS Passover supplement includes these words: “Throughout our history, violence and persecution have driven the Jewish people to wander in search of a safe place to call home. We are a refugee people. At the Passover Seder, we gather to retell the story of our original wandering and the freedom we found. But we do not just retell the story. We are commanded to imagine ourselves as though we, personally, went forth from Egypt – to imagine the experience of being victimized because of who we are, of being enslaved, and of being freed. As we step into this historical experience, we cannot help but draw to mind the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection. Like our ancestors, today’s refugees experience displacement, uncertainty, lack of resources, and the complete disruption of their lives.”

How can we not include some of this in our seder? Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.

Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.


Shabbat Shalom




Reaching In

I was surrounded by rabbis these past few days – lots of rabbis. Over 500 Reform rabbis to be exact. Our annual convention was in Atlanta this year, and, as always, I try to attend. It’s important for me to keep up with the current zeitgeist amongst my fellow professionals. I want to get a sense of what they’re thinking about, what they’re writing about, how they’re responding to the challenges of the new administration, what they’re struggling with, and so forth. I also love to catch up with old friends and colleagues; we share family stories, work stories, look at each others’ pictures of kids and grandkids, and we look about incredulously at all of the young rabbis in the room. It’s great to see so many youthful faces. And it’s just a little sobering to remember that we used to be the young ones.

Despite the joy in seeing old friends and the unique thrill of adult study with scholars on a variety of disparate topics, the tenor of the conference was troubled. The challenges of being a religious movement with a history of social justice in a time of Islamophobia, the retrenchment of voting rights, and the catastrophe of mass incarceration, to name just a few major American crises, are daunting.

We heard from many African American leaders, as one might expect in Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement. They reminded us of past coalitions between Jews and black folk. They remembered the bravery of Jewish freedom riders. They praised the resolve of The Temple, which on October 12, 1958, was devastated by fifty sticks of dynamite, but whose members refused to be cowed into submission. Rev. Raphael Warnock of the Ebenezer Baptist Church inspired us to think about justice in a new way. Cornell Brooks, head of the NAACP explicitly invited the Reform community to enter into a new coalition, a new covenant with the African-American churches, to right wrongs that are inimical to a thriving democracy.

The driving force that created this new reevaluation of the relationship between the black community and the Jewish community is antisemitism. The fact is, American Jews are not used to feeling so vulnerable. The sense of being at risk is not anything we’ve had to handle over the past 30 years. Our black brothers and sisters could empathize with our plight, and we are gaining an appreciation for the ongoing vulnerability of the black community, a la Black Lives Matter.

So what happens when one of the major manifestations of antisemitism during this period, the bomb scares to JCCs all over the country, turn out to be perpetrated, not by a rabid antisemite, but rather by a mentally ill Israeli Jew?  Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the suspect allegedly placed dozens of threatening phone calls to public venues, synagogues and community buildings in the US, New Zealand and Australia. He also made a threat to Delta Airlines, causing a flight in February 2015 to make an emergency landing. The unnamed teen made over 100 hoax bomb threats against Jewish institutions across the US and elsewhere. He reportedly began making the calls after the army refused to accept him for military service, apparently on medical grounds.

When I heard this news while packing my things to return home just yesterday, I felt many things at once. I felt relieved that there was not some large and sinister antisemitic conspiracy out to get us. I felt embarrassment that the culprit behind all of this nefarious behavior was not some alt right bottom feeder, but was in fact ‘one of us.’

And I wondered if, once the sting of antisemitism subsides, once the truth sets in, if we will feel less urgency to come to the aid of those who feel ostracized and vulnerable. Will the words of Cornell Brooks inspire us less as our paths diverge? I hope not. I hope that as Passover approaches, the teaching that, “None of us are free until all of us are free,” inspires us to stand for freedom. It should not take the experience of being actively threatened as Jews to reintroduce us to the concept that right now there are people in our country who are threatened.

If there is anything to learn in the aftermath of the arrest of this Israeli teen, it is that being endangered feels awful and disempowering. The only true response to feeling vulnerable is not to curl up into a fetal position but rather to reach out, unafraid, and look for the helping hand of another. Following the arrest of this sick kid, we feel less vulnerable; we are not reaching out. But others are. We need to reach back.

Shabbat Shalom










This Moment

Every so often I’ll read an article about some amazing experiences that people may be able to have – in the future. It’s mostly Jetsons stuff. Space travel. Brain implants that extend strength and endurance and intelligence. Jet Packs. The Hyperloop.

When you get to a certain age, you begin to translate ‘in the future,’ for ‘after I’m gone.’ That fact, in and of itself, is not so depressing. If I’ve learned anything as a congregational rabbi for 35 years, it’s the truth of mortality, that all things must pass.

Christians considered mortality a grievous punishment and some Jews as well, dealt out by a very angry God who said, “Don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” But of course that’s exactly what they do – break the only rule God gives them. Which is how human mortality comes into the world.

I’m kind of glad that in the Adam and Eve story, they did what humans do. They were curious and daring, and not subservient. True they lose the gift of immortality. But in all honesty, would you want to live forever? I wouldn’t want that.

While death and dying are often heartbreaking and tragic, the fact of our mortality spurs us to push harder, to reach higher, and to experience the intensity and sweetness that life has to offer. What would life be like without death? The obvious answer would be: there would be nothing left to call ‘life,’ since life can only exist in conjunction with death… Given that we would be immortal, which might be something different than being either dead or alive, how would we then come to value our ‘lives’? Would we still be able to appreciate the beauty of things? Would we even be capable of experiencing emotions in any sense? After all: how happy or sad would we feel if we would come to experience an event that we had experienced an infinite number of times already? Wouldn’t that downgrade the relative value of each moment of – let’s say – sadness? And wouldn’t immortality change how we would appreciate anything beautiful or moving?

I would’ve loved to live at a time when people will leave this planet and colonize distant worlds. I hope I get to own a driverless car. I would’ve liked to see the cure for cancer. I’d always hoped to see Israel arrive at a just peace with the Palestinian people. I fear these are all things not on the near horizon of my life. Even if I get to live to age 100, I don’t think I will see these things.

The Jewish response to this lament is not to get all sad and morose. Rather, it’s to say, “My progeny will see these things, and that has to be good enough for me.” And it is – most of the time. Sure, I occasionally feel some envy over what hasn’t yet arrived. But that’s beside the point. Life and love and learning and art and music and service and joy are the things that drive me to do what I do, and then to share them with others, to truly get the most out of this life.

A moment of gratitude then, for my life. And a moment of gratitude for your life, too. I get to share my life with yours: in print, in a blog, or up close and personal.  To study together, laugh and cry together, travel together, to embrace, shake a hand, acknowledge we share the most precious gift. Of course, there’s so much I will never know or experience. In the meantime, thank God for this moment in time, a moment to give thanks.

Shabbat Shalom



Why Purim Matters

Years ago, while serving Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington, TX, I got a phone call from Bill. He told me he was from Minnesota, and planning to relocate.  He said that he was seriously considering converting to Judaism. I don’t remember the reasons he came to this decision, but whatever they were, they had to be serious, because Bill was serious.

I didn’t have time to meet with him while he was in town to prepare for his move. But, I told him that the following night was Purim, and he was cordially invited to join us. He graciously accepted and told me how much he looked forward to our meeting. I think I warned him about what it could be like: people in costume, maybe some whiskey being consumed, noisy Jews…

Bill was and probably still is, right out of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon. He is quiet, dignified, and self-effacing. Nothing in Minnesota could possibly prepare him for what he witnessed. I didn’t fully realize the import of my invitation until he walked in. I saw fear and concern in his eyes. A lapsed Lutheran, a sect not known for parties, Bill looked at a room filled kids and adults in costumes, including a couple of drag queens and a convincing Angel of Death. I’m sure he wondered, “Are these Jews? Will I have to do this, too, walking around in some relatively embarrassing adult costume? Making noise?? Lots of noise???” As Garrison Keillor would tell you, Lutherans are not famous for making lots of noise.

I felt bad for him. It reminded me of the time my mother of blessed memory invited her beau, Sid, to meet her children. We were a motley crew in those days, nothing a bachelor in his 50s would dare get too close to. At the end of a raucous dinner, Sid confided to my mother, “Shirley, I don’t know if I can do this.” My mom said, “I get it. But you don’t get me without them. It’s a package deal.”

Sid walked away. For about a week, as I recall (my sisters will no doubt fill in more details after they read this…). However, my mom was irresistible. Her children? Not so much. But as she said, it was a package deal. They got married and lived a very loving life together.

Bill and I tried to have a serious conversation that night (after I removed my Carnac the Great Crown). But we were endlessly interrupted, like Tom Cruise’s Princeton interview in Risky Business. “It’s not usually like this,” I said, not really apologizing so much as reassuring. “It’s a package deal.”

Under our veneer of civility, we Jews have a real passion for singing and shouting and dancing. We love strong flavors. We love laughter. As a people with a deep and enduring culture, we can’t get enough of life. We welcome yin and yang. The yetzer tov and the yetzer   ha-ra — the good impulse and the evil impulse.We mourn with compassion, and we celebrate with gusto. We try not to hold too much back. We’re all in.

Celebrating Purim, this crazy antinomian Jewish holiday that never uses God’s name reminds us to lighten up and cheer for fairy tales and happy endings. Bill went through with it and became Jewish. He’s endured great hardships in his life since that moment, and I pray his decision to become a part of the Jewish family helped him get by with a little more joy than oy. It’s a package deal.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Purim Sameach!


History Lesson

For some reason, the phrase, “History repeats itself,” is upheld as a wise aphorism. Which drives me crazy, because the simple truth is that history cannot repeat itself. Time does not double back on itself; it just keeps slipping into the future.

This current period in America is not pre-Holocaust Germany. Rising antisemitism today in America is not the antisemitism of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin. History does not repeat itself.

However, it would be foolish of us not to pay close attention to recent incidents of antisemitism. Incidents in Newton, whether swastikas in a school or bomb threats to our own Leventhal-Sidman JCC, cemetery desecrations in St Louis and Philadelphia or other crimes, must be taken seriously.

These demeaning, regressive, transgressive acts are all part of a larger movement of frustrated men and women who feel cut off and misunderstood and need to blame someone.  What happens when these folks see people succeeding in a world in which they cannot keep up? What do people do when they believe the world owes them a living? How do they achieve revenge?  They seek to define the “other”: the foreigner, the non-Christian, and the true cause of their dilemma, the real reason they cannot get ahead.

It is a familiar toxic response of the disenfranchised that is tangled in the roots of Western civilization. It is a noxious weed that appears whenever there is a rise in diverse populations mixing and working and playing and living and loving together. It is Jim Crow. It is the Nuremberg Laws. It is anti-immigrant legislation.

But this is not history repeating itself. Because we are not who our ancestors were. We learn from the past. We see what happened and how things succeeded and how they failed. We take note and we analyze options. We know that wishing it away is foolish. We know that trusting the fact that things have been worse but we weathered the storm is frighteningly short-sighted.

History is not some quantifiable thing that moves like a glacier or a missile or an asteroid. It is a dark, inchoate mass that sits there in the rearview mirror as we drive forward. We learn from the past by sifting through the mess and finding relevant bits and pieces that may explain how we got to where we are. We may find pathways that can lead us back to stories of those who have come before. The lives of others can help us in our choices. The experiences of others can guide us to live more thoughtfully.

We are not a helpless community living at the whim of others. The American Jewish community today is profoundly strong. We are leaders in every major arena of American life (except maybe hockey…). Very importantly, there are 30 Jews in Congress, 28 Democrats and two Republicans. They make up 8% of the Senate versus 5% of the House. And don’t forget, Jews are less than 2% of the American population.

We have options. We have a voice. We want to know: Why don’t we know yet who’s responsible for the cemetery desecrations? Why haven’t we gotten anywhere discovering who these hateful callers to JCCs are?

I’m not sure when the term, “Never again”, was connected to the Holocaust and Jewish life. It’s always meant to me that never will we make the same choices. Never again will we wait. Every JCC in America is connected to us. Every synagogue is a part of us. Our dead are buried in every Jewish cemetery. There is no them here.

And, as if I have to write this, there is no “us” and “them”. We are the Indian engineers who were shot and killed. We are the people who cannot find safety in America because of their faith or their nation of origin. We are the undocumented workers who keep this nation on the tracks, who live in fear of being run out of this country. Jews know better than most that there is no “other”. There are only us. It’s up to us to stand tall and remain vigilant and vocal. It’s up to us to take the lessons of history and teach the world what it means to oppose hatred and ignorance.

Shabbat Shalom,