Monthly Archives: October 2021

I Predict… Absolutely Nothing  

There are professional prognosticators who do their level best to read the future before it happens. They look at trends and past performance and a thousand other indicators to justify guessing what’s next. They encourage certain investments or military build-ups or shifting stock from a warehouse or how many kilowatts of power a particular region will need over 48 hours.

  I’d love to meet a professional prognosticator who focuses on the Jewish people because I have so many questions. What is the trajectory of Jewish life? More involvement or less? More interest in social justice or spirituality? Does the Reform movement’s attitude of inclusiveness and radical hospitality strengthen the Jewish people? How does identity politics change the arc of Jewish involvement in civic life?  

With all due respect to prognosticators, there’s not much logic in trying to predict what’s next. Making predictions is possible. Making accurate predictions isn’t.   But that’s no excuse to dismiss thoughts about the future. It behooves us to ask big questions and to wonder out loud what we may become. We aren’t passive passengers aboard an express train. We have a say in how we get to the destination stage by stage. It becomes too easy to throw up our hands and tumble into victimhood.   This is why to survive as a community, we need to opt-in. We must embrace our commitment to Jewish life, not with respect to what may be in 10 years, but rather what we are and what we want right now.   

Living in the moment has become a cri de coeur during this long, mind-numbing pandemic. It signifies a new commitment to the here-and-now. What’s next? I have no clue. But I know that, right now, there’s a deep need to make meaning by defining what we stand for and what we want to learn. We want to reinforce the traditions of 2000 years, and we want to create new and surprising alternatives to Jewish living.  

There is no going back to the way it was. We are trailblazing, not returning. This is a little scary; it is a significant spin on how Jewish life works, how synagogues have maneuvered over the centuries. It’s a wild time to be alive.  

I’m not predicting anything. That’s a trap, a cul de sac. I have a list of hopes and dreams and how I think they may pan out in the present. As the song goes, “don’t stop believing.” We make it happen.  

Shabbat Shalom, rebhayim 

Dear Sally Rooney

Dear Ms. Rooney,
Let me admit it right away: I haven’t read your work, and I didn’t watch the screen adaptation of Normal People on Netflix. But I know many people did, including some of my own children. The consensus is that you are a fabulous talent.
The word on the street and in social media is that you are the voice of the millennial generation. You’ve created a voice at once unique and simultaneously one that captures the zeitgeist of your generation and your times.
I congratulate you on your enormous success. To become a writer takes hard work. It can be brutal putting yourself out there in print, subject to the slings and arrows of critics. But based on my cursory research, your reception has been very positive. You’re no flash in the pan. At age 30, you are a literary force to be reckoned with.
This open letter has nothing to do with the contents of your fiction or the style of writing you use to such good effect. The issue that motivates me to write this missive concerns your audacious decision regarding a Hebrew translation of your latest best-selling fiction, Beautiful World Where Are You.
You said that you were proud to have “Normal People” and “Conversations With Friends,” published in Hebrew. You also said, “Likewise, it would be an honor for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers. But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house… I do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and supports the U.N.-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.”
You added that the Hebrew-language translation rights to the novel are still available and that if you can find a way to sell them and adhere to the B.D.S. movement’s guidelines, that you will be very pleased and proud to do so.”
I’m very critical of the Jewish State and the gross inequities that define the Arab-Israel conflict. There are so many egregious social, legal, and moral issues in play. That Israel must commit to peace and cooperation with the Palestinian people is essential. The lack of movement on this front pains me deeply.
However, it’s worth noting that many Israelis and Palestinians are working together to do what they can to bring about change on a grassroots level. It’s slow going, but it’s real. The commitment to ameliorate this decades-long struggle is an admirable dimension of Israeli-Arab dialogue and action.
You seem to admire the B.D.S. (Boycott Defund Sanction) movement. It’s a big deal in the Western world today. I imagine that your refusal to allow your novel to be translated into Hebrew unless you vet the publisher’s political stance is a variation on the B.D.S. theme.
It is so discouraging that a gifted young author would act in this way. You exhibit no sense of the political and cultural nuances of your actions. There are undoubtedly people applauding your bold statement. But let’s face it: pillorying Israel is so easy.
Now you become a hero of the anti-Zionist left. Various Palestinian committees and organizations delight in your taking up the cause. Like Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, your stage provides you the opportunity to take pot shots. I know you’re not an antisemite. And I’m not accusing you of that.
I suggest that by preventing Hebrew-speaking readers from sharing your insights through fiction, you are losing your power to inspire and motivate them. By turning your back on the Hebrew language – the language – you insult a deep Jewish tradition of learning and reading.
I am neither the first nor the last to suggest that this action of yours is easy. After all, how many readers will you lose? A hundred thousand at the most? How much money will you lose? Not too much. What if you refused the Chinese or Russian editions of Beautiful World Where Are You. There’s no lack of nations doing horrible things to their citizens. But that’s big bucks.
In fact, why publish in any language? Why not boycott all forms of expression until the world becomes what you want it to be? Hold back as an act of political defiance.
Ms. Rooney, we need works of art, expressions of conscience. Your singling out Israel from other nations is a cheap trick, a dance for the feckless, ineffective B.D.S. movement. I wish you luck with your writing career. And I hope you’ll mature into a great writer. In the meantime, it would serve you well to reconsider.


I’ve been around a lot of Torahs. Big Torahs. Little Torahs. Torahs with exquisite covers, with simple crushed velvet covers, or no covers at all. Torahs scribed in the Hasidic style, the Czech style, the Tzfat style, the Lithuanian style, and others I could not identify. Some Torahs were in terrific shape, like our very own commissioned Torah: so bright and clear, the black ink still gleaming whenever the light hits it. Some, like our Holocaust Torah and others, are over a hundred years old, the parchment drying out, the ink chipping away from endlessly rolling forward and backward and forward again.

I’ve never taken a Torah scroll – any of the ones I’ve held and/or read from and/or kissed with my tallit as it passed before me – for granted. I embrace the sacredness of the scroll. I understand its history and the traditions around holding it and honoring it, and reading from it. I cherish the responsibility with which I am charged to teach Torah in all its multitudinous layers.

But I am not in awe of a Torah. It doesn’t scare me to pick it up or to roll it. It’s a regular part of my life, integrated with prayerbooks and blessings.

We brought the kids outside for the opening of our Wednesday Jewish Enrichment Program (ok, I made that name up; I don’t like calling it ‘Hebrew School’ anymore. That appellation is just too fraught with negative connotations) for an inaugural session of prayer and song. Our educators, Heidi and Miryam, wanted to weave Torah learning into the experience. Since Simchat Torah (the end of Sukkot when we roll the Torah from the end back to the beginning) had just passed, we thought it would be a good time for our kids to see the Torah they would one day chant from for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

There, on a table in the middle of the TBA parking lot, I opened our beautiful Torah scroll to the very first verses of Genesis. I then asked the kids to gather around the table in concentric circles to get an up-close view. A few of the kids were nonplussed, but most of them were awestruck.

I gave them some basic facts about the scroll. They stared at the Hebrew intently. They touched the parchment, remarking on its smoothness. I saw wonder and amazement emanating from their eyes. This was very special: even with masks on, their faces were shining.

Then the questions started, lots of questions. “Rabbi! How long is the Torah when you open it all the way?” “Rabbi, what happens if you drop the Torah?” “How long does it take to write a Torah?” The questions were pragmatic, focused on the Torah as an object.

And then one of the kids asked, “Rabbi, is it real?” In all these years, no one had ever asked me that question before. I wasn’t even sure I understood what she was asking me. I asked her, “You mean, is this a real Torah, not a paper copy like the ones we give out to kids when they start their Jewish education?” No, she said, that wasn’t what she meant. “Is it real?”

It was, I supposed, a 4th grader’s invitation to a theological discussion about the origins of the Torah and who the Author – or authors – were. I tried to explain that the Torah was a series of stories written by humans who had experiences about who God is and what it means to be a Jewish person living in a big tribe with other Jewish people. I said the Torah reminds us to be the best humans we can be by showing love and kindness and understanding others.

I’m not sure the extent to which she took this explanation in or if I was answering her question at all. But I do know that it was a lovely moment of encounter and learning. I reveled in the circle of kids and teachers who were all so happy to be so close to the Torah, a real Torah.

Every year, Jews get to the end, and then we start all over again. No matter what else is happening, we follow this tradition. These are the things that define meaning. As the Universe rolls ineluctably to disorder, to have a dependable structure to hold onto until the end of time is a transcendent blessing. It makes us whole.

Shabbat Shalom