Category Archives: Uncategorized

Books

I go to my favorite bookstore, Newtonville Books, all the time. Mary Cotton, the owner and the guru of book suggestions, always greets me so warmly, as she does all of her customers. Mary is the bookstore host par excellence: open, funny, smart, and, along with her staff, ridiculously conversant on any number of current and not-so-current literature.

Newtonville Books provides deep access to disparate genres. You can find titles on everything from young adult literature, to bios, to mysteries and speculative fiction, to a fabulous array of history, to, well… go see how widely their stock stretches.

In addition to all the practical reasons I enjoy shopping at Newtonville Books, there’s a vast collection of tchotchkes: t-shirts, pens, coffee mugs, Moleskine notebooks, magnets, and other goodies that are simply irresistible to booklovers. The ambiance is so strikingly familiar and comforting. It’s the smell of new books, a combination of ink and glue and paper. It’s the feel of a new paperback. Speaking of which… some years ago they changed the kind of paper finish on paperback book covers. Instead of the smooth, glossy feeling, it is now more of a matte finish, a thicker feel to the touch that some describe as rubbery.

I had been imagining that this book cover issue was in my head. But as it turns out, it’s a thing! This is actually a real subject of conversation.

The fact is that I love the heft of a book. It’s reassuring to pick it up, to absorb its weight in my hands. Of course, books can be a pain to read while you’re sitting in a restaurant, trying to keep it open without putting one’s oily fingers on the pages. And when you’re traveling, a hardcover can really add weight to the carry-on.

And yet, though I read the Times and the Globe and the New Yorker and Atlantic online, I prefer my literature on paper. It’s not rational. It’s a throwback to what it felt like to own a book and then slowly fill a bookshelf and then a bookcase and then a floor to ceiling installation. It’s a feeling of knowledge and dynamism I get with a book in my hands.

What are you reading now? Right now I’m into Ruth Ben Ghiat’s Strongmen, a sobering analysis of authoritarian political leaders, from Mussolini to Trump. It’s a cautionary history. I’ve also just started The Immortal King Rao, by Vauhini Vara, a dystopian novel that sounds remarkably prescient. Talking books is so satisfying.

I admit it: I’ve ordered a lot of books through Amazon. It’s so easy and so addictive, and the discount is welcome. And I am not anti-Amazon, though I’m told I should be. I wish Jeff Bezos no ill-will. But I do wish Mary Cotton and Newtonville Books continued success. I am pledging to order my books from them from now on. Because, in a world that has so many sharp edges and anguish, it’s nice to duck into a local bookstore to browse, touch covers, find some peace, and smell the sweet aroma of the written word.

Shabbat Shalom,
rebhayim

Passover!

Getting ready for Passover is a series of steps. There are, of course, several lists of Pesach preps online because the Internet loves lists. This is my latest attempt to cull them and then share them with you. I stress the rules – there are a lot of rules on Passover. I describe them here to help you decide what you might do for the holiday. There’s no judgment. There is no Passover Police.

  1. 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 are 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. Good luck. And no, the Stern house is not assaulted with severe and backbreaking cleaning before Passover.
  • 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 cleansers to detergent to dish soap to bar soap to spices… In other words, anything potentially “contaminated” by hametz 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!

Speaking of spending, I always suggest going to Whole Foods (my favorite market), and spending a small fortune on a few ‘out there’ matzos, made from different kosher for Passover grains that I don’t recognize. We always buy a box of shmurah Matzo too, 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… Apparently, the shmurah matzo business is a mess due to Ukraine and some other factors I don’t understand. Kind of like the rise and fall of the stock market.

  • Haggadah. 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 Epicurious.com is a great source of ideas, as is https://cooking.nytimes.com.

  • 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 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 free. 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.”

And of course: Ukraine. Our hearts break over this and not to mention it at our seder tables is unthinkable. Click on this link for a beautiful prayer that will enhance your Passover.

How can we not include some of this in our seder?

  • Enjoy. 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

rebhayim

On Not Staying the Course

“Stay the course.” It’s a formidable command supposedly given by the captain from the bridge of a ship in a storm. In recent decades, it has been used to describe a political strategy described by William Saffire as persisting in an action or policy or remaining with a plan despite criticism or setbacks.

A part of Jewish life is all about staying the course. In the opening verses of Perkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Ancestors), it advises us to “build a fence around the Torah.” Hold tight, the text tells us. Make sure the lines are clearly demarcated. Or, as Tevye says in Fiddler, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!” If it was good enough for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it’s good enough for me.

Except it’s not good enough. Leaning back into the past for balance and precedent is not a winning gambit. Instead, it’s a slow fade to mediocracy and obsolescence. Stay the course is doubling down on the status quo. Staying the course does not follow a most fundamental part of life itself: evolution.

I think that’s why fundamentalists despise the science of evolution so much. It’s not really about the way evolution challenges the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s the notion that the process of change is built into the very fabric of the Universe. Change is guaranteed.

Trying to stop evolution is ultimately impossible. Trying to stop evolution creates revolution. As Jeff Goldblum says, “Nature finds a way.”

The catchphrase, “going back to normal,” is au courant. It is also misleading. There is no such thing as going back. There is no future in staying the course unless you’re a purveyor of the past. I know that nostalgia sells. But it’s all inert; it’s symbolic, a reminder of what once was. And reminders can be invaluable.

Jewish tradition is built on our past, honoring it, taking the most valuable lessons we have learned over the millennia, and propagating them. But we don’t survive through memory. We thrive when we acknowledge what we want to be and where we want to go. We take the path through the template of our past and then emerge in a new place, a place we can’t know until we’ve arrived… and then get ready to jump again.

There is no staying the course. It’s like building a sandcastle at low tide. You finish, and it’s beautiful, and you’re so proud. And then the waves start to come in. And when you’re a little kid, you believe – you really do! If you keep bailing the moat, building higher walls, your creation will be saved. Which is impossible.

So you learn how that works, and maybe you build it up the beach. Using the same substance you’ve always used. It’s not the same sandcastle. It’s a new one. And it will last… until, because of wind or rain or a mean kid knocking it over, it’s gone. All castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually. And then it’s time for a new castle.

Ultimately, we know that our lives ARE as shaky as a fiddler on a roof. That’s not a negative statement; it’s just the way it is. Everything will follow the arrow of time. There’s only one direction, and it’s forward.

We are not who we were 25 years ago. It’s helpful to know the norms and expectations of the past. But it would be utterly contraindicated to seek the shelter of the past. We are living at a pivotal moment, one in which we are mandated to lean forward, uncomfortably forward. Sometimes we will lose our footing. We can – we must – embrace the past while we simultaneously evolve. That’s a tricky dance. But we can do it, not by staying the course but rather by daring to use our creativity and intuition. Tevye was right: it’s a new world. Every day.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

An Open Letter of Frustration and Sadness

If you are a parent or guardian of a child who attends Newton South High School, you received this email from that school’s principal, Tamii Stras, on Wednesday afternoon, March 23rd.

This afternoon, a student reported an antisemitic slur written on a bathroom wall. We have contacted the Newton Police Department and are conducting a full investigation. In addition, we have also reported this incident to the Anti-Defamation League. We take this incident very seriously and are following our established protocols and procedures.

 Antisemitism has no place at South. I am horrified that this happened in our school community and that we are continuing to struggle with incidents of hate, harassment, and discrimination.

 We will be offering spaces for students and adults to process this incident this week and next. Our South Human Rights Council, in conjunction with our Jewish Staff Affinity Group and our Jewish Student Union, will be taking the lead in facilitating this work. We will share more specific information about these opportunities with students and staff.

 I want to assure you that we as a school and district are deeply committed to addressing issues of hate and discrimination. I am confident our South community will come together during this difficult time and hold steadfast in our values of listening first, showing respect, taking responsibility, and most of all, choosing kindness.

This is the fifth reported antisemitic incident in the Newton Public Schools in just the past few weeks. I am perplexed and angry, speechless. I am, as the idiom expresses, at my wit’s end.

As a commissioner on the Newton Human Rights Commission, I am deeply concerned about this persistent expression of hate and what it says about our city. It’s like an infection that slowly poisons the system. Who are the perpetrators? What are they thinking? What factors motivate an adolescent to act out by scrawling a swastika on a bathroom wall or scratching it on a desk? Why do these noxious acts continue?

I know these antisemitic incidents vex the leadership of our city. I know they care deeply and want to take whatever the necessary next steps might be. But… what are the next steps? What are the policy guidelines to prevent hateful acts of antisemitic vandalism in our schools? What aren’t we doing?

As a rabbi, I am intensely angry. When some student chooses to smear a swastika in a local school, they are making a terrible threat and causing deep pain and fear. Any antisemitic act touches a wound centuries old that has still not healed. That Jewish families anywhere ever experience this kind of aggressive display is unforgivable. And when it cuts so close, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I am appalled. I want this to end. I can’t tolerate this mean-spirited, persistent ugliness. I want to find answers and justice and comfort for my people.

And I know this is not the first time I’ve written about this and my ongoing search for the next steps. There is a part of me that feels so discouraged. I wonder if I should just accept that the Newton schools will be plagued with this obscenity every week or so, and I need to get used to it. Someone will see some antisemitic graffiti, report it to the principal, who will report it to the police, who will report it to the Mayor’s office. The principal will inform the school community and, hopefully, like Tamii Stras, make it clear that this behavior is offensive to Jewish students and indeed to all students who care about fairness and inclusivity. Tamii Stras is to be commended for stepping up as she has done and going deep on this plague.

The hard part is not to get numb. The desire to just throw up my hands and walk away, chalking it up to ignorance and divisiveness, is strong. But I must resist. We must all resist. We need to work on a different response that shows that Jews and their allies are united against this ongoing crisis in an active way.

It’s about getting the right people in the room. It’s time to look for new answers and develop new strategies for confronting hate. This is not easy work.

I am resigned to the likelihood that the letter I included in this essay will not be the last announcement I receive about a swastika in a school. But I am committed to the proposition that we can actually do something about it, something that is clear and cogent. In times so filled with vitriol and bitterness, as exhausting as it may be, it is up to us to turn the tide.

“We’ll Be Okay”

This current moment is filled with particular dread and anxiety. There’s a war going on right now. Innocent people are being killed. Theaters, subway stations, maternity hospitals, schools have all been hit by artillery shells and, missiles and tanks. Putin and his henchmen cruelly calculate the murder of civilians. They want to terrify the population, wear them down with cold-hearted brutality.

We watch it on tv. We see it on social media. The suffering is jagged and so unrelenting. Why? We wonder. We seek some logic, some twisted reasoning that may expose what Putin wants. Alas, I doubt there is a reason. It’s all about hatred, all about a pathological need to destroy. There is nothing rational in Moscow.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, “Authoritarians stand out from other kinds of politicians by appealing to negative experiences and emotions. They don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers as they proclaim themselves their nation’s saviors. Picking up on powerful resentments, hopes, and fears, they present themselves as the vehicle for obtaining that which is most wanted, whether it is territory, safety from racial others, securing male authority, or payback for exploitation by internal or external enemies.”

This was not written as a description of Putin, but it certainly fits. If one rereads it a few times, other names come to mind, men who have taken this well-worn path of wanton destruction in the name of “the people .”And how does it end?

Sometimes the authoritarian is taken down by the people he’s tried to bend to his will. Sometimes the people rise and vote the self-defined savior out of office and often send him to jail. And sometimes, there is war, and other nations must destroy the offensive conflict creator.

What happens in Ukraine, what happens in Russia, is anybody’s guess. As it turns out, no one knows. For most of us, who number in the hundreds of millions, there’s not much we can do about Putin. We cannot do much for Ukraine or their fabulous president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We send money, stay informed, support our leaders who vote for aid to Ukraine, and eschew the handful of Congressional Putin supporters and their ragtag media sycophants.

We are primarily powerless at this moment. Some want to acknowledge the suffering of Ukraine by being circumspect. Innocent Ukrainian deaths signal that we must somehow alter our lives, that our safety is a kind of shondeh [Yiddish for something shameful], that we shouldn’t be having too good a time.

I understand this deep desire to empathize. But it misses a larger truth. If we are to mourn Ukrainians actively, what about outrage at the loss of life in the civil war in Yemen? What about American losses to Oxycontin and Fentanyl? I am not saying compassion is wrong. I am saying that to focus on one nation, one war, one authoritarian, and then use it as a reason to sit shiva misses the point.

The point? There is so much suffering in the world. There are so many innocent people whose lives are broken every day. In my worldview, God weeps 24/7/365. God cannot prevent cruelty or subversion. God cannot blot out the deeds of psychopaths or narcissistic, strutting fools, which means that it is up to us to keep on keeping on.

In the beautiful movie, Drive My Car [please see it on HBO Max], the protagonist, Yusuke, who has suffered a terrible loss, says to the equally broken Misaki, “We must keep on living. We’ll be OK.” We realize that the only solution is through the pain and the loss. That life itself is a gift, an ever-unfolding mystery that may take us to a moment of calm wholeness. Suffering is a given. Joy must be created every day.

Dessert

My mom was not a gourmet. She hated onions and garlic and never used them in any dish she prepared. We had a mid-20th century dinner served up at the kitchen table. Spaghetti, meatloaf, lamb chops, roast chicken, breaded fish, canned vegetables… baby boomers will probably recognize this menu. As the years went by my mom extended her repertoire to include lasagna, green salads with bacobits and croutons from a can, and that was about it.
  I’m not complaining. She cooked with love in her heart and enjoyed feeding us. My mom grew up in the Depression and saw hungry, frightened people. She understood the blessing of abundance. My father experienced hunger and privation. He knew food insecurity. So there was no fooling around or whining about what we didn’t want to eat. There was no empathy for different tastes. There was no such thing as a picky eater.  
My mom did not bake; there were no fancy desserts. But one day at the end of meal she served up a coffee crumble cake from a white and blue box. It was my first experience of Entenmann’s baked goods. And it was good – I mean, really delicious!   Entenmann’s became a standard go-to in my home. Chocolate covered donuts, powdered sugar donuts (I always aspirated the sugar…), chocolate chip cookies, butter pound cake, cheese twist danish; these were a few of my favorite things.  
Entenmann’s went kosher sometime in the 80s and became a staple at Shabbat oneg tables from Brooklyn to San Jose. The boxes of goodies became a symbol of comfort and simple pleasure. Like my mom’s cooking, it wasn’t fussy or fancy. But it hit the spot.  
I always assumed that Entenmann’s was a Jewish family business that grew from a shop in New York City in the late 1800s to an industrial kitchen on Long Island. It seemed like such a Jewish story: immigrants work hard and make a fortune feeding people. Even the name sounded Jewish.
  Charles Edward Entenmann, the family patriarch who helped make the company a national brand, died a few weeks ago at the age of 92. He was the grandson of the man who launched the bakery in Brooklyn in 1898. I was shocked to learn from the obituary that, in fact, the Entenmann family was not Jewish – ever!   I was actually more than shocked: I was sad that the Entenmann family wasn’t Jewish. More than the family name or the blue and white box or the OU kosher symbol, it was the specific brand of comfort an Entenmann’s cake or cookie would evoke. I don’t know why.  
We loved Sara Lee cakes in my family, but it just wasn’t the same. It may have been a bit more expensive and so it felt like a ‘special occasion’ dessert. But the blue and white box was home.   Entenmann’s is owned by a multinational corporation now. It’s far from Brooklyn. Yet the nostalgia remains: for a seemingly less complicated world. These days I’d do anything to nestle up to a quiet news day with a piece of crumble coffee cake. 
Shabbat Shalom,
rebhayim

Learning Lessons

I really like Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. What an amazing man. How did a Jewish comedian who won the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars, and who performed the Ukrainian voiceover for the animated feature, Paddington, become a renowned leader? No one really knows. Was it simply being in the right place at the right time? Was it providential?

People all over the world are praising Zelensky. More importantly, the people of Ukraine are praising their president, a man who, just a few months ago, they were calling a lackluster, ineffective leader. What accounts for this metamorphosis? At the very least, one can say that he has risen to the occasion.

I didn’t know much about Zelensky prior to Putin loosing the dogs of war on Ukraine. I knew a lot more about Putin, always seen on camera alone in a dark suit, looking grey and grim. Putin, making solitary summary decisions to destroy a sovereign nation. Putin, using the doublespeak of lies and misinformation to obfuscate his obsession with wreaking havoc on those who would dare to choose democracy over his fascistic version of control.

Zelensky is a hero now and may one day be considered a great man. Because he decided to step up and lead. He did not form a government in exile. He is not issuing condemnations from Paris. Zelensky is couch surfing all over Ukraine to avoid capture. He is with various members of his cabinet, making decisions about how to respond to a monster without conscience or empathy.

It may be that Zelensky and his people are arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fighting against the Russian army, preventing the brutal crushing of Ukraine may all be futile. But Zelensky does not flee.

Zelensky delivers simple messages to his people and to all of us. He says, over and over, that democracy is precious. He inspires us with his unequivocal reading of the equation, that it is preferable to fight for freedom than to capitulate.

I’ve been around, so I know that today’s hero can quickly become tomorrow’s discredited bum. The press is always eager to take down an iconic leader. Zelensky may become a scapegoat for whatever emerges as this terrible war rages. So, for now anyway, I think of Zelensky as a mensch, a man who looks into the maw of destruction and does not blink. He knows he may be murdered or tortured, but he will not back down.

We observe this brave man and his extraordinary ability to inspire. Many Americans find Zelensky’s passionate advocacy for freedom and democracy to be thrilling. It’s a reminder that some Americans have lost a passion for freedom and democracy as others have arisen to fill that anxious void with fascism and hate. Zelensky is teaching a lesson right now to all of us. We would be wise to learn from him.

Shabbat Shalom

Exhausted

There have been far too many moments this week when it’s all been too much. I’ve had to look away from my various news sources in disgust and disbelief. I’ve even needed to tune out from my public radio station – in the middle of a broadcast! – and jump into my music to preserve my mental health.

My sense of the ethical well-being of the world has really taken a hit. Throughout the Olympics, Beijing held up a façade of welcome and serenity. Yet they simultaneously warned that anyone, athlete or commentator, who criticized China and its brutal oppression of the Uyghurs, among other human rights crimes, could be detained by the authorities. And China got away with it.

Texas governor, Greg Abbott, directed state agencies this week to conduct “prompt and thorough” investigations into the use of gender-affirming care for transgender children, a move that follows an opinion from the state attorney general that such treatments are a form of “child abuse.” And from Florida, not surprisingly, in the same week comes the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The bill, as it exists now, stipulates that schools “may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

How is it even vaguely conceivable that such hateful and ignorant attitudes exist? And how is it possible that such drivel becomes law? What kind of nation is this, where children can be legally bullied, targeted, and marginalized?

The Reform movement is reeling after this week’s release of the Debevoise and Plimpton LLD investigation of sexual misconduct at URJ summer camps over the past several years. It was a tremendously disturbing and disheartening report to read. What a sad commentary on how men could get away with so much, even while people knew they were up to no good.

Finally, in this week’s catalog of revulsion and disbelief is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reading news accounts about Putin and his motivation to smash Ukraine is so profoundly disturbing. It’s the impunity of it all, the way Putin lies with a straight face, does what he wants, and then lies again. And all the while, the world looks on, impotent in the face of such determined aggression.

It would certainly not take much time to come up with more ethical outrage. In the face of it all, how are we to go on? What do we do or say in the face of evil and tyranny, in Ukraine and our own nation? In the world of philosophy, there’s a whole unique field of study that ponders those questions. Theodicy seeks to somehow reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil in the same Universe. Not too surprisingly, there are no good answers.

My sense of all this is that the battle between the forces of good and evil, the impulse to build bridges vs. the impulse to build walls, is ongoing. There is no satisfying answer to why people resort to malevolence vs. altruism. All we can do is examine our own hearts and do what we can to build a shelter of peace in our own home and community.

At the very least, we have to continue to speak out, to fight the numbing lapse of indifference that attacks when we’re flooded by headlines and stories that blow our minds. It’s all about being an upstander – whatever that means. And this, I think, is a profoundly important reason to be a part of our community. It helps to know that we are not individuals, alone, feeling overwhelmed by the course of events. We together stand for the freedom of others, for the protection of vulnerable souls against evil and hateful people. We are upstanders from a community of conscience and hope.

Will our outrage matter to Vladimir Putin? Does the governor of Texas care about how we stand in opposition to his twisted directives? Nope. But we’re not permitted to remain silent. We must speak from our place of conscience and Jewish tradition. Showing solidarity is not a political act; it’s a mitzvah, a religious obligation.

So I do look away from time to time. But exhausted though my soul may be, I reenter the fray. It’s that damned Hillel quote every time. If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? It’s hard to be a Jew.

Dear Whoopi

Dear Whoopi,

I’m reaching out to you today wearing several hats.

1. I am a big fan of your work. Whether it’s Ghost or The Color Purple or Sister Act, you are incredibly entertaining and talented. The full range of your repertoire is noteworthy. You’ve made me laugh and cry – sometimes in the same movie! And as far as I know, you are the only Black woman to have an EGOT (Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar, Tony).

Speaking of laughter, your stand-up act has always been on the money. Sharp, profane, daring, but not aggressive. You have a spark and a style that are as unique as your look.

To be candid, I have never seen The View. I am not a fan of Crossfire-style tv that relies on sniping and backbiting. But over the years, I’ve read about the various fights and feuds. You seem to be on the progressive side of the fence, which I appreciate, since I, too, dwell there.

2. I am in awe of your commitment to social justice. Of course, your work with Comic Relief comes to mind first. But you’ve done so much more. You are a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations. You support various causes on behalf of children, the homeless, human rights, education, substance abuse, the battle against AIDS, and many more. No one can doubt your sincere desire to make the world a safer place.

3. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor, a proud Jew, and a rabbi. When I read your recent comments on the Holocaust, I thought immediately, “Oh oh.” According to The New York Times, you said that the Holocaust was about “man’s inhumanity to man” and “not about race.” When one of [your] co-hosts challenged that assertion, saying the Holocaust was driven by white supremacy, you said, “But these are two white groups of people. This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.” Oy.

You have been through the gauntlet for saying these words, which you now deeply regret. Not only did you apologize, but you also specifically acknowledged what you said was wrong then sought to share the correct information. You tweeted, “I said the Holocaust ‘is not about race, but about man’s inhumanity to man.’ I should have said it is about both. As Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League shared, ‘The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people — who they deemed to be an inferior race.’ I stand corrected.”

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote: The Nazi Holocaust in Europe and slavery and Jim Crow in the United States are outgrowths of the same ideology—the belief that human beings can be delineated into categories that share immutable biological traits distinguishing them from one another and determining their potential and behavior. In Europe, with its history of anti-Jewish persecution and violent religious divisions, the conception of Jews as a biological “race” with particular characteristics was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. In the United States, the invention of race was used to justify the institution of chattel slavery because Black people were biologically suited to permanent servitude and unfit for the rights the nation’s Founders had proclaimed as universal. Therefore, the American color line was much more forgiving to European Jews than the divisions of the old country. But they are branches of the same tree, the biological fiction of race.

What comes out of your misspoken statement ends up being a very significant way – a new way – of understanding the role of antisemitism during the Holocaust and understanding it now.

5. I wear the hat of one who accepts your apology. I truly do. Yes, there was a controversy after your statement. People, including me, were upset and angered. Had you doubled down on your statement, I would’ve called for your termination. But you’ve certainly been contrite and forthcoming. This two-week suspension from your job at The View feels very foolish. It reflects a rush to judgment rather than careful listening.

The head of the ADL, Jonathan Rosenblatt, told Don Lemon at CNN, “In the Jewish faith, we have a concept called ‘teshuva,’ and ‘teshuva’ means redemption. It means all of us have the power to admit when we do wrong and to commit to doing better. I heard Whoopi say that she’s committed to doing better. I accept that apology with the sincerity with which she delivered it. I’m committed, ADL is committed, to work with her and to work with others who really want to use this as a teachable moment”.

I’m with him, Whoopi. I hope that the network executive who did this might soften his hardened heart. The right message would be that people say things, never intending malice. And when they realize that their words were wrong and ill-considered, people ask forgiveness and clarify the truth. You did that. If it’s good enough for the ADL, it should be good enough for ABC.

I won’t be watching The View anytime soon, but I hope you’re back on the job next week.

Remembering

We are blessed with extraordinary brains that store a remarkable number of memories. Two or three notes of a song and we remember where we were when we heard it and who was there, 50-60 years later. A particular aroma, from perfume to chicken soup, and we are drawn back to when we smelled it the first time.

I have a picture that sets off a flood of memories. It’s my father at age 14, posing with a group of boys. I don’t know who took the photo; I obviously wasn’t there. None of the kids are smiling. They all look so weary. They’re wearing frayed shirts and their pants are held up with rope. My father’s jacket is 3 sizes too small; the sleeves ride way up on his arms.

These boys are all residents of the Auerbach Jewish Orphanage in Berlin, Germany. The year is 1940. They have fled Germany and they are on the run in the French countryside. France has just surrendered to the Nazis. The boys know that time is not on their side.

I look into my father’s deep-set eyes. They are dark with fatigue and fear. I know he’s seen people shot and killed. He’s ducked for cover during bombing attacks. He’s gone to bed hungry. He has experienced radical powerlessness. His parents are dead, and his older sister is hiding out somewhere back in Berlin. He is fleeing, but to where?

The Holocaust was a time of deep, unrelenting despair. So much suffering; an infinity of loss. Millions lived through it – who knows how. Many survivors were deeply traumatized, losing a part of themselves in the camps, in the forests, on the road, in hiding, and never fully regaining who they had been. Some of them were able to live a life of meaning, a life of substance and joy. Others were broken, stunted, unable to extricate themselves from experiences that marked them like the tattoos.

Yesterday, January 27th, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established by the UN in 2005 in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Drawing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, member states are called upon to condemn all forms of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief” throughout the world. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not to be confused with Yom HaShoah, which was established as a day of mourning by the state of Israel in 1949.

For survivors and children of survivors, remembrance days are superfluous.

A survivor once said to me right before a Yom HaShoah Shabbat service, “Rabbi, every day is a remembrance day. Every day, for as long as I live, every day! I recite kaddish. And if I live to be a hundred and twenty, it will not even begin to be sufficient.” Or as Yitzhak Zuckerman put it, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, who survived Treblinka and saw untold numbers of friends and comrades die: “If you could lick my heart, you would die from the poison.”

So if International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not for survivors, who and what is it for? Perhaps it’s a means by which the stories of the Holocaust are preserved. Perhaps it’s a way to remind the world that there was a time and place of infamy and evil. Will the rest of the world dare to listen?