This is the run-up to Passover, which is, hold onto your seats, three weeks away. I can hear the strains of Dayenu wafting through the air right now. Of all the Jewish holidays on the calendar, Passover holds the most memories. Sitting around the table, year after year, the cast of characters shifting, growing, contracting, growing again.
The seder has morphed for lots of us. In the old days, many of us had some old guy at the end of the table interminably mumbling in Hebrew as the guests around the table surreptitiously noshed or listlessly rolled their eyes, overwhelmed by ennui. At the kid’s tables, there was a slow squirming right before the silverware percussion began. It was a dangerous scene, parents warning the kids to cease and desist, or else no afikomen prize…
Now the seder is a much hipper scene. This is reflected in the sheer number of hagadot on the market today. Everything from A Passover Haggadah, prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to The Passover Haggadah: The Feast Of Freedom, prepared by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, to A Night Of Questions, for The Reconstructionist Movement. There’s A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah , published by the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and about 200 others, from hardcore ultra-Orthodox no mixing matzo with water, to Like An Orange on a Seder Plate: Our Lesbian Haggadah by Ruth Simpkins, to Ma Nishtana: A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah, to the Global Diversity Haggadah. I’m sure there are still old guys mumbling at the table, but more and more, there are seders that include Martin Luther King and Eli Weisel, seders where the music of Bob Marley and The Redemption Song, resonate beside Adir Hu and Who Knows One.
The Sixties was a turning point for seder tables around America. Somehow Jews began to realize that the words in the Haggadah, the true meaning and substance of the text, was about change and liberation and the end of subjugation. We are a strange nation that moves to the beat of a different drummer. Maybe it has something to do with the Passover story; maybe it didn’t even happen. But I think most Jews believe something may have happened. Surely this has something to do with the fact that Jews the world over, frequently of imperfect faith, have gathered sometimes awkwardly and even resentfully around Seder tables annually and retold their ancient narrative. They have sung and talked about an almost broken people who were remembered and redeemed … for a unique role and an existential mission. They all told a similar story of hope, obligation, and gratitude, expounding upon (but not changing) the universal format of Pesach, Matzo, and Marror, no matter how wonderful or horrible things were, regardless of their legitimate doubts.
The scary thing about change is that you can never know what the next stage is in the metamorphic process. We know about caterpillars and butterflies, about tadpoles and frogs. But we humans are an utterly unpredictable species. Once we acknowledge that we need to change with the times, where, as Tevye once asked, does it stop?
This is a continuation of the Judaism 2.0 trope. What was once the answer no longer works. We are challenged to make our Judaism a relevant part of our lives, not culinary nostalgia for a bowl of matzah ball soup, then business as usual. The seder must be a place where good food is accompanied by good conversation and relevant controversies. Otherwise, the ride is over, and Judaism becomes an atavistic footnote, as quaint and “odd” as Amish in buggies. Make it real!
PS This Saturday night is my 20th anniversary with Temple Beth Avodah. Twenty years?? It has been a ride of a lifetime, and the good news is there is still more to come! I am so grateful for this moment in time. I will put my remarks up online. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom – and thank you.
The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevy, is most known for his treatise called, The Kuzari, and for this poem:
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in foreign chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
Halevy here describes a deep longing, a yearning for the land of Israel that is palpable. Like a young man who is far away from his love, just thinking about his object of affection causes a loss of appetite. He just cannot think of anything else – he’s useless. As good as the best things in life are in Spain, he would abandon them all to just to see the dust of the remnants from the 2nd Temple. That’s some obsessive yearning. He would simply say that it’s true love.
I’ve been home from Israel for five days. And I’ve made enough round trips to and from Israel to keep my yearning at a tolerable temperature. When I went to Israel for rabbinical school in 1978, I fell in love with Israel. Hard. I even know when it was.
I went food shopping one afternoon at the Supersol in Jerusalem. I was going to prepare a beautiful, fancy meal and wanted to make saffron rice. Real saffron is very expensive. It’s made from the threads that grow in a crocus. It supposedly takes 20,000 crocuses to make an ounce of saffron. The woman at the cash register was tallying up my purchases, commenting as she did so. “This is good bread – better than the bakery across the street. This avocado… did you squeeze it first? Eat it soon or else”, and so forth. When she picked up the saffron and eyed the price, she stopped. She looked at me – very seriously. “You’re a student, right?” “Yes”, I answered as the shoppers in the vicinity leaned in, without shame, to hear her castigate me for my costly little vial of herb. “You can’t buy this. It’s too expensive. Use turmeric instead.”
I was in love. “This is where I want to live!”, I thought, “I want to be in a nation where everybody has an opinion about what I spend on spices. I want this kind of intimacy and connectedness.” Later I would learn the adage that the thing that you love most about your partner, in the beginning, is the very thing you come to hate 20 years after…
The real issue that ended up preventing me from making Aliyah was my chosen profession. There wasn’t a lot going on for American borne Reform rabbis in Israel in the late Seventies. I didn’t want to be an English teacher for Israeli high school students. The dream of being a rabbi was too deeply planted by then to replace my love for this country that so touched me to the core.
The wild love I had for Israel slowly attenuated to something a bit more manageable. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what if I had taken that other path and followed that other passion. In the end, though, I know I made the right decision. Because of my wife and family. Because the work of the rabbinate is my calling. Because in my heart I am an American Jew.
I don’t feel myself a stranger in a strange land as Halevy did. There are no chains on me. Living in Israel is simply not the only authentic choice for a Jew in the 21st century. So I live that split level Jewish life, my heart and soul in the east … and in the west.
This past Wednesday morning I had the great pleasure of walking into the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. It’s always enormously exciting to enter the Old City. The sights are immediately breathtaking. For me, it’s the mix of humanity. I see African tourists, Asian pilgrims, a Japanese group that comes to Israel every year to ask forgiveness for a terrorist attack perpetrated at Lod Airport by the Japanese Red Army in 1972, Hasids, delusional seekers, Swedish hippies ― and this is within the first 500 feet of the entrance… The cacophony of languages mixed in with Arab storekeepers hawking their tchotchkes, little kids yelling, and so forth ― it’s a bracing moment, like walking headlong into a strong, warm wind.
As we navigated our way down the steps, we arrived at the Sinjlawi family store. I love this place and the copious jewelry they sell. I’ve been several times, and the owner, Eddie, always gives me a big hug. We spoke briefly and then he said, “Do you know what happened in Florida?” I sadly informed him that I had heard the awful news. And then Eddie looked at me with such sadness, and said, “I am so sorry for all those families. It must be so hard to live in such a violent country.”
Eddie said these words without a trace of irony, words of consolation for a foreigner from a country with a big problem. Odd, isn’t it? All these years I’ve looked at the Middle East and the high stakes of life here. This, the land of Israel, is the place of tsuris, the place of violence and terrorism. This is the place with a government sold on divisiveness as a legitimate form of statecraft. Israel is the place where the leader is leading under a cloud of doubt about his illegal behavior, where law enforcement officials are characterized as a tool of the opposition.
Eddie’s genuine empathy broke my heart and thoroughly confused me. As I listened to various broadcasts later that day from leaders who want to talk about mental health and not the public health risks of copious easily obtainable AK 47s, I realized the extent to which we have lost enormous moral standing in the free world, and amongst ourselves as Americans.
How long can a country endure when its public school space, the pride of our nation, the melting pot of American society, is contaminated by violence? When children develop school phobia after a murder spree, how can we blame them for their anxiety? How do we explain to them why nothing has changed since Newtown?
I’ve written about children being murdered before. I have expressed outrage. I have bemoaned the terrible lasting damage done to families that have lost their babies to bullets. I have angrily called out elected officials on the dole from the NRA, demanding justice transcend campaign gifts.
It is cathartic to have a place to express my personal pain and my moral outrage as your rabbi. But I already feel deep in my soul that, like before, nothing will change. I’m beyond anger ― it has been extinguished by too much disappointment. I fear that cynicism, borne in the crucible of inaction and indifference, has tarnished my soul. “It must be so hard to live in such a violent country.” It is hard. It is manifestly obscene.
What happens now? Nothing. Children will be taught new duck and cover strategies. There will be more drills. Experts will sell school systems Kevlar vests and blankets. And mark my words; in three weeks we will have another school shooting. Parents will weep. Children will stay awake at night in anguish and fear. And we will comfort the afflicted with love and sympathy, while those who might make a difference will play on, protecting their self-interests, mocking the dead with their inaction. Every time a child is murdered in a school, our nation sinks lower than a flag at half-mast. It’s all so clear from the City of Peace.
When I traveled to Israel for the first time, in 1972, I worried about how much my mother would worry about me. I was just 17; you know what I mean… Freshly graduated from high school, I was about to embark on what they now call a gap year. I was the first-born child, leaving behind a single mother with my three younger siblings, all of whom were in their own unique and, shall we say, erratic orbits. What would she do without me? I said to her, “Mom, I don’t know how many days it might be before I have any access to a telephone. What should I do? Do you want a telegram?”
I will never forget my mother’s response. This little, 4 foot 11 inch, prematurely grey-haired woman said, “Don’t worry about it. If your plane crashes, I’ll hear about it.” She said it gently, but her intent was clear: you’re a big boy now, and you’re in good hands.
It was a major hassle to make an international call home from Israel in 1972. The most direct way was to go to the central Jerusalem post office where there were some little booths with telephones inside. You’d walk to the window of a certain clerk. She’d stare at you as if you were creating a serious inconvenience for her. You’d write down the number you wanted to call, tell the exasperated clerk how many minutes you wanted to talk, and then pay. She would then assign you a booth number. Such a lot of red tape and complexity!
My mother appreciated that she didn’t need me to check in with her much when I was away. She had enough to worry about. Her philosophy was: “Don’t look for trouble. If it wants you, it will find you.”
I called home twice over nine months. Once for Mother’s Day, and once for my mom’s birthday. Yesterday would’ve been her 88th birthday. She was born on February 8th, 1929 and died on October 26, 2009. Her birthday was the first date I ever remembered besides my own birthday.
Nine years after her death I can see more clearly than ever how she influenced me and my life. I won’t dwell on the negative stuff, though that’s there, too. Her love of music and standing up and belting it out in front of a crowd, large or small; that is most definitely in my DNA.
It’s nine years since my mother died. I still miss her – not every day, of course. When I sing a particular song (she would’ve loved Mi Chamocha Blues), I imagine her beautiful smile. When I hear certain melodies, especially some jazz standards, I can hear her crooning. Whenever I see some good looking strawberries, or cook her famous brisket, or cry at the slightest provocation: I think of her. It makes me wistful: simultaneously happy and sad. That’s the way it is as we lose loved ones and friends. They don’t disappear. Instead, they take the shape of music or aroma or a rainstorm or a tear.
I will always miss my mother. That’s a fact that just seems to go with the territory of living. There is literally nothing I can do about her loss or any other loss. I can only be thankful for every gift she ever gave me. I will always be indebted to her trust and her love of music that changed my life forever.
In nine months I only called my mother twice from Israel. No guilt, no recrimination, no disappointment. No trouble. Just joy. That was my mother.
Happy birthday, Mom.
The Holocaust is never far from mind. It churns on the horizon of Jewish consciousness like some malevolent poisonous cloud. It takes only one throwaway picture of smokestacks. The mention of the word ‘camp,’ or ‘gas,’ not to mention ‘German.’ It’s not like that all the time – but the atmosphere is always charged. The Jewish psyche has a hair trigger when it comes to anything even vaguely Holocaust-related.
In these last few weeks, the Jewish sensitivity to Holocaust conversation has been blasted from the subliminal and ambiguous to the explicit by a very controversial law that’s set to pass in Poland.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party vowed to push through the “Death Camps Law,” soon after coming to power in 2015, depicting it as a way of protecting Poland’s good name. A key paragraph of the bill states: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.”
After an initial uproar, the issue seemed to have been dropped, only to reappear last week, when the lower house of parliament approved it on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Polish government officials argue the law is needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the camps Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.
Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust. While “Polish” is almost always used as a geographic designator, Poles still object because they feel it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews. Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The pre-war Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. The Polish Senate approved the bill Thursday despite mounting international opposition. The final step will be approval by President Andrzej Duda, who strongly supports it.
The Polish government is not the first to try to shape the history to its advantage. The Soviet Union long preferred to refer broadly to “victims of fascism,” avoiding any specific reference to Jews, and Austria for years painted itself as the “Nazis’ first victim,” denying all responsibility for its crimes.
Yet it is… undeniable that Poles were directly or indirectly complicit in the crimes committed on their land and that Poles were guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the war. These are the facts of that terrible history, and the Poles, like all other nations conquered by Germany that became embroiled in the Nazi atrocities, have an obligation to the victims and to the future to seek the full truth, however painful.
The response has been swift. Historians have vehemently protested, suggesting that this law allows the state to determine what is permitted or forbidden to say or write. State-sanctioned history is not history at all, but rather a form of propaganda. The Holocaust Memorial Museum stated its “deep concerns” about the law that would “chill a free and open dialogue addressing Poland’s history during the Holocaust” which takes place in “Polish schools and universities as well as in the media.”
Holocaust survivors are livid, contending that this bill defames the victims of the Holocaust who were murdered in Poland. It is, for many of them, a horrible betrayal of their suffering. For some Israelis, including the prime minister, it is an attempt to rewrite history and deny any complicity of Poles with Nazis working together to round up and execute Jews.
This Death Camps Law is an odious endeavor. It comes from an emergent nationalistic right-wing party in Poland seeking to rebrand Poland’s reputation. The new Polish law is fundamentally wrong. We should not be deterred from telling the historical truth that there were many cases in which Poles killed their Jewish neighbors before the Germans got to them and that in some places after the war, pogroms broke out as the Jews tried to return to what had once been home. But Polish suffering must have its space in the collective Holocaust memory as well. And Jewish life, not only death, should be celebrated in the thousand-year historical memory of what was one of the largest and most successful Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Poland was so much more for the Jews than just a massive graveyard.
This is one of the central conundrums of Jews in the 21st century. As we move further away from the Holocaust, it begins to look different and feel different. As the example par excellence of genocide, it is referred to by many cultures. It cannot be – must not be – our historical touchstone only. We can say Poles suffered during WWII without diminishing our own historical truths.
The last survivors of Auschwitz are in their 80s and 90s. It will be up to us to understand the Holocaust and the complexities of our history to explain them to the next generations. This Polish law is way off the mark, but it won’t deter us from speaking our deepest truths.
At first glance, to the untrained eye, this find from a cave outside of Haifa looks a little suspect. Is it trash? A rind of an ancient fruit? But once you see that those are teeth, it becomes clear. Israeli archaeologists found the remains of a nearly 200,000-year-old human jawbone in a cave on Mount Carmel, a discovery they predict will change what we know about the evolution and spread of our species.
It’s been a commonly held belief that homo sapiens first appeared some 200,000 years ago in East Africa. These ancestral humans emerged from Africa around 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, occasionally interbreeding with Neanderthals and other hominids as they dispersed throughout the world.
The origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) and the fate of the Neandertals have been fundamental questions in human evolutionary studies for over a century. A major obstacle to the resolution of these questions has been the lack of substantial and accurately dated hominid fossils from between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago.
Only now it seems that we have to completely revise our timeline. Physical anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, the lucky man whose dig made the discovery, says the find suggests our ancestors arose far earlier than thought. “[If] our species was in Israel 200,000 years ago, it suggests our species is very old—not just 300,000 years old, but older.”
I am fascinated by paleoanthropology, the field of study that seeks to trace the origins of humanity. They look at bone fragments, textiles, fossils, tools, burned out, ancient campfires, whatever they can find, to figure out how we got here. It is a science that just keeps morphing as new finds continue to turn up.
I used to think that humanity arose along a very linear plane: from the ocean to the shore, from the shore to the jungle, from the jungle to Newton Center. However, the latest science indicates that there were all kinds of hominids walking around Africa before homo sapiens made the eventual migration northward and into the rest of the world.
The important point is that, as the timeline keeps changing, we do too. In other words, 300,000 years ago our ancestors were emerging into the world. They are ALL of our ancestors. All those hominids who look like apes, the Neanderthals with large middle part of the face; the Australopithecus who climbed in the trees; or the Sahelanthropus with the sloping face, very prominent brow ridges, and elongated skull.
We have the choice to keep evolving and thus make the world livable for the next generation. I assume most of us who are homo sapiens have a similar impulse to protect our young, to see to it that they will be safe and happy. So why is it that we seem to fail so miserably? Why do nations commit atrocities against their people? Why do people of one race think that they are somehow better when it is clear that we are all descended from the same hominids? I mean, I hate to let the alt-right know this, but 300, 000 years ago, there were no white people…
And here I am, once again at a theme close to my heart. We are charged with building bridges, not walls. We are challenged to be inclusive, to see the other as a relative, not an alien.
That jawbone discovery is a celebration of the complexity and mystery of human existence. We’ve come a long way to finally get here. It would be nice if we could work harder to keep the world in one piece rather than break it into a million pieces of lost potential.