Continuing down that highway…

We previously reported on that whole neo-Nazis/Heschel highway situation in Missouri. The NYTimes follows up with a second piece about it, with input from Susannah Heschel:

Missouri officials, thwarted in the past on free-speech grounds when they tried to keep the Ku Klux Klan from adopting a highway, took another tack after the National Socialist Movement adopted the half-mile stretch of road, on the outskirts of Springfield. The legislature voted to name it for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who fled the Nazis’ advance in Europe and became a prominent theologian and civil rights advocate in the United States before his death in 1972.

Lawmakers said they hoped the new name would send a message that the area valued inclusiveness, not anti-Semitism and racism. But Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth, said Monday that while she appreciated their intentions, attaching her father’s name to a road cleaned by neo-Nazis would be “vulgar” and would “dishonor” him.

Read the full article here.

Dr Tiller

It has been over a week since an act of domestic terrorism. At the funeral of Dr. Tiller, protesters waved signs, including “God Sent the Killer!” Hate begets hate, and I would like to see talk radio hosts, Fox news personalities, and others who encouraged and incited the murder of Dr. Tiller charged under the law. If people who play “supporting roles” in other acts of terrorism can be arrested, they should be too.

While the halakhic parsing of abortion is complex, Jews do not have the same definition as Christians: life does not start at conception. For a week now, I’ve been wanting to post about the Jewish understandings of abortion. A counter to the “religious right’s” view. Each time I’ve started to write that post, I’ve become too saddened and angered by the rampant infringement of women’s rights to their bodies in the US. So instead, I will share Rabbi Young‘s personal Eulogy for Dr. George Tiller:

I have been to Wichita only once—April 9th to 15th, 2006. Natalie and I met Dr. Tiller, and spent time with him in his clinic for a week. We did not want to go, but to us there was no real choice. About a month before our ordination and investiture from HUC, Natalie was 34 weeks pregnant, and we discovered that the baby had microcephaly and lissencephaly. In plain English, the head was too small, and the brain was not developing. The first, second, and third opinions all told us the same thing. Our baby would not live outside the womb. So Natalie and I made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Throughout our week there, Natalie spent a lot of time asleep or in a drug-induced haze, so I had a lot of time to sit in our hotel room and think. I kept a journal when I could handle it emotionally, and I read. I read emails and magazines, and studied a little Mishnah. I took in the words of Tractate Niddah (5:3) which says, “A day-old son who dies is to his father and mother like a full bridegroom.” This phrase stuck in my mind, especially the use of the word “bridegroom.” There are many words the Talmud uses to distinguish different stages of life. It could have said elderly man, full-grown son, or young man with equal gravity to describe a parent’s loss. Using “bridegroom” must be intentional, and it works on two fronts.

The first is independence. A bridegroom is clearly of an age where the parents have completed raising the child until he is ready to be on his own. They know who he is, the kind of person he is, what interests he has, and what his aspirations are. Their loss equals the loss of a fully developed human being, no matter what age he is.

The second speaks to emptiness. Even before a woman gets pregnant, she is making plans for the child’s life. When a couple discovers that they are going to have a child, the plans begin. If this is the birthday, then this will the Bar Mitzvah. This will be graduation, and hopefully around here is the chuppah. Who knows, maybe by this year we’ll be grandparents! Describing the loss as “like a full bridegroom” reminds us that we are going to miss out on every simchah that might have been, from birth to the wedding and beyond.

[Read the full post here.]

May his memory be a blessing. And may the two remaining late-term abortion providers in the US be protected.

Let Us Sing!

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When we have simchas (celebrations) — weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc. — we tend to put a lot of effort into making sure all the details of the day are just right. But it’s important to think not only about the experience of the day itself, but about the things that will last far into the future.

That’s right, the benchers.

Long after the food has been digested and the flowers are dead, these little books of blessings and songs will adorn the Shabbat tables of your friends and relatives around the world week after week, and they’ll think about you and your simcha each time. So it’s important to choose a bencher that reflects your values and that your family and friends will want to continue using. And that’s why, when I get married this summer, we’ll be using L’chu N’ran’nah (Let Us Sing). This brand-new bencher is edited by Barry Walfish and Mark Frydenberg (editors of Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil, “the purple siddur”) and Aviva Richman, and distributed by Haggadahs-R-Us (of A Different Night fame).

L’chu N’ran’nah has something for everyone. In addition to the full Hebrew text, the entire bencher is translated (referring to God in gender-neutral language) and transliterated. For those who want to navigate easily between the Hebrew, English, and transliteration, there is a line-by-line three-column layout like the purple siddur. For those who like to sing, a wide range of songs are included, from Kol Mekadeish Shevi’i to Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu. For those of a scholarly bent, the foonotes provide citations to many of the biblical and rabbinic references in the Shabbat zemirot. For those looking for alternatives to the traditional liturgy, the bencher provides four alternative versions of birkat hamazon. For those looking for alternatives within the traditional structure, the bencher provides many options, including two different versions of the “harachaman” for peace between the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar (or is it between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael?).

There are many options for contents and covers, including a full version with all the songs as well as a mini version with just birkat hamazon. The bencher will be out by Shavuot.

Let us sing!

Zichrono L’vracha

At our seder, when we read the ten plagues, we are reminded that sometimes our joy is mingled with sadness. At my second night seder this year, our joy was mingled with sadness at the report that Steve Meltzer had died suddenly just before the holiday.

I met Steve as a classmate in the Masters of Jewish Education program at Hebrew College, but I had known of him for as long as I had been working with Jewish youth in Boston. Steve was a songleader, Jewish educator, and recording artist. His songs and spirit inspired a generation of campers at Eisner, Kutz, and other URJ camps, hundreds of NFTY participants in New England, and more. He recorded one EP – Rock with Ruach. He may not have made as big a splash as other contemporary Jewish troubadours, but he was committed to Judaism, music, and kids in a truly inspiring way.

My thoughts are with his family, and with his extended family of students and colleagues whom he influenced throughout his career. Baruch dayan emet.


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“You’re doggone right we’re feisty”

This story caught my eye and I just wanted to share.

It’s not your everyday bat mitzvah story, so it is particularly nice that the New York Times picked it up and that it was their 4th most e-mailed article of the day!

I hope it brings a few smiles and helps us each to think about the great possibilities that are out there not only for our youth but also for our elders.

While we are appreciating elders, don’t forget about Old Jews Telling Jokes!

Do you have a story of an elder who has brought some pizzazz into your Jewish life that you’d like to share? Comment away…

Baruch Dayan HaEmet

Rabbi Alan Lew, z’l, who was my rav and is probably the reason I’m both religious and (now) a rabbi, died yesterday at the age of 65.

Here’s an obit from the SF Chronicle. The funeral will be at noon on Thursday at Beth Sholom–more info here. Here are a few words I wrote about this yesterday.

May his memory be for a blessing. May Sherril and his kids receive as much love and comfort as is possible to take in.

And here are a few words of his Torah, from This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared:

Suddenly we understand why the Great Temple of Jerusalem was an elaborate construction surrounding nothing. There at the sacred center, at the Holy of Holies, a place we only entered on Yom Kippur, and even then only by proxy, only through the agency of the high priest, there at that center, is precisely nothing–a vacated space, a charged emptiness, that surrounds this world, that comes before this life and after it as well….

And now we understand why we rehearse our death on Yom Kippur–why we say Vidui and wear a kittel and refrain from eating–why in the middle of this day, we send our proxy, now the cantor, into the dangerous emptiness at the center.

We need a taste of this emptiness, to give us a sense of what will go with us, what will endure as we make this great crossing. What’s important? What is at the core of our life? What will live on after we are wind and space? What will be worthy of that endless, infinitely powerful silence?….

What lives on of the people we have loved and lost? What breaks our hearts when we think of them? What do we miss so much that it aches? Precisely that suchness, that unspeakable, ineffable, intangible quality, which takes up no space at all and which never did.

That’s what survives that great crossing with us. That’s what makes it through the passage from life to death.

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, z”l

rabbi-wolfe1I was so saddened to read of the passing of the great Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf of Chicago at the age of 83. From his obituary:

Rabbi Wolf served as a Navy chaplain during the Korean War. In 1957, he returned to Chicago and became the founding rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park. In 1972, he went on to teach philosophy at Yale University and was the school’s Jewish chaplain. Rabbi Wolf returned to Chicago in 1980, where he served as the rabbi of KAM for 20 years.

But truly Rabbi Wolf’s most lasting legacy will be as a stubborn, indefatigable advocate for social justice in this country and in Israel/Palestine. Just two examples among many: as the founding chair of Breira in 1973, he spearheaded the American Jewish call for justice for Palestinians long before it was fashionable. And just several months ago he publicly exhorted the Jewish community in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Zichrono Livracha – May the memory of this fearless tzadik be for a blessing…

ZTz”L Rabbi Doctor David Lieber

The last time I saw Rabbi Lieber, he was hooked up to an oxygen tank. He was to have been honored, but because he was an exceptionally humble man, he refused to make the walk up to the podium to receive the honor: he did not want to make a scene by dragging his tank around.
Rabbi Dr David Lieber
He was a man of great erudition, and was humble in the way that only people of great learning can be. It was his vision that saw that the West Coast was to become another center for Judaism in the USA, that New York was not necessarily the last and only center for Judaism,and he saw his vision to fruition, serving as the President of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) for 29 years, and throughout that time, he taught and served as a guiding voice to students, and to rabbis of Los Angeles – and many more people through his work editing the Etz Chaim Chumash.

Good-bye, Rav Lieber, im yirtzeh, see you at the Great Beit Midrash.

Moments of Silence, Moments of Speaking

Today, communities around the world are observing Transgender Day of Rememberance, honoring the memories of the 30 people killed in the last year simply for trying to live their lives in ways that honestly represented themselves as who they were. The link above lists local events, including Shabbat services in Michigan and San Francisco tomorrow night, an interfaith vigil in Boston tonight co-sponsored by Keshet, and a couple of other explicitly interfaith vigils that don’t list explicitly Jewish organizers but would most certainly be excellent places for Jews to show up.

As important as moments of silence and reflection are in honoring those who have been martyred, it’s equally important to give voice to their stories and to the stories of those who are living lives in the face of a world that doesn’t understand. Along those lines, S. Isaac Dowd has written a beautiful reflection on the day, from the perspective of a transgender Jew over at JVoices.

Why are there *10* commandments? Why not 9? Maybe 11?

As was noted on these pages earlier today, an important countercultural critic died today. I thought I’d put up some video. Carlin did a lot of religious bits. His exegesis may be suspect but how many people get paid for their analysis of text anyways? Here he is talking about the 10 commandments as a marketing decision:

It’s a sad day for us fans everywhere. George Carlin: Zichrono Livracha.

Barukh Dayan Emet

“Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up to the roof and gets stuck.”

Farewell, to a true comic genius.

Bris at Schneerson’s Ohel, The Donald in Attendance

Zina Sapir “daughter of real estate mogul Tamir Sapir” and her husband “real estate mogul” Rotem Rosen are the proud parents of a new baby boy.

Naturally they want you, yes you, to be aware of this joyous event. The bris happened at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Ohel last Sunday. A publicist was hired and a press release about the bris sent to major New York publications. New York Magazine writes about it here.

The location was “personally arranged for” buy none other than Lev Leviev, buddy of Putin and Russian Chabad-funder extraordinaire. It seems the proud father Rotem Rosen is Leviev’s “right hand man.”

The press release further informs us that the guest list includes real estate big wigs such as Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, Joe Monahan, Giuseppe Cipriani, Andre Balazs, and Amy Sacco. Just one big, cozy family.

Mazal Tov, people.

Random Observations from Israel on Yom HaShoah

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (or, if you’re in Israel, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). Israel takes the day quite seriously, at least officially. Restaurants and “places of entertainment” are supposed to be closed by law. Many Israeli TV channels are only broadcasting a still picture of a candle or an Israeli flag and a message that “broadcasts will resume after the end of Holocaust memorial day.” Other channels are showing Holocaust-related programming.

This morning at 10:00, the air raid/Shabbat siren sounded for two minutes, as usual. As usual, traffic came to a halt, people got out of their cars and stood at attention, passersby stood still, and everyone on the bus stood up. At my intersection, though, the taxis continued to zoom through, weaving around stopped cars, and the construction workers kept working, while the garbage collectors paused. On a friends’ corner the taxis stopped. I wonder whether the difference has to do with capitalism or the drivers’ degree of identification with the Jewish narrative or something else.

As another friend commented, it is also disturbing– though powerful– that the mode of remembering Holocaust victims here is via an air raid siren. Last night’s official government ceremony at Yad Vashem also had military undertones strewn throughout. The ceremony began with the entrance of a military honor guard with large guns. Throughout the ceremony they were told either to stand at attention with their guns or to stand at ease. The constant commands about shifting guns back and forth felt odd, distracting, and out of place.

Other parts of the ceremony were moving, particularly the stories told about six particular survivors who were present. The accompanying pictures were powerful, and I learned a number of things I hadn’t known before (including the fact that there were Nazi camps in Norway). I was especially struck by the fact that the oldest of the survivors was only 13 when the Holocaust began. This means that in very little time there will be no more survivors. I wonder what that will mean for the way in which Israel commemorates the day.

More »

Eulogy, Brief

Sure, we disagreed about a number of things. You liked to tote guns around and champion the 2nd amendment. You opposed Affirmative Action and became a Republican later in life. You campaigned for George W. Bush, George Bush Sr., and Reagen. You boycotted Ice-T.

But at one point in your life, you supported the Civil Rights movement and became inextricably linked as an icon of Jewish Biblical history. For many of us, before our political awakening, we knew you as the man who carried the tablets down from the mountain. Or, a different subset of us knew you as the man who fell to his knees and cried out, “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

So God bless, Charlton Heston. May you be remembered for good (at least on TNT’s annual pre-Passover Ten Commandments screening).

Charlton Heston in Ten Commandments as Moses

Circumcision update

alarm clock This won’t end the debate of course. Those on both sides who know the Truth will continue to argue no matter what studies come up.. er, are published.
Nevertheless, the largest study so far, from Johns Hopkins University, of 5,000 Ugandan men asserts that male circumcision does not reduce sexual satisfaction. Moreover what differences there were in satisfaction and ability to penetrate were just over 1%, well within the 3% margin of error. They also reported that “marginally more circumcised man reported that they had no pain during intercourse, compared with 98.8% of the other group,” but do not say whether that too, was under the 3% margin of error.

Mazel tov to Judapest’s Bruno and Brigitta

Our buddy from Judapest got hitched on Sunday:
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Enjoy your honeymoon in Istanbul!

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Mazal tov to General Anna and Jewschool’s own Ruby K!!! May they have many more years of happiness together, and many more years of bringing happiness to the world.

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More on circumcision headed our way.

The Forward reports on “highest-level case in American history involving the right to circumcision is slated to be heard this fall, when the Oregon Supreme Court rules on whether a father can have his 12-year-old son undergo the procedure.”

The basis of the case is a nasty custody battle, with the father a recent convert to Judaism. The mother claims that the boy is afraid to tell his father that he does not want to be circumcised. I note that there is no mention of whether the boy has an opinion on the conversion (at least none in this article) itself. The mother also claims that the child would be psychologically and physically harmed by the procedure (I wonder what our Muslim fellow citizens think of that?)circumcision diagram.

The thing that’s unusual about the case is that generally American courts stay out of cases involving religion such as this. The Forward comments:

The acceptance of the case by Oregon’s highest court is surprising, because judges generally grant a wide degree of latitude to custodial parents — so much so, in fact, that the state’s Court of Appeals rejected the mother’s case without issuing an opinion. If the Oregon Supreme Court decides to review the merits of the father’s plan for circumcision, it will almost inevitably weigh in on two related issues: the right of custodial parents to guide their children’s religious upbringings, and the weight that religious considerations should be given when considering the welfare of a child.

Because of this, the stakes are generally conceded to be high by everyone, and so badvocates for both sides of the story are getting their elbows in the door.
All I have to say: It doesn’t bode well for the poor kid – Ms. Boldt (the mother) may be full of concern for her son’s psychological health, but I wonder if maybe they could iron out some of these other matters first – like what his name is.