Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Tale of Two Menorah Lightings

This appeared in the CJN, January 13th, 2016

It turned out to be a farce. Our community Menorah was vandalized on the first night of Chanukah, hours after the annual Menorah lighting. In the course of an afternoon, a special Menorah lighting for the second night was organized. Hundreds arrived in solidarity, and Mayor DeBlasio and political leaders attended. The message on the second night was clear: New York City will not tolerate intolerance.  This evening of solidarity was wonderful, except for one problem: the vandalism had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. A few days later, a 14 year old was arrested; he said he had vandalized the Menorah because he was “bored”. In retrospect, it was much ado about nothing, a rally against an anti-Semitic act that never was.

This phantom hate crime brings up a complicated subject: anti-Semitism. It’s hard for many to recognize that anti-Semitism is no longer an existential threat for North American Jews. (The situation is very different for European Jews). To be clear, anti-Semitism is a serious issue for all Canadians and Americans, just like any act of racism; democracies must react forcefully, to prevent prejudice from spreading. But anti-Semitism is no longer the primary challenge facing North American Jews. George Washington hoped that “the children of the Stock of Abraham” would “merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants”; that is certainly the case in 2015. Jews in North America are established, admired and affluent; yet despite all the good news, our community is shrinking rapidly.

Today, the greatest threat to Jewish life is assimilation. The people who show the least enthusiasm for Judaism are the ones who matter most: young Jews. The Pew report of 2013 reports that 32% of Jews 35 and younger identify themselves as Jews “with no religion”. Exactly at the moment when we’ve overcome historic struggles with discrimination and hatred, we find ourselves facing an even greater test: acceptance.  

Acceptance is the achilles heel of the Jewish community. In medieval Europe, Jews in Northern European countries experienced greater persecution than their peers in Spain, yet the Spanish Jews were more likely to convert out of Judaism. Paradoxically, Jews have found it easier to keep their Jewish identity when when it was difficult to be a Jew.To paraphrase Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, success is a test as well. And for American Jews, success is turning out to be a greater challenge to Jewish identity than persecution.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks jokes that the one way to fill up synagogues would be by putting up large signs outside declaring “no Jews allowed,” because contemporary Jews would be certain to join any institution that would refuse them membership. He’s absolutely correct. We have made our way into restricted country clubs, and now thrive in once-restricted neighbourhoods. But what are we going to do about assimilation?

While there are no quick fixes for assimilation, the annual Menorah lighting is part of the solution. This program, sponsored by Chabad and the KJ Beginner’s program, has one simple assumption: that even one Chanukah candle can open the door to a meaningful Jewish identity. And engagement initiatives like this have had a wide-ranging effect on American Jews.

American Jewish history is the tale of these two menorah lightings. One story is the 350 year battle against anti-Semitic prejudices, a heartwarming story of refugees from other countries finding full acceptance in the United States and Canada; that was on full display when the Mayor attended the second Menorah lighting. But the story of the 21st century Jewish community, one that remains to be written, is whether Judaism can continue to compete for the hearts and minds of young Jews. While it’s wonderful that the Mayor lit the Menorah on the second night of Chanukah, our future depends on whether we will be able to inspire the next generation of Jews to light the Menorah all eight nights of Chanukah.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Small Time Boy Comes to the Big City

(originally appeared in CJN)

I just moved to New York City from Cote Saint Luc, a suburban village that is the closest thing to a shtetl anywhere in Canada. So everyone’s been asking me the same question: what's life like in the big city?

It’s a good question. When I grew up in Monsey, New York, it was a small town, a place where everyone looked out for each other. And like any small town boy, I still crave that unique sense of camaraderie. Rod Dreher features this small town spirit in his memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”. Dreher left his small town in Louisiana as a teenager. After years of city life, he returns when his younger sister is diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Dreher was so impressed by communal support given his sister that he decided to move back to Louisiana. There’s simply no community like small town community.

Big cities are very different. Ferdinand Tonnies, in his classic work “Community and Society”, describes the city as dramatically different than small towns: it is built around advancing individual ambition rather than building communal cohesiveness, and as a consequence, is rather cold and impersonal. And to the minds of many, big cities should be avoided. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

So what happens when a small town boy like me moves to the big city?

Actually, this question is relevant to every Jew, wherever we live, because Jews are fundamentally small town folk. The Book of Genesis offers an extended critique of big cities; the plans of the first city builders are frustrated by God, and there is marked contrast between the hospitable small town ways of Abraham and the big town coldness of Sodom and Egypt.

Yet despite the failures of cities and empires, the Torah does not demand that the Jews remain tent dwelling nomads; in fact, it encourages us to build a cosmopolitan state with well developed institutions.

So what happens when small town Jews build a big city? We bring the small town with us. Maimonides teaches that despite the Biblical obligation to love one’s neighbor, the Rabbis added additional obligations to visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort the bereaved, and marry off brides. The point of these additional obligations is that we must do more than love our neighbor; we are obliged to extend beyond our immediate social circle and build community. It is not enough to treat those we know with kindness; we must create an embracing community that cares for all of the sick, each mourner and every bride. And the magic of the Jewish tradition is that even when we build large cosmopolitan societies, we insure that within them beats the heart of a small town community.

Israel is an excellent example of this unique small town ethos. In 2014, Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas, fell in battle. There was virtually no one to attend the funeral. But after a worried friend posted a Facebook message about his funeral, news spread like wildfire, and in the end 20,000+ people attended Sean’s funeral. This outpouring of kindness could only happen in Israel, where a large country still carries the warmth of a small town.

Now that I’ve arrived in New York City, I’m learning that in this bustling metropolis there’s a small town hiding underneath. In my first Shabbat at my new synagogue, we honored the outgoing chair of the synagogue’s Bikur Cholim; this dedicated group visits patients at Sloan Kettering every Shabbat. Here in middle of Manhattan is a team of volunteers visiting the sick, making this community, like every Jewish community, one big small town.

So what’s it like living in the big city? To tell you truth, as a small town boy, I feel right at home.

Packing Up

(originally appeared in CJN)

Packing up a home when you're downsizing is an unnatural task; humans instinctively accumulate possessions and resist eliminating them. Despite consulting the bestselling advice of Marie Kondo, we find it a tough task to discard items that are theoretically essential but practically forgotten.

Yet decisions must be made, and possessions must be relinquished. And as I stand surrounded by boxes and packing tape, it's hard not to wax philosophical and wonder: what do we really need to pack?

This question is one Jews have asked themselves multiple times while wandering in exile: what can you pack at a moment's notice? The answer was simple: pack hearts and minds. Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer said the "guiding sentence" of the Jewish mission is: "omnia mea mecum porto" "All my things I carry with me", i.e., that character and wisdom are the only assets of enduring value, and all you ever need.  After packing up too many times to count, Jews have learned that it's not what's in your suitcases that really count; it's what you pack in your heart.

And what we pack (and unpack) in our hearts defines our lives. Zak Ebrahim, the son of El Sayid Nosair (the man who assassinated Meir Kahane), tells of his mother's reaction when he confided that he no longer accepted his family's radical views: "She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said, "I'm tired of hating people." In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold hatred inside of you." After a lifetime of packing their hearts with hate, Zak and his mother realized that it had weighed them down.

Zak is not unique; it's quite common for people to cling to beloved hatreds. Nelson Mandela, who was a genius at unpacking hatred, said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” We treat old hatreds as precious possessions and let them ruin our own lives instead.

Instead of hatred, others choose to pack their heart with love. Seth Mandell runs camps for children who've lost a family member to terror (his own son Koby was murdered in a terror attack in 2001). Seth told me a story about a girl in his camp who was so grief-stricken that she had begun to cut herself on the wrist. The first day of camp, the girl’s counselor saw the girl's cut and remarked that “time heals all wounds”. The girl angrily reacted and said “it does not”, a reaction that was a reference to all wounds, both psychic and physical. But the counselor persevered in befriending the girl, and the girl had a wonderful time at camp. By the end of the camp, the girl had stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counselor lightheartedly remarked “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded: “no, it does not…. But love heals all wounds”. Love is magical, and packing even more love into your heart is always a good idea.

As we pack up our house to leave Montreal, we are also packing with us inspirational memories.  I'll pack the memory of the cancer patient who refused to let her disease take away her optimism. I'll pack the memory of the Holocaust survivor who was our synagogue's candyman, determined to make the world sweet for the next generation. I'll pack the memory of  the man who ran to greet every new person in the synagogue and made them feel at home. And I'll pack the memory of a Holocaust survivor, who each time there was a celebration, hoisted a l'chaim with a twinkle in his eye, in a moment of personal triumph and  joy.

These uplifting memories have changed me, and I will carry them with me forever.

Goodbye Montreal. I'm packing you up with me.

My Problem with Kol Nidrei

(originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News)

Kol Nidrei should have disappeared a long time ago. From its introduction in the 800's,  it was sharply opposed for the next 400 years by Rabbinic authorities who saw it as a meaningless gesture. In the 1100's, a debate emerged over which vows, future or past, Kol Nidrei refers to. And in the 19th century, because of anti-Semitic claims that it enabled Jews to violate oaths, many reformers (and even, for short time, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) removed Kol Nidrei from the service. Kol Nidrei is a problematic prayer.

So why is Kol Nidrei still part of the service? Only because of the melody. There are moving tunes, both in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition, for Kol Nidrei. No matter what, Kol Nidrei is here to stay because the tunes are majestic and awe-inspiring.

This was my problem with Kol Nidrei. I was trained in Lithuanian style Yeshivot to think about serious Jewish content, about Talmudic texts and theological sources;  Kol Nidrei is the opposite of that. Kol Nidrei is a ritual that hangs by less than a thread of hair, with an inferior Halachic pedigree, and is only preserved because of its tune. It bothered me that Kol Nidrei is religious fluff, all musical culture and minimal religious content. So why did it find a place of honor leading off the Yom Kippur liturgy?

Frankly, contemporary Judaism is overstocked with religious fluff.  There was an advertisement many years ago from a yeshiva in Jerusalem that had a picture of a bagel, lox, and cream cheese sandwich with the caption: "is this the culmination of 3,000 years of Jewish history?". This sadly is all too often the case, with Jewish identity reduced to the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof, brisket, and satin kippahs.  This superficial cultural Judaism offers no rationale for continuity, and no true link to spirituality.

Because of this,  I saw content and culture as antagonists. To me, bagels, lox, and cream cheese Judaism was the opposite of  the Judaism that nurtured me in Yeshiva. And even the melodies like Kol Nidrei were just superficial enhancements, pleasant but ultimately unimportant.

But I was wrong. Culture is important too.  Melodies, foods, even jokes have a role in preserving Judaism.

In the language of Halacha, we call these elements a minhag, or a custom. Minhag is about the little distinctive cultural touches that make observance more fascinating. Rabbi Maimon (the father of the Rambam) wrote about the importance of respecting customs like eating donuts (sfinj) on Chanukah. Indeed, it is often the customs, with their distinctive tastes, aromas, colors and melodies that inspire us, in ways we are not fully aware of.

What my overly intellectual perspective had missed is this: that the little things, the aromas, tastes, colors, and melodies, are a powerful way of conveying the content, the great ideas I so love. Culture can create an emotional connection unavailable in the world of ideas.
And this is the power of Kol Nidrei, the power of singing the same song as our grandparents, even if the words are obscure.  And even the intellectually inclined among us should never overlook it.

In 1913, a young intellectual decided to convert to Christianity. As a final farewell to Judaism, he decided to go to Yom Kippur services. But after listening to Kol Nidrei, he left a transformed man.  In the years that followed, this man, Franz Rozensweig, became a prominent Jewish philosopher, and inspired many others to make their journey back to Judaism.

Ironically, a great intellectual was drawn back to Judaism by Kol Nidrei, a prayer that is more melody than meaning. And even today, otherwise alienated Jews show up for Kol Nidrei, drawn by in by the inspiring melody.

Now, if we could only teach these alienated Jews how to love the content, to engage the ideas of Judaism as well.....

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Hunger, Iran and Tisha B'Av

Fasting is foreign to us. In the Middle Ages, people fasted a great deal. The 9th century Babylonian work Halachot Gedolot (Tur OH 580) lists no less than 25 additional fast days that are obligatory; in addition, people fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, Yartzeits and when they had bad dreams. In the medieval era, fasting was a religious experience of inspiration, a meaningful way to transcend the mundane. 

Today, things are different. While some might still appreciate fasting as a spiritually transcendent experience, when I fast, I.....just get hungry. I think about food, think about when the fast is going to end, and think about how much time it will take for me to return home, pour a cup of orange juice, and break the fast. But there's meaning to be found in these banal cravings as well, and hunger can teach us some down to earth spiritual lessons. And hunger's message is this: humans are frail and needy, and without food for even a few hours, we become worried and uncomfortable. We learn from hunger how incomplete we are, and how much needs to be fixed.

The lesson is that hunger isn't just about food. Our spiritual side craves a better world; and on Tisha B'Av, while we mourn the tragedies of exile, we feel desperately hungry for the peace and security of a real home.

The Jewish hunger for peace is more than an accident of history; it is a part of our destiny. Geographically, Israel sits at the crossroads of conflict. The land promised to Abraham is located on the land bridge between three continents; and because of this, Israel was an area hotly contested by empires in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia Greece and Rome. Many have noted that unique geography of the land promised to Abraham is intended to make the Jews profoundly aware of how fragile, and precious, peace can be.

This is why peace is nothing less than a Jewish obsession: we pray for peace three times a day, our blessings end with a hope for peace, and Israel's Declaration of Independence remarkably offers peace to all of Israel's hostile neighbors. Peace is nothing less than the Jewish quest.

At the same time, in exile, security was elusive; the outrage Chaim Nachman Bialik eloquently expressed after the Kishinev massacre in 1903 is the repressed cry of two millennia of exile. The establishment of the State of Israel was meant to give the Jewish people a true home where they could live with peace and security.

Unfortunately, peace and security are not always one and the same. And every political debate about Israel can be boiled down to this: are we hungrier for security or for peace?   The same script is revived endlessly, about policies, political parties, and personalities: "xxx is bad for security". "But xxx is good for peace, and worth the risk". We might want both peace and security, but in the cartoonishly binary logic of politics, you only get to choose only one or the other. And on most issues relating to Israel, the old debate of peace vs. security will fill page upon page of newsprint.

But not this week. Remarkably, the Iran nuclear deal has sparked a virtual consensus of rejection. The entire Israeli political spectrum finds very little to love in a deal that threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East. Yes, giving a fanatical dictatorship 24 days notice before an inspection should have been a deal breaker, plain and simple.  And with the sanctions lifted, Iran can buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles and bankroll Hezbollah attacks on innocent Syrians and Israelis. For Israelis sitting at the crossroads of conflict, it is easy to see how tossing a lifeline to Ayatollahs who shout "death to Israel, death to America" does not advance the cause of peace. It is easy to see that handing a major economic and diplomatic victory to a Holocaust denying, terrorism sponsoring, Jew hating regime is simply not a step in the direction of peace. It's impossible, even for left wing supporters of Israel, to pretend otherwise.

Yes, I'm hungry for peace; and most supporters for Israel are as well. But this deal does nothing to advance the cause of peace. And as another Tisha B'Av comes and goes, I'll be hungrier than ever for a true and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Bitter Herb’s Bittersweet Lesson

Why dredge up ugly memories when you’re celebrating your triumphs? It’s much more pleasant to forget the bad times and focus on the good times.

And yet, the Seder focuses a great on remembering the pain and suffering of slavery. We have salt water tears, blood red wine, charoset mortar and straw, and most prominently, the bitter herbs of 400 years of slavery.

But why do we spend so much time remembering the bitterness?

The first lesson is that the bitter herb must be bitter; that means we should never fool ourselves and think that the bitter herb is sweet. The pain and suffering of slavery should never be rationalized, period. Too often, people who are pious believe they have found the “divine plan” to explain suffering; instead they have justified the unjustifiable, and ignored the pain of the victims. So we must never forget that bitterness is bitter, and that our only hope is to overcome slavery and make suffering disappear.

The second lesson comes from the lingering taste of bitterness in our mouths. No matter how charmed our lives have been, we all know people who have had bitter experiences; sometimes it’s our friends, or our parents and grandparents. We all know the taste of bitter herbs.  

Yet this bitter taste offers us a profound wisdom: in a world with too much bitterness, one must cherish the sweet moments, and recognize how special they are.

One can take life’s sweet moments for granted. People can celebrate beautiful weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, only to be obsessed with the shortcomings of the tablecloths and the desserts. (Yes, I have seen this happen). We lose a sense of perspective about how sweet a simcha is, even if the dessert was a bit overbaked.

The bitter herbs are a reminder never to squander sweetness.

A friend told me a story about his Bar Mitzvah 50 years ago. He was an only child, and both of his parents were Holocaust survivors. At the Bar Mitzvah lunch, his parents went missing. The guests started to look for them, and the synagogue’s superintendent was sent to search the building for them. Finally, he found the Bar Mitzvah boy’s parents huddled in a distant corner, crying in each other’s arms. The parents explained that they were emotionally overwhelmed. During the war they could barely have dreamt that they would survive, and now…. now, they were celebrating their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The power of the joy was simply overwhelming.

This is the bittersweet lesson of the bitter herbs; when we remember the taste of marror, we learn how to cherish sweetness. We should be overwhelmed with appreciation at any hint of sweetness, and recognize that any Bar Mitzvah is beautiful, even if the tablecloths are the wrong color, and any wedding is sweet, even if the dessert is subpar.  

At every seder, there are bitter herbs. Not just on the seder plate, but in remembering the person who is gone and desperately missed. But at the same time, we have to cherish the sweet, to look at each and every person who is there, and recognize that it is a miracle to celebrate together, and that there’s nothing sweeter than a spiritual evening filled with food, family and friends.

Chag Sameach !