We had come to New York partly to celebrate the holidays, but mainly try to help with a new grandchild, due officially on December 24th—the second day or third night of Chanukah, as well as Christmas Eve and our son Adam’s birthday—but expected any time. We came up on Sunday the 15th, and a week later, with twelve hours to spare before the first candle, my stepdaughter Logan and daughter-in-law Leah were blessed with their new son Rivers—naharot in Hebrew—at 5:36am, 7lb. 6oz., healthy and strong with a lusty cry.
Within a few hours he was enjoying the bounty of life (I want to say chalav u’d’vash, milk and honey) Continue reading →
Friday night we arrived for Shabbat dinner at the home of our daughter, son-in-law (who makes the best matzo-ball soup ever, although not on the day after Thanksgiving), and their kids. Both grandchildren came to the door along with the noisy dogs: Ethan, seven (“and three quarters”), sleek in his Star Wars pj’s and done with cancer, and Hannah, four, in a dress embroidered with her name, for once announcing neither of the sisters from Frozen but, proudly, herself.
“You didn’t miss anything!” Ethan yelled, as they both fell into a close chat with Nana.
I waited for a pause in the conversation and said, “But you two missed something!” It was a warm evening, so I urged them out on the front lawn even though they were barefoot, pointing at the bright crescent dangling in the western sky.
Hannah’s exuberance took her too close to the street, so I shouted her back, as Ethan asked, “Is it December?”
“Not yet,” I said, “but it’s Kislev. That’s the moon of Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.”
Ethan said, “Hannah, it’s not December but it’s Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.” He began to sing, and Hannah chimed in,
O Chanukah O Chanukah
Come light the menorah,
Let’s have a party,
We’ll all dance the hora…
I figured I would have too much of that soon enough, so I herded them inside, and after an hour of chaos we were sitting down to delicious leftovers. Our son Adam and his partner were also there, so it was pretty much a repeat performance of the Thanksgiving dinner the evening before.
Thursday night we had gone around the table saying what we were thankful for. When my turn eventually came I said, “I’m thankful for the family of my dreams, which happens to be sitting around this table.” I did mention those who were absent, either just from the table or from the earth. I did not mention how grateful I was that Ethan was no longer in the hospital.
Last night, Saturday, we sat with two dear, long-standing friends at a trendy new Israeli restaurant. Like us, they are in the grandparent stage of life, quite delicious if everyone is healthy and normal—whatever that is.
There is an old Yiddish riddle, What’s the difference between nakhes and a mekhaya? You have to know that nakhes means joy, especially the kind of joy you take in children, and that a mekhaya is the ultimate relaxation—what the old men in my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood used to say when they came back from the Turkish steam baths: Oy, it’s such a mekhaya.
So the answer to the riddle: Nakhes is when the grandchildren come to visit; a mekhaya is when they leave. That lofty, happy, ultimately not-responsible-for-the-bedtimes condition of life is what we mostly talked about. They have two more grandchildren on the way, we have one, all in all a sense of increase.
The Jewish population of the world today is the same as it was in 1939, while the world population as a whole has doubled twice.
I asked the young server if the octopus was kosher, and she said yes, but a bit uncertainly, before I gave her a fist bump and explained why it couldn’t be. The food was very good, high-end Israeli cuisine, the conversation was better, the drinks did their job. At our stage of life, you can easily spend a couple of hours on family without noticing the time.
Our friends have three grown and settled daughters—I held their youngest in my arms at age eight days and saw her happily wed last New Year’s Eve. Their eldest and her family have lived in Israel for seven years, and one of the new grandkids will be her third. So the conversation turned to politics.
All of us are New Israel Fund kinds of people—love the idea of Israel, hate the trends of recent decades, contribute dollars to combat right-wing and theocratic injustice. Come January, Israelis will vote in their third national elections in a year. Twice the electorate was evenly divided, and both times neither the right nor the center-left could form a government.
The divisions are very bitter. Our friend’s daughter was riding her bike along the Mediterranean when she heard the first election result. She felt as if she had just been told she was going to go through a divorce. The prospects are painfully uncertain, but one thing is sure: it’s not my grandfather’s Israel.
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has new meaning for me since our recent trip to India. We visited two synagogues in Kochi (Cochin) that are not currently active and two in Mumbai (Bombay) that still are, and these visits were deeply moving. But it was a museum visit in Kochi that made me see this week’s parshah in a different way.
We followed a guide through the Hill Palace, the royal seat of the kings of Kochi for centuries. The Palace crowns a hill with a long wide terraced flight of steps through exquisite gardens. The museum within has scores of valuable artifacts, but my attention was arrested in a semi-darkened room by what turned out to be a six century old Torah scroll.
The parchment too was darkened, and there were only four columns visible, Continue reading →
My D’var Torah on Vayeyshev, Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, November 30, 2018:
Plunked into the middle of the story of Joseph, we have one of the strangest episodes in the Jewish Bible, and one which would surely be censored in an expurgated edition. Joseph’s brothers have sold him down the river, and Jacob is in mourning because they’ve showed him Joseph’s coat soaked in a baby goat’s blood.
Suddenly we are out of the life of Joseph and in the life of his elder brother Judah—Yehuda—who ultimately would give his name to our religion and our people. Judah takes a Canaanite wife and has three sons with her.
When the first one, Er, grows up, Judah makes a shidduch for him with Tamar. But Er displeases God and dies childless, so—following Torah law—Judah calls on his second son, Onan, to do his duty and father children with Tamar.
But Onan spoils his seed on the ground, a slap in the face to his brother, father, and God, so he dies too— Continue reading →
With Tosia Szechter Schneider‘s gracious permission, I am posting her very moving remarks on the synagogue attack this fall in Pittsburgh:
My name is Tosia Schneider, after losing my whole family in the in the Shoah, in that whirlwind of hate, that engulfed Europe, I remember standing on the deck of the SS Marine Flasher in 1949, as we passed the Statue of Liberty, I thought, that this is indeed a new world, a world without hate, a world where anti Semitism will never raise its ugly head again.
I was very moved by the following brief speech my friend Tosia Szechter Schneider made at the “Unity Seder” at Atlanta’s leading reform Temple last month. It is really a poem as much as a speech, a poem about hope and memory. It is stunning to remember as we celebrate this feast of liberation, that there are people among us who in their own lifetime have actually gone from being slaves to being free. For more about Tosia, her life, and her remarkable memoir, see this foreword to her book, Someone Must Survive to Tell the World, available here.
Seder: From Tyranny to Freedom
Invited remarks delivered by Tosia Szechter Schneider at the “Seder of Unity” at The Temple, Atlanta 3/13/2018
In the days of old, a pillar of smoke led the way for Moses and the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
In our time, there were only the smokestacks of Auschwitz.
Unlike our ancestors, who fled their slavery with gold and silver, survivors were stripped of all their possesions, what was left were memories and scars, deep scars that never heal.
Jews lived in Poland for a thousand years.
The 16th century was The Golden Age of Polish Jewry. Poland was then refered to as:“Paradisus Judeorum,” a Jewish paradise. That paradise turned into a raging inferno in our time.
Another D’var Torah I delivered Friday evening at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. It touches on the Torah portions Vayera, Chayei Sarah, and Toledot.
To understand Isaac, we have to go back to the beginning, when his mother Sarah laughed at the idea that she could have him—before her pregnancy. She’s too old. She thinks it’s funny. God says, Why did you laugh? I can do it. She lies to God: I didn’t laugh. God says, No; you did laugh.
Then after his birth and bris, she says, “God brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Kol hasomeya yitzchak li. So that’s his name: Yitzchak. You could say that he was conceived in a kind of doubt of God’s power, followed by a silly lie to God. But he was born in joy. How happy she must have been, after a lifetime of wanting to be a mother. How glad to have been proven wrong. How much she must have loved him.
So he grew up with a name that meant something between a joke and a joy.
Fast forward to the Akedah. Dad says, Let’s go up the mountain and make a sacrifice. Isaac says, Okay, where’s the sheep? Dad says, God will provide. Okay, now he’s tying me up. Now he’s holding a knife over me. I think I’m supposed to just lie here quietly.
A d’var Torah I delivered last year at Congregation Shearith Israel, Atlanta, on the Friday evening of the Sabbath when the portion known as Toldot is read:
Toldot, it seems, is a hard word to translate. Sometimes it’s given as “generations,” but that’s not right; sometimes as “story,” but those who know say it’s more than that. Toldot Yitzkhak means something like “the accomplishments of Isaac.” It’s his resumé. It’s what you need to know about him. But is it really about Isaac?
As I hope you know I am no expert on the Torah, but fortunately I did not have to do this on my own. Rabbi Bernard Berzon, the beloved spiritual leader of my childhood, left a book of sermons, and the one on Toldot has this message: Choose the right grandfather. Each of us has two. Of the twins, Esau chose Bethuel, an ordinary man at best; but Jacob chose Avraham.
I like to think I have chosen the right rabbis. Rabbi [Mel] Sirner suggested that I talk about Rebecca, which was fine with me. She is everywhere in Toldot—from the time she feels the twins contending in her womb—sh’nay goyim—two nations—to the time when she overturns the prescribed succession in the lineage, and to top it off tells Isaac that Jacob must marry one of her own relatives.
Arnold Goodman was my rabbi for many years, and in one of four sermons of his on Toldot that I’ve read, he distinguished between “Isaac love” and “Rebecca love.” We read that “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” V’Rivka ohevet et Ya’akov. Isaac loved Esau in return for something. Rebecca just loved Jacob, period. Rabbi Goodman also quoted the poet Goethe: What you have inherited from your ancestors, take hold of it in order to make it your own.
Today I had lunch with Rabbi [Emanuel] Feldman the elder, for four decades the leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, and of course I asked him about Toldot. He agreed with a very secular critic, Harold Bloom, that here as in many places throughout the Tanakh, the pivotal character is a woman. Rebecca makes the choice that determines the future.
I pressed him on the trickery—some might say treachery—which Rebecca perpetrates on the dying Isaac, carried out almost too well by Jacob. I also pressed him on the anguish felt by Esau, and shared by his father, when they realize what has been done to them.
He pointed out that earlier, when Esau trades his birthright for pottage, he barely misses a beat. “He ate, he drank, he got up, he went away.” Vay’khol, vayeysht, vayakam, vayeylakh. That’s it. In this way, the Torah says, he belittled his birthright. By the way, there are proverbs in both Yiddish and Ladino that make reference to Esau in making fun of a stupid businessman.
Rabbi Feldman also said something we all intuit: Isaac is the most passive of all the patriarchs. After the akeda, when he is almost sacrificed, he seems to belong to another world. But Rebecca understands this world and all its flaws. She knows she is breaking the rules. But she knows too that it is Jacob who has chosen Avraham as his grandfather, and that he is the one who will carry the legacy forward into the future.
We hear that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I think men are from Mars and women are from Earth. On the one hand, Isaac has his head in the clouds, but on the other hand he cares too much about the taste of hunted meat. Rebecca, meanwhile, has her eye and her mind on the heritage of the past and on all the generations to come.
“The posts went forth in haste by the king’s commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the castle; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed.”
On the eve of Purim I always think about this passage in the Book of Esther—”the Megillah”—which will be chanted aloud tonight in synagogues circling the planet. Haman’s name —he was the Hitler of ancient Persia—will provoke a deafening stamping of feet and crackling of groggers, little noisemakers that children twirl with a big ratchety sound, or shaking of boxes of macaroni and cheese destined for charity. Since the silence is rarely restored promptly, the last phrase may be drowned out: “But the city of Shushan was perplexed.” It’s interesting.
Haman decides to murder all the Jews, the decree goes out, the messengers do their duty, but the capital city of the empire is perplexed. I can only think this means that the people more or less said, “Huh? Kill the Jews? Why?” That Jews were well enough woven into the fabric of Persian life so that despite their customs, which had to seem strange to their neighbors, people viewed them with respect, or at least with a big dose of “live and let live.”
Quite different from the reactions of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others to Hitler’s decrees, as I was reminded last Saturday when my Holocaust (Shoah) survivor friends were musing on that disturbing history. Not so many of those peoples were perplexed. They just said, Sure, let’s kill the Jews. Shushan’s response was, perhaps, reflective of something like the broad acceptance Jews enjoy today in the United States.
A new Pew study of Jews here and in Israel updates the famous one in 2013 (see below), which showed a decline in American Jewish identity, especially in the young. This one shows a slight increase in religiousness. But when comparing us to Israeli Jews, Pew found stark contrasts. We are more liberal, better educated, much less religious, and by various measures much less Jewish than our Israeli brethren—with whom we disagree on many things. They are much more divided among themselves, and of course they are surrounded by hostility and chaos, while we are safely dispersed among peaceful and often admiring American neighbors.
Few modern Persians—today’s Iranians—would be perplexed at the notion of slaughtering Jews, but Americans would be astonished to the point of staunchly defending us. When Joe Lieberman ran for Vice President in 2000, he wore his Jewishness, even his Orthodoxy, on his sleeve. It never became an issue in the campaign, except that religious Christians admired his commitment.
Sixteen years later, a surprisingly successful candidate for President, Bernie Sanders, is much more quietly Jewish—some might say, hardly at all. But no one who matters is accusing him of hiding something, and his Jewishness appears not to matter to other Americans. Asked about it in one debate, he pointed to the Shoah survivors he had known as a child, and explained how that terrible knowledge inspired him to seek social justice. And not just for Jews.
Some of us worry when Shoah remembrance is so central to Jewish identity that it is the first or only thing mentioned, but Jewish commitment to social justice long predates that catastrophe. Among Jews in the U.S., South Africa, and much of the diaspora it has been very important and very non-parochial.
Not so in Israel. Pew found that for more than half of Jewish Americans, social justice is an important part of what it means to be Jewish; only a quarter of Jewish Israelis said the same. And we are far more likely than they are to have non-Jewish friends. Those facts go a long way to explaining why we Jewish Americans are in a Golden Age, greater than any in the past. We are lucky.
And so when President Obama’s new Supreme Court nominee took the podium in the Rose Garden, he emphasized his Jewish origins and identity, despite being named Merrick Garland. His lifelong devotion to justice was not just for Jews. Which is why nobody was perplexed by his nomination. And if he doesn’t reach the Supreme Court, it won’t be because he is Jewish, despite the fact that he would be the fourth out of nine who is.