Category: Uncategorized

Finger Puppets and Genocide

Long ago, I think some corporate executives within the Organization of Jewish Religion decided that they had a ratings problem.

Christian merch was flying off the shelves and their branding was expanding around the globe. The Jews felt they had something special–after all, it was their legacy product that set the stage for everything that came after. They had secured all the important celebrity endorsements–

“I’m proud to call the Jews My chosen people!”–God

–and had established their headquarters in a desirable Jerusalem neighborhood.

Still, the Christians were killing it. So the marketing executives in the corporate office set out to find out why. They quickly realized what every modern company knows so well–get the kids hooked and the customer stream will follow. Christmas was introduced with their new mascot–Santa Claus–which was also a brilliant piece of cross promotion with Coca Cola and brought in needed revenue. They unveiled the Easter Bunny–a bit controversial since the Bunny character inexplicably laid eggs and didn’t even have a passing connection to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it was an instant success and had a lasting effect on public school calendars for all time.

The report got sent upstairs–Target the kids!

Everyone got to work right away. It wasn’t easy. Many of our Jewish holidays deal with serious, complicated, and violent themes. There’s brutality and sexuality throughout. How do you turn an R-rated subject into something G-rated?

They began with Purim, and took a cold hard look at the holiday. A dubious leading man, Mordechai, schemes to place himself at the pinnacle of power using every Machiavellian trick in the book. He pimps out his nubile underage niece to the non-Jewish middle-aged king to secure a presence in the palace. He skulks around the grounds until he spots an opportunity to turn in would-be traitors to ingratiate himself with the king. He sets up the mighty but ultimately dim-witted Haman to take the fall for attempted genocide. Finally, in the climax of the story, the newly powerful Mordechai leads the Jews on a killing rampage throughout Shushan, wiping out 75,000 non-Jews who had been bent on their destruction.

The solution: Let’s get the kids to dress up and make a ton of noise. We’ll market character costumes and manufacture promotional noise-makers with Jewish stars and Torah logos on them.

Next came Chanukah. This one was tough. It was a rather dry festival commemorating a military victory. To further complicate matters, the victors in the story–the Hasmonean Dynasty–never made much of themselves after this episode. They themselves ended up assimilating and falling victim to the very thing which their recent ancestors had fought against. It was a fairly decent story of underdogs overcoming the odds, but how can you repackage this one for the kids?

The solution: We’ll create a new back story. Snazz it up with special effects–a divine miracle–and introduce a product that everyone has to have. Before this point, no one even knew what a menorah was, but soon enough it became the hot button product of the time, with people lining up around the shuk all night to get the latest release. Throw in a dreidl (with a hint of gambling to appeal to parents), and Chanukah became the must-celebrate holiday of the year for the whole family.

The marketing department even looked at stories from the Torah–in particular the story of Noah and the Flood. The team took a unflinching look at this story–how could they spin the needlessly violent and agonizing death of all humanity, not to mention the horrible suffering of all the animals on earth?

The solution: Focus instead on the very few animals that were actually spared, and portray Noah as a benevolent and avuncular figure who was simply along for the ride. Instead of worrying about the devastating effects of the flood, transform the ark into a cruise ship with lovable animals, bobbing happily along the waves on an extended tour of the ancient Middle East. Using the rainbow as their logo, this story of a happy man with cute pairs of animals became enshrined in children’s hearts forever.

Fast forward to today. This once-brilliant marketing campaign has become a victim of its own success. Every facet of Judaism seems tailored only for kids. The medium has become the message. This became apparent when I recently spied a certain product intended for kids at a Passover seder–Ten Plague Finger Puppets. Some Jewish company thought this was a good idea? OK, frogs are pretty amusing, and in fact, that particular plague was itself intended to be a somewhat comical jab at the Egyptians. But blood? Vermin? The Death of Every First Born Son and Animal??

In our Siddur, it explains that during Passover, except for the first two days, we recite an abbreviated version of Hallel, the series of Psalms and blessings added for every festival. The reason for this, according to Jewish tradition, is because our own joy and celebration must be tempered by our acknowledgment of the deaths of so many Egyptians, during the plagues and then their drowning in the Red Sea. An incredible Jewish concept–we don’t take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. That’s also the reason why we remove a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of the Ten Plagues at the seder. So should we wear our Finger Puppets while we take a drop of wine out of our cups?

Let’s make Judaism an adult religion again. Let’s not infantilize kids and teens and assume they can’t handle any serious subjects. Let’s struggle with reconciling the violent and anachronistic episodes of our tradition with living a life of holiness and community. Let’s come up with ways to explain a modern concept of what God is, what God means, and what God can be, and move away from the white-bearded father and king who lives in the sky that so many people learned about as children without the possibility of any more sophisticated and adult alternative.

I’m fully confident that our ratings will go up and we’ll once again establish brand loyalty.

 

We Have Met the Deity–and He is Us.

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Da lifnei mi atah omed

Know before whom you stand

 

These words commonly adorn the bimahs and arks of countless synagogues around the world, and presumably serve to remind us that we are in the presence of God (and to stop texting during services).

Instead, could these ubiquitous words carry another meaning?

One Shabbat morning while I was leading services, I was staring at this Hebrew phrase, and the thought occurred to me that rather than that conventional interpretation, this message might be thought of in an existential context. (And here you thought I was daydreaming during the service.)

What if the one who we are standing before is…ourself? The creation story as told in Genesis hints at this answer. The text specifically says that we are created in God’s image.

This perspective is further emphasized throughout Jewish tradition. The Hebrew word for prayer itself is להתפלל, l’hitpalel, a reflexive verb. By definition, we don’t pray for something, but rather to effect a change in ourselves. The act of praying, gathering together as a community, engaging in Jewish ritual…these are not actions meant to please some distant and invisible deity. We do these things to bring ourselves closer to each other and to connect with tradition. Our centuries-old charge is Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. We don’t pray to God to make that happen. We don’t recite a few words in the prayer book, throw up our hands, and say, “I’ve done my part. Now it’s in God’s hands.” Prayer is an inward act–it inspires us to see the world around us and seek to make a difference.

We are the agents of change, and our prayers help to provide the impetus for making that change.

Similarly, it’s much more powerful and compelling to think that it is we ourselves who must judge our own actions. When a person is accused of any type of destructive or dishonest action, don’t we often ask, “How can he face himself in the mirror?” We are perpetually in the position of looking over our own shoulders and evaluating our deeds.

In the Talmud, we read the story of Rabbi Yochanan’s students, who rushed to the rabbi’s deathbed, eager to get a blessing from their teacher before he died. Rabbi Yochanan, with his last words, told the students, “May you fear God as much as you fear man.” The students were confused and upset–how could such a respected scholar mean such a thing? Rabbi Yochanan explained, “When you commit a sin, your first thought is, I hope no one saw me.”

Know before whom you stand. You’re standing in front of yourself.

 

The Blooper Reel: Not-So-Great Moments in Cantorial History

Everyone loves watching the outtakes from a movie–sometimes presented during the credits or as part of the bonus features of the DVD. (Does anyone watch DVDs anymore??) Unfortunately, all of my scenes are live presentations with no chance to redo them.

I’ve had more than a few bloopers in my many years as a cantor. A few memorable ones come to mind:

Early in my career, I was soloing at services for one of the first times, and I was pretty nervous. When we got to the part when we announce the yahrzeits (the anniversary of a death) for the coming week, I not-so-eloquently announced, “The following yahrzeits will be celebrated during the coming week.” No one said anything to me after services, so either they weren’t paying attention, or they took pity on a newbie cantor.

Being inexperienced isn’t just nerve wracking–it can also be dangerous. At one of my first funerals, it was time for me to cut the mourner’s black ribbon with the little razor that the funeral home gives out. In a bit of nervous energy, I not only made a cut in the ribbon, but also succeeded in slicing my finger. But the show must go on–I surreptitiously grabbed a tissue, kept it wrapped around my finger for the entire service, and only bled on my book a little. No one ever noticed. Still, I’m happy that most funeral homes now use the self-tearing ribbons.

One Shabbat morning, it was the week before Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, when it’s traditional to add a prayer announcing the coming new month and exactly when it begins. That would have gone very smoothly had I actually bothered to look at a calendar ahead of time and seen not only what day the month began, but also which month it was. Before I started chanting the page, I had no choice but to do the walk of shame over to the rabbi’s side for a quick whispered conversation. Lesson learned.

Finally, one of my all time favorite and memorable moments in the history of services. During a bar mitzvah many years ago, the family had assigned the honor of reading the Prayer for Peace to a friend who had traveled in from South America.

Do you know what happens to the Prayer for Peace when it is recited with a South American accent? It turns out that the long ē sound in the word “peace” doesn’t quite make it all the way. (Go ahead, I’ll wait till you try that out.)

And so, while the guest proceeded to recite the now unfortunate line, “And may a great peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea,” I stared laser beams into the carpet in front of me.

Does anyone else have any good work-related bloopers to share? Do accountants find it funny when they add two numbers wrong? Do doctors ever say, “So there I was about to cut the left arm…”

I guess it’s just a cantor thing.

That awkward moment…

Over the years, my colleagues and I are constantly asked the question, “Why did you become a cantor?” The best response I ever heard was “So I could have awkward conversations with the person sitting next to me on the plane.”

It’s something that I never envisioned, but whenever I’m a guest at an event, or meeting people for the first time, or yes, sitting down in my seat for a flight, I’ve come to dread those 5 little words:

“So what do you do?”

Ah, it would be so much easier for me to say, “I’m a computer programmer,” or “I work in a bank,” or any of the myriad professions that exist. By this time I do have it down to something like a science. I duly respond,

“I’m a cantor.” I observe the blank stare, wait a brief moment, and quickly follow that up with,

“Do you know what that is?”

This has become so routine that I sometimes forget myself and answer,

“I’m a cantordoyouknowwhatthatis.”

In fact, it really is a teachable moment for most people, many of whom may only have a passing familiarity with the term but are often very surprised at the range and depth of training, responsibilities, and professional status of a synagogue cantor. (“You can actually marry people?”)

Other times, the person sits in polite silence, clearly figuring that they got in way too deep with what was supposed to be a polite question. Now that they’re chatting with Mr. Jewy Jewman, how are they going to extricate themselves from this awkward situation?

Even if they don’t realize it yet, I know exactly what’s coming. Sure enough, I see a little light flick on in their head, and I think to myself, OK, here it comes:

“Hey, there’s a Jewish family on my street. The Goldbergs. Do you know them?”

So I’ve gotten much better at avoiding these interactions each time I sit down on a plane. I decide at that moment how much I’m in the mood to chat with the person next to me and respond in three possible ways to “So what do you do?”

Level One: I’m not in the mood for small talk at all and really just want to be left alone.

Response: “I work for a non-profit organization.” (Crickets….mission accomplished)

Level Two: A little friendly conversation is OK while we’re waiting to take off.

Response: “I’m a music educator.” This can result in some fun conversations and memories of piano lessons of years past.

Level Three: I just sat down next to someone returning from a Victoria’s Secret catalog shoot.

Response: “I’m a flight instructor.”

Jewish Mythbusters

We need a Snopes for Jewish life. You know, some kind of site where people can enter “facts” that they know about Judaism to see if they’re true. (Maybe we could call it Shnapps.)

While we’re waiting for such a site to get launched, I’m happy to provide this installment of Jewish Mythbusters–persistent Jewish urban legends that keep making the rounds no matter how silly or unbelievable they may be.

 

1. If you drop the Torah, you have to fast for 40 days.

First, you should realize that dropping a Torah scroll is an extremely rare occurrence.

I can’t imagine going a couple hours before figuring out what I’m eating next. Forty days? Where did this number come from? Why does every Hebrew school kid seem to have this questionable factoid at their fingertips? Why does every relative at a bar mitzvah think they’re being so funny when they tell the kid, “Careful you don’t drop the Torah so we don’t have to fast for 40 days!”

The number 40 was probably batted around because it served as a logical counterpart to the 40 days it took for the Israelites to receive the Torah. So while there’s no set procedure for the very few times this might actually occur, Jews might decide to create a day of study and/or have people donate money to tzedakah to acknowledge the sanctity of the Torah scroll. If there were many people present who witnessed the Torah falling, each person might fast for a short time during the day and then come together for a study session. The best way to react to this unfortunate event is to turn it into a teachable moment as well as an opportunity to bring community together and engage in acts of tikkun olam.

But no need to cancel your dinner plans next month.

2. A person with a tattoo can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

If this were true, we’d be stacking bodies up like firewood trying to figure out where to put them all.

True, Jewish law prohibits getting a tattoo, because one is not supposed to mark or scar our bodies, which are seen as God’s work. (An obvious exception of which is circumcision, which is specifically commanded). But fashions and trends come and go, and many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, choose to get a tattoo. I can assure you that when the time comes, no one will take a look at your little butterfly and turn you away.

Stay tuned for more installments of Jewish Mythbusters. Do you have an example of something that just doesn’t sound quite right but you keep hearing about it? Let me know and I’ll report back to you…

 

You Will Be Assimilated, Part Deux

During this winter holiday period, it seems to me that we Jews are not the only ones at risk of assimilation and losing our distinct rituals. Our non-Jewish friends are experiencing something like this as well. It seems that Christians have almost completely adopted a uniquely Jewish tradition, which threatens their own observance of Christmas.

Not too long ago, it was assumed that all non-Jews would be home during Christmas–opening presents, having a Thanksgiving-like meal together, bickering with family members–you know, the stuff of Hallmark. This left the rest of us with only 2 viable options on how to spend the day: go see a movie and eat at the only restaurants that would be open (i.e. Chinese food). We would sit in an almost completely deserted movie theater–a couple other people scattered throughout in comfortable isolation. Some very quick eye contact, a barely perceptible nod–and you easily established that the Jews were in da house.

Then after the movie we’d head over to the local Chinese place and see the entire membership of the temple. It was a comforting, familiar, and distinctly Jewish tradition.

But now? Fuggedaboutit. In an egregious example of cultural appropriation, the movie theaters and Chinese restaurants have been taken over by the gentiles. You now have to go online and buy movie tickets in advance or risk showing up to a sold-out movie. You need to make a reservation days in advance just to have some beef and broccoli. Isn’t anyone sitting at home eating Christmas dinner and falling into an egg nog-induced coma anymore? Has General Tso waged a war on Christmas? What’s next–will all the non-Jews overwhelm the local pizza place as soon as Passover ends? Is nothing sacred?

I say we make Christmas great again. Everyone stay home, spend time with your families, and figure out which presents you’re keeping and which are getting returned tomorrow.

We Jews would like to have our holiday back.

 

You Will Be Assimilated

Some of our most well known and beloved holidays are filled with irony.

Purim, a violent, Machiavelian, Tarantino-esque story of attempted genocide has become transformed into a fun dress-up holiday for little kids.

Passover, the festival which celebrates our people’s liberation, has become the most back-breaking, labor-intensive period of the year.

And now Chanukah. The holiday which marks the Jewish people’s fight against assimilation is itself an amalgam of disparate customs and traditions of various host countries that have been pasted together over the past centuries. Chanukah might not even exist if it weren’t for assimilation.

What could be more iconic than the dreidl? Chanukah lore would have us believe that after the Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, some intrepid Jews hid out in the woods determined to study Torah. When the Greek enforcers came near, the Jews would whip out their dreidls and start playing. Apparently, the mighty Greek army was easily fooled into thinking that large numbers of their citizens were sitting in distant fields so that they could spin tops together. “Ok folks, you carry on with that fun game. Let us know if you see any Jews out here.”

In fact, the dreidl, along with its four letters on each side, is based on an identical game in Germany from the 1500s which used a 4-sided top called a trundl. Just like our Chanukah version, each letter instructed the player to perform a certain action.

Maybe all that spinning is making you hungry. Time for some potato latkes. It’s traditional to eat foods prepared in oil, as a nod to the Chanukah miracle story, and to help pay for your cardiologist’s condo in Boca. But why potatoes? This custom originates from a time when so many Jews lived in Eastern Europe–they used what was cheap and plentiful. That’s one reason why we not only eat potato latkes on Chanukah, but enjoy potato kugel and tzimmes throughout the year. It doesn’t explain gefilte fish though.

Finally, the ubiquitous and sometimes controversial tradition of giving gifts on Chanukah, often seen as the most blatant act of assimilation, and a direct copying of our Christian neighbors’ celebration of Christmas. Not so fast there. Because Chanukah is at its heart a holiday celebrating Jewish nationalism, it became traditional very early on to exchange coins–a powerful symbol of national identity. Enter the custom of Chanukah gelt. It turns out that giving money as a gift on Chanukah predates all the other things we do, and is probably the one authentic tradition that is not borrowed from another culture.

So when you get that Target gift card, you’re actually continuing an almost 2000-year old custom.

However you spell it, Happy Chanukah to all!

 

Time to Face the Music

Put down the dreidl, stop eating the latkes, and take a break from giving gifts. It’s time for a much more profound and significant Chanukah tradition:

Chanukah music on Sirius XM. This year you can find it on Channel 77.

I have no idea who runs that channel over there and decides what music to play. I suspect it’s the same person who tells every supermarket manager to display matzah, gefilte fish, and Kedem grape juice on the aisle end cap for every Jewish holiday. They just throw some Jewish stuff on and figure they’ve got it covered.

Yet, I can’t look away. I find myself tuning in just to see what disaster awaits me. Last night I turned the radio on in the middle of a song. It was slow and somewhat subdued, and I was trying to figure out what they were playing. I soon picked out some Hebrew words: …eilech b’gei tzalmavet….

That translates to “…though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…”

OMG. THEY WERE PLAYING THE 23RD PSALM.

They think that Jews all over North America, their cars and minivans full of kids, will have their enjoyment of Chanukah enhanced by listening to the words of the 23rd Psalm.

Then there are the many tired parodies–putting silly Jewish-themed words on Christmas carols. (Ha ha, isn’t that really clever? See, it’s like Christmas, but we made it about Chanukah.) But at least those songs have words. If I hear one more chorus of ay ay ay or yada dada dai, I might punch my radio. Today’s winner? A song entitled La-la-latkes. Hearing that over and over again made me want to drive off the ro-ro-road.

Interspersed among all this musical brilliance are the miscellaneous Jewish songs that they use to fill programming time. Anything from Fiddler or Yentl will do.

But why do I keep listening? Because every now and then, maybe once or twice an hour, they play a really good song. Some quality piece of music written by a contemporary artist which actually reflects some of the holiday’s themes. And because the Jewish musical world is pretty small, I often get to look at the radio display and say, “Hey, I know them!”

I always wonder what the non-Jewish world thinks about this music and our celebration of Chanukah. But trust me, we’re the only ones who would willingly subject ourselves to this station.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Chanukah.

Generations of Hebrew school kids have been bombarded with the repeated message: “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.”

True–in fact, Christmas is more like the Christian Chanukah since it came afterwards.

Here’s what both holidays have in common:

  1. They both occur sometime near the Winter Solstice.
  2. They both involve lots of lights.
  3. They both have an exciting or important back story, infused with religious significance, that eventually came later.

Both Chanukah and Christmas have their origins in pagan winter festivals. Because this was the darkest and coldest time of year, it was customary for ancient people to light lots of fires for heat and light. Throw in some human sacrifice for good measure and you’ve got yourself a real party going–just not the type of soiree that early religious leaders wanted or approved of.

But how do you get people to stop when they’re having such a good time?

In a pretty clever example of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” these religious leaders used the existing winter solstice festivals, but gave them religious significance. Christians connected this time of year to a pretty important birthday. What did we do?

The holiday of Chanukah originally marked the Maccabees’ victory and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the hands of the Greeks. The narrative (as told in the Book of Maccabees) speaks about an unlikely but inspiring victory of a small band of rebels over a huge and formidable army, but includes not one word about any oil or miracle. Chanukah’s 8-day duration was likely reminiscent of King Solomon’s 8-day festival upon the completion of the First Temple. There’s also a connection to the 8-day festival of Sukkot which was originally delayed but then celebrated immediately upon taking back the Temple.

If Chanukah had simply remained a commemoration of a military event, it probably wouldn’t have endured for too many generations. (Don’t believe me? Do we still call November 11 “Armistice Day”?)

Then the rabbis of the Talmud came up with a brilliant idea–they “invented” a cool story to go along with Chanukah. In the Talmud, they asked themselves the question, “What is Chanukah?” and then proceeded to answer it. And here, hundreds of years after the historical events, do we read for the first time about finding only one container of oil with which to light the Temple’s menorah. This small quantity of oil then miraculously lasted for 8 days, enough time to produce a sufficient supply of pure oil to keep things going.

The rabbis’ story was brilliant in every way:

  • It used a humdrum story about a war (the guys loved it, but the ladies were channel surfing) and completely transformed it into a story with God, miracles, and special effects.
  • The story took a familiar piece of Temple equipment–the menorah, a 7-branched candelabra which was routinely lit all year round–and turned it into the identifying symbol of Chanukah.
  • Chanukah now provided a rationale for all the lights that people were using as part of their winter solstice festivals. Now those lights had a religious significance. Hanerot halalu kodesh hem. These candles are holy.
  • Bonus: this Talmudic story, written with the benefit of hindsight, took the focus off of the Maccabees and put it squarely on God performing a miracle. Not commonly known is that the Hasmonean dynasty themselves ended up mostly assimilating after a few generations. The rabbis weren’t big fans.

 

Teaser for my next entry:
Rather than copying a modern custom of Christmas, gift giving on Chanukah is in fact one of the most authentic customs we have. Stay tuned.

[shameless plug] Oh, and by the way, if you just can’t wait, you can read about this and every other interesting facet of Chanukah as well as all the other holidays in my book, Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays. [/end shameless plug]

 

Deconstructing Bar Mitzvah

This week’s Torah portion marks the 38th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. (Go ahead, I’ll give you moment to do that in your head). What struck me is how much and how little things have changed in that period of time.

On the one hand, synagogue life couldn’t be more different. The Conservative Movement has embraced total egalitarianism–no more second class treatment (such as those sorry Friday night bat mitzvah services) for the girls in our congregations. Women are full and equal participants in our services and synagogue leadership. Same sex weddings are accepted and commonplace. The music of the liturgy has evolved as well–appealing to a more modern ear while still preserving the rich history of past generations. Even the liturgy itself has changed to become less patriarchal and more inclusive.

But what about bar and bat mitzvah training and services?

In many ways, all aspects of the bar/bat mitzvah service and preparation have not changed much at all–not only since I put on that late 70’s-era 3-piece suit, but going back a lot longer than that.

We are still preparing kids to become 1950’s adult Jews. Put another way, this is your father’s bar mitzvah service. (Your grandfather’s as well).

So I hereby present the following exercise:

  1. Forget everything you know about bar or bat mitzvah!
  2. What would the ideal bar/bat mitzvah experience or preparation include? What would we stop doing? What would change?
  3. Nothing is off the table. For instance, should we even have a service? Should we still do it at age 13?

As you think about this, I want to give you one important piece of information: there is nothing required or halachic about a bar/bat mitzvah service. No one “gets bar mitzvahed”. It simply is a commemoration and celebration of the fact that a kid has already become old enough (age 13) to be obligated to observe Jewish laws and rituals.

I’d love to get a conversation going about this, and include as many past, present, and future b’nei mitzvah parents as possible. Please post your comments below so that we can all see and respond. As you can imagine, I have many opinions on this subject, but I’m waiting to hear from you first…