Friday, December 7, 2018

What You Might not Know about Hanukkah

You probably know this week many Jews are lighting candles for 8 nights and exchanging gifts.

 You might not know, Hanukkah is about a Jewish civil war over assimilation versus loyalty to Jewish monotheism.  In 165 B.C.E. the land we know today as Israel was controlled by the Greek forces of Alexander the Great.  Being Greek, with its emphasis on worshipping nature and the body was in vogue.  Worshipping one God was superstitious nonsense.  Many Jews at the time had adapted and assimilated into Greek culture.  They jettisoned their Jewish commitments.  They allowed the holy temple to be abused and despoiled. 

There were other Jews who were loyal to their tradition who decided to attack their fellow Jews and the Greeks to reclaim the temple, more importantly, to reassert monotheism. 

This civil war and the success of Judah Maccabee and his compatriots set the tone for the survival of monotheism and the eventual creation of Christianity and Islam, all of whom stubbornly continue to proclaim the one God.

The word Hanukkah means rededication.  The temple in Jerusalem was rededicated to the one God Jews believed was at work in this world.  The oil to light the menorah, supposed to last one day, lasted 8 days.

 As a skeptical religious romantic, I light the candles this week to remember and proclaim again our hope against hope in the one God.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Ezer K'negdo

In the book of Genesis God declares, “It is not good for Man to be alone.  (The word “Man” refers to any human being.)   “I will create an ezer k’negdo for the Man.”

What is an ezer k’negdo?  The Hebrew word ezer means helper and the word k’negdo means someone opposite who can stand against you.  The Rabbis teach us this person will be a stranger, a deep intimate, a friendly antagonist, a lover who challenges you.  This is someone who gets in your face, to kiss you, to argue with you, to scream at you, to support you, to wrestle with you, to tell you when you are wrong and to forgive you again and again.

An ezer k’negdo can be a man or a woman. An ezer k’negdo tells you the truth whether you want to hear it or not.  And has your back whether you are right or wrong.  This person can be sweet, loving and caring.  She or he can be forgetful, aggravating, exasperating and annoying.  Sometimes they will have room in their heads to listen and care, sometimes not.  But the ezer k’negdo will not stop loving you.   The ezer k’negdo knows you the way others do not and cannot.  The ezer k’negdo gets you.

There’s a great quote from the film, Shall We Dance:

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean?  But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything.  The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day.  You’re saying, “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.  Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.”

I am lucky to have married my ezer k’negdo and I have tried to be precisely that for her.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, and sometimes I say, “I’m sorry.”

 I wish for you an ezer k’negdo who will keep you sane and honest.  When you have a day when no one seems to get you and you can’t even get yourself, she will be there to catch you before you fall.  And you will make room in your head and heart to listen to her.  You will listen to her talk about her happy good days.  And you will wipe away her tears on her sad or bad days, as you listen to her talk about her fears.

The Biblical Text is right:  It is not good for Man to be alone.”

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Gods We Worship

The gods we worship determine how we will act.  Ask yourself what is most important in your heart right now and there you will find your god.  What is most important to you is what you worship, what controls the decisions you make in life and how you do or do not get along with others. 

Think about it.  Why do we bother to get out of bed in the morning?  There must be a reason. What gives meaning to our lives gives us purpose.  If getting people to like you is your god, that is your purpose.  If living and surviving is your God, you do what you can to prolong your life.  If being safe is your god, then safety will determine how and where you live.

The same is true if you worship money or sex or power, or longevity.  The gods we decide to worship determine how we will live our lives.  There are many gods out there.  How then shall we live?

In Jewish tradition we have a prayer called the Shema.  In this prayer we are told: “Listen Israel:  My God our God, God is one.  And you shall love my Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your everything.” 

Jews hold that God is a God of integrity, character, love and one who yearns for justice.  We do what we can to emulate this God.  And when this God fails to act on behalf of justice, we raise our questions as a sign of our continued trust that God will yet be God.  As God questions us, we question God. 

Christians are taught by Jesus to deny themselves, care for the neighbor and strive for justice. They have been taught to be as gracious with the neighbor as God has been with them.  
Many of us have more than one god.  How should we live with all these gods?

 “In deciding how we live with our gods, we also decide how to live with one another.” (Neil MacGregor)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Think that You May Be Wrong

Members of the monotheistic religions believe in one God.  This is true for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  So, why do some believers have problems respecting the faith of other believers?  Why will some Christians not pray with other Christians or Muslims or Jews?  Why will some Jews not attend the synagogue of other Jews?  Why are their such acrimonious divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims? 

Some of it has to do with truth and human nature.  Monotheistic believers claim they have received a revelation from God which is the truth.  They have read the Bible or studied the Confessions or the Talmud of their Church or community, and they are sure they are right. This kind of surety is seductive.  It means you and your group are the only ones with the truth.

When these truths differ even in the slightest details with what other believers interpret, some people take offense and see it as their duty to defend the purity of their truth.  And religions have categories like believer and unbeliever, insider and outsider, faithful and faithless, good and evil.  These categories can be constructive and inclusive, but they can also be destructive and exclusive.

Truth is not something we, or our group possesses.  Truth is something we humans pursue.  Truth is tentative and a glimpse at best.  We do not easily get there because our five senses are too limited.  When we are honest, we confess we do not know or understand the mysteries of the universe.

Our best strategy for engagement with those of other religious beliefs is respect and humility. 

 Whether you be religious or non-religious, believe what you believe is the truth.  Argue and defend what you believe.   But think that you could be wrong. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

I remember the 1960's

I've been listening to a lot of music from the 1960’s and remembering those days.

I remember growing up in the Bronx in the 1960’s.  My teenage years were spent on a street called Gates Place near Moshulu Parkway in New York City.  My parents, my brother and I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. 

 I think back to those days and remember my friends.  We called ourselves “The Crowd” (Bernie, Lenny, Jeannie, Joyce, Bobby, Sheila, Barbara, Pookie, Glenn, Eppy, Herbie, Sandy, Marlene, Jeff and of course Pecker).  I remember my first kiss.  I remember the ball games we played around the block (three box, off the crack, punch ball, stick ball and softball).  I remember listening to Cousin Brucie on “77 WABC” on the transistor radios we carried around with us as we hung out on the stoop at Garafalo’s (The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Little Eva). 

 I remember my Bar-Mitzvah at Twersky’s synagogue. I remember attending Nathan Strauss Jewish Center on Saturday mornings.  I remember the fine breads and rolls at Scheff’s bakery, the kosher deli’s on Jerome avenue (Epstein’s and Schweller’s with their great hot dogs and hot knishes). I remember the fresh hot bialys you could buy at a shop whose name I’ve forgotten; I remember Thompkins candy store on Gun Hill Road where I drank egg creams with pretzels, the great trip to the new world of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the many train voyages on the D train to 161st street to Yankee Stadium with either my brother or Bobby Goldberg to see Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris stand at the plate and hit one out.  Those days seem so simple and innocent.  It was a great time and place to be a kid!

I remember those innocent days with romantic nostalgia.  But it was not always so nice.  There was the Cuban missile crisis which convinced us the end of the world was at hand, the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination (the moment we all grew up), the war in Vietnam, the many protest marches, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Kent State killings, the election of Richard Nixon.

I remember my Dad, a Holocaust survivor, waking up and screaming in the middle of the night. I remember my parents arguing about money.  I remember the aging bed my brother and I slept in collapsing again and again followed by the terrible explosion of anger, panic, rage, blame and deep fear.  I remember the three times I ran away from the craziness of that apartment in the Bronx.  And I remember finding high school boring, depressing and loving snow days and vacations.

 I remember walking down the block, leaving home at 18 to join the Air Force and arriving in San Antonio scared, too young and wondering what I had gotten myself into. 

I remember the 1960’s as fun, frightening, complicated and full of craziness.  Maybe when we listen to our music from back then we will remember what we want to remember and forget what we can’t stand to remember.   As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Time it was and what a time it was . . . A time of innocence, a time of confidences. Long ago it must be, I have a photograph, preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Few Words about Pittsburgh

What happened in Pittsburgh was very sad but sadly unsurprising.  There has been no generation in the last two thousand years when someone in the world was not trying to kill Jews.  It keeps on keeping on.  This longest hatred gets longer, and I am not convinced we can stop it.

But we can do something.  We can raise our voices again and again and again and speak out against it. Christian pastors and priests can stand up in their pulpits and point out those texts in the New Testament, especially John 8, Matthew 27 and the parts of the Holy Week passion story which condemn “the Jews” for their participation in Jesus’ death. These stories should not be taken out of context as a license to hate all Jews everywhere and anywhere. 

Most of the people sitting in Christian pews are not a threat to Jews but they need to hear about these toxic texts in the Christian scriptures. Some clergy have been speaking out. Others need to begin.  The rest of us need to be vigilant, to speak up when someone takes a shot against all Jews, to refuse to be quiet when hatred of Jews is being declared.

We will never be able to get rid of extremists and haters.  But we can resist and isolate their hatred.

Thank you to all those who contacted me or stopped me in the hallway to say they were sorry this happened.  It meant more than you know.

Monday, October 29, 2018


What follows is a message written by my wife, Jill in memory of those killed in Pittsburgh. I fully concur.

When Christians pray – separately or together - they pray, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Or they sing, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! 

Jewish prayer is very different, because in Jewish prayer, there is no ‘I’ or ‘me.’ Additionally, according to Jewish tradition, prayer is an act most fittingly performed in the presence of a community. In fact, certain key prayers may only be recited in the presence of a minyan – a quorum of ten adult Jews. If the quorum isn’t present, meaning if the community isn’t present, the prayers may not be said. 

When my community gathers to confess our sins on Yom Kippur, we are not just confessing our individual sins. We are confessing sins for the entire community of Jews across the entire world. “Adonai, we come to you aware of our failings. We are careless, false, heartless, insolent and joyless.  May it be your will, God of all generations, to pardon all our sins and to forgive all our wrongdoings.” And when we ask for blessings, we ask for the worldwide community of Jews as well. “Grant us life, well-being, lovingkindness and peace. Bless us, Adonai our God, with all that is good.”  

It is among the sacred duties of every Jew to show up and be counted so our prayers can be said -- so they can be said on behalf of all Jews, everywhere. Remember, there is no ‘I’ or ‘we’ in Jewish prayer. Without exception, Jewish prayer is about the greater whole – the corporate body of Jews throughout the world. 

So ~ thank you to all of you who have reached out to comfort us and our community in the last few days.  In doing so, you have comforted not only us, but Jews everywhere, all over the world.