Hanukkah Book-Buying Ideas

For the book lovers on your Hanukkah gift list, reviewers Rabbi Goldie Milgram and E. Bub offer the following suggestions:

dreidels-on-the-brainGive Dreidels on the Brain by Joel ben Izzy on the first night of Hanukkah, and then discuss it on the eighth night. A delightful short volume based in the lifetime of most living grandparents. It’s perfect for grandchildren and grandparents as a shared experience. Through this story, they will love and get to know each other – and Hanukkah – in new and delightful ways. -Rabbi Goldie Milgram
 

mathematicians-shivaA simultaneously delightful and poignant novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer pulls the curtain back on the competitive nature of academia. Discover how a prominent, fictional female mathematician gets the last laugh in a field of envious male colleagues. The Jewish mourning practice, known as shiva, which ensures those in mourning are softly supported and not isolated, serves as the backdrop for the shenanigans in this spicy offering. -Rabbi Goldie Milgram
 

cover 08122014New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family, edited by Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel, inspires good Jewish values across the generations through contemporary stories by over 40 authors. The book covers the full spectrum of Jewish life, personal orientation and family structure. Each tale is paired with a stimulating guide for reflection, discussion and action. -E. Bub

Shaboom! Online Jewish Values Series for Children Premiering

Ready to fix the world? The magic begins on April 6 with Shaboom! – the brand new Jewish kids’ series from G‑dcast that combines the best of children’s TV and Jewish tradition to make learning fun.

When magical “sparks” Gabi and Rafael discover the Plony family doing something silly, they slide down the rainbow to help out. Watch what happens when they try to use magic (Shaboom!) to make things right in this exciting new Jewish kids show complete with silly songs, new Hebrew words and great ideas for the family.

Shaboom! is a free, web-based Jewish kids show for 4-7 year olds and their parents learning about:

Mini-Season One: Spring 2016

  • Episode #01. Welcoming Guests (Hachnasat Orchim) Release 04/06/16
  • Episode #02. Gratitude (Hakarat Hatov) Release 04/13/16
  • Episode #03. Visiting the Sick (Bikur Cholim) Release 04/20/16
  • Episode #04. Giving (Tzedakah) Release 04/27/16
  • Episode #05. Honor or Respect (Kavod) Release 05/04/16

Mini-Season Two: Fall 2016

  • Episode #06. Taking Care of Nature (Bal Taschit) Release 09/07/16
  • Episode #07. Courage of the Heart (Ometz Lev) Release 09/14/16
  • Episode #08. Peace in the Home (Shalom Bayit) Release 09/21/16
  • Episode #09. Returning Lost Objects (Hashavat Aveidah) Release 09/28/16
  • Episode #10. Saying I’m Sorry (Slicha) Release 10/05/16

Each of episode is accompanied by a separate video for parents that delves into each episode’s value, explaining “what’s Jewish” and instilling in parents the knowledge and confidence to model the values for their children. The 10-part series launches April 6, 2016 with the theme of “Hachnasat Orchim” – Welcoming Guests.

“Shaboom! is a jolt of energy into Jewish family education, and it’s an especially major step forward for Jewish media content,” says Cathy Rolland, Director of Engaging Families with Young Children at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which is helping to promote Shaboom! through its strong network of Early Childhood Professionals who will be sharing it across hundreds of ECE centers throughout North America. “This is a phenomenal vehicle to reach our youngest learners and their families and positively influence their behaviors and attitudes.”

Along with the URJ, other major partners from the Jewish world include the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), JCC Association, Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the PJ Library Alliance, and InterfaithFamily, among many others. They are all helping to share and build upon the series. G-dcast also is working with Jewish organizations around the country to organize local screenings of Shaboom! episodes for families.

The videos for children and the matching clips for their parents were designed in consultation with individuals from leading children’s education and tech organizations and companies including Sesame Workshop, Amazon Studios, Electronic Arts et al, Pixar, and experts from the research and academic world who study learning and media.

Throughout a 40 year career at Sesame Street, Dr. Lewis Bernstein has led efforts to improve the intellectual, social, emotional, and moral lives of children through media. His approach has been to entertain children while educating them, so that their attention can be captured with joy.

“Shaboom! is doing the same,” Bernstein says, “making timeless Jewish values new again, engaging, and fun for children and their parents alike. Shaboom! is designed as a learning adventure for the entire family. There are imaginative episodes for kids and corresponding resources like videos, downloads and curated follow-up reading for parents. And when parents and children co-engage in learning, virtually and long after the screen dims, the impact is always greater.”

Shaboom! is written by kids’ TV veteran Robert Pincombe and directed by staffer Jeremy Shuback. It was inspired by impactful, research-backed shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Super WHY! and Sesame Street. The series was tested by children’s media evaluators Rockman Et Al to help shape the programming to most effectively achieve learning and engagement outcomes with families.

G-dcast recently began focusing on on entry-level materials for kids, families and adults. Shaboom! is the centerpiece for families, especially those raising Jewish children ages 0-8. Since its founding, the nonprofit has created over 200 animated videos and apps tailored to meet the interests of people curious about the basics of Judaism. Accessible for free on platforms like Youtube, iTunes and Facebook, G-dcast’s goal is to create a comprehensive free multimedia introduction to Judaism with zero barriers to entry.

Adds Lefton, “Shaboom! is as entertaining as something you’d see on Nick Jr or PBS Kids, but it’s packed with Jewish ideas rather than math or reading help. This is where our biggest impact is – bringing people in the door that they’re hanging out in front of anyway, aka, their smartphones.”

The Shaboom! early childhood initiative has been generously funded by leading Jewish philanthropists and foundations, including Peleh Fund, two anonymous foundations, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the PJ Library Alliance, Bernstein Family Foundation (DC), and the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. As part of this initiative, the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is supporting the Shaboom! parent videos.

Forbes called G-dcast “the Schoolhouse Rock for Jews,” and its approach and products been featured on NPR, in the Wall Street Journal and CNN.com. The studio is a five-time-selected participant in Slingshot, an annual compilation resource guide to Jewish Innovation.

Lefton, who founded the organization in 2008, is a recipient of the Joshua Venture Group fellowship for Jewish social entrepreneurs. She was named a 2012 recipient of the Pomegranate Prize for exceptional young Jewish educators and was named one of the “Forward 50” most influential Jews by the Forward newspaper. Prior to founding G-dcast, Lefton produced projects for The New York Times on the Web, the Village Voice, Princess Cruises, and several robotics companies; she also started the brand JewishFashionConspiracy.com, best known for the YO SEMITE tee shirt.

View a sample parenting resource video:

Gratitude: A Jewish Value to Teach your Kids (Hakarat HaTov) from g-dcast on Vimeo.

“And Then I Danced” Reveals Power of Activism

Book-DancedThe Philadelphia book opening for activist Mark Segal’s new work And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality was adroitly staged at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall where Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers blared their Comcast grievances beside the program entrance, as both a Comcast and union leader arrived in the author’s honor. Activists, politicians, business and labor leaders, and many Philadelphia area recipients of his lifetime of social justice advocacy mixed in intensive networking and sharing of his often daring exploits throughout the party-like atmosphere and formal proceedings. Regardless of your politics there is an immense amount to be learned about methods of effective activism for every and any cause in And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, Mark Segal’s fascinating and instructive, story-filled autobiography that brings forth a good deal of often suppressed GBLT movement history of which many are likely unaware.

And Then I Danced is a flowing read across decades of incidents and strategies leading to today’s remarkable degree of GBLTQ inclusion as equal human beings the mitzvah of kavod habriyut—honor for all that lives. At the podium Mark Segal offers the same bold, celebration of life and liberty as in his writing. The room at the book opening was filled with a rare kind of pure loving appreciation, including that from residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments, the first federally-funded LGBT-friendly residence in the nation, which is located in downtown Philadelphia. Mark Segal takes “Yes we can!” to the level of “Yes we did!”

Mark himself had many tales to tell that he delivered with passion, power and gratitude from the dais. His connection to Jewish values of liberty and justice for all shone through steadily and he did not spare the Yiddishisms in his talk. At points his writing reveals the Jewish appreciation of the importance of making common cause with those who are oppressed. He explains:

…my favorite headline came from the Times Leader: “Shapp Aide Tells Berger to Reconsider Homos Ban.”…After one long day of fighting, I asked Shapp why he was taking this on, and he told me, “Mark, I’m in the closet as well.” When I looked at him strangely, he laughed and followed up with, “My real name is Shapiro, I had to change it to Shapp to enter politics. So I understand discrimination.”

In June of 1975, Milton Shapp became first governor in the nation to have his state officially proclaim Gay Pride Month.

A rare charisma that arrives sans unhealthy narcissism shines from Mark Segal along with his capacity for the mitzvah of hakarat hatov — seeing the good done by those with whom he developed effective collaborations and naming it. Book clubs will love his presentations.

What Makes This Man Possible?

How does a person come to be so aware, and capable of a life of dedicated caring activism? The only Jewish family in the Wilson Park projects, born to immigrant parents, Mark Segal recalls:

Our new neighbors were hardly welcoming. I still remember the first few days of kindergarten when Irish and Italian kids would say to me “You killed our Christ,” or the one that always stumped me, “you’re a devil with horns.” Somehow I had become a deformed six-year-old murderer. For a while I’d subconsciously touch the top of my head, waiting for the horns to grow, and I wondered, how could I possibly comb my hair with horns?

One time my mother went to my grade school to defend me because the teachers had demanded that I sing “Onward Christian Solders.” In those days there was still prayer in public schools, and they had us sing Christian songs…, so I knew discrimination from a very young age… My refusal to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was my first political action, my first defiance of conformity and the status quo.

Segal also writes of his anguish over his parents’ shame and pain at being unable to give him things, the toys a child would want. Poverty shrieks through his guilt when he shares how his mother cried when a rare, hard-earned gift to him falls through a hole in his bag and is lost. Many will rethink parenting of all possible kinds of children after reading this autobiography.

Acceptance Matters

Mark Segal’s parents’ acceptance of their son as gay seems almost miraculous, for its time. His cousin Norman’s experience was…more normative:

I didn’t want to kiss the girls. I’d look at the guys in my class and feel far more attracted to them. There was no doubt in my mind about this, but I didn’t know the word for who I was or what I was feeling. I knew, however, that I was okay with it. Now, I wasn’t going to tell anybody, not in the 1960’s…

When I was younger, maybe five or six years old, my cousin Norman was sixteen. His father discovered that he was gay, gave him a major beating, and threw him out of the house. Cousin Norman was the family member whom nobody mentioned. One day, I was in the backseat of my parents’ Studebaker while they were discussing him and I somehow picked upon the fact that he was a guy who liked guys — a fegeleh … I knew that whatever it all meant, I too was a fegeleh … As a teenager, I read in TV Guide one afternoon that on his PBS talk show, David Susskind was going to interview “real live homosexuals.” A new word different from fegeleh, somehow I knew it also referred to me. I just knew it …

Awakening and the Role of Riots

The movement for GBLT equality has historical flashpoints, as with all revolutions. The legendary Stonewall Riots were at a New York City bar and Mark Segal was there:

For me it started out as a frightening event … I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out. The lights in the room blinked-a signal that there would be a raid—then turned all the way up. Stonewall was filled that night with the usual clientele: drag queens, hustlers, older men who liked younger guys, and stragglers like me—the boy next door who didn’t know what he was searching for and felt he had little to offer. That all changed when the police raided the bar. As they always did, they walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured they could do whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply to harass the fags that night …

… As the riot was happening all around me, the idea of a circus came to mind, and then it hit me: we can shout who we are and not be ashamed, we can demand respect. It was at that point that Marty Robinson’s words hit a chord. We are fighting for our rights just as women, African Americans, and others had done throughout history.

Segal also cites San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Dewey’s sit-in n Philadelphia in 1965:

Drag queens and street kids who played a huge role in both events never documented those riots; thus they have been widely eliminated by the white upper middle class, many of whom were ashamed of those elements of our community. But Stonewall, Compton, and Dewey’s all have one thing in common: drag queens and street kids. For some historians, drag queens are not the ideal representatives of the LGBT community. Oppression within oppression was and is still of concern.

Zaps

Once activated, Segal brought his intelligence and creativity to the journey toward equal rights. These came to be called “Zaps.” These often meant somewhat risky strategic actions, such as in service of exposure of media prejudice. He once went after CBS’ secure studio by means of asking a student training in the Radio, Film, and Television department at Temple to obtain the program’s Temple University stationary. Posing as students it only took two weeks to secure an invitation to view a broadcast firsthand, December 11, 1973:

Their usual pattern called for CBS to later rebroadcast the six pm show to the remainder of the country or, if breaking news warranted, they would broadcast it live again. At about fourteen minutes into the program, as Walter Cronkite was reporting to the American public about security procedures for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, I knew this was the moment, and for the first time while doing a zap my heart started beating very fast. I wasn’t scared but somehow I knew that after this event things would change forever. I rushed onto the set, holding up my sign and yelling the message printed on it, “Gays protest CBS prejudice!” The CBS Evening News broke down right in front of Walter. I stepped between him and the camera shutting him out of the picture to show only that sign. As millions watched, I sat on his desk and held the sign right into the camera lens so that everyone could clearly see the words. Gays Protest CBS Prejudice …

… “Why,” Cronkite asked the activist with genuine curiosity, “Why did you do that?”

“Your news program censors,” Segal pleaded. If I can prove, it would you do something to change it?” …

“Yes,” Cronkite said, “I wrote this show.”

Surprises

Philadelphians will find many political surprises in And Then I Danced. For example, support for GBLT rights sometimes came from both sides of the aisle:

Arlen [Spector] was district attorney of Philadelphia. He had not taken a stand on the gay rights bill that was before city council. Efforts to set up a meeting went unanswered. So we had to be a little creative. One crisp Monday morning, a caterer delivered two large coffeemakers and dozens of donuts to Arlen’s office. His staff thought that he had ordered the special treat, and Arlen thought his staff had arranged it. At the same time, in the City Hall courtyard, and in the corridors of the building, members of the Gay Raiders were handing out flyers that read, District Attorney Arlen Specter invites you to a reception in honor gay rights legislation in city council. Please join him at ten a.m. in his office, Room 666 (that really was his office number.)

At ten a.m. we, along with hundreds of city workers and a huge collection of news people arrived at his office, we walked in and there was Arlen’s staff trying not to look too surprised at a reception held in the office that their boss was hosting, about legislation he had not endorsed. Arlen remained in his inner office. At first, the media took pictures of me handing out coffee and donuts to City Hall staffers, and we weren’t sure if Arlen would even come out of his private office. Finally, the door opened, and there he was all smiles…

Now, here’s what most people never knew: in Arlen’s Republican years in the US Senate, when it was hard to support LGBT rights, he was always behind the curtain ready to vote yes on gay rights if it was needed to assure passage.

Addressing The Biblically Ignorant

Reading the Torah in service of GBLT rights takes new eyes. Mark Segal gives an example of how to do so:

“Says Leviticus,” she bellowed, “Man who lays with man is an abomination!” She was just going on and on until Phil interrupted her and asked if she’d like to hear my response.

“Madam, from what you say it seems you don’t respect religion,” was my reply.

She said, “I’m a true Christian.”

I stare her down. “A true Christian respects the rights of other religions. My religion accepts who I am. Are you inferring that Judaism is a false religion? If you’d like to talk religion we can do so, but I’ll also quote other parts of the Bible you seem to have forgotten.”

She exploded and just started tossing out various biblical verses at me.

“You don’t know your Bible well,” I said. That sentence would become a trademark comment from me in religious discussions. I continued, “you use your Bible like you were ordering from a restaurant menu. I call that Bible a la carte. You choose what parts of the Bible you wish to obey and what others to ignore.”

Then I looked her over and explained that all she was wearing that made her an abomination according to that same Leviticus chapter, which condemns wearing clothing of two different fabrics. Polyester-cotton blend, anyone? I followed that up by asking the audience a quick succession of questions about shellfish, metals, pigskin, and all the rest, then asked, “Do all of you obey your husbands? While I know none of you would commit adultery, I’m sure you’re aware that in cases of adultery your husband has the right to kill you. So, if I’m going to hell, you’re all joining me. As the Good Book says, he who has not sinned should throw the first stone. Is there anyone in this audience who has not sinned?”

As total silence fell over the room, I directed my next comment back to the lady with the Bible. “Oh, and one more thing, remember the Ten Commandments? Gluttony? How many of you are joining me in hell now?” No LGBT person had ever challenged an entire TV audience in that manner before. This kept the Bible-toting crowd focused on issues like discrimination, hate crimes, and entrapment.

Yes You Can

And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality came out in October of 2015. A second run of 10,000 has already been announced. The sheer number of political strategy memories can expand readers’ skills and savvy. Mark Segal’s sharing reveals realities and opportunities taken that have long needed better documentation. With inspired reader encouragement this valuable guidebook can enter not only homes, but also enter university and religious settings and serve to teach empathy and activism for generations to come.

Note: Learn more about the evolving acceptance of homosexuality across the spectrum of Judaism: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.

“The Modern Kosher Kitchen” by Ronnie Fein

Recipes in The Modern Kosher Kitchen Book-Kosher-Kitchenby Ronnie Fein offer gourmet training wheels for the aspiring Kosher cook. In our lifetime a revolution has taken place in Kosher recipe books and cooking. The bland kosher recipe books on the shelves of all-too-many Ashkenazi parents and grandparents were also problematic due to high fat and sugar content.

For those unaccustomed to the pedal-to-the-metal spice revolution of our times, The Modern Kosher Kitchen offers opportunities to explore creative contemporary additions such as Siriracha sauce (a chili sauce named after the coastal city of Si Racha, in Chonburi Province of eastern Thailand), that helps kosher cooks to bridge the bland/sweet divide.

For example: White Bean and Vegetable Hurry-Up Salad

  • 1 can (15 oz or 425 g) white beans
  • 3 medium carrots, sliced thin
  • 1 ripe avocado, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup (130 g) frozen peas, thawed
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) chopped red onion
  • 1/4 cup (15 g) chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup (24 g) chopped fresh mint
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/3 cup (60 ml) olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) lemon juice
  • Salt, to taste

Rinse the white beans under cold running water; let drain and place them in a bowl. Add the carrots, avocado, peas, onion, parsley, mint, cumin, and cayenne pepper and toss to distribute the ingredients evenly.

Pour in the olive oil and lemon juice. Toss again to coat the ingredients. Taste for seasoning and add salt to taste. Let rest for about 15 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 servings

Serving Suggestions and Variations: Use chickpeas or black beans instead of white beans; use any cooked chopped green vegetable (such as broccoli, green string beans, thawed frozen lima beans, or edamame) instead of peas.

And secure many happy dining comments at your meal by making halibut or salmon on the grill and serving atop:

Spicy Marinated Pineapple

  • 1 whole pineapple
  • 3 tablespoons (60 g) honey
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon (15 g) siriracha
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) lime juice
  • Kosher salt or Maldon sea salt
  • Mint, for garnish

Cut the leaves off the pineapple. Remove the outer fibrous rind. Cut the peeled pineapple in slices about 3/4-inch (1.9 cm) thick. Set aside in a single layer in a pan. Heat the honey with the vegetable oil and siriracha in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the ingredients are well mixed. Add the time juice. Pour over the pineapple slices. Coat the pineapples slices on both sides and let marinate at least 1 hour (and as long as 12 hours). Preheat an outdoor grill to medium (or use a grill pan or the oven broiler.) Grill the slices for about 4 minutes per side or until well glazed and tender, brushing occasionally with some of the honey mixture. Serve sprinkled lightly with salt. Garnish with fresh mint. You can make these ahead and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature or reheat to warm in a pre-heated 350°F (190°C, or gas mark 4) oven for a few minutes.

Yield: 4-6 servings.

Serving Suggestions and Variations: Grilled, speed pineapple lens monumental flavor to mild main-course foods such as fish and chicken.

Your family and guests will delight in the evolution of Kosher cuisine, combined, as has been the case throughout Jewish history, with the elements of the cultures among which Jewish people dwell. I bought our sriracha sauce at an International Market while visiting family who live in Passaic and it’s available on line, too. The Modern Kosher Kitchen by Ronnie Fein definitely and deftly adds spice to life!

The Debate Over Intermarried Rabbis

Photo: Goldie Milgram

Photo: Goldie Milgram

A debate is burgeoning over whether it is right for liberal Jewish seminaries to accept and ordain students who are in serious relationships with non-Jewish partners.

Historically, and currently, most liberal Jewish seminaries have not welcomed those who are inter-partnered with non-Jews and yet feel called to become Jewish clergy. The truth is that the existence of intermarried, now termed “inter-partnered”, Jewish clergy goes back to at least the 1980s. This may surprise those now caught up in the uproar that has been occasioned by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), since its decision to change seminary policy to normalize admission of inter-partnered candidates, all other criteria being equal. The previous policy being that “The RRC does not ordinarily admit or graduate as a rabbi a student married to, or in a committed relationship with, a non-Jew.”
[Read more…]

Book Review: A Reunion of Ghosts

Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel A Reunion of Ghosts leverages bitter ironies about the scientific and intimate lives of Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein to build a profoundly engaging work of high literary quality. Books by the generation after the Holocaust, often descendants of survivors, so-called “second-generation” Jews, are being published almost daily. The deft approach in this novel offers us a gift–that of fiction as a way of considering the effect of the Holocaust on contemporary lives. There is also savory dark humor which serves to keep the reader from sinking into a severe depression at the sad condition of the lives of these New York City sisters.

Mitchell’s skillful imagining of dark, difficult, severely self-occupied inner lives for three of Haber’s imagined descendants turns upon a multifaceted approach to the Biblical precept tattooed upon the ankle of one:

“For I, the Lord, your God, who visits the sins of parents upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those that hate me.” Exodus 20:15, see also Numbers 14:18

In A Reunion of Ghosts, the endless debating of Biblical scholars and polemicists about which generations these might be — Biblical or through the present, matter not, for the main characters—three middle-aged New York City sisters, do not appear to be aware of the end of the verse: “of those that hate me.” Or, perhaps they reason that anyone whose science gets appropriated for committing genocide is going to sire subsequent generations with afflicted lives. Or, is being the recipient self-absorbed parenting a sufficient rationale for endless misery? Do descendants of compound debacles have the right to end their own miserable lives? This possibility is a strong narrative line in the text. Would, or would not, such a choice be “God’s hand” in action?

Judaism has strong views on suicide, we are not given the right to take our own lives. Life begins once our head has emerged from the birth canal and the first breath has been taken. Now in halachah–Jewish law, there is a category of ethics that is l’hathillah—the reigning principles for a good life. B’di-avad—-after the fact, an act such as suicide is viewed as caused by mental illness, e.g. severe depression. That said, save for the shiva ritual of a week of mourning, these sisters show little knowledge of their Judaism–save for the gruesome history of their family and the impact of their grandfather’s legacy upon the Jewish people and others murdered by gas of warfare and gas chambers created by Haber. Perhaps the sisters contemplate the unimaginable because the sages, as statistics show, were correct: In families where there is a known suicide, far more are likely to occur. You may recall this concept is central to the the movie Yentl, as this was the reason one of the characters was not marriageable. Apparently, Jewish sages’ transmitted through Jewish practice their observation that suicide can carry on as a trait in future generations.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is beautifully-written fiction with a unique style that is compelling through every dark moment. This sad story will also facilitate study of the depths of Jewish tradition on such topics as death, suicide, guilt, innovation, the Holocaust. It will lead Jewish educators to consider whether we communicate the principles of Judaism effectively. Contemplation of whether the Jewish people’s evolving relationship to Torah is divine enough to stay our hands from murder of self or other sore souls is almost inevitable in the wake of A Reunion of Ghosts.

Excellent also for university and book group settings, A Reunion of Ghosts will retain that rare place on the shelves of potential posterity.

Activism Simcha: Supreme Court Supports Marriage Equality!

A cellphone alert bings and we just learned the Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision, that U.S. states cannot keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions. People across the country are taking to the streets, the blogs, to hugging each other in joy and tears, as we just did in our home.

Perhaps you, too, have family members, colleagues, neighbors and/or simply wish to honor the inherent equality every citizen’s new right to marry their beloveds. Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative Judaism have have for some time accorded marriage equality in permission for whom their clergy marry.

With marriage equality now the American Way, it’s time to reach out across the full spectrum of Jewish life — family, friends, colleagues and organizations to encourage all to honor and undertake this practice in the few remaining places where it is not yet so within Judaism and beyond. Congratulations to all the groups, individuals and families who have worked so hard to make this day possible!

Concluding paragraph of today's historic decision.

Concluding paragraph of today’s historic decision.

The accompanying images are from the Gay Pride Parade last week in Philadelphia. Photo credits: Barry Bub

New Work by Philadelphia Cantor Premiers in Germany

Hazzan Jack Kessler

Hazzan Jack Kessler

The Interreligioser Chor (Interfaith Choir) of Frankfurt, Germany commissioned and performed a setting of Psalm 90 for choir and Hazzan by Philadelphia-based Hazzan Jack Kessler.

The premiere performances were held on On June 1, 2015 at the Gemeindezentrums in Frankfurt am Main, and June 4 at the große Halle in Stuttgart. The Hazzan/soloist was Hazzan Daniel Kempin, the well known singer of Yiddish repertoire who is Cantor of the Egalitarian Minyan of Frankfurt, ordained in 2015 as Hazzan through the ALEPH Cantorial Program.

The Interfaith Choir of Frankfurt was founded in 2012 with the goal of opening new avenues of interfaith dialogue through music. Led by Protestant Church Cantor (organist and choir director) Bettina Strübel and Hazzan Daniel Kempin, the all-volunteer choir presents two psalm projects each year. Each concert is a program of multiple settings of one Psalm from different faith traditions. This year Psalm 90 תְּפִלָּה לְמֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים A prayer of Moses, the man of God, was the featured Psalm.

The Psalms are an important bridge between Judaism and Christianity. For centuries musicians of both religions have created a wealth of new musical settings for liturgical use as well as for the concert stage.

The choir has also attracted Muslim singers, who know the Psalms as “az-Zabur.” Rehearsals as well as concerts offer a platform for intensive interfaith exploration of music and theology. During the concerts music is interspersed with interfaith podium discussions on the featured psalm.

Said Hazzan Kessler; “Psalm 90 presents a range of challenges to the composer, especially when commissioned to compose a for presentation of the entire Psalm, not merely excerpts. It is one of the longest psalms. The text moves through a series of moods: recognition of God as eternal supreme Presence; exploration of the humility needed to receive the Presence; fear of God’s anger; and finally a majestic call for God’s grace. In this piece the hazzan begins unaccompanied, with a stirring a cappella solo and each section opens with a dramatic call to the chorus. Then the chorus responds with a musical expansion of the text. The last section of the piece is a reprise of one of the opening themes of the piece in contrapuntal treatment by solo quartet, and the coda is sung by the hazzan, once again with the unaccompanied voice alone.”

Bettina Strübel, director of the Interrelgioser Choir: “Your composition was the highlight of the program. Some of the chorus members have expressed sadness that the Psalm 90 project is over, as they loved rehearsing this piece. The audience responded with tremendous enthusiasm.”

Hazzan Daniel Kempin, soloist for the premiere performances added: “This is powerful and affecting music! I was deeply moved by the way you explored the different moods of the Psalm. After the end, where my voice sings the finale by myself alone, there was a moment of magical silence in the hall before great applause!

Hazzan Jack Kessler was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and went on to have a twenty-year congregational career. He has a Master’s degree in voice from Boston Conservatory and pursued studies in composition in the graduate department of Brandeis University. A lyric baritone, he has performed opera, oratorio, and premiered new works, in addition to his ongoing career as a singer of hazzanut, the cantorial art, and other musical projects. He directs the Cantorial Program of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal for which he teaches the multi-year core hazzanut curriculum and coaches students in the cantorial art.

Book Review: Hotel Moscow

  Hotel MoscowHotel Moscow by Talia Carner ill serves the thousands of courageous Eastern European and Western women who serve in, and benefit from, the support of NGO’s—-non-governmental organizations bringing aid, training and spiritual support to post-Soviet states. It was disturbing to see the very well-portrayed narcissism of the main character attributed as an issue among children of Holocaust survivors. The gangsterism motif and chick- flick-style romance running through the story becomes tedious, although the pace does pick up after the first fifty pages.

Hotel Moscow is basically a novel about a naive Western business woman volunteering to coach women with emerging businesses in Moscow as Perestroika dawns. The main character lacks the discretion essential for volunteers working with NGOs, and so ends up encountering Moscow thugs who are taking Mafioso advantage of women striving to develop healthy businesses. Sexual aggression, torture, and destruction of hard-earned business property while graphically described, often seem inauthentic, as though imagined rather than researched. All combine to create a profound sense of distaste in this reader, as I have served safely as a volunteer with non-profits throughout much of the former Soviet Union. I find it hard to envision an NGO that would send volunteers over there without effective briefings and extensive protection.

What Hotel Moscow does begin to capture is the beauty of how woman-to-woman support and caring so readily transcends nationality.To be fair to the author, competing forces and strategies for survival do make individual choices difficult given the pioneering conditions. It’s difficult for even the most experienced NGO staff to completely avoid having their spirits, time and resources sometimes being exploited by clients for inappropriate ends. It takes many years of visiting a different culture to sufficiently grasp the nuances of the peoples’ responses and circumstances and to become truly effective. Judgments made by those bringing Western norms and values into their work early in a program can, in retrospect, seem stunningly off-base after spending a serious spate of time in the host cultures of the many ethnic, racial, religious and ideological groups across the former Soviet Union.

I have seen groups such as Project Kesher, ORT and the Joint Distribution Committee collaborate to assist in more successful entrepreneurial efforts of women in business, education and social justice than could fit in any book. Hotel Moscow exploits the worst that could happen, without ever revealing the tremendous accomplishments of NGOs through out the region, which is very unfortunate.

49 Days of Jewish Spiritual Practice

The Omer comprises 49 days, paralleling the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, which in Torah comes the day after Passover begins, and ends with receiving Torah on Shavuot.

Originally, the omer was the measure of wheat brought as a donation of harvest gratitude to feed the Temple workers in ancient Israel. As our need for renewal of spirit builds in these troubling times, the Jewish spiritual renaissance continues unabated.

Kabbalists have developed a powerful spiritual practice for Sephirat HaOmer, Counting of the Omer through pairing it with a practice drawn from the intersection of authentic Kabbalah that accords with contemporary psychology and spiritual development.

The Kabbalists’ Omer practice is done based on a seven-week grid of seven of the ten qualities of what they called the Eitz Chayyim, the Tree of Life. The Tree is a mind map, a model, a metaphor for the source of life, and the mystery of the source of life manifesting as all that is apparent to us, including who we are and who we are becoming.

Three of the highest aspects, sephirot of the tree are not directly attainable. We can only conceive of them and at times experience the grace of the dimensions known as keter, “crown,” chochmah, “wisdom,” and binah, “understanding.” Refining the seven attainable aspects by combining them with each other and contemplating the new pair for each day is a powerful spiritual practice.

Omer Calendar for 2015 updated 4 14 15_Page_1

The practice transforms the 49 days into a very accessible spiritual journey that I highly recommend.

Many bloggers have taken up posting on the Kabbalists’ practice. For example, here is an excerpt from my daily omer blog on this practice for Day One of Forty-nine:

Walking in today’s omer state of consciousness, Lovingkindness within Lovingkindness, in Hebrew chessed sheh b’chessed, my sweet Hubbatzin Barry came upon a street sweeper pausing to help a very shaky homeless person write a sign asking for spare change.

Before the sun sets today there is still time for this Day One Omer practice — imagine being surrounded by more loving kindness than you have ever known, now allow yourself to fill with this glory, and express a prayer for this experience to untie your tangles, the ana b’koakh. Become radiant with this Love Song, know everything that lives is singing it, today, now, to you, each to all. Walk in the world, go out in this consciousness. Today has been Day One of the Omer.

My teacher, Rabbi Zalman, Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, was certain that if all of us would undertake the innovative contemplative Omer path of the Kabbalists, that we would form a collective consciousness that would afford us the experience of synesthesia reported in the Torah.

All the people saw the sounds and the flashes, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking… (Exodus 20:14)

Reb Zalman hoped that from that precious point of consciousness, the metaphorical return to Sinai intended by Shavuot, we might bring down the needed new dimensions of Torah that can only be perceived as humans continue to evolve in the wilderness of our lives and times. So every year of our maturation as individuals, a people, and as a species, this is a valuable practice for the impact on our personal and collective lives.

A list of some of the many omer bloggers has been posted by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a consortium of Jews from across the spectrum of Jewish life dedicated to the study and practice of Jewish life through the lens of serious scholarship and engaged spirituality.