Book Review: Relational Judaism

Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community by Ron Wolfson primarily reasserts a core principle of life, business and community organizing: “It’s all about relationships.”

This was also essentially the theme of his 2006 volume, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community.

His patience and willingness to restate his message is impressive, given how slow the uptake among congregations worldwide seems to be, at least in this reviewer’s experience. And as times are changing, the direction of relationship-building is changing, as Wolfson indicates in a telling quote from a congregational leader:

We thought Shabbat would be a doorway to relationships. We learned that relationships are a doorway to Shabbat.

More after the jump.
Or as in the famous quote from Martin Buber that Wolfson will quote further on: “All real living is meeting.”

Another powerful reversal is the story of Rabbi Zoe Klein, upon becoming senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles:

[S]he was advised by the board to “tell her story to the congregation.” She felt differently:

“The way people feel really connected to you is not if they know your story, but if they feel you know their story. If the rabbi knows your story you feel like you are seen, you matter, you are in relationship.

“So I set up small groups in my study — six to eight people — to share a ‘Sacred Stories Haggadah’ experience; we had a little Kiddush, karpas, appetizer; we told the story of the congregation, and then I would invite people to add their own stories by answering the question: ‘What was your own journey that brought you to this place?’ We concluded with a blessing.

“Some 250 people shared their stories with me and with each other. It was powerful.”

Wolfson’s examples are solid and instructive applications of what those who have participated in support groups of any kind are well aware of: the sharing of personal narratives, stories from our lives’ joys, traumas, challenges, innovations and more, often supports the creation of sustainable communities.

He also offers encouragement to adopt the kind of volunteerism that engages participants in meaningful ways. As this reviewer is involved, she is aware that this area is being developed at Bar/Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution, and in the emerging Jewish Spiritual Education as well.

Wolfson further takes note of the ascendancy of Jewish interest in social justice efforts, and the relational opportunities and challenges of social media.

For anyone who is already trained in social work, group work, chaplaincy, or providing psychotherapy of almost any kind, it is initially bemusing to read of a leader in the field of Jewish education writing something that has been known and skillfully practiced in social service organizations since at least the days of the settlement houses:

Working with others on a project can bind people together, but only if attention is paid to relationship building. We learned this lesson in Synagogue 2000 when we insisted that the leadership team begin every session with “check-in,” a brief opportunity for every person in the room to share something about her or his personal life.

I am reminded of the power of the quilting bee, when groups of women would join together to craft beautiful quilts, but through sharing the stories of their lives as they worked, they crafted deeper relationships among themselves.

How is it possible that most clergy and educators do not have the core skill repertoire of social work, and seem to be trying to reinvent it from scratch?

This reviewer is a rabbi and a Master of Social Work (MSW) — a recipient of the Jewish Federation’s scholarship for such training. From this vantage point, the problem would seem to be that of an unfortunate split, almost a conceptual wall, between the domain of training for Jewish social service and that for synagogues, religious education, and religious-movement youth groups.

Wolfson is a PhD academic, and highly accomplished Jewish educator. His American Jewish University bio does not show evidence of Jewish communal service’s core — relational training, most of which is woven within MSW programs.

Here are a few possible examples: (Most other schools of Jewish communal service seem more oriented toward management than actual human services at this time.)

At the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, President Rick Jacobs lectured on the importance of creating welcoming communities, and Wolfson gave a seminar on the topic too.

Friends walking out, MSWs walked over to me equally surprised at the obvious nature of the content and full of ideas for how to take it deeper.

It made me wonder, might a ready approach to effective change be to leverage the thousands of retired Jewish social workers to serve as community building, or welcome-training volunteers, as well as to increase relational social work-skills training throughout the field of Jewish education and clergy training?

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has recently begun to do so in their curriculum. This has also long been the case at The Academy for Jewish Religion.

The restoration of relational communities and consciousness is clearly emerging again as desirable. Consumer consciousness fades in recognition that welcoming communities and relationships that go more satisfyingly deeper require more of an investment of self than dollars.

As Wolfson points out, programming skills are substantial among leaders of all ages in Jewish life. Relationship-building skills and relational program components are needed.

In the age of social media, the pendulum of yearning for meaningful face-to-face relationships is already returning. We need to build upon and use our skillful professionals to deepen the many insights provided in Relational Judaism.  

Book Review: Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Story

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Short books, available only by download, are a recent trend.

Sally Wiener Grotta’s Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Stories was sent to me in this form, which worked well for it. It is also available in paperback and hardcover.

This volume, about a Jewish mixed-race woman raised by her Christian grandparents in a rural area, seems to be intentionally designed as a tool for provoking discussion about race, prejudice, interfaith encounters, the Jewish mourning practice of sitting shiva and saying Kaddish, and dysfunctional families.

As an educator always looking out for high-school-level stories that reveal family diversity, the story also raises important psycho-dynamic issues: that some people do change over time, and how projecting expectations onto others can lead to devastating cruelty.

The violence of the rape and trauma scenes seems quite accurate. Shiva scenes of the Jewish week of mourning after burial reflect the unfortunate and common practice of people giving advice to the primary mourners. Our tradition teaches us to listen to feelings, and not offer fixes. Even so, Kaddish works its magic:

For a few brief moments, I no longer feel like a stranger, but part of something larger, grander than myself. We were brought together by death, but we’re held together by the demands of life. That peace and comfort stays with me even as the circle breaks up.

But I have some issues with the work as a whole:

Continued after the jump.
First, during this quick read I kept hoping that the obvious conclusion would not be the actual one, but the end of the tale is truly inevitable.

Secondly, the main character, who is also the most affected by violence, seems almost wooden compared to rape victims this reviewer has counseled in her roles as a rabbi, and a long-time activist in the field of rape prevention and counseling. Overall, the main character seem to be reporting on her life more than fully experiencing it. The book’s author has written an essay on the malleability of memory — an interesting matter in and of itself.

Third, an aphorism says that between the liberal cities of Philadelphia and Harrisburg lies Appalachia, and the book proves this point. The characters seem caricatured; many of them would readily fit into an episode of Northern Exposure, or the townies of the recent film, Nebraska.

I kept wishing for brief film clips, rather than having to “get the picture” by reading the by-the-book style of writing:

“Hello Judith, don’t suppose you recollect me.”

A woman stands over me, but not too close, as though she’s hesitant to encroach.

About 65, she’s painfully thin, with that strained scrawny appearance of one who’s fought her way through a hard life and survived. Her face is rough and deeply lined; her nose and mouth twisted and papered with small scars. Her dull dark brown hair is streaked with yellowing gray swathes, but tightly groomed, not a strand escaping the bun at her neck. Though decades out of fashion, her flowered dress is starched and spotless…

For some contexts this form of writing can work well, especially for entry-level writing classes, and high school settings, where discussion of the powerful contemporary themes will be of great benefit.  

Book Review: Jewish Men at the Crossroads

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Jewish Men at the Crossroads takes a dip into the section of the gender pool some now call “masculism,” or “masculinism.”

A publication of the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the volume is a collection of essays by Jewish men offering intimate sharing from issues of their current lives. The intent is to stimulate men into returning to synagogue life through participation in male support groups.

The book has its problems, such as the absence of talk about the range of masculinities within gender, as in GBTQIA and a stunning absence of essays relating to maleness and social justice.

That said, many essays do reflect a poignant honesty about these Jewish mens’ encounters with life’s inevitable challenges.

More after the jump.
Those among who have been caregivers will surely empathize with the following story, for example:

The last five years of Freyda’s life… the last five years of our marriage were difficult, to say the least.

I loved caring for Freyda. It was a burden of love.

However, our life dramatically changed. Our travel was limited. We could no longer do many of the activities we had grown to love together. Our intimacy was limited to hugging, holding hands, snuggling in bed… but I loved it, I truly loved it….

The situation at times was intolerable. I was often fatigued, but I could not sleep. I was frequently depressed. I was often angry and would get upset… yelling at Freyda… an innocent being, my love/my soul mate… this was most disturbing to me… — Arnold Miller

In another essay, a man with autism brings us into his Jewish life, in a way that clearly illustrates the need for heightened understanding of diversity in our population, and strategies for changing the social climate of congregations:

I had been praying for God to cure my autism and wondering why God didn’t answer my prayer. I realized at that point that I had been praying for the wrong reason.

I started to pray for the strength to accept autism and live with joy, laughter and connection. My prayers were answered more richly than I ever imagined. Sometimes I still hate autism, but now I love life more than I hate autism…

After ten years, we finally left our synagogue and joined a new one where people smile at me even if I am sometimes too loud or excited and no one stares at me like I am a piece of trash….

My favorite Jewish holiday is Passover because it is the story of our people’s journey from degradation to liberation… — Jacob Artson

The reality of intermarriage is frankly acknowledged. Strong feelings and approaches uncharacteristic of the Conservative movement’s platforms and positions are included:

I am distraught that many synagogues still will not let the non-Jewish parent participate on the bimah for a baby naming or a bris. — Joshua Kohn

Mazel tov… is he Jewish?…

I do understand that for some people, if their child dates a non-Jew, it is a “big deal.” But , for me, is that paramount to my daughter’s happiness? Or even my happiness? Doesn’t a father give up some of his happiness for his children?…

Yes, my children — I consider Josh my son — [they] were married by a rabbi and a minister.

No, my granddaughter is not having a naming, though her parents just recently had a ceremony in my home to give her a Hebrew name. And, yes, they are going to be doing a similar type of ceremony in his church.

Yes, my granddaughter is going to be raised in both religions… Would I love him more if he was Jewish? No. He is the son I never had. I love him for who and what he is. Plain and simple. — Dave Julis

Unfortunately, the book also contains unchallenged stereotypes and assumptions:

[G]irls’ learning styles… focus on attentiveness, persistence, orderliness, and sedentary work, while boys thrive when they can be physically active and have time to be rowdy…

Boys… respond to hands-on activity, competition, challenge, and incentives. — David Weiser

If we are to maintain the religious affiliation of American Jewish men, then we have to preach and teach Jewish men to see introspection, empathy, kindness, noble character, humility and gratitude as male ideals. — Ed Feld

The most telling barrier [to engaging me in synagogue life] is that most men are simply uncomfortable praying. — Jack Chomsky

Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about the happenings in the lives and minds of Conservative men. Among the topics addressed are retirement, becoming a caregiver for a declining, beloved spouse, becoming an in-law to someone who is not Jewish, observing yartzeit for one’s child, recognizing that raising children requires role-modeling and a serious investment of time from both parents, age-related loss of libido, health issues, and having a child in the Israeli army, and a good deal more.

Some sapping does rise during essays reflecting on the stereotypes that “manhood is about strength, courage, willpower” and that “traditional… male values [are] honesty, courage, decisiveness, responsibility and resilience,” when, for Jews, “success is measured by being a mensch and helping make this world a better place.”

But where is rebellion against the oppression of the workforce, and the military use of men, and now women, as cannon fodder? Where are strategies for rising up and recalibrating society? These are not to be found as much as several essays that indicate a desire for a better balance of work and family.

Fire in the belly is patently lacking. These are essentially really nice men, coping with life’s dealt hand more than taking up the mantle of justice being called for by our ancient and contemporary prophetic voices.

Also missing in the book is any tipping of the hat to the Jewish men’s movement retreats that have been happening for decades, led by Yosaif August, Shawn Zevit, and colleagues at what is now called the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, in Connecticut. There are many seminal publications these “Hearing Men’s Voices” groups might seek out for discussion:

Also, the developers at Moving Traditions created a substantial developmental program for Jewish boys called The Brotherhood. Their research and development sheds a great deal of light on what it can mean to be a Jewish male in the 21st Century.  

Reflection upon the forces that have influenced many of the contributing authors of the book, is perhaps their own next step. We hear little to nothing about domestic violence, or other violence, such as life as WWII vets; or the role of subsequent wars on their masculinity; or the unisex/”free love” of the 1960s; or male or boyhood survival in the wake of the soul-searing emasculation of the Holocaust.

And what of the roles and masculinities of men who bring us glory and/or shame in societies — Madoff? Doctorow? Wiesel? Mamet? Dayan? Spitzer? Gehry? Adelman? Shamgar ben Anat? (See Judges 3:31) And infinitely many more.

Bar Mitzvah essentially goes missing — perhaps a statement of its own about this increasingly problemmatic ritual. The stories within our very tradition, as at least one author points out, point men toward revisiting what they have drawn from their “fathers’ wells” — at home, and in the stories about men and masculinity within Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. Perhaps some of this will emerge in a second volume, as the program advances.

The last sentence of the introduction by Bob Braitman, past president of FJMC asks: “What is a Jewish man?” It is a bit disingenuously stated that the problem seems to be that “men have somehow become less visible in both the leadership in many professions and in the volunteer world.”

Presumably this refers to the arrival of women rabbis, cantors and the preponderance of women who now attend services and serve on boards and committees in the liberal Jewish movements. Though some hold leadership and research positions, the men writing these essays do not appear eager to reclaim an increased position in any of these roles.

In many ways Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about a new wave of Jewish men seeking healing, who are not at the innovative fringe but rather becoming newly receptive to its waves and practices. The work of supportive healing and growing at the level of spirit and awareness is crucial to Jewish and humane development.

Rabbi Simcha Weintraub appears as a contributing author in this volume. The founder of The National Center for Jewish Healing, Weintraub is a great man to have on board for this initiative. For while women are increasingly attaining equal votes and roles, and are being “allowed” to succeed, Jewish men still have the cultural burden of being expected to succeed.

Indeed, Rabbi Weintraub points out metaphorically that “Jewish men may have stopped breathing” from the stress, and the burden of traditional expectations about their potential to accomplish, innovate, earn and be honored. So, let us end by borrowing from the blessing Rabbi Weintraub offers for men:

Enjoy breathing with reflection; community with solitude; work with rest.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon — May this be God’s will; Amen.

Reform Movement Sets Sails for Fundamental Change

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram



A new Reform Judaism is rapidly emerging: inspiring, courageous, inclusive, radically hospitable, spiritual, and relevant.

In light of “doomsday statistics” about diminishing Jewish identification and affiliation, as given in the recent, much-publicized Pew study, how is this possible?

One should keep in mind that such studies only document what had been, and typically miss the exciting new approaches across the flow of Jewish history, that percolate in every age, and sometimes catch on big time.

One watershed moment was the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, held in San Diego last month.

As announced in the Biennial, URJ membership is no longer required for attendance at its conferences, camps and youth groups. Many of the best innovations and innovators of our times, from within Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, were in evidence.

Each attempted fusion worked elegantly and authentically, maintaining the heart and structure of Jewish prayer while riveting the 5,000 participants even during lengthy Shabbat services. Choreographer Liz Lerman led prayer through authentic movement, for example, and virtually everyone participated (see video).

More after the jump.
The URJ is going head to head with the orthodox movement, Chabad, in terms of embracing the core Jewish spiritual practices, the mitzvot, as the URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, explained:



I met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad’s worldwide activities.

Shortly after we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky leaned forward and asked, “Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?”

I said “Yes,” not sure where he was going.

“Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your Reform Movement? After all, you don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, and you don’t care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?”

I responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut. We care about Shabbat. We care about mitzvot. We just care differently.”

“My job,” I told him, “is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.

Rabbi Jacobs himself, along with the music director for the conference — the soulful, deeply God-connected Josh Nelson — set a contemplative tone of meaningful rather than formulaic prayer.

This shift one of affect, away from services styled after the music of Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, that was often accompanied by rabbinic intoning of prayers.

It turns out that some of the senior URJ leadership has studied or been featured with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her team at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).


The Korean-born rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, has become a symbol of Reform inclusiveness.

The Importance of Inclusion

Another service co-leader was the new head rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Angela Buchdahl, who is also listed as part of the non-denominational Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Korean-born Rabbi Buchdahl has lived in the U.S. since the age of 4, and Rabbi Jacobs used her presence as a focal point to advocate for attention though kindness and inclusiveness throughout the movement, noting that people would often love her services when he and she shared a pulpit, and then ask him quietly, “Is she really Jewish?”

He later gave a shout-out to Congregation Or Ami in Clabasas, California which

 “identifies itself by saying: ‘We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.'”

Jacobs spoke further about every possible category of difference and the importance of inclusion:

When we open our doors — and more, our hearts and minds — and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams.

Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages, “don’t look at the bottle,” ela b’mah sheyesh bo, “but at what is inside it.”

Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, we cannot wait for the seekers.

The Union plans outreach to every kind of public venue. Both year-round family camping and a fourteenth camp for “Jews who love science” will open this year.

Regarding intermarriage, Jacobs advocates doors open wide:

It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well.

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that Progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world.

It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.”

That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

Heavily “strummed” services were mostly moved to smaller breakout service times, performance sessions and variegated welcomes (see video to the right).

Best of all the many abundant approaches to helping people feel welcomed was embodied by the phrase used by Rabbi Jacobs, “audacious hospitality.”

Heightened Spirituality Broadly Evident

Shifts toward soulful approaches in both music and liturgy were abundant. The movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook worked beautifully in the mix.

In perhaps a related development, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, announced at her late-night standing-room-only conference concert with Josh Nelson that her soul is “making aliyah to the Reform movement,” an announcement for which she received resounding applause.

And in an article published immediately after the conference ended, Carlebach termed the URJ Biennial “the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America”:

Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.” Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was.

The tikkun olam (social justice) mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

Some of the Biennial’s Influences:

The Underlying Forces

Rabbi Jacobs description of this new approach echoes almost the identical wording of the literature of Jewish Renewal.

The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as “Reb Zalman”), once told the author of this article, “It’s really we (the Renewal movement) who have accomplished what the Rebbe set out to do.”

It must have been a nachas (pleasure) for Reb Zalman to hear what took place at the Biennial, and to know that many Jewish Renewal teachers, students and principles were strong influences in the mix. (See sidebar)

As explained by the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein
, in a recent tribute to a Renewal social activist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

The Renewal movement has not only grown into a significant presence in its own right, but has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

It is time that this be acknowledged. The merging of aesthetics of new liturgies and rituals, the synergy of mystical prayer and meditation, passion for social justice rolled into an expression of Judaism has brought new light into so many Jewish lives.

These two tents within progressive Judaism — Reform and Renewal — have a great deal of synergy in place already.

The Reform Movement has the numbers and the strength to reach out to the majority of Jews whom Rabbi Jacobs termed “nones” — those having some Jewish interest, but no affiliations.

Jewish Renewal, in the words of a Renewal rabbi who attended the Biennial, Rabbi Diane Elliot “is well-positioned to provide ‘midwives'”: spiritual teachers specializing in one or more modalities (chant, movement, hiddur mitzvah, etc.), who are equipped to go out into Reform communities, and those of other denominations, to help implement this emerging, Renewal-infused agenda:

Midwives are patient. They understand the global trajectory of the birthing journey, and at the same time they know how to meet the birthing mother where she is (“ba-asher hu/hi sham,” Genesis 21:17), helping her to stay present and in contact with what is happening right now, opening bit by bit, not pushing too soon, but when they time comes, pushing hard.

Midwives are coaches. In the wake of the Biennial, I saw that Jewish Renewal clergy are well suited for the role of spiritual coaching among other denominations.

While I see us continuing to serve and create new enclaves of Jewish Renewal, it seems to me that the most effective way to spread the “good news” of what we offer is not to pour energy into trying to aggressively market ourselves as a movement, thus throwing ourselves into competition with other larger and much better funded streams of Jewish life, but rather to consciously offer ourselves in service of k’lal Yisra’el, “all Jews.”

True to the role modeling of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Elliot proposes that Jewish Renewal continue “doing what we do best — opening hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience, thoroughly grounded in Jewish textual, historical, and mystical traditions.”

To my mind, this kind of research and development can feel risky and even earth-shattering for some folks, given Jews’ communal trauma history, passed on unconsciously, cellularly, from generation to generation, through body language, thought patterns, and child-rearing practices, as well as through story, fiction, poetry, theater, visual art, and contemporary midrash.

So the deep work, integrating new modalities, is best done in small groups on retreat and in more intimate community settings, where trust can be built and healing manifest — for individual participants, for communities, and for Judaism itself.

Book Review: One Egg Is a Fortune

miso marinated Atlantic salmon with shiitake mushrooms, grilled scallions and a miso glaze— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

One Egg is a Fortune, edited by Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler, is three books in one: a high quality gourmet Jewish cookbook, a table book of magnificent food photographs, and an anthology of fascinating narratives from fifty contributing authors from around the world.

The editors put ten years into developing this beautiful volume, and it is perfect as a gift.

Taste test? The closest to that that we can do is to offer a section from the narrative of the former United States ambassador, Dennis Ross, and his excellent recipe as well. B’tayavon!

Ross’ narrative and salmon fillet recipe follow the jump.

I was sent as ambassador of the United states to meet with Arafat in Tunis in 1993. This was to be the first of many meetings. Arafat liked to play the host, insisting on serving our delegation lunch.

We were about ten people around the table, four from the United States. A meal of roast chicken and potatoes had been prepared. Arafat was determined to not only serve the meal, but also to carve the chicken.

Banter lightened the situation with words to the effect of, “Are you actually going to cut my food for me as well?” with a reply of, “If you like,” and my response of, “No, thank you. The last person to cut my food was my mother.”

Dessert followed and Arafat passed around an assortment of Arabic sweets such as baklava and kanafi, a Middle Eastern dessert made from cheese and brown sugar. The meal was, in fact, good and just what both parties needed to continue.

From then on food became part of the negotiation process. Dennis fish is a variety of bream found in the Red Sea, so when I walked into a meeting, I would ask, “Let me guess what we are eating today — Dennis fish?” Arafat would laugh and at least in this context, he had a sense of humour.

This repartee continued every time we met. I heard that even in my absence Arafat would mention this wordplay just to irritate the Israeli delegation. (Page 197)

All of the vignettes bring personal stories from very interesting lives to our attention. The contributing authors come from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, Ukraine, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, England, Canada and the United States.

Salmon Fillets with Green peppercorn, Mushroom & Macadamia Nut Sauce

  • 6 × 180g (6.5 ounces) salmon fillets
  • garlic salt
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 15 macadamia nuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chives, finely chopped

Sauce:

  • 50g (2 ounces) butter
  • 250g (9 ounces) mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon bottled green peppercorns, vinegar strained
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  1. Sprinkle the salmon fillets with garlic salt. Pour over lemon juice and marinate for 30 minutes.
  2. Grill or BBQ salmon, skin side down until almost cooked through. Turn and cook the other side for a minute or two.
  3. Make sauce: Prepare while fish is cooking. Melt butter in a non-stick fry pan. Add mushrooms, lemon juice, peppercorns, garlic salt and pepper and cook until mushrooms wilt and just begin to turn in color.
  4. Spoon sauce over fish and sprinkle with nuts and herbs.

(Serves 6)

Book Review: Crossing Cairo

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Crossing Cairo is a fascinating and useful read for potential travelers to the region, armchair adventurers and also for those who contemplate the lessons of personal experience and history.

The book is a memoir of the 2006 six-month stay in Egypt of a Jewish couple and their children, aged 12 and 17.

As the author, Rabbi Ruth Sohn, pointed out in her prologue, 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt in the early 1940s, and today, there are barely any remaining Jewish Egyptian citizens. She finds them though, and introduces us to their story and takes us to what remains of Jewish sacred spaces.

She also makes interesting connections with local Muslims and other groups, and so is able to give us a window into the daily lives of those with cultural norms quite different to those of the West.

More after the jump.
Both the author and her husband are rabbis. Rabbi Sohn’s husband specializes in “explaining Islam to Jews and Jewish communities,” so the trip comes about through his needs and contacts.

While the children attend the American International School, we primarily hear Rabbi Ruth Sohn’s own adventures in the neighborhood and shops, and benefit from her open ways of getting to know the locals and appreciate the cultural differences between Egypt and America.

Honest, well-written reporting prevails in the book. We learn of her fears, friendships, mishaps and cultural missteps and discoveries.

This approach affords legitimate reader anticipation: Will Sohn’s fears, or her hopes, about Egyptian life and culture prove true? Will her natural openness prove sustainable? Will it be safe to tell people that the family is Jewish — let alone with two rabbis? What major cultural differences will emerge? What will healthcare be like? Transportation? Food? Employer-employee relationships? Will they be welcome? Might they leave prematurely?  

“It’s all about relationships, here in Egypt.” Kathy had commented the first time we got together…

There was even a culture around extending greetings to people. Anyone you passed on the street or saw in a shop, if you saw them on a semi-regular basis, you were expected to acknowledge with a greeting, even if you did not know their name. This was a real greeting, not just a nod, or a smile, or a casual hello…

when I asked someone on the street for directions, the person would start to explain  and then pause and say, “Come, I will show you.” And then walk me to my destination…

As I was soon to discover, the culture of helpfulness also had its downside. That is, the obligation to be helpful is so strong in Arab culture that one is expected to never respond to a request for help by saying no, or even “I don’t know.” It was considered far better to try to help, than not to try at all.”

Open discussion by locals about government corruption in front of Sohn is taken as a sign of acceptance, and a warning of what she might expect.

After 1000 people drown in a ferry incident, she notes that “when it became clear the ship was going to sink, it was the captain who was the first to leave and the crew ‘jumped ship’ in the lifeboats, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.”

We get to meet many local characters through Sohn’s ability to cultivate close relationships and confidences, including Musheera, a Muslim who grew up in Tunisia and is married to a Jew.

They were bringing up their two children as Jews, they said, although they celebrated the holidays of both religions at home…

Musheera explained how she had really looked forward to moving to Cairo… but she was deeply disappointed. “Egypt is a far cry from a cosmopolitan society,” she said, shaking her head. “It may have been once, but it is the opposite today…

People here are very close-minded and inflexible, even though they are warm and friendly when you first meet them…

You don’t know what they really think… [Musheera] recalled an incident where someone actually stabbed a man and woman who were kissing in public. I am really scared sometimes that as a Muslim woman married to a Jew, I could end up the victim of such an attack…

Rabbi Sohn gives a vibrant accounting of the history of the Jews of Egypt within only a few pages:

The downturn in prospects for Egyptian Jews seems to begin when the Muslim Brotherhood is founded in Egypt in 1928. Anti-Zionist demonstrations are held in Cairo and Alexandria then, in April and May of 1938, with marchers shouting, “Throw the Jews out of Egypt and Palestine.”

By the late 1930s, the leaders of the Brotherhood and the nationalist group, “Young Egypt,” had adopted the antisemitic rhetoric of Hitler and his followers, claiming, for example, that the major political and social problems of the Muslim world were the result of a Jewish conspiracy.

Despite the intent of Egypt’s Jews to remain, it increasingly became impossible due to arrests, freezing of Jewish assets, expulsions with documents marked in Arabic “one way-no return,” blacklisting of Jewish businesses and accusations of espionage, torture, and two Jews condemned to execution, and others to long prison terms.

Then we learn that:

Legislation was passed in 1956 that enabled the government to deny Egyptian citizenship to people classified as Zionists; by 1958, the language of the new laws and speeches of government officials no longer distinguished between “Zionist” and “Jew”… within a few months, 14,000 Jews left Egypt.

Rabbi Sohn honestly reveals how easily she came to off-base assumptions about locals when in early arrival, or tourist, mode. Her shifts in perspective are sometimes in appreciation and sometimes in distress of what the probable truth of local views on matters economic, American, Israeli, Jewish, and governmental might be.

Sohn does some very inspiring acts to help those she meets along the way, without regard to religion, race, creed, gender or color. She also uses humor to good effect.

In Crossing Cairo, Sohn demonstrates how extended exposure to the people and practices of a culture may lead to significantly different interpretations of their comments and behaviors.  

Israel’s Phillippino Workers in Gear; What Can We Do From Here?


Rabbi Howard Cohen recommends donating a “ShelterBox.”

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Throughout Israel, workers from the Philippines, who primarily serve as aides and caregivers for the elderly, have organized collections of clothes, blankets and more for donation.

Approximately 39,000 Phillippinos live in Israel, and The Jerusalem Post reported: “The IDF, Foreign Ministry and Israeli and Jewish humanitarian organizations are sending aid workers to the Philippines to provide rescue and relief efforts in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan.”

Free shipping through a Philippine carrier was organized by The Federation of Filipino Communities in Israel (FFCI).

More after the jump.
So what might those of us in the west best do at this time of crisis? Rabbi Howard Cohen of Burning Bush Adventures recommends Shelterbox, a well-respected option to my attention:

In this charity your donation is very concrete. Shelterbox delivers a box that provides essential items for addressing the issue of temporary shelter and more. The box contains an incredibly durable tent, stove, cooking set, blankets, water purification devices (very easy to use that last for months), some tools to help people rebuild their lives, plus more items. Each box costs about 500.00. The organization has only about a half dozen paid employees, everyone else is a volunteer.

For more general donations, the American Jewish World Service is coordinating a major effort, as is the Red Cross, and many other traditional non-profit and governmental responders, as reported by major news services.

Next Thanksgivukkah in 80K Years? Wrong!

The upcoming convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is not quite as rare as some have claimed.

Some of our older readers have already celebrated Hanukkah on Thanksgiving, and our younger readers may do so again, despite widespread Internet hoaxes claiming this has never happened before, or that it will not do so for 79,811 years:

Thursday,
November 29,
1888
 2nd Night 
Thursday,
November 30,
1899
 5th Night 
Thursday,
November 28,
1918
 1st Night 
Thursday,
November 29,
1945*
 1st Night 
Thursday,
November 29,
1956*
 2nd Night 
Thursday,
November 28,
2013
 2nd Night 
Thursday,
November 27,
2070
 1st Night 
Thursday,
November 28,
2165
 1st Night 


Fact-checking is very important.

So what has made this fallacy viral, and how does it happen that there were also times in years gone-by with convergences as well?

Some of the fallacy impact came from an article in the Boston Globe which reported a “calculation” that Thanksgivukkah “won’t repeat for another 79,043 years.” They also reported:

The magic struck last November, when Dana Gitell, a marketing specialist at NewBridge on the Charles, a Dedham retirement community, was driving to work.

She knew the holidays were going to overlap this year “because I had seen a list of holiday dates on the back of a Combined Jewish Philanthropies calendar,” recalled Gitell, the wife of Seth Gitell, a former Menino press secretary now working for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

She was mentally running through a list of clunky names for the phenomenon — Hanukkahgiving? — when the more melodious Thanksgivukkah came to her.

Gitell, her sister-in-law, and a friend — an artist with New Yorker covers in her portfolio — promptly designed Thanksgivukkah illustrations and contacted ModernTribe.com, a hip Judaica site. Together, they created products including cards and a $36 T-shirt that reads “Thanksgivukkah 2013: 8 Days of Light Liberty & Latkes.”

An article in Haaretz noted that she did not have permission to use the image she chose and received a cease and desist order on October 5.

More after the jump.
Mathematicians disagree about recurrence dates on their websites, so it does take work to arrive at what seems to be a truly accurate answer. The most helpful site seems to be of the three Lansey brothers, whose blog with correct information was already online in 2012!

These three brothers did historical research on past dates of Thanksgiving, and posted the years listed in the table above when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapped. The years 1945 and 1956 are marked with an asterisk because those were only Thanksgiving in certain states that maintained the date for Thanksgiving adopted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (and mocked as Franksgiving). That date was nullified in 1941 by an act of congress settling it into the 4th Thursday.

The creator of the Intel 8086 chip, Steven P. Morse, pointed the convergence out on his website back in in 2012, although he did not adjust for the historical differences in the dates of Thanksgiving in years gone-by. He further explains the solar/lunar calendar drift issues involved:

Chanukah-before-Thanksgiving occurred in the past, and with decreasing frequency as time went on, is because there is a slow drift between the Hebrew Calendar and the secular (Gregorian) calendar. That drift amounts to one day every 217 years. So in about 80,000 years it will drift by one full year and we’ll be back to where we started.  At that time we will once again be lighting Chanukah candles at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Jonathan Mizrahi nicely illustrated this drift in the Hebrew calendar:

Understanding the Jewish calendar would require a further article because it is not a strictly lunar calendar. And — this may come as a surprise to some — the Jewish calendar begins with Passover, the original Jewish New Year according to the Torah which requires Passover to occur in the Spring. Originally ensuring the proper alignment of dates and seasons was accomplished through observation-based adjustments:

… when the fruit had not grown properly, when the winter rains had not stopped, when the roads for Passover pilgrims had not dried up, and when the young pigeons had not become fledged. The council on intercalculation considered the astronomical facts together with the religious requirements of Passover and the natural conditions of the country. — Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar, p. 1-2.

But then, in the fourth century, according to Judaism 101:  

Hillel II established a fixed calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This calendar, still in use, standardized the length of months and the addition of months over the course of a 19 year cycle, so that the lunar calendar realigns with the solar years. Adar I is added in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. The current cycle began in Jewish year 5758 (the year that began October 2, 1997).

If you are musically inclined, you may find it helpful to remember this pattern of leap years by reference to the major scale: for each whole step there are two regular years and a leap year; for each half-step there is one regular year and a leap year. This is easier to understand when you examine the keyboard illustration below and see how it relates to the leap years above.

It’s nice to note that some of the children alive today will be here for the next Thanksgiving-Hanukkah convergence. May it be so!

Addendum: There are some who wrote well-publicized articles that overlooked the evening overlap of these festivals. Jewish holidays start at sundown and secular holidays start at sunrise. They wrote their articles declaring a never-to-be-repeated event by disregarding the almost 8 hours of convergence the evening before. Which to my mind is odd for Jewish writers to do, given we know that the evening rituals and meals of both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are the spiritual main events. For Jews, given that sundown is approximately 4:19 pm, we will be lighting our menorahs and then eating our latke-stuffed turkey dinners (or whatever fusions evolve over time) there-after. Evening convergences have happened in the past, and will continue to do, as the table at the article’s beginning demonstrates.

Chag Sameach from Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Test Your Thanksgivukkah Knowledge: Reb Goldie’s Dreidel Quiz

My students ask me, “Rabbi Goldie, just what gives?
Is celebrating Thanksgivukkah really the way a good Jew lives?”

There is only one way I know to decide:
By the dreidel’s spin, you’ll have to abide.

Here is how it works, you should pardon the mention,
of these Five Thanksgivukkah Academic Spin K’vetch-tions:

  1. If your dreidel lands on the Hebrew letter Hey-and you answer correctly, you get to take half the “pot”.

    Is Thanksgiving based on a Jewish festival, and which one?

  2. Should your dreidel land on the Hebrew letter Shin (outside of Israel) or Pei (in Israel) — if your answer is incorrect, half goes back into the pot.

    What was the first of the three miracles of Hanukkah?

  3. If your dreidel lands on the Hebrew letter nun, for a wrong answer, all your winnings go back into the pot.

    Does Hanukkah commemorate the first known dedication of the Temple?
  4. A correct answer when your dreidel lands on Gimel let’s you take everything that’s in the pot.  

    Whose idea was it to make Thanksgiving an American National holiday?

  5. Bonus Question, right or wrong, everything in each person’s pot goes straight into the tzedakah box!

    When is the next time the first night of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide?

Check your answers and record how well you did after the jump.
1. Is Thanksgiving based on a Jewish festival, and which one?

Some readers may have seen Internet articles suggesting that Thanksgiving originates from the Biblical harvest holiday know as Sukkot. The timing is usually close enough to make this seem plausible.

However, research reported by my colleague Robert Gluck in an article titled Did Sukkot Help Shape Thanksgiving? includes his discussion with Biblical scholar Jonathan Sarna. Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the Philadelphia-based National Museum of American Jewish History, explained:

The Puritan’s did not believe in fixed holidays. If it was a good season, they would announce a thanksgiving, but it’s not like the Jewish holiday which occurs on the 15th of the month of Tishrei (Sukkot). They did not believe in that.

Sarna then points Gluck to Diana Muir Applebaum, a Massachusetts-based historian who wrote the book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History. She explains:

The Separatists at Plymouth did not create an annual holiday [of Thanksgiving]. Rather, a holiday that grew in popularity and stabilized into an annual celebration over the course of several decades was later traced back to an event that took place at Plymouth in December 1621.

Applebaum adds:

Puritans accepted the Sabbath but rejected all other holy days in the Five Books of Moses as being given by God for only Jewish observance. The Puritans practice was to declare of day of thanks giving when the harvest was actually good, they did not adhere to regular festivals, it was not their way.

2. What was the first of the (at least) three miracles of Hanukkah?

The original “miracle” of Hanukkah was the collaboration of the tiny handful of remaining religious Jews with the vast number of non-observant Jews of the time to wrest Jewish sovereignty over Israel back from the occupying Syro-Greeks.

A second miracle begins with appreciating the relevance of this text, of Megillat Ta’anit Chapter 9:

During the days of the Greek Kingdom, the Hasmonean [Maccabees] entered the sanctuary, rebuilt the altar, repaired the sanctuary’s walls, replaced the sacred vessels and were engaged in its rebuilding for eight days.

So, we this is one source for knowing they were engaged in purifying the Temple. And the next miracle is that the Hasmoneans, known for their extreme (and later horrifically fanatical) piety, underwent a surprising shift in consciousness. Instead of waiting for the fire to come down from God to rekindle the altar, they lit it themselves.

So where did the idea of the miracle, of the little flask of oil lasting specifically eight days, come from?

Now our story has gone full circle: It could have come from Sukkot!

Another colleague of mine, Brian Field, reminded our rabbinic discussion list last week that this connection can be found in preserved texts that are not part of the Jewish canon. They are collectively known as the Apocrypha.

Of these, a Hanukkah narrative is found in II Maccabees 10 (see The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), where the Maccabees:

Celebrated the occasion [of winning back the Temple in Jerusalem] after the manner of the Festival of Tabernacles [Sukkot], and decreed that the eight-day festival in honor of the [Temple’s] purification.

To find the actual documentation of the story of the miracle of the oil lasting, which is given long after the original Hanukkah events, one must roll forward in time to the period of the Babylonian Talmud, where it is introduced in Shabbat 21:

What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day’s lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days.

The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel [specific psalms] and thanksgiving.

3. Does Hanukkah commemorate the first known dedication of the Temple?

Hanukkah in Hebrew means “dedication,” and shares the same Hebrew root as hinukh, “education.” The rabbinic commentary Midrash-Pesikt Rabbati, chapter 2, offers seven “Hanukkahs,” i.e., points of dedication. Here they are in a translation by Rabbi Judith Abrams:

1. The Hanukkah of finishing creating the heaven and earth, which God observed by “turning on” the two great lights (the sun and moon) in the sky (Genesis 2:1, 1:17).

2. The Hanukkah of completing the wall enclosing Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27), observed with lots of singing.

3. The Hanukkah of the successful return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:17), observed with lots of singing and offerings.

4. The Hanukkah of the Hasmonean priests, for which we kindle the Hannukkah lamps, symbolizing their complete victory. The original menorah in this case was probably fashioned from spearheads turned into torches, since the original menorah had been taken away. (See Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature, pp. 34-39.)

5. The Hanukkah of the World to Come (Zephaniah 1:12-1), in which the wealthy and unjust are utterly annihilated by God, accompanied with the sound of crying, this time cries of sorrow, not joy.

6. The Hanukkah of the princes’ anointing the altar (Numbers 7:84-89).  After all twelve princes finished bringing their offerings of silver and gold items, the whole array, clanging mightily, we might suppose, accompanied by the bellowing of the sacrificial oxen, was followed with what one might call, “the still, small voice” that Moses hears from beyond the ark’s cover.

7. And the Hanukkah of the First Temple’s dedication (Psalm 30:1), celebrated with this psalm. (Pesikta Rabbati 2:3)

4. Whose idea was it to make Thanksgiving an American National holiday?

It turns out the idea came from a woman, Sarah Josepha Hale.

Several presidents ignored her missives petitioning for such a national holiday. Before her time, President George Washington held a national day of Thanksgiving, but did so only once. Various states, mainly in New England, had Thanksgiving celebration traditions, but held them on days different to each other.

So which president took Sarah Josepha Hale up on her suggestion?

I first learned the answer from my colleague Seth Goldstein, who shared how Hale, at the time a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival”:

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

She also lobbied the presidents with pressure from her readers.

Our national holiday of Thanksgiving was established in response to her letter and because it served the strategic interests of the President, as the decision came came in the midst of civil war and several months following the Emancipation Proclamation.

He declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday on October 3, 1789 — 74 years after George Washington, and 243 years after the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620.

Bonus Question: When is the next time the first night of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide?

The first night of Hanukkah will fall out during Thanksgiving dinner-time in 2070, and then again in 2165.

Previously there were overlaps in 1888, 1899, 1945 and 1956, and since some states would, in days gone-by, use different Thanksgiving dates to the majority of the nation, there were two more overlaps as well. Since Thanksgiving has not always been held on the same day of the same week each year in the past, figuring this out is not as simple as it might seem.

To further complicate matters, those of us sitting down in gratitude to Thanksgivukkah’s latke-stuffed turkey dinners at roughly 4:19 p.m. after the first light of Hanukkah is lit in 2070, may be surprised that Joel Hoffman does not count first night overlaps as valid.

In his late-coming Nov. 24 article, Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving Will Never Again Coincide Again, he only counts as valid whole days, not erev — “evening” overlaps. From a ritual point of view, that view is hard to swallow.

It is true that after the first night of Hanukkah overlaps of 2165 and 2070, no degree of overlap is presently scheduled to occur for tens of thousands of years into the future. This is because of the gradual drift between the secular solar calendar and our Jewish lunar calendar.

However, Jewish calendar adjustments are made from time to time to ensure Jewish holidays align with their intended seasons, so likely, that too will change. Learn more in our article, Next Thanksgivukkah in 80k Years? Wrong!  

Nu? Did you have a good learning?

Or does it seem somewhat unfair,
when the origin stories we were raised with just do not square?

Where do you stand on this cosmic convergence?
Is it more than just a bonanza for merchants?

For this Hanukkah, may you be blessed,
to have gratitude that we are only spinning a dreidel, for we get to stay dressed!

Chag Sameach from Rabbi Goldie Milgram

The Donkey and the Rabbi: A Story of $98K

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

A story found in the Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi, Baba Metziah, Chapter 2, Halacha 1) recounts how just after a rebbe bought a new donkey, one of his yeshiva students found a precious jewel in a small sack hanging on a rope tied around the donkey’s neck.

The law was that anything that comes with a purchase belongs to the new owners. What would the rebbe do? Accept it as providential good fortune, or return the jewel?

The rebbe taught his student to return the stone, for sometimes one must go further than obeying the law in order to maintain peace.

Life has recreated the dilemma of our midrash this week, with the rabbi who bought a desk and found a bag filled with $98,000 hidden behind a drawer within it.

What would you have done?