Book Review: Zayde Comes to Live

— Reviewed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

It takes a remarkable soul and talented writer to accomplish the simplicity, elegance and gentle support accomplished in Sheri Sinykin’s award-winning children’s book Zayde Comes to Live with illustrations by Kristina Swarner. Zayde is Yiddish for grandfather and the grandparent does not need to live in your home for this powerful book to have great value. When family dynamics allow for it, the reciprocal love, between a grandparent and a grandchild can be one of life’s most precious and memorable gifts. Even so a great challenge arises for those who live long enough, as the grandfather explains simply and clearly to his little granddaughter:

“My body is getting tired. I know you can see this. Soon that outside part of me will return to the earth.”

The granddaughter responds with the eternal voice of the child to ask: “But what happens to the inside part of you?” It is here that we realize just how tenderly and accessibly the author has come to our rescue in the pages that have lead up to this poignant moment.

More after the jump.
This brief illustrated volume makes it possible to appreciate what the grandfather calls “the cycle of life” in action:

“Now he lives in a sleeper-chair in the living room…He watches squirrels in the trees. And movies on TV. And me….”

Sinykin’s Zayde gives us the perspectives and words we may well need in our mouths for accompanying our family members, and no less ourselves, with dignity and kindness to the very end. Each of the little granddaughter’s observations of Zayde‘s changes in status help us to normalize and accept as living life’s final chapter.

“When we read, he gets out of breath and I say, “It’s okay, Zayde. Let me.”

The granddaughter learns from friends about their traditions’ after death traditions ideas. And she asks her rabbi:

“Is Zayde dying?” I ask him, because rabbis do not lie.”

I love the rabbi’s answer; his name is Rabbi Lev. Lev means “heart” in Hebrew. And when the granddaughter continues, after the rabbi answers, she asks:

“When Zayde dies…what will happen to him?”

Every page is important reading rich in child-appropriate responses and approaches in response to which the granddaughter’s imagination takes off in such healthy and helpful ways. This is a reminder to us how adult-style thinking and worry can get in the way of simply loving and living in each moment. Our souls travel with hers and Zayde‘s.

Time progresses. Zayde sleeps more and more. Sinykin continutes to show us how to relate, with simple inquiry, just like the granddaughter does.

“What were you dreaming about, Zayde?”

The granddaughter’s voice, deliberately nameless, becomes our own.

“‘I don’t want you to die, Zadye.’ Her voice “whispers like his air machine.'”

The grandfather’s response when she says this is perfect. I urge everyone to read this book. It is certainly what I want to be able to tell my grandchildren someday, rooted in shalom, the Hebrew word for peace and completeness.

The author the granddaughter begin to collect memories about her grandfather, while he yet lives. Each step of the way, this read-over-and over-styled book prepares us to create and receive comfort, intimacy and meaning for living. The title, Zayde Comes to Live, contains a pun so beautiful as to immediately inspire us toward a deeper understanding of this time of life.

The only fault with the volume is the opportunity lost by author and illustrator to honor diversity in Jewish families, by reflecting some diversity within the family itself, a Sephardi relative or main character perhaps. Nono is grandfather in Ladino, and nona is grandmother. That said, the illustrations are very accessible windows in and of themselves into heartfelt, thoughtful, healthy exploration for all faiths into this step of the way forward for each and every soul.

Did I mention today is my father’s yahrzeit? Yahrzeitis Yiddish for the annual memorial for a soul’s passing, the Ladino term is nahala. Last night, as is traditional, we lit a memorial candle at home because a single flame is the Jewish symbol for a soul. The candle is burning beside me as I write this review of yahrzeit, which I first read a year ago, when it first came out. Life was too painful to write on this topic then, so soon after several traumatic deaths of loved ones, and not at all the fault of the volume.

It’s not so easy to write when crying — even so, the tears are good tears and the memories of many good times together are beautiful to revisit. I do wish that Zayde Comes to Live would have come out just a bit sooner. Turns out it’s not just for (grand)children.

Yes YOU Can, Too: Footage of Clergy Visit to Congressional Offices

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Have you been wanting the courage to go down and visit congress to express your views? This video, taken yesterday of Philadelphia Rabbi Arthur Waskow leading the way, shows one clear and compelling way to do so. Filmed by an unnamed participant yesterday during a clergy visit to the office of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rabbi Waskow is joined by Gerry Serota of New Jewish Agenda, and Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel, a greater Washington area congregation.

Seventy colleagues from a wide array of religions joined the effort, part of a Capitol Hill Pilgrimage with locked-out federal workers. Their goal: To urge an immediate end to the government shutdown and urgent passage of laws to prevent a default on the US debt. While Cantor wasn’t in his office, interns and staff received what must surely have been an unforgettable delegation.  

Publishing House Calls for Diversity in Short Story Submissions

Photo: Neil Heilpern

A special call for short stories by Reclaiming Judaism Press focuses attention upon the need for stories that reflect the great diversity among Jewish youth and families.

Scheduled for a 2014 fall release, the emerging collection from the jury’s process for “A Family Treasury of Mitzvah Stories” revealed gaps in coverage when it came to lives that include: GBLTQ, immigration, special needs, interracial, interfaith, Middle Eastern and Sephardi Jews and neighbors, Jewish cultures outside of the U.S., and progressive gender roles.

Founder and editor in chief of Reclaiming Judaism Press, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, called for submissions of stories that reflect youth and family diversity, while deepening appreciation and understanding of the vast array of Jewish spiritual practices, each of which is termed a mitzvah.

More after the jump.
The submission guidelines for “A Family Treasury of Mitzvah Stories” include a request for fiction, as well as creative non-fiction stories, between one page- and 3,000 word-long, that are appropriate for families with youth from the age of 5 through teens.

A wide array of mitzvot, interpreted through the lens of spirituality and meaning for living, are given in the special call in order to stimulate creative storytelling. For example:

  • lo tikom v’lo titur (Hold no grudges and take no revenge), and
  • teshuvah (admitting errors and taking steps for healing of relationships).

A Family Treasury of Mitzvah Stories will be dedicated to Danny Siegel. Vast numbers of Jewish educators and clergy have been inspired by Siegel’s decades of innovative mitzvah-centered publications, poetry, guidance and programs, including the Ziv Foundation, which dedicated over $14 million to fulfill a huge array of mitzvah opportunities.

Reclaiming Judaism Press creates innovative resources for meaningful Jewish living in a context of respectful Jewish pluralism. The first volume in this series Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, along with its matching deck of Mitzvah Cards and free downloadable discussion guide, fully reached its goals for diversity inclusion, receiving finalist honors from the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Awards.  

Attending Yom Kippur Services Online

Rabbi Milgram practices blowing the shofar as‘s leader David Aharon Curtis prepares to begin his service.

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my ankle was too swollen and painful to even hop over to the car to attend  the services. That created a rare rabbinic opportunity for me: attending free High Holiday services on-line.

I did not know what to expect at all, as I had only accidentally tripped over the possibility, when researching a quote online earlier in that week. Here is how it works, at least with, and the golden-voiced, inclusive service leader, composer of Jewish music, David Aharon Curtis.

Everything on the website, including Shabbat and festival services year-round, is for free. I registered as a member, and downloaded the evening section of the High Holiday Prayerbook, (machzor). Before sundown, I logged in for the Rosh Hashanah evening service.

More after the jump.
What were the services like? The liberal, gender-inclusive services were led by Curtis from what looked like inside of his home, in front of a sweet setup of holiday candles, a menorah, pomegranate and shofar.

It turns out that David Aharon Curtis has been streaming services for eight years already — what a boon to those in hospice or otherwise homebound. Some, it seemed, even gathered in small minyanim (groups of 10 or so) in remote areas without synagogues, tuned in and were able to have a service in this way.

The prayer books, provided as PDF downloads are interlinear: The transliterations, English and Hebrew, are not opposite each other, but rather are in the learner-friendly line-by-line approach. There are also lovely spiritual kavvanot, contemplative explanations, written in the text before each prayer.

The leader rarely showed his face, so one could mostly focus on praying along with the service leader’s lovely voice. A few nature slides and pictures of a Torah or shofar dominated the screen.

In the video to the left you can see an example of the leader’s approach to the Shema, a central prayer in most Jewish services. It’s easy to follow along in the English and transliteration, the leader chants in the Hebrew and occasional Aramaic of the Kaddish, using mostly traditional and a few contemporary melodies. I recognized a few melodies as attributable to Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory. My husband, raised in South Africa, was delighted at the relative absence of talk and simple presence of authentic prayer.

As David Aharon Curtis pointed out in his brief talk at the end of the service, while one can have a sense of connection and community in an on-line service, it’s difficult to meet and mingle afterward. The approach does seems to be catching on, a wide variety of free live-streaming High Holiday service options come up in a key word search, among them the radio broadcasts from New York’s Temple Emanuel and Central Synagogue.

Nashuva, a post-denominational California community that meshes spirituality with social action, is live-streaming their Kol Nidre service, to led by Rabbi Naomi Levy at 9:45 pm tonight. A well-known author and actist, Rabbi Levy is author of several books including Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration. In addition, there are a growing number of synagogues and havurot providing Shabbat and holiday services on-line to members in good standing; these typically require a password for viewing.

For those who are housebound, or far from a congregation this Yom Kippur, or at any point in the Jewish year and your Jewish practice permits it, services on-line will be a great help.

Life-Affirming Holocaust Painting Draws Attention in Reading

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

What is your reaction to this Holocaust painting by Juliette Aristides?

Now on display in a one woman show Observations at the Reading Public Museum that continues until September 14, the large canvass titled 1945 (Bendheim Remembrance) attracts rapt and immediate attention. Ownership of the painting quietly changed hands during the opening weekend, shortly after Alison Rotenberg brought her husband Dr. Larry Rotenberg MD, a child survivor of the Holocaust, over to see saying: “We’re buying this.” The Rotenbergs plan to temporarily place the work in their Reading, Pennsylvania home, for depth of contemplation and then move it to a more permanent, public venue.

See their interview following the jump, and see Dr. Rotenberg’s article A Child Survivor/Psychiatrist’s Personal Adaption in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry.
How do I know all of this? Full disclosure: Juliette Aristides is my step-daughter, though she was an adult when I married her father, Barry Bub, then a family practitioner in Reading, PA. Juliette was born in South Africa, and while yet in her infancy, immigrated with her parents to Reading, PA. Many family members were murdered in Nazi death camps on both the paternal “Bub” and maternal “Bendheim” sides of her lineage. Her long period of research and work on the canvas was encouraged and funded by a surviving branch of the Bendheim family.

Juliette’s usual theme in her art is “beauty” — making this work all the more significant. When I first saw this painting, it was unframed, leaning against a wall in Juliette’s atelier in Seattle. Tears rushed in as I witnessed this new evolution in Holocaust-related art. Even so, since the painting’s inception I had wondered how this interpretation might affect survivors and their loved ones-both here and overseas.

The couple who will take possession of the painting when the show closes, Alison and Larry Rotenberg were willing to be interviewed for this article. They own several other pieces of her work and have known her since childhood when she was an art student. I ask Alison, a retired realtor in the Reading area, what touches her in the imagery, some aspects are so subtle that they can only be discerned by viewing the 49″×72″ oil on canvas work in person.

“It is evocative of so much. On the right hand side of the painting are the crematoria, the smoke, and perhaps the souls going up. Then the two people–he is looking off to the side with that sort of pained expression, with the striped shirt that was so common in the concentration camps. She is much straighter, looking ahead. She steps out, she’s stepping forward…they’re leaving that all behind and the future is ahead. Or he could be one of the prisons and she could represent the future, for as it is said we can light a candle or curse the darkness. We recently went to the 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Larry and our second son went to the original gathering in Jerusalem around 1981. There are fewer and fewer people alive to attend these things. This painting, it’s for future remembrance.”

Dr. Larry Rotenberg was born in Romania, where his family was walled into the ghetto that was set up for the Jews of Czernowitz. In the fall of 1941, not yet eight years old, along with his family and 200,000 others he endured a forced march to the Ukraine in mid-winter where his beloved parents would die of the extreme conditions in a village turned-internment camp. His sisters foraged for food until two sisters and Larry were shifted to an orphanage in Bucharest by way of Yasi in 1944. From there the youth made their way to Western Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark and finally to Canada in 1948. This data I’ve taken from his published article which is a poignant valuable piece for all who wish more understanding of the beautiful, sustaining, early life family remembrances, experiences, reactions and emotional development of a young Holocaust survivor. During our interview, he indicated first meeting his wife in Vancouver, Canada. Still, it is the painting that he wants to speak about on our call:

“The work has a degree of both dread and grandeur. Dread of what they have left behind and the grandeur of their future. It reminds me of Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
doth walk in fear and dread.
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend.
Doth close behind him tread.

It sort of summarizes for me what this couple are trying to do, trying to escape from this frightful scene but they can’t quite do it, although they are going into a hopeful future, they still have to take the weight and heaviness with them spiritually and mentally. They will always carry it with them. What is so amazing is that this painting is such a powerful evocation of the spirit of survival of the Holocaust.”

I ask could this image have been received ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Dr. Rotenberg explains:

“The immediacy of the past was still sufficiently there to keep this from occurring. Well, it is so that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. In a sense this couple carries with them a hope of humanity, a hope of the world. If you go back to the Talmud it teaches that one who saves a life, saves the whole world. This painting captures aspects of that, too. Each human being contains a world that lives within him or her and dies within him or her. Triumph and tragedy are combined in this picture, evocative of the importance of the singularity of human survival.

If you want to be even more symbolic, it is almost like Adam and Eve have re-emerged from being thrown out into the world and have come through a crisis and through the crisis to somehow survive and yet carry the memory. The painting is complex, offering dozens of layers of meaning. The thing about art is that ultimately you like a piece because it speaks to you. It captured Alison and certainly captures me.”

Our call ends, and so I turn to find that section of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Colerige, a poem my father had me memorize as a youth. Its fullness capturing the essence of our the feelings they’d presented with such unity of vision:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring-
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
wetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Observations, the solo exhibition of works by Seattle artist Juliette Aristides continues until September 14 at the Reading Public Museum.

Prayerbook Review: Siddur Eit Ratzon

A Powerful Companion for Your Spiritual Journey

Dr. Joseph Rosenstein, the series creator of Siddur Eit Ratzon , offers authentic, refreshing and accessible approaches to fashioning a healthy, meaningful Jewish prayer life. This isn’t a denominational publication — whatever your degree of orientation to Judaism, his approach will delight, inform and awaken. I’m giving birth to this review after nine months of praying the new Siddur Eit Ratzon collection, because I want you to know about this body of work in time to obtain copies to partner your high holiday experience.

More after the jump.
Dr. Rosenstein is a mathematics professor at Rutgers University focused on applications for K-12. Hence his remarkably articulate, conceptual ability to serve as a field guide to Jewish prayer as a spiritual journey. In his words:

You may walk along a particular path many times without being aware of its features. However a few words from a guide may enable you to see its depth and beauty. As it is with the natural world, so it is with prayer: you may have recited the prayers many times without seeing the spiritual motivation of their authors or how the prayers fit together to create an organic whole.

Dr. Rosenstein particularly reveals the helpful, holy, life-affirming experiences hidden behind the off-putting English word god and Judaism’s abundance of Hebrew blessings. He offers gender neutral G-d language, and there are many theologies in the volume, creating space for all of us on the page and in the room. He doesn’t shirk from asking the hard questions, offering diverse answers, for example:

“So if all these blessings are provided to us all the time, with no strings attached, and if God won’t give us what we ask, then what purpose does prayer serve?

The answer is simple. We have to be receptive to these blessings…When we ask God for strength, we feel strengthened. When we seek healing, we are better able to draw on our own God-given recuperative powers. When we seek guidance, when we try to discern God’s will for us, we find our way to an appropriate path…”

Then Dr. Rosenstein asks, and here we’re still only on page 1 of the user’s guide: “Is this all truth, or is it all metaphor? The answer is simply “yes.”

In many ways the text helps us to release issues with the literal meaning of the text, while inviting us to  resonate with Jewish prayer through “slow, focused, intentional, and relaxed encounters with individual words, phrases and images.” This is how we are helped to change virtually molecularly, our perspective and way of feeling alive changes through this approach to prayer. Siddur Eit Ratzon shows how to get there in clear, contemporary non-coercive ways.

The truth is that prayer is a practice, meaning taking time with the approaches to prayer offered in Siddur Eit Ratzon, months such as I have, yields the fullness of spiritual juiciness, healing and meaning for living. Too many Jews find themselves glossing over the prayers, with eyes glazed at archaic forms, barely tasting what is possible. Dr. Rosenstein warms us up, so that the prayers can melt into our souls like butter on a warm slice of challah. We know and grow as people, the value of it all begins to come clear. He positions us for spiritual growth. A somewhat different and complementary approach is that of Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segal in their recent work Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, as well as that of Rabbi Shefa Gold, The Magic of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love.  

The Siddur Eit Ratzon series’ brilliant four column format is adopted from adopted with permission from Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil (across facing pages). From left to right you receive:

Transliteration + Hebrew Text + Interpretive Translation + Commentary.

These volumes sparkle with love and awe of the divine within our lived experience. Dr. Rosenstein views prayer as a spiritual path. Jewish tradition advocates love and awe as the two wings the soul needs to fly, to survive and thrive on life’s challenging journey. He helps us enter into prayer as soul-touching poetry and empowers us to relate to the idea of God through metaphor. For example, when considering the Amidah, he teaches us to “position God, as it were” for we are setting the stage for prayerful connection. “How do we envision God?” Recognizing that we are not the ultimate source of life, that within the Mystery of it all, the sages have selected images, God as metaphor to facilitate our well-being through prayer, Rosenstein translates and guides through the power of metaphor. For example, on page 7 of the Siddur Eit Ratzon paperback version of the daily siddur:

My soul praises You, Adonai.
Vast beyond imagination
You are robed in majesty and glory.
You clothe Yourself in beams of light,
You drape Yourself with the heavens. (Ps. 104:1-2)

How precious is Your Loving kindness, O God:
You shelter us all beneath the spread of Your wings,
You feed us all from the abundance of Your house,
You water us all from the overflow of Your springs.

For with You is the source of life,
In Your light we see light. (Ps. 36:8-10)

Six stages are identified within the traditional order of prayer that, when understood and practiced, matter most, and then he offers visualizations for them that are spread through the text. I recommend studying and engaging in these on as a regular practice — not only by yourself, also with your family, students, and in community. The texture of praying together will change and the prayers themselves will come more fully to life.

Substantial research shows the efficacy upon human health of the imagery elements within prayer. Research such as that by Jeanne Ackterberg, z”l  substantiates Dr. Rosenstein’s inclusions of visualizations such as this one in relation to the verse above: In Your Light we see light, found on page 9 of the daily siddur’s hardback version with instructions that “This guided meditation may be read aloud slowly by a leader, with 3- to 5-second pauses at the ellipses…”

Close your eyes…
Take a deep breath … and another …
  Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

Picture the sun…
and imagine yourself basking in its light …
taking in its brightness and its warmth …
feeling comfort and pleasure …
   Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

Imagine now that the source of that light …
is the source of all light …
that you are now basking in the radiance …
of the source of all life …

Imagine that you are surrounded
by God’s light …by God’s presence …
by God’s love … by God’s blessings …
   Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

Picture the vastness of the universe …
and imagine it filled with god’s light …
light that eclipses all darkness …
light that drapes the heavens …
light that surrounds your soul …

Ki im’cha m’kor chay-yim
For with You is the source of life …
b’or’cha nir-eh or
in Your light we see light…
   Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

When we turn toward Your light …
when we move into Your light …
our darkness is dispelled …
and we experience Your light …

Take another deep breath …
and bask in the spiritual light…
Take another deep breath …
and bask in the spiritual light …
of God’s presence …
In Your light we see light.

The author does leave out sections that relate to the sacrificial system. While most perhaps will not mind this at all, I find it unfortunate, because once understood, a world of powerful healing metaphors and awareness emerge from these traditions as well. He also categorically rejects the idea of a punishing God, or for that matter an absent God, declaring:

“The perspective of this Siddur is that God is always ready to receive and accept prayer — from any person, at any time — with no qualifications. When we call, God listens. Whenever we turn to God, God is there.”

And the tradition of understand “living in God’s house,” as a reward for the righteous is also transformed here. “The perspective of this Siddur is that each of us is always welcome in God’s house — as a visitor or as a permanent resident.” Kol HaKovod — all honor for taking these courageous, contemporary, neo-Hassidic stances!

Siddur Eit Ratzon is available in several versions — paperback and hardbound, daily, Shabbat and Holidays, and for High Holidays. Print and binding quality is very high and clear. Dr. Rosenstein a founder of the National Havurah Committee and its annual institute, where serious inquiry and exploration into Jewish practice is a respected norm, has undertaken a great deal of research to answer his own questions about the language, sequence, and purpose of traditional Jewish prayer. This vast body of work is a tremendous accomplishment and gift that will endure long into the Jewish future.  

Lo Yisa Jew el Jew: Being Touched by Tisha B’Av’s New Possibilities

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Tisha b’Av is a fast day in which we are turning our consciousness away from food, and onto how we tear down the fabric of society when Jews hate one another. Such hatred is traditionally given as the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple and is invoked in regard to other tragedies that have beset our people. A recent JTA article mentioned a video recently posted online, of a “Shas” (Sephardi Orthodox) rabbi declaring Jews in “knitted kippas,” i.e. modern Orthodox Jews, to be “Amalek.”

“Amalek” refers to the mitzvah of stamping out those engaging in pure evil. This evil is associated with those who assaulted the weak and elderly Jews at the rear of the Israelite exodus through the wilderness, later with Haman and his family in the Purim story, and eventually with Hitler and Nazism. Take a deep breath — and before vilifying the rabbi above, as he has reportedly done to other members of the Jewish people — let us not dare to be so easily goaded. Let’s rather “be peace” and maintain an intention within our Tisha b’Av practice of creating room for the many religious and secular cultures within Judaism. I so deeply want to be what I am asking for — to “be peace.” Yet, can I? Can you?

More after the jump.

It’s not easy, even within my own family. I was just recently attempting to pray on the women’s side of a synagogue, behind a mechitzah, the division between males and females — one taller than any of us women, made of thick plasticized canvas. Our connection to the prayer experience felt to me to have been deemed irrelevant in that darkened, muffled, scruffy space. Under such circumstances, inevitably most of the women chatted and few prayed. It was hard to be fully proud of the bright and caring bar mitzvah lad’s entry into young Jewish adulthood, with such substantial impediments in place.

Oh, what’s that, I hear? Inside of me, a voice whispered then, and now, “Be peace.” In Jewish tradition, one of God’s 105 names is Shalom. So, in my prayers, then, and now, I returned my intent to this goal, silently blessing the lad and his community with health, happiness and ahavas yisroel — to find ways to include all branches of the Jewish people in this mitzvah of love.

As depicted in the photo, when one of the women opened the mechizah for a peek, I, too, took a look, as the men were all focused in the direction of the ark and not at us. Later, at the reception, women and men were seated at separate tables. Upon picking up my “Mrs. Goldie Milgram” name tag, my step-grandson raced over to me calling, “Rabbi Goldie, Rabbi Goldie, how are you?” For the first time he did not offer a hug, as I am not a first degree blood relative. By dint of my being a step-grandmother, he can no longer touch or be touched by me, save by my words. So I told him, “Thank you for the wonderful, inclusive welcome! Perhaps you are a spark of the mashiach (messiah) — one who may kindle peace through keeping the flame of love among Jews and towards all. For by interpreting the mitzvah of ahavas yisroel as respectful, supportive interconnection within the Jewish people, it becomes more possible among the nations.” His reply, “I know, Rabbi Goldie. And I will, I will!” I am so proud of him.

Even while marinating today, on Tisha b’Av, in the horrors recorded in traditional Book of Lamentations (Eichah), I will not descend into hate and fear. My intention is to follow the instruction, to “Be Peace,” and to return to this intention as each verse and thought comes my way.

The news also includes some inspiration and hope, that of the solidarity of Italy’s Jews in support of the first black minister, who has been publicly degraded for her race. May we each and all be blessed with the courage to Be Peace, and for an easy and meaningful Tisha b’Av fast day of prayer, reflection and kind connection.  

Book Review: Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf: Welcome to Chelm’s Pond is a delightful and successful new interpretation of the genre of Chelm stories, with an original tale by author Sandor Schuman.

Theological inquiry and Jewish learning are traditionally embedded like subtle gems in the Chelm genre, and Schuman has not missed a beat on this score either. The illustrations, by Kevin Kuhne, are so clever and lively that one can also get drawn into the story through them. The pacing and parsing of the narrative has the tone of a great storyteller. Good fun and solid musing, all in one.

More after the jump.
Some of you may be thinking, “Chelm?” While today a town of almost 70,000 residents in Eastern Poland, for Jews Chelm is the name of a legendary village of inept, inside-out, hilarious illiterate Jews, whose behaviors and Yiddishisms have kept our people in stitches through many hard times. Beyond Mendel, “the renowned adventurer, woodsman, mountain man, and Adirondack guide who always tells the truth, even if he has to lie to do it,” the main characters in the book include Aufruf, the Yiddish-speaking dog, the Jewish quote maven Rabbi Chayyim Shammayim, “the oldest and wisest khokhem in all of Chelm’s Pond,” and especially, Bloomie, the dim-some shayne meydl.

Is this book for you? In this sample passage Bloomie is speaking:

“What’s your name, doggy?

Wagging his tail wildly, Aufruf replied, “Aufruf.”

“That’s a lovely name for a dog. How appropriate. Who gave you that name?”

“Colin Powell.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know him. Is he your owner?”

Nisht ahin, nisht aher. I am without an owner.”…

[Aufruf]… How can you just talk with me like it was an ordinary thing?”

“Well, it is an ordinary thing for you, isn’t it?” Bloomie replied. “And as for me, I talk to animals all of the time.”

“Yeah, but they don’t talk back.”

“Sometimes they do,” Bloomie replied, and then added, slowly for emphasis, “but you really have to listen.”

Aufruf was taken aback. Here was someone who could teach him his own lesson. Perhaps he should be more open-minded to hear other animals…”

Love, difference, gender issues, conversion to Judaism, belief in God, honesty and over 130 Hebrew and Yiddish terms are brilliantly introduced within the 103 pages of a book that can fit in a coat pocket. There are many interpretive levels to this book, making it appropriate for reading and discussion with children as well as adults. Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf, while keeping faith with the Chelm traditions, is also moving us forward with honest inquiry on difficult topics. It is a great way to develop a useful Jewish cultural vocabulary, and as a new piece of Jewish folklore, a sheer delight. A Guide to Chelm’s Pond for Teachers and Discussion Leaders is available as a free download at

Book Review: Renee H Levy’s Baseless Hatred

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Do you appreciate a good collection of Jewish sources on a topic, presented in a very readable way? One that guides you toward reflection upon your own prejudices and predilections? One that provides a review of the related research literature and a psychological approach to helping you to evolve into a better, more aware person? Then Baseless Hatred by Renee H. Levy might draw you in during the first half of the volume, and that would be a dayenu, i.e. it would be enough to justify encountering it.  

More after the jump.
Levy’s thesis is that:

… hate is triggered because our primitive neural system reacts to events from the perspective of our own preexisting insecurities, because we make generalizations (which may be positive or negative) and confuse associations (additional but not necessarily relevant information) with causality. We will see that once hate has been triggered it is difficult to extinguish. We will understand the rapid switch that occurs when a person who initially feels victimized into a vindictive perpetrator of hate.

The primary focus of Baseless Hatred is on preventing and resolving hatred between individual Jews, based upon Leviticus 19:17-18, is that “you shall not hate your brother in your heart.” The Bible offers examples of such hatred: Esau’s hatred for Jacob and that of Jacob’s sons for their sibling Joseph. Traditionally, the loss of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel are attributed to sinat hinam, “baseless hatred” between Jews. The lore of the Talmud includes a story (Yevamot 62b), that one of the great rabbis of the second century, Rabbi Akiva, had 24,000 students, and a terrible plague struck the students as Divine punishment for the utter lack of respect they showed to each other. When the plague finally ended, only five remained, and they are credited with carrying the learning from this trauma forward and saving Judaism in their time.

Contemporary case examples of how hatred arises between individual Jews are given in a clinical fashion in Baseless Hatred, along with potential approaches to avert and/or resolve such hatred. This facilitates readers in finding their own life parallels, and trying on the awareness methods that the author provides. One might call this section of the book an experience of mussar (moral), training in interpersonal awareness and personal change.

Arvevut, the mitzvah of mutual responsibility between Jews, is at the core of Levy’s approach to encouraging peace within the Jewish tent, under the heading: “Judah’s Legacy: The Judah Principle”. Judah was Jacob’s son and he offered his life as hostage to Joseph in place of his youngest brother in the Biblical story.  She explains: “Judah taught that in order to return and live in Israel, the Jewish people must reestablish its commitment to mutual responsibility. They did so at the covenant at Sinai.” And on the next page, in a way similar to how she will later quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks she explains that: “…hatred between two Jews results in a tear that does not stop at their relationship. It reverberates and ultimately destroys the unity and integrity of the national fabric.”

Indeed, but what of the human fabric and the narratives and feelings of all the other peoples and nations? The volume continues, unfortunately, into a blindly self-indulgent view of the Jewish people, accounting us as vastly more saintly than we are, or any humans could be.

“Jews will understand that acceptance and respect by other nations will eventually come when the latter will see that Jews have used their freedom and sovereignty to become moral individuals. At that point, anti-Semitic voices that accuse Israel of being a terrorist or outlaw state will have no echo and will be silenced.”

Were Rene H. Levy to have applied her theories and analysis with empathetic and authentic care for those beyond the Jewish people, this could have been a great book. Instead, in the second half of the volume she falls into the trap of speaking of Jews as great and essentially everyone else as perpetrators that do not appreciate us. The wisdom and process recommendations of finding empathy and understanding from the first half are so quickly lost. What a shame and ironic reflection of the prevailing human condition. We are all responsible to evolve, individually and as peoples. In the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:

“An “art” is any skill that is not innate but must be acquired by constant training and practice. To our thinking, therefore, being good is surely an art.”

Poet Responds to Jerusalem Municipal WOW Ruling

The Jerusalem District Court ruled in [April] that women praying at the Western Wall with prayer shawls and tefillin does not constitute a violation of “local custom” or a provocation, and therefore, no justification exists for detaining and interrogating women who engage in these practices. [Haaretz] Poet Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff’s response arrives in verse:

Women wearing tefillin and talit at the Western Wall. Photo: Michal Patelle.

Jerusalem Knows My Name

I can pray,
I can dance
While wearing purple and gold
In the shadow of King David’s Tower,
Because this City of Gold
This City of Peace
This Jerusalem, is
My city.
Its stones are smooth from my caress.
Its alleyways
Recognize my footsteps.
Its people
Know my name.
The Shekhina sings from my heart
In a voice soft and strong and round…
I have not forgotten Thee,
O Jerusalem,
I have not forgotten Thee.
My City of Gold,
My City of Peace….
You have kept me, and
You have remembered.
You have remembered me.
Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff is a professional storyteller and teacher. She uses storytelling as an educational tool to inspire exploration of Judaism and spirituality. Her story “Rina and the Exodus”appears in National Jewish Book Award-Winning volume Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning (Reclaiming Judaism Press)