We Can Become Older and Better
Having recently turned 50, I scheduled a spate of medical appointments, at the urging of my children, to make sure I wasn't falling apart. It seems, in fact, that I was. At the end of each exam, virtually every doctor sat me down, looked me in the eye and said: "As we age..." in that patronising voice that doctors often adopt. As we age? You don't need to tell me that everything is not in smooth working order. I can look in the mirror for that update. It's when your husband croons: "I love you just the way you were," that it really hurts.
We live in a youth-centred society. Someone over 50 recently complained to me that although she has a lot of institutional memory, a terrific work ethic and a great deal of work experience, she’s routinely passed over for much younger colleagues when applying for a job. She can’t prove it. She just feels it.
To this ageism, I spit out the words in Leviticus: “You shall rise up before the grey-headed and honour the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord,” (19:32). In the Jewish tradition, we revere the process of ageing into wisdom. We regard it as a blessing, as we find in Proverbs: “A grey head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (16:31). As we learn from our mistakes and hopefully grow in wisdom, we open ourselves to the possibility of greater piety and understanding.
I once asked my class to name one feature of ageing that they really enjoyed. Not one could name a physical change they appreciated, but they had no trouble identifying emotional benefits. There was the relief of expressing oneself more freely, understanding personal needs better, ridding oneself of baggage that had been carried for decades. They told me that they prioritise better and invest long-term in what they truly care about. They know who’s loyal. They know who their friends really are. This made me think of the prophet Isaiah: “Even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your greying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you,” (46:4).
These verses and observations are not about the body but about the mind. In a universe of the body beautiful, it’s hard not to see age as a dent in the dream. But in a universe of scholarship, it is usually the young who are at a disadvantage, just as we read in Job, “Wisdom is with the aged. With long life is understanding,” (12:12).
And just as I was getting myself good and depressed that everything may not be in the same working order, I read this story. In January of this year, Amy Craton, a 94-year-old woman living in Honolulu, earned a college degree online from the University of Southern New Hampshire. She started college in 1962 but married, had four children and needed to work. She never finished. Online learning allowed her to study where she lives. She finished up with a perfect 4.0 GPA — a first.
Being in her nineties and in a wheelchair, she couldn’t receive her diploma in hand at the graduation. It’s a demanding flight. Instead, the university’s president, Paul LeBlanc, flew to Hawaii (hardship duty) and gave it to her. She’s their oldest graduate. In one photo, the frail Craton looks up at LeBlanc with gratitude for this momentous occasion.
“It feels good to graduate, but in many ways I feel I am still on the road; I have more to learn” she told a journalist. “If you’re thinking about going back to school, do it. You’ll open up a whole new life.” She is now studying for her Masters.
It’s a heartwarming story but, in our tradition, not unusual. As people of the book, we revere those steeped in learning. We don’t ignore the physical changes of ageing.
At the same time, don’t ignore Maimonides — philosopher, legalist and physician — who believed that only a sound body could produce sound ideas. It is the sound ideas that, in the end, offer us deep meaning and grounding long past the time when our bodies may let us down.
Jewish education of the young has always been about offering study skills to protect our minds when we’re old. Maybe it’s time to replace “ageing” with “sage-ing” and set new mental challenges for our golden years.
Taking Care of Our Own
I took my food from the buffet and looked for a seat. This can always be socially awkward, but in a room of hundreds of Jewish communal professionals, I was bound to bump into dozens of people I knew. Nope. My food got cold. I recognized no one. This was wonderful news. A room filled with fresh young faces dedicating their professional lives to our people means “not knowing” is a blessing.
I was at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando this past December. Hillel International supports programming at 550 campuses globally and employs more entry-level professionals than any other Jewish nonprofit. Many faces were unsurprisingly new. At professional conferences, people who haven’t seen each other in a long time skip plenaries to kvetch about work and its limitations. Not here. There was a vibe of positive energy, an openness to possibility. And there was an extra reason for all the good energy.
The Marcus Foundation announced a $38 million gift to the release of hundreds of blue and white balloons dropping from the ceiling. It felt like a political convention, but just much more hopeful. The gift is designed to help identify, train, recruit and retain top Jewish professionals for a powerful talent pipeline.
If that wasn’t enough, there were other gifts — totaling $11 million in new investments to launch Hillel U, ongoing professional development in person and online. Hillel professionals are reaching young Jews at an impressionable time in their decision-making lives. The better equipped they are, the more they can give.
All this good news was a wonder to watch. For too long now, foundations and federations have thrown themselves at the unaffiliated, the just Jewish, the undetermined and un-proud with the promise of engagement — whatever that mystery word means. Millions of dollars have been spent to lure people to enjoy something for nothing as they consider what will next be free. The results of this have been, for the most part, a terrific short-term high. Long-term, deep commitment still eludes us.
Jewish nonprofit professionals have stood on the sidelines and watched philanthropic dollars go to those who have shown the least interest in the Jewish project. Meanwhile they scrape and save for camp and school tuitions. A friend with three kids can’t afford to keep them in a Jewish school because she works in a Jewish nonprofit.
Who is watching out for those who are watching over us?
Hillel is showing the Jewish world that if you take care of your own — you educate, celebrate and invest in your people — they, in turn, will want to serve our people. It’s a winning formula for excellence. Unfortunately, it’s not intuitive in our community. Look around at many Jewish nonprofits, and you’ll find inconsistent supervision and evaluation. Very few organizations have created and sustained a culture of learning. If they have episodic programming, it’s often not meaningful enough to have real impact. Our talent pipeline has been drying up for years.
Then there’s the matter of Jewish literacy — music to my ears. The first major initiative in Hillel U: The Center for Jewish and Israel Education, funded by a $7.7 million grant from the Maimonides Fund. Serious Jewish learning shapes better people and better professionals. There are many important benefits to enhanced Jewish study. Here’s one of my favorites: eliminating imposter syndrome. No one working on behalf of the Jewish people should be intimidated by a Jewish text or not know the difference between a mishnah and Maimonides.
We’re not going to master a 4,000-year history of Bible and Talmud, of commentaries and history, of philosophy, prayer and mysticism. But every person who works for our community should be able to stand tall and self-confident as a Jew, informed and able to make knowledgeable Jewish choices. When professionals driven by passion and mission lack the anchor of Jewish study, it’s like standing naked on the frontlines of this work, feeling embarrassed as the “ambassador Jew” who can’t answer questions about our tradition.
These generous donations are reinforcing best practices and creating new ones. Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, wisely said, “These grants will not just transform Hillel, but transform the Jewish world.” Yes. All this magic can happen if other Jewish organizations pay careful attention to what Hillel is getting right. Think again about investing much in those who care little. Invest more in those who care much. The returns will be immeasurable.
When to Say No as a Jewish Leader
In my office is a decorative picture with the words “Become a possibilitarean.” The idea that we “dwell in possibility,” as Emily Dickinson once said, makes life and leadership exciting. Experimentation and innovation invite possibility, and one word seems to extend that invitation and respond to it best: Y-E-S.
Many professionals and volunteers in the Jewish nonprofit world suffer from leadership fatigue. One of the chief symptoms and causes of this problem is the same three-letter word: Y-E-S.
Many of us want to please. We want to be loved. We want to be the kind of people who say yes when asked. After all, we enter Jewish organizational life as professionals or volunteers in order to serve, and we serve when we say yes.
But when we say yes too many times and to too many responsibilities, we may find our energy and capacity dangerously thin. Instead of creating possibilities, we may compromise our ability to lead and influence others. Burn-out awaits.
“Yes” can open up – and “yes” can shut down.
Are you saying yes when you really want to say no? The pressure to conform, comply, or contribute often steers well-meaning but overcommitted individuals to say what they don’t really mean. It reminds me of a particularly prescient and short expression in the Talmud: "Rabbi Yohanan says, ‘There is a yes that is like a no and a no that is like a yes.’” (BT Bava Kamma 93a). It’s best to make sure you know what you're saying.
If you’re a fundraiser or a recruiter, you live for a yes – and there’s a way to expedite that answer. Professors N. Gueguen and A. Pascual conducted a study of what it took to get people on the street to give a charitable donation. The average rate of success was 10%, but when subjects were told they were free to accept or refuse, a striking 47.5% complied.
Asking alone is insufficient. What helped get people to “yes” was the possibility of and personal freedom to say “no.”
Five years later, the same researchers used a similar technique to find out the increased likelihood of people completing a survey if they had an opt-out clause. Not surprisingly, it worked again. This kind of language set up an exchange dynamic where the kindness of giving someone a choice was repaid, if you will, with the participant giving a positive answer. Giving someone else a choice, in other words, feels empowering and is often rewarded with an affirmation.
Giving someone a get-out clause may be a technique we need to more readily apply in the world of Jewish organizational life.
The sense of choice it creates allows people to enter into leadership roles with greater consensuality. It also gives leaders the chance to say no. There will always be guilt attached to saying no, but perhaps it’s time to reassess that guilt.
Many of the people who ask us to get involved, to give money, and to come to another meeting are not doing it because it is to our advantage but because it’s to theirs. This usually doesn’t enhance our leadership sphere of influence; it diminishes it.
Here are seven questions to ask yourself when considering a leadership role:
- Am I saying yes to satisfy myself or to satisfy someone else?
- Is there anyone else who can do this more efficiently, more capably, or more willingly?
- Am I uniquely situated and positioned for this role?
- Will this role grow my talent and/or give me needed experience and skills?
- Will saying yes help me better achieve my own leadership goals?
- Is now the right time in my life to say yes?
- Will I eventually resent my yes?
If saying no is still difficult, find a verbal narrative that helps you say it gracefully – namely by mentioning but bypassing yes, for example, “I’d love to take this on some day, but now is not the right time for me” or “I’m really engaged in a leadership project that is important to me, so I can’t say yes to you right now” or “I think so-and-so is a better fit for this opportunity.”
Say yes to too many people or responsibilities and you’ll find that what you really care about is not getting enough time and space to live and grow.
My most important piece of advice to leaders: Say no to say a bigger yes. That bigger yes will better grow your passion and compassion.
Can a Divided America Heal?
Many churches are holding a prayer service for healing today, to bring people together with humility and contrition over election-related bad behaviors, to try through faith to bring people together who have sparred mightily. The Episcopal Church of the First Ascension in Cartersville, Georgia will hold one at 12:15, if you’re interested. Alternatively, you can go to the “Unity Service of Healing for Our Nation” at the Avondale Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina at noon. The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson of St. Aiden’s in Virginia Beach will be preaching at his healing service. Virginia is not only for lovers. It’s for pray-ers, too. Wilkinson wants us to go back to being good neighbors, better friends, empathic congregants. “I think it’s incredibly important to go back to treating each other with some sense of dignity,” he has said. Maybe noon is the popular hour because the hangover after the all-night drinking stupor, brought about by the Trump victory, needs time to wear off.
But can healing take place so quickly when the fragmentation is so deep? I wonder. What will rabbis be doing across the country in their sermons this Shabbat? Will they, too, lead healing services? If I were a rabbi, I would teach II Chronicles 10 because this election cycle was biblical in its hubris and in the possibility it presents for redemption.
Here’s the basic plot. After King Solomon died, his son Rehaboam took his seat on the throne. Rehaboam would then reign for 17 years, have 18 wives, and 60 concubines. (That’s nothing compared to his father, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines.) Rehaboam had 28 sons and 60 daughters. He also had a very rough leadership start. One of Solomon’s ministers, Jeraboam, wanted a change in the kingdom and approached the new king with a committee (because if it’s Jewish, it needs a committee). They respectfully asked him to lighten the punishing work load that Solomon placed upon the people. For Solomon’s ambitious building plans of Temple and palace, he burdened the people with great labor. The people wanted a break: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you” (II Chronicles 10:4).
Rehaboam asked for time. He wanted three days to think about his response, which would ultimately determine what kind of leader he wanted to be. This seems wise and thoughtful. He took the case to his father’s advisers, the old guard, to seek their considerable wisdom. They counselled Rehaboam to follow the people. Lighten the load. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked. They replied, “If you will be kind to these people and please them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants” (10:6-7). Lead with compassion and you will be rewarded with steady followship.
But Rehaboam then made a tragic error. He sought the counsel of his peers as well. These young, brash friends, full of machismo and arrogance, gave him different advice. Reject the peoples’ pleas. Stress your power: “If my father hit you with whips, I will hit you with scorpions,” they said. Ouch. “Now tell them, ‘My finger is thicker than my father’s loins’” (10:10). We hear the bravado and the sexual innuendo in these words. Politics for Rehaboam and his friends was not about influence; it was about power, the power to corrupt, to exploit, to diminish, and to demean.
Three days passed, and the committee came back. No surprise, Rehaboam used the language of his rag-tag band. He spoke of scorpions and loins. The people left dejected, but instead of simply accepting more of the king’s dominance, they fought power with their own limited power. The king hired a task-master—and like in an earlier version of a young Jewish man who killed an Egyptian task-master beating a slave—the people fought back. “King Rehaboam sent out Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labor, yet the Israelites stoned him to death. King Rehaboam, however, managed to get into his chariot and escape to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (10:18-19).
The people got the last word. They killed their tormentor to access their freedom. Rehaboam escaped, frightened of the mutiny that his bravado generated. When people feel highly charged and their needs are grossly neglected, they sometimes resort to violence.
Many of us woke up today to a different America. All across this country, we find voters, who felt angry and disenfranchised, today proudly claiming victory in a fight colored by bravado, by a mean-spirited, hate-filled campaign. They feel heard. Trump’s America promises a different landscape, not the liberal elite one that his supporters feel has controlled the country for too long. The people, just as in Rehoboam’s day, ultimately triumphed. But in our story, the king had to run away because he used his power inappropriately.
I think about Donald Trump’s first days of leadership. I wonder, President-elect, who will your advisers be? Only you can decide if you will continue the bold swagger of power or opt for the civilizing influence of persuasion. This country’s deep political divide requires more than reaching across the aisle. It’s almost like reaching across the universe. Raw power appeals to people who feel powerless. It appealed to Rehaboam. But the Bible always advocates a referendum, so to speak, on human power. It contains story after story of power gone awry with the hope that someone is listening, that someone will privilege influence over power. It’s a return to the politics of respect that will ultimately heal us.
Healing is not only about bringing people together who are in pain. It’s about changing the binary discourse of hate and control that created the suffering in the first place. As citizens, we may not have political power, but we have the power to heal ourselves and each other and this country.
Let a new day begin.
Politicians, please learn from the Jews. We know how to exit well.
We've recently finished reading the whole Torah. I love the ritual upon the liturgical completion of a biblical book. We stand tall in the synagogue and recite three words out loud asking for renewed strength: "Hazak Hazak Ve'nitchazek." We hope with the close of one book and the opening of another, we retain our sacred energy and amplify it. We say a dignified goodbye to what we've read. We hope that the words soon to be read will also jump from the scroll and into our lives, that this text is not static but electric. This is all the more so when we complete the entire Torah. I confess. I always feel a bit proud and weepy when we do this together.
Judaism does endings well, whether it's finishing a biblical book or the intricate laws of shiva that frame how we say farewell to those we love. I feel sad for my non-Jewish colleagues and friends who don't have such closing rituals, who go to work the next day because - well - what else is there to do? We end the shiva week by rising and walking around the block, signifying that we must also say goodbye to mourning. We don't rush it, but we don't stay in that dark place for so long that we can't remember the light.
These rituals of beginnings and endings help us manage the transition time in between. A few years ago, my husband bought me a book by Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. He knows I admire her writing, although it's just a little weird when your husband buys you a book called Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free. I didn't take it personally. But what I did take to heart is what she wrote in that book about the way we say goodbye. She contends that in contemporary society we celebrate beginnings more than endings. The way we offer small goodbyes, she believes, are often connected to our capacity or incapacity to end larger chapters of our lives in an authentic and meaningful way.
One of the smoothest leadership transitions in the Bible is unexpected. When we closed the Five Books, we said goodbye to Moses, a prophet who Deuteronomy 34 tells us will never have an equal. We can only imagine, therefore, that the next leader will face insurmountable difficulty in establishing credibility. That's not the case. When we open the book of Joshua, we encounter a repeated expression that mirrors our close of biblical books. The people keep telling Joshua to be strong and of good courage, imbuing him with the confidence that they never offered to his predecessor.
I've been thinking a lot about that goodbye and hello lately. As I write this, we are eleven days away from November 8. The polls opened yesterday. Pollsters have commented on the unusual uptick of early voting this election. Why? People are sick of this presidential campaign, and even though it's not over when they vote early, it is over for them. They need the psychic reassurance that their own part in it is done and gone. What's even scarier is the thought of the day after the election, the predicted violence or the questioning of the integrity of the voting system. How will we heal?
There will be no smooth leadership transition. In actual fact, after the president is sworn in in January, she or he has about six hours to move into the White House. The Secret Service moves one president's personal belongings in and another's out the week before the inauguration, following a detailed floor-plan created by the new president and family. Even if the move goes smoothly, the country is in such a deep state of fragmentation, it seems impossible to imagine all the bad feelings swept under the Oval Office rug.
I, too, thought of voting early, disgusted by the tenor of the debates, the meanness, the cult of personality trumping the discussion of policy and the strange October surprises. I cannot wait for November 9.
But I decided, nevertheless, not to. I love voting as a community. Any student of Jewish history must celebrate the rights of citizenship. I kvell when putting in my ballot and happily wear an "I voted" sticker all day. No ugliness is going to take away this ritual, even if this election has been the worst in my memory. I just hope we can say goodbye and hello with more dignity. Politicians, please learn from the Jews. We know how to exit well.
The Clichés Are Coming
Now that the holidays are over, the Jewish calendar will quickly turn to a slew of dinners and fundraising events. The events will be fabulous because fabulous — said in a perky voice with an over-emphasis on the first syllable — is the one-word Jewish evaluation that makes us all feel better about ourselves. The centerpieces are fabulous. The speaker is fabulous. The honorees are fabulous. The only thing that may not be fabulous is the food. And when it’s not fa-bulous, it’s awful, terrible or, my favorite criticism, totally inedible.
With the slew of dinners comes the march of the cliché. The Jewish clichés are coming fast and furious, and I want you to be the first one to catch them. Because a Jewish event should give some formal nod to our ethnicity or our heritage, we usually pull out of our Jewish lexicon something everyone already knows. This leaves no need to pay attention.
Here are some of my favorites Jewish clichés. Don’t hesitate to add yours:
“All of Israel are responsible one for the other.” If I hear this one more time, I am going to become irresponsible.
“If I am not for myself? If I am only for myself…” In Hebrew, this is usually a tongue twister and comes out wrong. In English, it sounds decent but hackneyed. I’m sorry Hillel. You have more than one great saying. I just wish people knew more of them.
“Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved a whole world.” Since few of us are in the life-saving business, it’s usually irrelevant but always sounds impressive — unless, of course, you’ve heard it a thousand times.
“Hinei ma-tov u-manayim” — with or without a guitar. Can we please learn one more Hebrew song? Please? I’m also not sure what goodly tents look like.
“If you will it, it is no dream.” Let’s face it, Herzl would be bored of himself by now.
“A woman of valor, who can find. Her worth is far above rubies?” I will give you a ruby for every time you were going to use this expression but held back. This verse is used almost every single time a Jewish woman is honored. There are actually 22 lines in this passage from Proverbs 31. Right now, I’d be happier with “She makes coverings of tapestry,” I’m that tired of rubies.
“These and these are the words of the living God…” – slightly more advanced because it’s the Talmud but still over-taught. The Talmud is a multi-volume work. We must be able to find another page besides BT Bava Metzia 59b.
“May you go from strength to strength” makes me want to go from weakness to weakness. I can’t help it.
This is going to make me into a real curmudgeon, but even “mazal tov” is starting to get me down, especially when instead of adding something personal to expand it, we say it twice for effect. This is when I pull out my go-to cliché: oy vey.
Here’s two possible reasons for the Jewish cliché: There’s comfort food for the body and comfort quotes for the soul. We want people in a Jewish space to feel like they are home, and home is a place where things are familiar. I get that. We reach for cliches because they feel safe and were, once upon a time, genuinely inspiring until we hacked them to death through repetition.
Here’s the less generous reading. We’re woefully illiterate of the richness of our tradition. We pick a cliché not because it’s safe but because it’s all we know. It requires less effort than looking for something new, than asking a rabbi/teacher for help, than using the internet more effectively and finding something new and fresh to say.
You may feel genuinely inspired by the trite and over-used. Most aren’t. It gives the impression that we don’t have more than a cliché to offer at moments that benefit from being unique and memorable. Even powerful, inspiring quotes lose their punch with overuse. We have such a text-saturated tradition that it’s not hard to find something new. But it does take effort, an effort that makes us smarter and more insightful.
I invite you to take the 5777 Leadership Challenge. This year go deeper and higher at your dinner or next event. Let’s use these occasions to invite a genuine teaching moment that uplifts us and takes us to somewhere we haven’t been before. If you’re the emcee, CEO, the president or anyone with a leadership role, show us a little bit of your Jewish imagination. Steer clear of a great but overused line that betrays no original thought. Nation, we can do this. I know. Because if you will it, it is no dream.
The Life-Changing Art of Giving
‘The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” writes Marie Kondo. This quote made me think of Kondo in this High Holiday season. On both days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur, we recite a prayer declaring that three behaviors can change an evil decree: repentance, prayer and charity. Without getting into the theology of this statement, how many of us will engage in any of these arenas in a different way this year? A Japanese cleaning consultant pushed me into the discomfort zone.
I know I’m not the only person who devoured Marie Kondo’s wacky, demanding, slightly OCD book: “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I know because it was on sale at Costco, and they ran out of copies. I read the book believing that de-cluttering her way could change my life. It helped me change my closet. Not sure about my life yet. That will probably take more work. Let’s apply her philosophy of de-cluttering to charitable giving.
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” What charities really tug the compassion heartstrings or make us feel that giving is really receiving? I’m not sure when we stopped using tzedakah in organized Jewish life and started using philanthropy. Maybe we wanted our giving to feel less transactional and part of the very fiber of our beings. I am a philanthropist rather than I give charity.
“The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask, does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” What causes do we support that bring about real joy? There are causes where we believe in the mission, the leadership or the impact. Kondo wants us to actually hold items when asking this question. I felt pretty silly talking to my old sweaters, but she is on to something. Only when you hold something do you realize if you want to keep it or chuck it. You can’t hold a tzedakah in your hand, but you can hold it close and delve into your true feelings about it.
“…when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” We are all afraid to let go of giving to a charity that no longer speaks to us. The key is to ask why. Are you holding on because you believe in a nonprofit’s mission/vision or because of status, friendship or the potential embarrassment of pulling out? Some people would rather make a new pledge than have an uncomfortable conversation.
A friend of mine from a very philanthropic family helped me understand how she and her relatives “cleaned up” their giving. She drew a pyramid. On the bottom, the largest third of it, she wrote Obligation. The mid-section said Passion and the small pyramid top said Strategy. This described the family’s giving patterns.
Obligation refers to organizations with long ties to the family and lots of gifts to friends and colleagues who collect for various charities: the bike-a-thon, the walkathon, the 5K, the 26.2 mile for this cause and that. In the passion category were gifts to places like their alma maters or medical concerns they really cared about, and in the strategy category were impact gifts where they were really making a difference by leveraging a gift.
A philanthropic adviser helped them slowly invert the pyramid. Obligations were tapered; they would come to represent the smallest part of their charitable contributions. Strategic gifts became the largest swath of the pyramid and the anchor of their tzedakah.
The inverted pyramid became my new way of sketching out intentional philanthropy. For those of us who are charitable but not exactly philanthropists yet, this rubric is still immensely helpful. Confession: our own charitable giving as a family is largely self-serving. We give to institutions from which we personally benefit but give far less to where we have real impact or where our true passions lie. We haven’t been giving strategically. Have you?
“The place in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” If we truly believe that our behaviors can profoundly affect our futures, then perhaps this is the year that we re-think charitable giving. Let’s go into the year not only giving more but giving differently. Give better, not only bigger. Giving should be an expression of our deepest priorities.
As repentance dictates, we don’t stay the same. Why should our charitable giving?
We All Need to Confess Our Sins
Many Jews have admitted to me that they secretly wish we had a confession box, a shadowy dark space to unburden ourselves of our own dark deeds in anonymity. A priest friend who listens to confessions about 10 hours a week (by the way, that's a small part-time job) says anonymity is not easy when you work in a community and most of your confession box visitors are repeat offenders.
Instead, we Jews gather in synagogues with hundreds of coreligionists on Yom Kippur and very publicly recite a "sin script." We beat our chests - it's not a real beating, just a small guilt tap, really - and the confessional prayers we recite are pre-prepared and in the plural. Maimonides writes in his Laws of Repentance that we should go through a personal change process that includes confession, regret/shame and then a pledge not to do it again. But, since most of us are crazy busy, we wait until Yom Kippur for introspection and what we need to tackle as individuals collapse into the fast-paced choreography of the service, washing right over us.
Every year in this season, I find myself in adult classrooms trying hard to create a reflective space. I ask people to customise their sin list according to their work, home life or volunteer commitments. I never ask for more than three "al chets" – "For the sin of…" I do ask participants to use the traditional text framework. Sin is a loaded word and doesn't fit neatly into the lexicon of modern sensibilities. But I find that it is a powerful word because it labels rather than sanitises our own human failings.
I might meet a group of Jewish lay leaders at a board meeting and ask them to write down two of their own leadership sins and one for their board on a small index card. They don't have to share, but many of them find relief in sharing their struggles and hearing those of others.
Common leadership sins I've heard over the years:
● For the sin of impatience.
● For the sin of micro-managing.
● For the sin of not trusting others enough.
● For the sin of expecting people to be grateful.
I've done this exercise with university students who have their own distinctive and often idiosyncratic culture:
● For the sin of wasting time.
● For the sin of not being a good enough friend.
● For the sin of procrastination.
● For the sin of partying too much.
● For the sin of not sticking up for Israel on campus.
I particularly love engaging with parents in this challenge:
● For the sin of hating to do homework with my children.
● For the sin of being overly protective.
● For the sin of losing my temper.
● For the sin of looking at a screen when my kid is talking to me.
A few years ago, I went to America's deep South to study with a group of rabbis in preparation for the High Holy Days, hoping to spark sermon inspiration. I gave them each an index card and invited them to share their customised rabbinical sin list, should they wish to, with their colleagues in the spirit of personal growth. I can't remember them all, but two confessions linger. One rabbi, with a straight face, read his card: "For the sin of praying that none of my congregants die on my day off." I laughed out loud until I saw every other rabbi in the room nodding in agreement. He expressed what many were afraid to say. This job can be really hard. Establishing boundaries isn't easy when you're a rabbi.
Another rabbi read his card and his confession hovered in a pool of silence before the conversation resumed: "For the sin of gravitating towards congregants I like because I am the rabbi of my entire congregation." With striking honesty, this rabbi understood that it is his duty to reach out to everyone, not only those who are easy or pleasant or open to spiritual change.
It is not enough to write a wrong. For change to happen, the articulation of wrongdoing has to be the beginning of a commitment to a new self, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, "A confession has to be part of your new life."
We're probably not going to get it right this year either, but index cards are pretty cheap. I highly recommend buying a pack in the next few days and spending a few quiet minutes alone.
Say Hello from the Other Side
Adele's popular song Hello became instantly ubiquitous. It was played everywhere. Hard to sing, it was, however, easily spoofed, and we probably all had a moment when we said hello to someone and wanted to break into song. I held back. I hope you did.
Hello was the first song to sell a million digital copies in a week and became the number-one song in almost every country in which it was played. The song may have climbed so quickly to the top because its message of regret and sentimentality was tied up in a single word of greeting. We are always saying hello from the other side because every act of greeting is an attempt to create a slim bond between very disparate and sometimes desperate souls.
This may explain the profound significance of a Jewish aphorism that is often trivialized. In Ethics of the Fathers, we are adjured to "Greet every person with a cheerful countenance" (3:12). How hard can that be? Did our sages really need to waste their breath teaching us how to say hello?
In a word: yes.
The impact of being greeted warmly or not being greeted at all is not trivial. A greeting is the way we take in another person and communicate affection or disdain, curiosity or dismissiveness.
The impact of being greeted warmly is not trivial.
Think about a cocktail party when you were snubbed by someone who simply couldn't be bothered. Worse, think about how often this happens in Jewish settings: synagogues, community centres, schools. And in relationships where there is real history, one wrong non-verbal gesture, even unintentional - a smirk, a shrug, a failure to make eye contact - can send a relationship into a tailspin.
We all do it. We greet people we already know. We turn up the charm to people we need or like and pay little attention to strangers. Before the High Holy Day season some years ago, I found myself in the American south helping a group of rabbis prepare sermons for the season.
I asked each of them to write down in the Yom Kippur framework of the Al Chet's - our sin confessional - three professional struggles they faced. One rabbi wrote this: "For the sin of gravitating to congregants I like when I'm the rabbi of my entire congregation."
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his seminal article, The Community, wrote of the psychic and spiritual cost of this act of neglect: "Quite often a man finds himself in a crowd of strangers. He feels lonely. No one knows him, no one cares for him, no one is concerned about him. It is an existential experience. He begins to doubt his own ontological worth. This leads to alienation from the crowd surrounding him. Suddenly someone taps him on the shoulder and says, 'Aren't you Mr So-and-so? I have heard so much about you.'
"In a fraction of a second, his awareness changes. What brought about the change? The recognition by somebody, the word!"
This happens among strangers and also among those we love the most. I'm a morning person. But I can't say the same for most of my children. I remind them often that he who hoots with the owls at night, cannot soar with the eagles in the morning. Morning moodiness is hard for us parents.
When one of my sons was in the male teenage grunt years, I asked him for a favour. Could he come downstairs in the morning and say two short sentences? It would make my day. "Good morning, mom. You look so radiant today." It's all I asked for, but it was a lot.
The next morning ,the clever boy handed me a card: "Good morning. You look so radiant today." I laughed and then asked him if he wanted it back for the next day.
In traditional services, the Al Chet prayer is recited 10 times over Yom Kippur. Three out of the first four lines speak directly to the pain of the anonymity we intentionally or unintentionally create for others:
For the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.
For the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently.
For the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.
As a community, let's make a small High Holy Day commitment: to smile at those we don't know, to greet family and friends with more energy.
One warm hello from the other side can make all the difference.
How Important is Punctuation?
There has been a small war taking place on my street. Someone has purchased lawn signs to slow down the cars. They say: "Drive Slow. Deer Here" and "Drive Slow. Children Here." The latest one on display in the same spot is "Drive Slow. Pets Here." My husband brought each sign home and added an -ly to the word "Slow" and then put the sign back. We refuse to live in a neighborhood that rejects adverbs.
"Drive Slowly. Grammarians Here."
I have not achieved Lynne Truss's curmudgeonly state of condescension over grammar and punctuation but must confess to cringe when someone says "The reason is because…" or that font of linguistic controversy "irregardless." My innards shake when the perpetrator of these language crimes is a Jewish leader or representative of our people. It makes me wish we had an adverb form of "oy."
Having recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah, I've been thinking a lot about Americans and language, specifically about punctuation. Adichie's protagonist struggles to speak American English upon arrival on its golden shores. English is her native language in Nigeria, but it's different; her pronunciation seems richer, slower in its lilt. She decides to reclaim her native way of speaking as a small act of personal defiance.
After finishing the book, I found myself listening to American English as an observer. In my little language laboratory, I hear lots of short words, often repeated, with exclamation marks, communicated in emails and texts with emojis. Awesome! Have a great day! Thanks so much! Sometimes, especially around younger women, I hear statements ending in question marks. I'm not sure I want to complete this project? I can have that ready for you today?
Looking inward, I realised something about my own communication style. I have been ambushed by exclamation marks. I never used to use an exclamation mark. It would not dawn on me in the course of everyday living to indulge in this scribble of excitement. It was too perky. I didn't even like reading sentences that ended in exclamation points. They overwhelmed me with false emotion and suspicion. They were, in a word, distracting.
But then - I am not sure when it happened - I found myself responding to e-mails with a cheery, "Great!" if someone could attend a meeting or read a draft of something. I was as excited as if it had already happened and brought with it excessive good news like major lottery winnings or the receipt of a Nobel Prize. I began to use them with abandon. Gone was my insistence on serious sentence formulation. I had suddenly become a teenage girl living in a suburb of Los Angeles. I even started using emojis for an occasional decorative touch. My life was awash with hyper-happiness.
I had to remind myself of Anton Chekov's short story, The Exclamation Mark, where a civil servant who is accused of not understanding the rules of punctuation discovers that, in 40 years, he had never used an exclamation mark. He becomes an addict, depositing them everywhere. My, how life changes when you indulge in this little visual flourish! But overuse it, and punctuation becomes a too-easy substitute for the construction of meaning with actual words. It's reductive and limiting.
I found myself responding to emails with 'Great!'
So here is how my rehab happened. I thought of a Torah scroll and an Aramaic page of Talmud. There is no punctuation in either, just cantillation notes in the scroll. This can make reading and studying a taxation on the brain. What is a question? What is merely a statement? Life without punctuation is confusing, like this famous sentence designed to trip-up readers. Let's eat grandma. No comma. No grandma.
Life without punctuation forces a focus on words and their interpretation. If anything has kept us innovative, vibrant, intellectually taut and enduring as a people, it's our relationship to words and their possible meanings. Imagine a Torah scroll full of emojis, a smiley face when Abraham and Sarah had a child or a little sad face near the commandment, "Thou shall not kill."
Thank goodness for sacred texts free of this burden. Maybe it's time we all dial down our punctuation exuberance. I've sobered up. I'm down to one punctuation mark every 24-hour cycle! Writer Isaac Marion says he longs for exclamation marks but is drowning in ellipses. Take comfort in the creativity of ellipses, Mr Marion. They leave more room for the imagination
Go Fund Me
Luddite that I am, I thought GoFundMe was just another request from my children for cash. It’s actually a website so that other peoples’ kids can ask for money, like funding for unusual projects, tuition, travel or rehab. People need funding to recover from serious house fires or for escalating medical costs. Crowd-sourcers bring attention to their causes and find someone else to pay for them. It’s brilliant. My own list is growing.
There is something both compelling and uncomfortable about such requests. Attractive because it gives people with charitable impulses an easy way? to fund someone directly, to feel good about a gift that can really make a difference, to be buoyed by the kindness of strangers, especially those who leave notes of encouragement with their donation. It’s meaningful and inspiring.
The less attractive side is the unseemly assumption that people making such requests are counting on strangers to fund them. Why should I pay for your life when my own life costs so much? Pay your own way.
This tension surfaced when I asked a group of community leaders what they thought of converts who use GoFundMe to cover the cost of conversion and study in Israel or elsewhere to help deepen and stabilize their new commitment. I have made such contributions but not without hesitation. It’s special when someone you’ve supported posts this: “…every day brings more knowledge and growth. I feel so blessed. … And it is all thanks to Hashem and the help and support of all of you.” I played a little part in an amazing transformative moment.
Wait a minute, you ask. Does it cost money to convert? Some people were bewildered that there was anything other than minor administrative costs associated with conversion. A Canadian rabbi said that even those minor costs are waved if a convert cannot pay them. The reliance on home hospitality and free study opportunities should keep converts in the black while they’re trying to become blue and white. “They keep their day job,” the rabbi said, “and the deeply personal, internal process takes place at their pace during their internal spiritual journey.”
One academic felt that sponsoring converts at this stage would not be preparing them for a future of expenses associated with living Jewishly. “Judaism is actually an expensive religion — it entails (significant) costs. If the cost of conversion classes is a barrier, the cost of being Jewish — kosher food, High Holiday seats, Jewish day schools, etc. — will undoubtedly become a barrier as well.” In other words, the Jewish GoFundMe problem never ends.
This practical concern was eclipsed by a deeper one: Asking others to cover the cost of conversion and study may imply that converts have not put enough personal investment into the process. In the words of one senior rabbi: “Why should I pay for you to convert? Why don’t you pay for me to learn how to swim? Conversion is a serious business, and the prospective convert needs to be prepared to sacrifice many things, money being the least of them.” Another rabbi was concerned about the transactional nature of such an approach: “…conveying crowd-enthusiasm for purposefully choosing Judaism feels important,” but it “might be worthwhile to couple crowd-funding with commitment-fortifying affirmations of behavior and belonging.”
A recommendation: Converts who request funding should probably be explicit about the costs and their own contribution to the process. It would help compassion live more comfortably beside personal agency.
A Hillel leader felt that conversion costs should be covered but not future study in Israel. If a yeshiva would like to absorb costs, that is their choice. One New York rabbi felt that funding for the actual conversion was potentially problematic in the early stages of this decision: “If a potential convert knew there were financial perks to conversion it would certainly affect their objectivity in the process.” Having said that, he was very supportive of helping converts who have completed the process afford a Jewish home and lifestyle. In his words, “nothing could be more beautiful.”
A Jewish fundraiser put it bluntly: “Members of the Jewish community should support whatever it is that they deem worthy of charity.” A federation head said that he “would treat the charitable needs of people undergoing conversion exactly the same as those who are already Jews. While they are not quite yet ‘Jews by faith,’ they have already joined themselves to the fate of the Jewish people and are thus ‘Jews by fate!’”
“Converts have so many barriers to overcome,” writes one academic, including “the intangible barrier as a feeling of not quite being at home, not quite being accepted. This would telegraph a message: We welcome you and are glad you want to join us.”
Should embracing converts now require footing the bill? What do you think?
United' can so easily become 'untied' - especially in the States today
At 12:47 on May 10, 1869, the last iron spike united the Transcontinental Railroad. In a triumphant sweep, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads were brought together, two vast parts of America joined in a transportation feat that reduced six months of travel into a week-long excursion. The railroad mentally joined the relatively uncharted West with the robust and growing eastern parts of the country.
Leland Stanford performed the ritual hammering of a 17-carat gold spike that preceded the iron one in what the annals of American history call "The Ceremony of the Golden Spike". The spike was then removed for safe-keeping and now rests at Stanford University as a testament to this extraordinarily heady time in American life. All felt possible, unified and expansive. There was nothing this young, brash country could not do. The following prayer appears on one of the four sides of the spike: "May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world."
There's something uniquely American about this moment. It's full of pride and optimism and hubris. It inspires, and at the same time, creates an expectation of excellence and perfection that seems wholly unattainable. Ironically, Stanford actually missed the spike when he leant down in his suit to hit it, but the telegraphic service immediately typed one word that spread like wildfire: "Done."
I'm not a great speller and often find that "united" in my hand quickly becomes "untied," indicating the very opposite of its original meaning. When it is highlighted on my computer's spellcheck, it puts the mistake into sharp focus. It's a linguistic turn that expresses my own jaded feelings of what it's like to live in America right now, in the same season of the year, 147 years later.
We used to celebrate what united us. The celebrations, at least during this election year, seem to divide us, the Jewish community no less than any other. Our differences on guns and abortion, big or small government, the minimum wage and immigration have created a veritable impasse. It seems no spike, not even a golden one, can bridge this distance.
I live in a vibrant Jewish community about 16 miles from the White House. Politics is inescapable here and the subject of too many Shabbat table conversations. It seems that in Washington, D.C. even nursery school children can tell you how many delegates each candidate has. Pundits abound and multiply. Dividing lines are drawn quickly and rarely crossed. In this morning's paper, there's more on Hillary's e-mails and Donald's latest verbal assault. An image comes to mind.
It's not the spike that joined us. It's a small decorative flourish that tops the Trump family crest, no doubt a modern invention created to give an old-world patina to new-world money. A clenched fist holds a spear that rises out of the crest. It seems to be a warning. Things will get ugly. They are already ugly In contrast, to the spike and spear, Jews have an alternate symbol of strength straight out of the Hebrew Bible: the staff. Although it shares a similar base shape to the spear, its top gently slopes so that it does no damage. Unlike the spear, the staff communicates no violence. It's not a symbol of power, but of influence.
In Exodus 3, Moses told God he could not lead. God asked him one question: "What is in your hand?" In Hebrew, Moses replied with one word: a staff. In other words, whatever you have within you will enable you to lead: divine inspiration, the power of persuasion, the gift of a mission, the heartache of injustice.
A shepherd uses a staff to distinguish himself, to create height and direction. Shepherds also lead from behind to consider the terrain and weather, protect strays from predators and the flock from danger. A shepherd cannot speak the language of his flock, so shepherds must be self-reliant and comfortable being alone.
No matter, there is always God, who in Psalm 23, is also called a shepherd.
These will be long months ahead. What do you think of us in the colonies right now? I'm embarrassed. Personally, I long for the staff. I'd even make do with a spike. But then again it seems that right now, you have your own problems.
Fiddler On The Roof And Zombies
Zombies are everywhere lately, a virtual apocalypse in the wait. They’ve even infiltrated a Jane Austen novel. But why only “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?” We invented the golem. We should at least have “Fiddler and the Roof and Zombies.” There, standing on Tevye’s precarious roof, is a frightening man/monster who can’t wait to get his paw on a violin. The Pale of Settlement in 1905 is a perfect landscape. Mute to resistance and driven by supernatural forces of evil, these creatures will move across Europe, destroying everything, as Anatevka falls apart.
Oh, wait. Been there. Done that.
I had these bizarre thoughts as I read Etgar Keret’s memoir, “The Seven Good Years.” There Keret describes what he thought was an unusual prank. A man from Warsaw, Jakub Szczesny, randomly called his cell phone and told him that he saw a narrow gap between two buildings on Chlodna Street. Szczesny decided that he simply had to build Keret a house there. Naturally, Keret did not take him seriously. He filed the interchange in the “Unclear Practical Jokes” part of his brain and went on with his life. Two weeks later, Szczesny came to Tel Aviv to restate the offer for a three-story narrow house. Keret accepted.
Keret’s mother was born in Warsaw, lived in the ghetto, and lost her mother and brother and then her father to the Nazi regime. This loss haunts much of Keret’s writing and surfaces in unexpected bursts of sadness and rage. Ironically, Poland and Germany are two of the three places where Keret’s books fly off the shelves in translation. In his memoir, he shares that his success there was important to his mother, a sort of surprise triumph in a place once hers. She never returned to Poland.
Everything about this encounter sounds preposterous. But it’s true. Szczesny, a Polish architect, presented this artistic concept at the WolaArt Festival of 2009. It took three years to build the world’s narrowest fully functional house. At its widest point it’s 122 centimeters across, about 48 inches, bridging one pre-WWII building and one post-WWII building. It is called Dom Kerete, the Keret House, and is used by visiting writers. Keret was its first guest. Now those who produce art can fill this sliver of liminality, proving that expansive and original thinking can grow in the thinnest of spaces.
Contrast this with a different scene. Many years ago, I led a trip to Minsk, Vilna and Israel. One day the bus let us off in the Lithuanian village of Volozhin, home of the eponymous yeshiva. As we walked through its winding roads, we met a combination of suspicion and warm curiosity in the faces of old villagers intrigued by the sleek bus that disgorged well-dressed American tourists. What was there to see but an old and moldy Jewish building?
Suddenly the music of a fiddle drew our attention to a person in chasidic garb on the roof of a small wooden house. Oh no, I thought. It’s the worst Jewish cliché come to life. The tour operator had arranged for this “chance” encounter with Jewish nostalgia. But instead of a heavy-set middle-aged man, our fiddler was a thin local woman dressed in hat and side curls. I would have preferred a zombie.
We made our way to the yeshiva. I taught some passages of Maimonides on the centrality of Torah study in this now dank and neglected space that was once a packed study hall. In brutally cold winters, its tables and chairs held the best of Eastern Europe’s budding Jewish scholars in many realms: Reb Chaim of Volozhin, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Meir Bar Ilan. We continued to the cemetery where Reb Chaim was buried. It was overgrown with mountains of weeds. We spent a few futile hours trying to clean it up.
I was of two minds. Return Volozhin to its glory. Let people know that what this was still lives on in a robust network of yeshivot in Israel and across the globe, unimaginable in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Or perhaps we must end this chapter. We have moved elsewhere.
Then I thought of the world’s narrowest house. It’s a Jewish house. It says we lived here once and occupy a very small place still, nothing more than a reminder, really, to let you know we were here.
Soon we enter the period of the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, our day commemorating Jewish disasters. In Hebrew, we call this period “ben ha-mitzarim” — in the narrow straits. We have learned to live in these narrow spaces. We cannot forget what we’ve learned there. And every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we get a chance to redeem a narrow space.
It's Not Just About the Menu
Some decades ago, as the American Jewish community was becoming more deeply entrenched in its denominational ruts, Dennis Prager wrote a provocative article, “Beyond Reform, Conservative and Orthodox: Aspiring to Be a Serious Jew.” In it he wrote that he cared little about denominational affiliation. What he cared about — what he felt was the question of the hour was — are you a serious Jew? Wherever you are on the spectrum of observance or intention, is there depth, meaning and purpose to your Jewish life? There are serious Jews who take Jewish law seriously. There are serious Jews who take Jewish culture seriously or prayer or Jewish history or the Hebrew language. Fill in the blank.
And then there are scores and scores of people today who, on surveys, check “just Jewish.” This may be a reaction to pigeonholing people to movements. To the credit of sociologists and demographers who use this expression, it’s a whole lot better than the sterile and irritating word “affiliation,” which may mean paying membership and little else. But “just Jewish” does not mean much as an identity marker because it doesn’t describe what one thinks, does or feels as a Jew. It may, at base, simply mean that someone is not lying about his or her faith or ethnicity. That’s a pretty low bar; it’s worse than pareve.
I say this as a response to my article on making Jewish organizational dinners kosher. I am gratified by the dozens of you who wrote to me or commented on my article, “Exclusion On The Menu.” A special thanks to Esther Kaplan from Commack, L.I. It’s been a really long time since I got a letter that was hand-typed. I loved it.
More readers than I realized are clearly struggling with feeling excluded when they go to Jewish dinners. Practically speaking, a number of “serious” Orthodox donors shared that they do not give to certain organizations because they feel that their money is welcome but their company is not. But it was not just Orthodox or traditional readers who contacted me. A host of people who work professionally or on a volunteer basis for the Jewish community feel disappointed by the choice their organization or another makes to ignore the kosher option. This has little to do with observance and a lot to do with stirring authentic Jewish feeling at a Jewish event.
This is a critical conversation — not only about kosher food but also about “kosher” pluralism. Aaron Potek, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About The Menu” (Opinion, May 20), does not feel that Jewish organizations should serve only kosher food and is not bothered by the difficult plastic wrap that is always a struggle for me. He wants us all to feel uncomfortable to accommodate pluralism. I get that. I often say that comfortable people don’t grow.
But let’s be clear. I’m not now or ever going for what Potek called “the frummest common denominator,” but trying, instead, to avoid the lowest common denominator, the least substantive glue that connects us as a community. I’m going for content, for solidarity, for unity, for ritual, for history, for connection, for intimacy with our tradition, for a Jewish flavor that is not made with a bland consommé powder masking itself as chicken soup.
We’ve all had more than enough of kosher style, Jewish-lite and just Jewish in our organizational life. A religion that’s over 4,000 years old, that has produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers and has shaped Western civilization deserves better than the lowest common denominator of anything.
Today we barely use Hebrew in Jewish communal life. We too often ignore Jewish texts or teachings, valorizing at times our own woeful ignorance. We sometimes minimize the role or significance of Israel because of political differences. We now say Jewish values as a substitute for Jewish law. While so many Jews are experiencing namaste in yoga and Far Eastern traditions, in the Jewish world at large, God is virtually absent from the conversation. This version of Judaism is so lukewarm it’s passionless. Why would anyone support or invest in something so bland and lifeless? It is, in essence, a betrayal.
I still want you to make your dinner kosher. But don’t do it for me. Like a good Jewish mother, I’ll just watch you eat. Make your dinner and your organization more than just Jewish. Let’s not sit on the sidelines and reduce a magnificent, majestic tradition to an empty pluralism. We are too content-rich, history-saturated and purpose-driven to do that to our people. “To be a serious Jew, Prager writes, “one must attempt to be committed equally to God, law, and peoplehood. Imbalance toward any of these has had terrible consequences.” Indeed.
Exclusion on the Menu
Dear Dinner Committee Member,
Thank you in advance for your time. I commend you on your commitment to (fill in the blank with name of your Jewish organization). Every volunteer in the Jewish community is a gift, and organizing a dinner is not an easy thing to do well for our people. The first course is too hot. The entrée underdone. The entertainment dull. We’re not easy to please. And here you are going out to nightly meetings to create a special evening for us. Let me be the first to thank you.
I also apologize. I hope you won’t mind if I share some personal feelings with you. You see, like many of my beloved colleagues, I spend my professional life working on behalf of our people. It’s a mission, a calling and an honor. As part of this picture, I attend many dinners every year. They are beautifully crafted with attention to every detail — every detail except one.
Let me describe what it’s like to go to a dinner sponsored by a Jewish organization where I cannot eat the same meal as everyone else. We’re all busy chatting nicely until the waitress brings over my kosher meal. I should carry a Swiss army knife because the plastic knife usually breaks as I fight with the wrapping. We should protect everything in the U.S. Treasury with the same plastic wrap that seals kosher take-out meals.
Those at the table often look at me with pity or distance; the friendly chatter sometimes changes. Suddenly I am different. I’m a person who keeps kosher. A whole host of unarticulated judgments might follow: Do you think you are better than us? What are you doing here? Too Jewish! The sad neon-yellow pat of margarine next to my rock-hard roll looks sadder. I, too, wonder why I came.
I can imagine what you’re thinking: Kosher catering costs more. It’s inferior in quality. It’s not presented nicely. I ask you respectfully, did you even price it out or give kosher catering a chance? Yesterday’s kosher is not today’s kosher. It’s glatt and gourmet. By the way, I know what you spent on centerpieces so the money card is hard to play. Drop the excuses.
Maybe you don’t want to feel like you’re caving in to the “religious” people. If you make your dinner kosher, what’s next? Mikvah for everyone? Please don’t slide down that slippery slope. What you’re giving up is so much less important than what you gain: a commitment to Jewish unity. You wonder why more traditional Jews don’t support your organization? They’re probably not feeling your love.
At our Shabbat table, we accommodate vegetarians, those with tree-nut allergies and guests who are gluten-free, people who drive and walk. We have Jews and non-Jews and those married to non-Jews and those considering conversion. It’s all the same to us. It’s all about warmth, love and hospitality. Everyone is welcome.
Jewish organizational dinners are extensions of our own tables. Every person at a dinner should feel welcome and important. At 16, one of my sons attended a Jewish summer program committed to diversity. His observation: “I finally understand what pluralism is. It’s Judaism without Orthodoxy.” Ouch.
So here’s how I feel when I go to a non-kosher community dinner: No. 1: hungry. No. 2: frustrated. I’d just like to eat and schmooze without feeling singled out. No. 3: sad. A frequent flier in Jewish life, at such dinners, I’m in economy minus right next to the toilets. I’ve taught you, driven an hour to give a class in your living room, sent greetings on your son’s bar mitzvah and paid a shiva call when you lost your mother. I come to your dinner to support you and your cause, yet I sit at a table with you at a Jewish dinner and feel profoundly alone with my faith.
Dinners are statements about our collective identity. We care about meaning, social justice and spirituality. We’re proud. We’re still here. Maybe we’re still here because for some of us continuity is not an organizational catchword. It’s a way of life that involves joy, sacrifice, and responsibility. It’s yesterday and today and tomorrow. It’s ironic to feel socially penalized by the organized Jewish community for this commitment.
To those many of you who already make your dinners kosher, I thank you. Truly. To those of you who don’t yet, please crack open your minds and hearts a bit more. Reach out to all your Jewish brothers and sisters. Honor a ritual — not because you believe in it — but because a kosher dinner is a symbolic nod to our shared tradition. You are a child of Abraham. The founder of Judaism showed the world what hospitality means — room in our tent for everybody.
A Political Cautionary Tale
Once upon a time, in the year 2016, a miracle happened.
There was a man with golden hair and small hands who dominated the kingdom. One spring day, he decided he did not want to rule. Unsure he knew enough about foreign policy, he humbly consulted experts and decided he was unfit to be ruler of the land. He didn’t know how to solve immigration issues, and he finally confessed that he had not read more about the Iran deal than anyone else. He realized that he couldn’t change Obamacare, could not decide on one enduring hair color or bring Middle East players back to the negotiating table.
Even though he wrote “The Art of the Deal,” he was not sure he could work magic outside of business and real estate. He was also deeply embarrassed about lawsuits surrounding his university and found his own steaks too chewy. Before he bowed out, he apologized for anything he said that caused offense and then lived happily ever after with his many wives and his beautiful Jewish grandchildren in his great palace, Mar-a-Lago.
All heads turned to another man, one who shut down the federal government for 16 days in 2013. He, too, admitted this was a terrible idea. He should have shut it down for 16 years and started the whole enterprise of governance from scratch. His failure to do so stymied him, and he pulled out of the race so he could do what he had real talent for, living happily ever after coaching mock trial and his local high school debate team.
At the same time, a would-be queen pulled out because her e-mail stumbles caught up with her, dangerously poisoning her campaign. She gave it her all. Many hoped for the novelty of a male first lady (but not that specific first lady). She put to rest the swirl of scandal surrounding the family name, folded up her St. John pantsuits, and lived happily ever after babysitting her grandchildren.
The pied piper of all the young people decided to create his own utopian commune in the least-populated corner of Vermont. It seemed so much more fun than being the most influential person in the free world. In the piper’s world, everyone committed to collective living, to dividing the work and to putting all monies in a communal pot. He thought of calling it a kibbutz, but when he failed to show up at AIPAC, he was forbidden from using a Hebrew word. He drank the elixir of youth and lived happily ever after when his commune became a nudist colony. It was the real revolution he was looking for.
All the others who dropped out earlier put behind their made-up pasts, their sweating in public, their tales of bridge abuse and they, too, lived happily ever after as political pundits on cable news stations throughout the land.
Suddenly the madness stopped. The games, the bullying, the arrogance, the lying all went away. The distraction that was the election dissipated, first in exhortations of disappointment and then in peals of laughter. Ah, how much the empire missed laughter, especially in a kingdom that valued jesters above rulers, especially jesters who weave their art late, late at night when all the watchmen have gone to sleep. All the people in the kingdom got their lives back.
That left the people without any ruler. Initially everyone was afraid … afraid they would have no one to blame when things went wrong because this is why they wanted a ruler. But over time, they realized they had to take more responsibility for their own lives. They became smarter, more empowered and they liked their empire of 50 provinces better than before. They, too, lived happily ever after.
There was a small tribe in the kingdom called the Jews. As in days of old, they were confused. They had always reveled in debate. It made them feel more clever than those around them. In days of peace and tranquility, they rummaged about for a good fight. But now that there was no ruler, the wind in their sails deflated. Suddenly they had to speak peaceably to each other, listen to each other and make room for the thoughts and feelings of others. Kindness prevailed over affluence and intelligence.
At first they worried: a terrible plague must have hit their houses. They were used to suffering and sometimes even liked it. Centuries of persecution made them pessimistic and suspicious. They found glory in criticisms and taunts. But as each day passed, a softer, more loving tribe emerged; these were new and unfamiliar feelings. They realized that they liked being nice to one another, and so, for the first time in their history, they also lived happily ever after.
Happy April Fools’ Day.
Read more at http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/jew-voice/political-cautionary-tale#bpAc2Dts533bW37b.99
Make kiddush great again, some may bellow. As for me, I do my very best to avoid kiddush altogether. Nothing is less appealing than small talk with people who have egg salad in their teeth. I enjoy people but not in crowded social halls with outsized decibel levels. I’ve been criticized for hurting people’s feelings at kiddush because I didn’t see them. They were right. At a kiddush, I can’t hear. I can’t see.
But I am not the only one. Like a sociologist, I’ve been observing kiddush behavior in the hopes of getting techniques to work the room better, so I wrote to a dozen-plus rabbis across the country and of every denomination asking for advice. Who better to master kiddush talk than rabbis?
As it turns out, nearly everyone. I received nine pages of comments from rabbis who struggle with kiddush. “I hate tuna fish and oftentimes people talk, and it sometimes inadvertently comes flying at me.” It’s not just me. One rabbi went so far as to say he suffers from Kiddush Anxiety, a new neurological disorder. After services, he just wants to read a book and take a nap. For a rabbi who has been “performing” for the past several hours — noticing congregants’ needs, making sure the service goes smoothly, delivering a sermon — kiddush comes at a bad time. Many rabbis used the word “exhausted” in relation to kiddush duty. Some haven’t prayed properly in years. Some also shared that they are hungry.
Many rabbis saw liability in offering the ruse of a meaningful conversation with constant kiddush-style interruptions. “It can feel (and be) fake. It opens us to ambushes. It can backfire and make a community feel less genuine, open, and welcoming, rather than more. It can unintentionally promote lashon hara [gossip].”
One rabbi who works hard at his pastoral skills, his sermons and his classes, feels judged most by his performance or lack thereof at a kiddush. Still another observed that, “For those of us who lean more toward the introverted side of the social spectrum, there’s nothing that requires the output of more emotional energy than a cocktail party. Every interaction requires me to summon charm and wit; to call on memory banks at lightning speeds (to remember names of grandchildren living in foreign countries that I’ve never met!) … to transition spontaneously from sobriety to celebration; and then to do it all again in the next instant. And for those of us who privilege depth over breadth, we’re often left feeling cheated…”
Yet every rabbi recognized the importance of schmoozing. A former president said that kiddush “allows for the humanizing of an authority figure” — the rabbi, and one rabbi believes that for congregants who don’t take to prayer, the rabbi at kiddush is their Sinai. “If we teach Judaism as a real living thing, part of that is standing with, eating with, talking with people.”
One rabbi is improving his networking skills this way: “I began to look at each conversation as discovering the story of each person. It was like reading autobiographies in conversation.” To add to this, another rabbi thinks that kiddush is actually a gift. “Kiddush is not something you survive but an engraved invitation to a profound encounter.”
On the positive side, one rabbi quipped that, “a good kiddush can save a rabbi three weeks’ worth of appointments.” A synagogue president had a similar reaction: “for congregants the easiest time for them to share opinions or ask questions was in shul on Shabbat.” Another rabbi saw an important side benefit: “If you feel like you gave a crappy drash, it’s a nice chance to hear compliments about it anyway.”
One rabbi (whose name I will withhold here) gave a very powerful sermon and deeply inspired a person in the pews to convert. The worshipper waited until after the service and approached the rabbi. He wanted to be part of the Jewish people. The rabbi paused and pointed to a set of doors: “You see those doors? Behind them is a kiddush. I want you to go into kiddush and then tell me if you still want to be a part of the Jewish people.”
How can we do this better? Here’s some tips from the experts.
Reach out — don’t only speak to your friends; make eye contact with everyone in the circle, especially those entering and exiting; acknowledge those who would like to break in; avoid the temptation to broach a heavy, personal topic — it’s not the place.
Also, suggest a post-kiddush conversation if the topic is sensitive or can lead to misunderstanding; transition out of one conversation by introducing people and “handing them off” rather than “leaving them hanging”; let go of conversations with dignity and love. And finally, my favorite: “leave as soon as possible.”
Rashi’s wife came home one day from the market. Rashi, the 11th-century scholar from southern France, asked her why she had chosen to wear a particular dress and told her what he did not like about her outfit. She was offended: “Rashi, do you always have to comment?”
Yes. He always had to comment. He was a commentator. Fortunately for you, this is the only medieval Jewish exegete joke I know.
While we excuse a scholar, it’s harder to forgive the rest of us. Everyone’s a critic. But our people may very well exceed them all. Jews are known for being expressive, a characteristic identified in an early midrash. We are great at being expressive but perhaps not as good at self-restraint. Can I introduce you to the comment section, to Twitter and to Facebook?
Let’s take a look at what online comments were supposed to achieve. In 2010, the journalist Jeff Jarvis believed that online comments should be a vehicle for greater interactivity. Writers put up their work and allow the public to comment rather than engage the public throughout. He felt this insulted readers. It gave writers the impression that their job was merely, in his words, to throw the product over the wall and let people react while writers retreated into the castle and shut the gates so readers could not hear them. Open up the process earlier, and it becomes more collaborative, productive and respectful of public advice.
But two years later, in 2013, the tide turned. Maria Konnikova wrote an article for The New Yorker headlined “The Psychology of Online Comments” after the magazine Popular Science decided to ban comments from its website. The comment section was filled with too much venom and was feeding into a culture of aggression, allowing a vocal and often hate-filled minority to influence readers’ perceptions of what they read, unfairly biasing them negatively.
The psychologist John Suler created a term for the behavior of anonymous comment-makers: online disinhibition effect. While comment sections allowed a greater degree of risk-taking and participation from the public, anonymity was increasing incivility by leaps and bounds. No one is meaner than an anonymous writer.
Just ask comic writer Lindy West who has trolls attack her every single day. A troll used to be a mythic cave-dwelling creature with an unpleasant disposition. It has now morphed into a term for people who write deliberately provocative and cruel comments online. On Ira Glass’ “This American Life” you can listen to a supremely sad and painful encounter Lindy had when she actually confronted one of her trolls. The name of the article says it all: “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT ALL IN CAPS.” Warning: this is graphic stuff for an adult-only audience. That’s how bad it is.
Lindy did not listen to the advice that every journalist shares. NEVER READ COMMENTS. As I gratefully learned early, those with wise insights and helpful critique will find you through regular channels. Writers who read comments often experience paralysis, rejection, shame and humiliation caused by an angry stranger too cowardly to sign his or her name. In the Bible, any anonymous figure is identified by name by the Sages. They could not believe that anyone who made it into the Good Book could do so anonymously. To be named is a blessing.
In 2014, research told us what we already suspected. Professors from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication termed what happens online as the “Nasty Effect.” Negative comments unduly influence readers. When people aren’t accountable, they are much less likely to think through the consequences of what they write and its potentially harmful impact. Obvious, right?
Well, what’s not obvious to many is what we need to do about it. If giving people the right to comment anonymously online squelches writers and writing, ideas and creativity, then we need to shut down comment sections or at the very least demand that people attach names and contact information to posts. Before you write a comment, think for one moment how you might feel on the receiving end. To me, the comment section is an experiment that failed.
I invite this newspaper, for one, to consider eliminating online comments altogether. Snarking people with drivel and a side dish of abuse is not a Jewish value, neither are ad hominim attacks. Dayenu. I am not Pollyanish about Jewish newspapers. Respectful controversy is healthy, important and vital to our ethnic and national well-being, and Jewish newspapers should welcome conflict. But online comments are not a tribute to democracy. They are a platform for the ugly, not the thoughtful. If we learned anything from Genesis it is this: protect the dignity of the word.
This New Year’s Un-Resolution?
That gym membership that you used twice? Those 10 pounds you swore you would lose in 2015? The garage you were totally committed to cleaning? Ouch. It’s almost 2016. Looking back is not looking good. According to the website Statistic Brain, the top 10 New Year’s resolutions are not surprising: lose weight, get organized, spend less and save more (why is this counted as one?), enjoy life, stay fit, learn something, quit smoking, help others, fall in love and spend more time with family. Wouldn’t life be grand?
A lot of us make these commitments year after year; in fact, almost half of us. Statistic Brain forecasts that 45 percent of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions. Only 8 percent will keep them. At least on the Jewish New Year we spend more time looking back at commitments we’ve broken than at those we have yet to make and break.
The 8 percent statistic should lead us to quit now or make a resolution to make no resolutions at all. Why start if the success rate is so very low? But here are the redeeming numbers that often get neglected. A full 49 percent of those who make resolutions have infrequent success keeping them. The first week, you’re likely to have a 75 percent success rate. That drops to 46 percent after six months. But 46 percent is a winning statistic. It should give us reason for optimism. The numbers tell a different story than the one we may tell our brains in a moment of weakness. Infrequent success is not failure. It’s just success that’s primed to grow and stabilize with the right conditions.
We know a lot more about self-discipline today than we ever knew before. The Florida State University psychology professor Roy F. Baumeister claims in “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” that we all have a finite amount of willpower. It gets depleted as we use it because we use the same bank of willpower for any number of tasks and goals. It’s bound to dip into overdraft over the course of a day, diminishing our arsenal of discipline and elevating the capacity for temptation to do its dirty work. When temptation crouches at the door — a powerful visual image from Genesis 4:7 — and we’ve used a lot of self-discipline all day on other things, we’re likely to forget our big goals.
Baumeister calls this “hyperbolic discounting.” Temptation is easier to avoid when we actively ignore it. When the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, shoves its ugly face into the front line of view, it’s time to fight back. So here are five ways gathered from research that you can grow your infrequent success into a more regular triumph:
1. Remove the obvious visible barriers to your resolution. If you’re trying to spend less, spend less time in stores and online. Don’t buy your favorite junk food and expect not to eat it. This seems obvious but, unfortunately, it’s just not obvious enough. We’re human. We’re flawed and illogical creatures.
2. Make success easier by lowering the bar. Set bite-size goals (unless you’re dieting) and strengthen them with visible affirmations and reminders of long-term objectives.
3. Celebrate small victories. Tell others. Journal it. Reward yourself. Never minimize the importance of small motivational pushes.
4. Write your goals at the beginning of each day. Pause each morning to articulate what you want to achieve with intention and mindfulness. End the day with a similar exercise — a brief mental review to evaluate how you did. The daily check-in helps build up a reservoir of good will and discipline.
5. Don’t let small setbacks turn into large ones. When you fall down, don’t beat yourself up. Pick yourself up. Punishing yourself verbally will freight your goals with negativity. Keep it light. Keep it happy, and get back on the wagon.
Every small gesture in the right direction helps us create and sustain good habits and fight bad ones. In “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis wrote that, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” Maimonides, in his “Laws of Repentance,” offers us the visual image of a scale that can get tipped by even the smallest behaviors. Our task is to see ourselves on this scale, precariously trying to weigh our deeds.
Shana tova. Let’s celebrate 2016 as the year of infrequent success. By translating small decisions into areas of infinite importance, we may find that when our new year comes around, we’ve actually made positive headway. After all, there is something profoundly Jewish about new year’s resolutions even if our calendars are off by a few months. And unlike Rosh HaShanah, try not to get too plastered. It’s a sure-fire way to break any resolution.
Chanukah Habits For All Eight Nights, And Beyond
When Rabbi Meir Shapiro suggested the practice of the Daf Yomi, studying a page of Talmud daily, at an Agudah conference in 1923, he could never have imagined how many thousands of people take part in this seven and a half year project. Rabbi Shapiro believed it would unite Jews globally in a mission to strengthen and unify the Jewish community. A “Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the Beis Medrash [study hall], where he finds everyone learning the same daf [page] that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”
More people can access the Talmud than ever before thanks to Rabbi Shapiro. Yet for me, deciding to take part in the Daf Yomi was less about community than about a daily discipline around a strong personal value. I make no claims to remember what I’ve learned. In fact, a friend said it best. Daf yomi: forgetting one page of Talmud a day.
Why continue? If for no other reason, daily study has become a habit. I am not sure how long it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Today, we know a lot more than we ever did about habits. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, contends that, “If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real.” Old bad habits can die. New habits can grow.
In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey explored how routines shaped the work of artists and writers. In putting the book together, he learned about the impact of everyday creativity, often spurred on by doing the same thing again and again. “A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.”
Daily discipline is hard initially, but over time, routines have a way of affirming the values that we believe in every day. Some people study every day. Some people exercise every day, getting in those 10,000 steps. Some people watch what they eat every day. Some people speak to those they love every day. I read a poem every day from Daniel Ladinsky’s book, A Year with Hafiz.
This kind of automatic pilot often frees the mind to do the heavy lifting. The anchor experiences that frame time are often ritualized to create this sense of liberation. But routines often create ruts. They can make us stale unless we shake things up every once in a while.
I think often of the words of my friend Blu Greenberg in How to Run a Traditional Household and the tender way she helps us forgive ourselves when we get it wrong:
“But how, the reader might ask, can one perform ritual without perfect and pure intent? Is it not a sham? The answer might be, ‘Once more, with feeling.’ Even so, should ritual or rite happen to be devoid of inner spirit at any given moment, it does not mean that it is devoid of meaning. Sometimes, in ritual, we simply feel part of the community, and that is enough. Sometimes, ritual serves to generate a sense of self, and that is enough. Sometimes it strengthens the family unit, and that is enough. And sometimes, it connects us to the Divine, and that is enough.”
This was my thinking when I put together a book of daily meditations followed by a challenge. Everyone I know is busier than busy. Everyone I know would like to have more time to read, reflect and grow. But it has to come in bite-size increments that add up to personal transformation. We are humans. We need to remind ourselves of our values and priorities constantly, even on the days when it rains. If we fall out of a habit, we can always take a deep breath and get back on the path.
This is one of the reasons I love Chanukah. When you have a holiday that’s eight days long, and you’re not feeling it on day Number 2, there are another six nights to redeem the one that got away. And with each night, we add light, strengthening the impact of the menora’s message and power: Notice miracles. Praise. Be grateful. Value peace in the home. Be the light.
That’s an inside job. Every day when we see the light, we can remember the words of Isaiah about being a light to others by taking people out of darkness. We can’t do that in one day, but over time, we can make someone else’s life and our own better. Chanukah is a great time to adopt a daily discipline that you had your heart set on but haven’t done yet. And if you miss a day, it’s OK. There’s always tomorrow.
Overheard in a Restaurant
Thanks for the amazing responses to last month’s “What NOT to Say” column. It simply confirms that foot-in-mouth disease travels far and wide as yet another Jewish genetic disorder. Oy. As a subset of your comments, I learned that there is a special category of what not to say if you are the owner of a kosher restaurant. Here are a few exchanges that don’t seem to work:
Customer: “This meat doesn’t seem to be cooked all the way through.”
Owner: “You’re the only one who has ever complained about this the entire time this restaurant has been open.”
Customer: “Can you please shut the door? It’s cold.”
Owner: “Well, I’m not cold.”
Customer: “Excuse me, I’ve be waiting here for over five minutes. Can someone please help me?”
Owner: “What? Do you think your needs are more important than mine?!”
Customer: “There’s a mistake in my order.”
Owner: “I’ve been working here for 20 years, and you’ve been here five minutes. Which one of us is more likely to have made a mistake?”
This is rich copy. If only it weren’t real.
In Customer Service 101, it seems that the customer is always right. In kosher dining, it too often seems that the customer is always wrong. How is that working in terms of keeping customers coming back?
I asked my good friend Marc Epstein, owner of Milk Street Café in Boston, for help understanding why this problem seems legion in much of the kosher food industry. He nodded his head hopelessly. “The dynamics are not geared to customer service. First there is the attitude that many but not all rabbis have to supervision: ‘You need me. If you don’t do what I want, I will remove your hashgacha (supervision).’ Second, the customer has driven 10 miles to eat at your place and passed 250 better restaurants than yours. The person behind the counter also knows that the person eating kosher usually has nowhere else to go.”
Why would any kosher restaurant owner get better at pleasing customers, especially in areas with few kosher restaurants? Marc nods his head. “There is no economic incentive to change a kosher restaurant, but owners could adopt a different mindset. First you have to love feeding people and then you focus on the food.”
So here’s an incentive. Love. Pride. Distinction. It seems that if you viewed providing kosher food as an expression of both love of people and love of mitzvot, you would want to do everything you can to drive the non-kosher market to join you and make the kosher market feel great about observing this tradition. As if to say, “Hey, people, this is what kosher looks like.”
In Setting the Table, restaurant entrepreneur Danny Meyer makes a critical distinction between service and hospitality. Service is what customers expect: food on time, food served at the right temperature, good service. Hospitality is all that you do for customers that they don’t expect that makes them want to come back. We of the Abrahamic faith know that our forefather was great at service and hospitality, but we don’t always remember to live up to that tradition.
Meyer offers this advice when a customer is unhappy: respond graciously, and do so at once. “Err on the side of generosity. Apologize and make sure the value of the redemption is worth more than the cost of the initial mistake.” Learn from mistakes and make new mistakes instead of repeating old ones. Most importantly, Meyer advises people in the people business to write a great last chapter. When your relationship with a customer is compromised, don’t let the customer leave unhappy. Turn the situation around and write the last chapter.
“Until you change the dynamics of the equation,” Epstein quips, “you have the kosher food industry that you deserve.” If you view kosher restaurants as a community service, there should be a community cost, Epstein argues, and not one borne by the vendor alone. In synagogue life today you pay membership with building funds, and there are eruv funds and mikvah funds to support community institutions you value. And if you don’t do this as a service, then make your restaurant a business. Operate as if it’s not kosher, and then customer service is critical. If it’s a chesed (an act of kindness), then the community has to share the cost. If it’s a business, then run it like a business. In business, customers matter.
And when it comes to foot-in-mouth disease in the kosher restaurant business, the customer also needs to be careful. We need to watch our pleases and thank yous, and change our orders and complain with a little more class and a lot more kindness. Marc shared this doozy he heard from a friend at an event he catered: “The food was delicious. No one can believe it came from your restaurant.”
What Not To Say
‘When you’re ready, I have a great guy for you.” I ask you, does any recently bereaved wife need to hear this when sitting shiva? No. The runners up in the Jewish foot-in-mouth prize for shiva awkwardness are those who say that the recently deceased is happier now or that the suffering is finally over. For those in the low chairs, the suffering has just begun. It got so bad that a friend reported that a bereaved woman sitting shiva in her own home silenced the chatter when she challenged a visitor, “Do you think it’s appropriate to say that?”
And please hold back when visiting a sick person. “You look terrible” is not an expression of empathy. “You look great” also doesn’t work well, as a friend in the hospital once told me. “I hope this is not what great looks like.” Speaking of death, restrain the impulse to ask if the illness is fatal.
Some people believe that the ultimate statement of compassion is, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Wrong. This sounds like you are competing in the Jewish suffering Olympics. There is no competition when it comes to sorrow. We each fail and fall and face crisis uniquely. It’s best not to snatch someone else’s pain but leave it whole and untouched by your personal experience.
Also — never, never wish a woman mazal tov on being pregnant unless you know that she really is pregnant or the head is actually crowning. And even then double-check, possibly with her OBGYN. Women who suffer this insult never forget it and rarely forgive the asker. Pregnant women generally don’t love when you comment on their weight gain. When I was seven months pregnant and competing with Violet Beauregarde for the world’s largest short person, a colleague said loudly across the hall, “Erica, you look so pregnant.” The good Lord helped me reply: “And, you look so single.”
I’ve been thinking about why special events often bring out the worst in people because by the end of this month, my two oldest children will be married. When my first got married this past June — a fact that I shared with relative strangers if we engaged in conversation — I had several people ask me: “Do you like him?” I looked puzzled. You couldn’t have just asked me if I like my son-in-law. I love him, but if I didn’t would I tell you, a person I met only 10 minutes ago? Maybe I’m just weird, but I try not to share challenging family dynamics with people I hardly know.
And then there was the acquaintance from shul who heard my son got engaged and came over to wish me well. “How are you going to pay for two weddings?” he asked in passing. I was so stunned that after I put my eyeballs back in my head, I weakly replied, “That’s a great question” and walked away. When I shared this at home, my husband felt it would be better to just state the truth, “No problem. My husband works for the federal government, and I’m in Jewish education.” My daughter was sharper: “We’re doing that by keeping the numbers low. You’re not invited.”
“You shall not oppress one another, but fear your Lord because I am the Lord your God,” says Leviticus 25:17. The Talmud’s sages unpacked this verse as the biblical prohibition of oppressing someone with words: reminding another of a personal change that may bring them pain, attributing reasons for someone else’s suffering or using language that carries emotional barbs for another. Attaching the prohibition to fear God suggests that no one but God knows the intention you have when you use words to hurt. Only you can know if it’s intentional or a stupid slip. Just remember that a Divine Presence hovers over. There are consequences, even when we think no one will know. We always answer to someone.
New situations can bring out strange responses as everyone adjusts to new realities. For those who struggle with language, the impulse to say something, anything, can come out as an unfiltered sleight or odd incursion into the deepest areas of another’s personal life.
So here’s what people in crisis and happiness want to hear from you: heart-warming stories or any of these expressions. I am here for you. I am sorry. I am so happy for you. I am thinking of you. I care about you. I share your joy. I can’t imagine what you are going through. I love you.
Silence also works really well.
Do You Know Who I Am?
One of the questions that rankles me most is “Do you know who I am?” I’ve heard it enough in my career. The website Subzin, that gathers and shares famous movie quotes, claims that the expression “Do you know who I am?” has appeared 1,093 times in 1,016 movies, most popularly — and not surprisingly — in “The Godfather.” It’s the kind of line that people with big egos or large machine guns and cannolis like to throw around to instill fear or awe in others. This arrogance reminds me of a bumper sticker I recently saw: There is only one God. Quit applying for his job.
“Do you know who I am?” suggests self-preening, a public sort of dismissal. It usually belies deep insecurity and a strong need for approval. Variations on the theme:
“Do you remember my name?”
“Look me up on Google.”
“I am known in certain circles.”
“Do you know who my friends are?”
“Let me tell you who my friends are.”
Ouch. Throw into the mix people who introduce themselves by virtue of a title in a place where titles are not necessary, and you’ve got enough ego for a rocket lift-off. A doctor needs to be a doctor around patients but not at a shul picnic (unless someone chokes on fried chicken). A professor needs to be a professor in a classroom, and a rabbi needs to be a rabbi when officiating at a wedding but neither needs a title on vacation. Our simple humanity — our given names — should be good enough. One of the things I love most about attending synagogue is that people are all there as worshippers. No other job description is necessary. Leave you resume at the door.
Many of us see hundreds of people in the course of a busy week, most are strangers. Invariably some of them will ask if you remember them. Learning is usually localized so if you take someone out of the context in which names were first shared, chances are that you will not remember the name of a student, a congregant, a donor, a former colleague or a person you met at a party ten years ago.
Ask an exercise instructor, speech pathologist or teacher how he or she feels when this happens. “Do you know who I am?” Hmmmmm. If I remember your face but not your name, I will feel terrible. If I remember neither, I will feel ashamed. You will feel worse. You think I let you down, that you are not important. I will apologize.
Instead, apologize for asking. We are forgetful beings. We are busy people. You are not the center of the universe. It’s not a downgrade; it’s not intentional. It’s human. Be a mensch. Don’t ask; just re-introduce yourself and smile widely.
In the Talmud, Rava said, “A person is allowed to make himself known in a place where people don’t know him,” [BT Nedarim 62a]. The biblical proof-text for this practice is from I Kings. Ovadiah, the prophet, identified himself to Elijah so that Elijah would know with whom he was speaking. Ovadiah hid and fed 100 prophets in two caves because Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife, wanted to kill off all Hebrew prophets. When Ovadiah saw Elijah he bowed deeply: “Is it really you, my lord, Elijah?” It was. Elijah was the chief prophet targeted in Jezebel’s vicious hunt. Ovadiah wanted to save Elijah’s life. Elijah needed to know Ovadiah was a double agent, working for the king but betraying him by keeping the prophets alive. Ovadiah told Elijah who he was, not for the sake of his ego, but for the sake of Elijah’s safety.
Sometimes, you need to communicate a title to demonstrate expertise, street cred, skills, connections or content knowledge that can be helpful to others. In this biblical instance, it was life saving. One medieval commentator believes that it is permitted to announce yourself to strangers because a community would not want to make the mistake of not properly honoring a Torah scholar. Others disagree and defer to the need for modesty and humility and only permit this in limited situations.
Let’s replace “Do you know who I am?” with “Do I know who you are?” What if this High Holiday season, we tuck away our egos and the arrogance of expecting people to know who we are and exchange it for a slim grab at intimacy with another? Do us all a favor and leave “do you know who I am” for the movies. Try this instead: “I’m ______. We met a few years ago at _____. It’s nice to see you again.” It’s not all about you. After all, before Ovadiah introduced himself, he asked Elijah a question, “Is it really you?”
On Causes And Causality
Soon enough, we will stand in synagogue hungry and self-deprecating if we are doing our jobs correctly. It will be Yom Kippur, and we will raise a closed fist to what we hope is an open heart and say words of contrition, apologies to those we love and hurt. We will think about the long and non-linear path to repentance. For a moment, please personalize this Al Chet: “…for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.” What comes to mind?
For me, any number of my own misstatements surface in an embarrassing mountain of personal speech failures, and those are only the ones I remember. There are words — thousands of them a year — that we say that can never be taken back. It is no wonder that a family member likes to say that every person gets an allotment of words in one lifetime. When you use all those words up, you die. How’s that as an incentive to keep your mouth shut? Oy, the utterance of the lips.
Two particular leadership utterances come to mind this year: statements about causality and about slippery slopes.
In the past many years, an anti-gay preacher told congregants that Hurricane Sandy was because of the marriage equality act. More than one rabbi publically attributed Hurricane Katrina’s devastating casualties to the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza. A Muslim New York-based imam blamed America for the 9/11 attacks. A rabbi publically stated that the Holocaust happened because of Jewish Sabbath transgressors.
Maimonides writes that we must scour our deeds when bad things happen. He does not, however, say that someone else should do that for us. That’s an inside job. It’s time religious leaders get out of the casualty business and back to the cause business: ethics, prayer, consolation, study. Accusatory statements are a huge distraction to a clergy’s main order of business. Controversial, incendiary statements suck up psychic energy and precious time. Religious leaders are either stuck apologizing to others or defending themselves. What is to be gained when so much is to be lost?
It is a biblical prohibition to attribute a cause for someone else’s suffering: hona’at devarim. Words maim and damage, sometimes permanently. When said by a representative of the faith, they can cause the listener to abandon religion altogether, a causal relationship no one needs. Causality statements also hurt the institutions leaders represent. Individuals make statements that are associated with organizations. People wonder: is that the view of this synagogue, this Jewish nonprofit, this university? The biggest institution at peril is Judaism itself. Many years ago in Israel, a bus of middle school children was in a fatal accident. In the midst of collective mourning, a rabbi publically explained the accident: the boys on the bus were not wearing tefillin. This did not get anyone to wear tefillin. It may have inspired some people to stop wearing tefillin.
A subtler form of causality is the slippery slope argument. Labeling something a slippery slope suggests a series of events that move quickly, is hard to control and that lead in the direction of disaster. This was recently articulated by an influential rabbi who suggested that advanced women’s Jewish learning needs to be re-evaluated. It has led to too much acceptance of egalitarianism and homosexuality within traditional Judaism. Get off the slippery slope.
Problem: one thing always leads to another. We just don’t know what that other is. It’s pure speculation. And the fact that one thing leads to another is not always a bad thing. Sometimes we call this progress. One person’s slippery slope is another person’s ladder of opportunity. One of the early innovators of artificial intelligence, John McCarthy, said, “When I see a slippery slope, my instinct is to build a terrace.” Take it slowly. Create mindful way stations so that potential pitfalls are negotiated with skill.
Underlying the slippery slope argument is that we can and should turn back time, but just how far? Should we close universities to women or make sure that a woman’s dollar is worth even less than a man’s? Should we repeal women’s suffrage? It’s the slippery slope in reverse, and it ain’t pretty. It is also unrealistic. I don’t love cellphones. I think the Internet is often dangerous, but it’s here to stay. Harsh pronouncements don’t help anyone negotiate complex current realities. We need leaders to help us negotiate a more sacred reality in the here and now.
Religious leaders should not be in the causality business. Faith is strong, but people are weak. Things get misconstrued, and travel fast. One wrong utterance of the lips can do too much damage to an already fragile spiritual eco-system. So hold back before you hold forth. Please.
What Are You Waiting For?
What are you waiting for right now? About this time of the year, a whole lot of parents are waiting for school to start. A whole lot of kids aren’t. We might be waiting for the exact right time to start a project, start a diet, get really serious about dating, moving, finding a job — the list goes on. Voltaire once said, “We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.”
There seem to be two kinds of waiting: waiting as a condition of in-between-ness and waiting as an active state of anticipation. The first category is the pause between events or activities. We wait in airports. We wait for buses. We wait for good news. We wait in lines. If you grew up in Russia, waiting was a cultural phenomenon. Even the most impatient of us expects to spend a lot of time in this life waiting.
The Norwegian philosopher, Lars Svendsen, describes this kind of waiting as a state of modern boredom in his book “A Philosophy of Boredom.” Today many wait stations — airports, bus stops and even gas stations — try to minimize the boredom associated with waiting with TV screens and stores. Although these may prove distracting, no one is going to an airport to watch TV or go shopping.
Then there’s the kind of waiting that involves non-activity but is soaked in positive or negative anticipation because at the end of this wait lies transformation or redemption of some kind. We wait for an acceptance letter, for a job offer, for a doctor to share the results of a biopsy, for someone to say yes. This kind of waiting is usually harder because it involves tension and may not result in the desired outcome. We’re waiting for something to happen. It might not happen. But it just might.
Sometimes we can’t wait fast enough.
In this modern age, we have lost the art of waiting, waiting in both senses of the word. Collectors used to wait years, sometimes decades, in anticipation of locating a special book, piece of art or object. Now it’s a search engine click away. Waiting was part of the hunt. It was its own pleasure, and it made the outcome that much more tantalizing and fulfilling.
Today, we get impatient when computers take a few extra seconds to follow a cue. We get worried or angry when someone doesn’t respond to an e-mail fast enough. Everything from ERs to mail delivery is about reducing wait times, which has made our wait muscles flabbier than ever.
Here’s a great illustration. I asked my sister-in-law in Israel what to buy for my nephew’s wedding. After investigating, she e-mailed me with what they still needed. I got the e-mail, went online and found the gift — with two-day shipping. Perfect. I wrote back to her in under five minutes. It was a one-word e-mail and one I send frequently when completing tasks because it makes me happy. Done.
This was speed-dating for wedding registries, and it was highly satisfying. She wrote right back. “Done?” It seemed impossible. “Can you get moshiah [the messiah] to come this quickly?”
My response: “If moshiah were available on Amazon Prime, believe me, I would put in an order right away.”
Speaking of moshiah, many of us are acquainted with a song about waiting built on one of Maimonides’ 13 principles: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, I will wait every day for his arrival.” The waiting itself is holy.
My grandfather taught me a maudlin tune to this song that he heard repeatedly in Auschwitz as people were marched to their deaths. There are groups today that are told to stop singing this song on visits to concentration camps. One tour leader was fined 100 zlotys (about $350) because he didn’t restrain his group from singing this song about our ultimate waiting.
We don’t know who composed the sad tune. Legend has it that Rabbi Azriel David Fastag was inspired with the tune on a train to Treblinka. A person who escaped that train taught it to his rebbe, and the tune stuck.
Perhaps we have to re-learn how to wait. We have to acquire the difficult wisdom to know when to wait with active anticipation and make the future happen and when to have the patience to sit back and allow life to unfold. Patience does not mean that we are doing nothing. Waiting is power when it helps us understand when to act on our beliefs and when to hold back. Too early, and we may lose it all. Too late, and we may have lost it already. One day we may just figure it out. I can’t wait.
Writing the Great American Novel
A friend was just telling me a personal story that ended with, “It would make a great book.” No comment. Let’s face it. Most of us do not have book-worthy lives, but many of us would like to believe we do.
“Of making many books there is no end,” reports Ecclesiastes [12:12]. But this wisdom doesn’t stop us. Anyone standing in Barnes and Noble cannot help arriving at the same wearying conclusion. There are just too many books out there. Many are wonderful and will pass the test of time. Most will become remaindered, then possibly pulped and recycled into toilet paper. It’s hard to write. It’s harder to write well. Harder still is to make a living as a writer.
That’s why I am always shocked by the fallacy held tightly by many non-writers: anyone can write a book. The writer Joseph Epstein in a New York Times op-ed from 2003 claims that according to a survey, 81 percent of Americans feel like they have a book in them. Or as someone recently quipped, no one wants to read a book. Everyone wants to write one.
The novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett was so tired of giving out writing advice that she put it all together in a memoir: “My Getaway Car.” Slightly drunk at a family reunion and offended by a distant relative’s remark that everyone has a book in them, she pointed to flowers in a nearby vase and asked, “Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?”
“One algebraic proof?”
“One Hail Mary pass?”
“One five-minute mile?”
Readers would approach her, often aggressively, after a talk and tell her that they had within them the Great American novel. Problem was they couldn’t write it. Could they enlist her help? Answer: no.
There is a way that your story can get written even if you can’t write it. Outsource.com outsources writing projects so you can stop bothering Ann Patchett. People’s ghostwriting requests are so entertaining that I let them drop into my e-mail almost daily.
Any takers for this? “I need someone to write a book about my outrageous fight against my mortgage company. … My story needs to be told so half of the people in the U.S. can say I told you so to the people that couldn’t imagine what they were going through. My story has to be told!!!!!”
Is this really a story that must be told and half of America will read? Sorry. It’s not.
Alternatively, you can write the eight-year history of a dairy farm if you can make it “both engaging and moving, as much as it is informational and accurate. Also, we want you to tell us: why do you think this story is important?” None of the great writers I know will be able to make your dairy engaging, moving, informational, accurate and important. No one has that much talent.
Those in the throes of litigation often want “the true story told” by an experienced biographer or novelist. What are people willing to pay? Usually less than $500. You may get this compelling offer to turn journal entries into a memoir by an educated and experienced writer: “Take payment from the proceeds.” This book is going to be so good a professional author will write it on contingency.
There is an arrogance to the proposition that anyone can write a book. Remember the story of the rabbi who sat on the plane next to the astrophysicist? The scientist said to the rabbi, “I can sum up your whole profession in one sentence: Don’t do unto others what you would not want done to yourself.” The rabbi then said to the scientist, “And I can sum up all of astronomy in one sentence: Twinkle, twinkle little star.”
Take comfort in the biblical notion that we must tell our stories and pass them down to the next generation, whether children ask for them or we prompt them. Go with a vanity press. It’s a great way to tell your story. And there are many inexpensive ways today to get that story into a book for your family and friends. But the plethora of accessible publishing methods linked to an exhibitionist Facebook post-your-life attitude has promoted a dangerous myth: your story will be a bestseller.
Writing is an ancient Jewish art, starting with the chiseling of two tablets. We do all have a story. Our stories are important to us. But they are not important to everyone. The Kotzker Rebbe’s hardline approach is instructive: “Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.
The Big Question
In this past month’s Atlantic Monthly, “The Big Question” for June was: “Which Current Behavior Will be Most Unthinkable 100 Years from Now?” Melinda Gates said there would be no more birth control pills. Daniel Dennett said there would be no more unsupervised home-schooling. Rebecca Silverman wrote that there would be no more football, and Katie Rophie said there would be no more sadness.
What a great Jewish question to pose to a Jewish brain trust! So, I made my own temporary think tank. Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna thinks that a century from now, “in most synagogues and temples, the announcement ‘please open your prayer book to page __’ will be unthinkable. Prayer books will by then have been replaced by electronic devices.” The Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy, Nathan Diament, said, “It will be unthinkable that we once had such a costly and decentralized Jewish education system under which the costs of, and barriers to, providing Jewish education were left to be set by independent schools and borne by individual families — rather than being truly a communal enterprise.”
On the family front, Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt believes that in 100 years, “Everyone will put on their pre-wedding to-do list to get tested for Jewish genetic diseases. We may not have cured all the diseases that are found primarily among Jews but we will have eliminated them because everyone is tested. It will be seen as ‘stupid’ not to do so.” She also added that no traditionally observant parent would let a daughter get married without a halachic pre-nup.
One hundred years from now, Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee believes, the agunah problem will no longer exist: “The phenomenon of women ‘chained’ to husbands refusing to issue a get or bill of divorce will disappear … and Jewish endogamy, or in-marriage, will be non-existent outside Orthodox precincts given high rates of Jewish assimilation, the tiny percentage of Jews in American society, the celebration of mixed marriage as a phenomenon by the general American culture and its pervasiveness within non-Orthodox sectors.” The Jewish community, he believes, cannot “uphold the norm of in-marriage” and needs to articulate in a more compelling way “the importance of marriage between Jews — whether by birth or by choice.”
Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, says that, “It will be unthinkable for Jews to have to convince each other or non-Jews that Judaism is both a glorious religion and an enduring nationality. With the pendulum having swung back toward religion and communitarianism, Jews will be proud carriers of the covenant with God undertaken at Sinai.”
Shifra Bronznick of Advancing Women Professionals & the Jewish Community claims, “It will be unthinkable that paid family leave is considered a discretionary benefit. Every Jewish nonprofit will offer their employees generous paid family leave.” Sign me up.
Rabbi David Wolpe thinks, “The question we will not ask is whether Jews should eat animals (no).” Good thing he didn’t write what one scholar who asked not to be named believes, “In a hundred years there will be no Conservative movement.”
In a hundred years, “The Israeli political spectrum will no longer be defined by the overarching issue of providing land or not to the Palestinians as has dominated the Israeli political debate since 1967,” contends think-tanker David Makovsky. About time. Harvard professor Ruth Wisse adds that a century from now, “All Jews would have realized that the Jewish people repaired the world when it recovered its political sovereignty in the Land of Israel so that God could enjoy the weekly entry of Sabbath to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”
Rabbi Larry Hoffman believes that, “It will be unthinkable to allow synagogues to languish through lack of communal funding and attention. … Synagogues are the single best bet for providing communities of purpose and memory, healing and hope. Yet instead of investing in synagogues, we starve them to death and wonder why they are dying.” Professor of Jewish education Jon Levisohn argues that, “In 100 years, it will be unthinkable to instrumentalize Jewish education … in the service of some vague and thin and poorly conceived far-off outcome like ‘Jewish identity.’ We will all recognize the truth in Franz Rosenzweig’s teaching about education that ‘all recipes produce … caricatures of men’ (sic), and that the only recipe ‘is to have no recipe.’”
Hmmm … lots to consider. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” A hundred years is a long time when you think about what we didn’t have 100 years ago. It’s short, however, in the life of the Jewish people and in the shelf life of great universal truths. So don’t wait. What can we start changing today?
A Voice for Jewish Singles
I’m about to enter a parking garage. The static is just starting on the radio when I put the car into reverse and park. One of my favorite songs is on, and I wasn’t prepared to lose it in a car garage: Freddie Mercury’s “Somebody to Love.” I cannot actually write those words without hearing his unusual, high-pitched, magical voice singing the lyrics. Because I stopped just to listen to the song, I heard it with increased intensity.
I know that Freddie Mercury was not referring to the Jewish singles’ scene when he wrote this song. I also appreciate that he might not have been every Jewish mother’s dream on JDate. Yet the lyrics create a certain kind of compassion and dialogue with us that should make us willing to answer his question in the affirmative. Yes. I will find you somebody to love. Or at least I’m going to try.
“O, each morning I get up I die a little,” Mercury sings. Not all of us appreciate the wound that some single people feel because, try as they might — and sometimes they’ve been trying for years — they feel that each rejection is another opportunity that has died. A little of themselves went along with it.
“Take a look in the mirror and cry.” And sometimes that pervasive disquiet, the sense that there isn’t a match out there, fills people with acute anxiety. A friend I know described an enchanted single life that would have been really terrific had she known that she wasn’t going to spend a life without a partner. Self-doubt takes over: Am I loveable if I have not found somebody to love?
“I work hard every day of my life.” Just when the pain creeps in, there’s another voice that says not to look desperate, to keep it inside because it doesn’t have a place in the community conversation. I am strong. I work hard. I can go it alone. Even though the God of Genesis tells us it’s not good for humans to be alone, we may try to convince ourselves that we’re not lonely, just independent, when we can’t find that right someone. A lot of singles have shared with me the additional hurt when someone tells them — often a parent — that they’re not working hard enough at dating or are just too picky.
“I have spent all my years believing in you, but I just can’t get no relief, Lord!” Being single for a long time has prompted many to leave the fold or traditional observance. It’s hard to be single in a faith-based community or any community where family is upheld as a central value. Our Jewish organizations are filled with children and young couples, a nuclear family image that can be visually daunting and off-putting for singles. “I hated going to shul,” said a friend of her single years. Believers may put this question to God: “I am a religious/cultural Jew. I want to be married and raise a family, just like I thought You wanted of me. Why are you punishing me?” We underestimate the spiritual pain of being single and being Jewish.
So what are you doing to help those who want to be married — to find their somebody to love? Everyone needs to lavish attention and adoration on someone. Some of us make excuses for not setting people up: I am not good at it; I just don’t know anybody; I don’t have time; I don’t want to change our relationship. This isn’t my issue.
Wrong. If you live in a community this is your issue because it’s our issue. Make a list. Write down the single people you know. Remember: This is not only about young singles but anyone widowed, divorced or never married. If you can’t come up with anybody, then open your eyes wider.
For her 25th anniversary, a friend celebrated her own marriage by asking friends to come over with a list and description of the single people each knew. In every round we described one person to see if anyone thought there might be a potential match. We followed up by inputting the information into a computer program to save and use it as more such circles met and collaborated. She cared enough to spread the love.
Not everyone wants to be set up (Drop “fixed up”; no one is broken.) For those who do, it’s hurtful when others, especially friends, have done little to help. Make an effort. If it’s not a perfect match, you both got information for next time. Who knows? Someone might walk down an aisle and build a Jewish family simply because you picked up the phone.
We all need somebody to love. Thanks for the reminder, Freddie.
Telling the Story of Freedom
The Passover table is a place of joy. It takes a lot of work to get there. And when the table is set with ritual food and tableware, it seems like an excellent platform for a great story and conversation to unfold. We’re all ready. We’re equipped with texts that share the majesty and miracles of our ancient days. We powered our way to freedom as an underdog against a large and tyrannical force that sought to destroy us. We know the plot lines all too well. It’s not hard to say, “In every generation a person is obligated to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt…” It seems that sadly and happily, it is always a relevant theme, either for our people or for someone else under the hand of oppression, on the brink of liberation.
There’s only one thing we have a shortage of, and it’s not matzah. We’ve got loads of it. They’re even selling shmura matzah — a matzah made with even more vigilant oversight — at Costco these days. It’s not wine, because there’ll be four cups of that as well. And when it comes to the main course, we’re on brisket overload. Arteries beware. In Exodus we read that the first evening of Passover is a night of watchfulness, but don’t be careless. Make sure the Lipitor is ready and on hand (is Lipitor kosher for Passover?).
Here’s what we’re missing: great storytellers.
Great stories keep us on the edge of our seats. They are told by masters of detail with voices that modulate and inspire. They have a cast of interesting characters. There’s almost always a villain and a hero. There’s a fabulous plot brimming with twists and turns, unexpected conflicts and satisfying endings. There are usually a few important life lessons discreetly tucked into its pages that lodge inside of us and don’t let us go.
Do we have that kind of story? Of course we do. Do we tell it like a great story? Not really. Not usually. For many people, the worst part of Passover is the mumbling of the Haggadah, the tedium of its language. We can’t wait to get to “Dayenu” because it offers a moment of collective song, tradition and relief. I remember reading the complaint of a young woman about the family gathering that is every Passover in her home: “Why is this night more boring than any other night?”
For years, I’ve struggled to make sense of what kind of document the Haggadah really is. Logically speaking, if our task is to share the story of the Exodus, the most natural way to do that is to take out a Hebrew Bible, a Tanach, and recite the first 15 chapters, from Pharaoh’s enforced slavery to the Song of the Sea, when we finally left and broke out in exaltation. I’ve always wondered why that’s not the case. Granted, it will take up more book space than a Maxwell House Haggadah at the table, but it will get the job done with more clarity and efficiency.
One day it dawned on me. The Haggadah is not the story of the exodus from Egypt. Far from it. It’s a rabbinic collage of odd, disconnected passages — snippets of biblical verses with rabbinic interpretation, a few breaks for performance art (the four questions, the four sons, the door opening) and exceptionally weird math. Nothing about the Haggadah is linear. Nothing about it is chronologically smooth. So if you had to explain the Haggadah to an absolute stranger, what would you say?
Here’s what I’d say. The Haggadah is an ancient book that shares how our ancient sages told the story of leaving Egypt with passion and enthusiasm, without telling the story itself. They stayed up all night telling it, in hiding when it wasn’t safe to tell it. They were so enraptured by it they had no idea it was morning. They told it even though they were all-wise and knew it already. They prompted themselves with questions and ritual food, numbers and narrative. They sang songs to stir memories. The Haggadah models what an active storyteller does to keep listeners engaged, assuming its readers knew the story’s content.
It’s not an assumption we can make today. In demographic research, the No. 1 ritual still observed by American Jews is the Passover seder. What happens at the table, however, is usually an extended family dinner rather than history relived. Some millennials told me their families don’t even bother with the Haggadah anymore. They just eat. Rabbi A. J. Heschel once said that we don’t need textbooks but text-people. We have a great story. Now we need great storytellers.
A Matter of Trust
This article is sponsored by the letter “C” — actually by two words that begin with “C”: conspiracy and context. The more you work within the Jewish community the more you realize that Elvis and JFK are still alive. Evidence of this, you ask? We Jews love a good conspiracy theory.
When we don’t know a piece of information, we are all too ready to blame leadership for conspiring against us, hiding something from us or failing to be transparent. Sometimes there is truth to this. Leaders do make mistakes. When Jewish nonprofit leaders fail to communicate appropriately they leave themselves open to such criticism.
But very often we are too quick as a Jewish public to call out lack of transparency when we failed to read the memo that explained everything or almost everything. We jump to criticize. We use harsh, loaded words. We gossip. We tweet it out instead of talking it through. Someone else is always at fault. That someone has to pay. Leaders then have to defend themselves. It’s never the followers. Followers handle themselves perfectly.
The French philosopher Paul Ricouer (1913-2005) coined a term that explains a lot about conspiracy theories: the hermeneutics of suspicion; all interpretation reveals and conceals. Hermeneutics is roughly the study of theories of interpretation. We humans are naturally interpretive beings. Interpretation involves choices of how we frame what we see and read. Too often we suffer from a tendency to frame something in a negative light — to be suspicious instead of trusting. As a Jewish community, we have a bankruptcy of trust right now.
Purim is just behind us. Mordechai called out a real conspiracy against Ahashverosh; it was almost ignored. R. Eliezer Ashkenazi, a 16th-century scholar, draws our attention to one line in the Megillah that points to an imaginary conspiracy. Haman was at the height of his power but told his wife and friends, “all this is worth nothing as long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting there at the palace gate” (5:13). At the height of his power, Haman lost perspective. As a result of anger towards one, he was willing to kill an entire people.
R. Ashkenazi points to a similar theme in Genesis 21. Sarah threw Hagar and Ishmael out of Abraham’s house. She, too, was at the height of happiness celebrating an impossibly miraculous moment, the weaning of Isaac. In both these instances, Rabbi Ashkenazi regards high points as times when we can miss the larger picture. We focus on the one ugly thing that bothers us and take it totally out of proportion.
Beware the arrogance that underlines conspiracy theories, which are tools we use to help absolve ourselves of our responsibility to put things in context — our other “C” word. In “Ethics of the Fathers,” we are told to judge everyone with the benefit of the doubt. And yet some of the most “religious” people I know are the quickest to lose perspective, to judge, to ascribe bad motives, to ignore facts and to fail to check if their own assumptions are correct. It’s totally befuddling and anti-spiritual. Where is the context?
Jewish leaders and institutions can implode from the inside because of our capacity for conspiracy and our incapacity for trust. If Purim is to have an enduring message, it will mean more than girls dressed in Esther costumes and extravagant mishloach manot. Let’s finally internalize the demand to judge all people favorably, to trust more and to assume less.
Haman did not allow that. He criticized us precisely because we were a people of different laws and practices that failed to conform to his notion of Persian citizenship (3:8). Mordechai and Esther prevented a real conspiracy from downing Persia’s leadership. They also had a moral victory; they returned us to the wholeness and authenticity of a people allowed to self-identify.
The Talmud advises us to drink on Purim so that we don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, disastrous advice unless it’s telling us to do that which perhaps only alcohol and real kindness can achieve. Look at people without labels — or with the only label that ever matters: being human. Let’s name the conspiracy problem in our midst and redeem it by creating context. Trust more. Suspect less.
Where's The Outrage?
It’s been a long and tiring month. The new year did not start off well for us — not as Jews, not as human beings. The news out of Paris was staggering. It brought to the surface issues of hatred, racism, freedom of speech, freedom to protect and express religion, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia and even, for us, some strange anti-women weirdness. When a few high-ranking females, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were airbrushed out of a photo of the Paris protest in an Israeli ultra-Orthodox newspaper, satirists mocked the publication by creating a photo that airbrushed out all the male politicians. Needless to say, there weren’t many people left in the photo.
So where is the outrage? When people are tired, they don’t have the energy to be outraged. We are suffering moral fatigue. We don’t think there are any solutions to these vast, universal problems. We shrug. We wring our hands. In a word, we have given up.
Outrage in the dictionary is defined as “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” Outrage is a fierce emotion. It is the shrill cry of injustice. Where has our outrage gone?
I thought of this on a recent trip to Israel. My sister came with me in a taxi to pay respects to our beloved grandparents buried in Har Ha-Menuhot, a cemetery on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was overcast and raining. We paid for an hour of the driver’s time so we would not be rushed. He rushed. He then stopped short in front of an Egged bus, prompting me to say in Hebrew, “I want to visit Har Ha-Menuhot. I don’t want to live there.”
Apparently, I couldn’t live there if I wanted to. Local word is that they are running out of room. The cemetery was empty of living souls on a Friday afternoon, but a few days earlier its winding roads were overcrowded. The four French hostages who were murdered in Paris’ kosher grocery were buried there. People came by the thousands to show unity and anger. For a place called Mount of Eternal Rest, it should, given recent events, perhaps be renamed Mounting Anger. It was here that four of the five killed in the Har Nof synagogue massacre were also buried.
With 33 minutes left to our taxi hour, our frugal Jewish DNA wondered what we should do with the leftover time. It would be a shame to waste it. “Want to go to see Rabbi Rubin’s shul?” my sister asked. This was the unofficial name of the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue, where the massacre took place. My sister had introduced Aryeh Kopinsky, one of the four rabbis who were killed there, to his wife. Everyone was still hurting. I shook my head no. I didn’t want to bring in Shabbat in Jerusalem with mental visions of blood across a sanctuary. I didn’t want to see the artificial flowers left there as if to say, we will not forget you. I was tired.
The next day, I was angry at myself. I should have paid my respects, not tried to make it all invisible. In news terms, what happened in Har Nof already seemed like ancient history next to the anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe. Tragically, the massacre had been replaced in the media by fresh Jewish blood elsewhere. But in Har Nof, the anguish remains. Because new terror never eclipses old terror. It just adds to the hammering litany of injustice that we have somehow come to regard as unavoidable. I was wrong not to go to that shul and say a prayer for the dead and their families. It doesn’t matter if it’s painful. It was more painful for those who lived through it.
A Talmudic passage states that one shouldn’t pray in a ruin. Commentaries suggest that such places are dangerous. Ruffians may hide there. Anxiety may distract one from the appropriate mindfulness required. Here’s another possible interpretation: Prayer in a ruin somehow suggests that we can find God in a place no longer in use. Our relationship to the divine is not meant to be a relic, an object from a spiritual archeological dig. It must be living and vibrant, even when it’s painful. The minyan in Rabbi Rubin’s shul today is strong because no one can take away living holiness. Maybe God lives in our outrage. Maybe God lives in us when we give voice to those who cannot speak.
Perhaps as American Jews and American citizens we have become too complacent, too tired to protest terrorism and anti-Semitism. We have forgotten how to protest. Would we have been able to muster the throngs in Paris on our National Mall? I don’t know anymore. You don’t protest what you have come to accept.
We need more outrage because there is no more room in the cemetery on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Not Another Video, Please
As we start a new calendar year, we mark off dates that will require our presence: school dinners, graduations, weddings, family reunions and birthdays. Let’s circle one such occasion and offer the challenge of 2015: changing the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.
There are interesting articles and responsa that raise questions about aspects of the ceremony: Should a Jewish celebration of accepting mitzvot be non-kosher and the cause for Sabbath desecration? Is anyone an adult at 12 or 13? What happens when this ceremony becomes a farewell party to Judaism?
These questions are meaningful for me as well. But I want to focus on a standard feature of these events: the video. I long for the days before Power Point, when a few foam boards with a photo montage was all you needed to make the kid happy. Now I am regularly subjected to half-hour biopics that tell the story of … well, what story is it exactly?
It is basically the narration of the child’s life as a toddler, kindergartener, elementary schooler and awkward middle schooler. The child’s friends will clap wildly when an image of one of them appears. There will be the great aunt who will give a smaller check because she did not show up in one slide. There will definitely be one girl sobbing in the ladies’ room stalls because she’s been left out.
There will, of course, be the mandatory slide of the bar mitzvah in diapers, and everyone will laugh. There will be the child on a grandparent’s knee, and everyone will kvell. There will be painful family vacation photos where the child in question is the blurry one in the red bathing suit three people in from the left. People, we don’t want to see your family in bathing suits. Ever. Even if you are all candidates for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. TMI, I say.
Let’s face it, pre-adolescent children just aren’t that interesting. They don’t yet have a story. And a simcha is not a time to subject a captive audience to today’s equivalent of your home videos. Do that on your own time, even if you are paying for the meal.
I don’t mean to say that bar/bat mitzvah videos are boring. Of course they’re boring. Everyone knows that. So are most of the speeches and poems. As part of our social reciprocity in the collective we call community, we are willing to subject ourselves to your boredom so that you will tolerate ours. It’s a well-known deal. The problem with simcha videos is not tedium but messaging.
The story that is important — the narrative that a child joins on this occasion — is the story of the Jewish people. That’s the exciting, meaningful story. A bar/bat mitzvah is not a celebration of a child, in which case the photos of said youngster would be totally appropriate. The bar/bat mitzvah is arguably not a celebration at all. It is a marker of a major transition in the life of a Jewish person: when he or she takes on the adult responsibilities incumbent upon being a member of the Jewish community. These include visiting the sick, giving a tenth of one’s income to charity (yes, this includes bar/bat mitzvah checks), participating in collective prayer services, observing Shabbat and holidays, studying texts of Jewish meaning, attuning oneself to the grammar of compassion that is foundational to our faith. The list goes on.
If you want to make a video of that, go around taking pictures of people in need, of a pair of tefillin, of a soldier in Israel fighting on our borders and of an old woman praying at the Wall. Create a picture of Jewish life during the days of the Talmud, the Spanish Inquisition, the Renaissance and Poland in the 18th century. In that video put in a passage from the Bible and maybe a medieval commentator or two. Don’t forget to show an image of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and some obscure everyday heroes of Jewish life.
Make this video aspirational because that’s what the bar/bat mitzvah is all about. It’s not about the child. It’s about our Jewish story. If we keep telling kids through videos and speeches how wonderful they are but forget to tell them how wonderful Jewish life is, then we will have failed them at this transitional time. Our job as Jewish adults is to welcome and inspire a new crop of Jewish adults to take their place in this majestic story. Don’t tell them that they are fabulous the way they are but just how fabulous they could be if they took one great meaningful leap into their own Jewish future.
A Better Jewish Voice
We are a global community. This means Jews live virtually everywhere in the world. It also implies something about peoplehood. We may not be one in language, citizenship, ideology, politics or religious commitment, but we all carry a travel gene that tells us a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. There is a certain baseline that ties us powerfully and profoundly together, so that when we discover Jews in New Zealand or Patagonia, we don’t see them as strangers. They are distant cousins we just haven’t met yet.
Globalization is not a new phenomenon for Jews. It’s ancient. We were exiled, banished and tossed out of one country after another. We picked up our lives and settled in other countries. We learned new languages and became absorbed into new cultures within a generation. In this process, we developed an incredible network across the globe. This network made us excellent peddlers, and disseminators of information, gossip and scholarship. Networking like this is outstanding for innovation and the development of ideas. When you stand on the outside of any culture long enough, you become an excellent participant/observer. In the medieval period, books and ideas traveled with unprecedented speed from Salonika to Padua to Crete to Worms or Morocco, while many of our non-Jewish neighbors had rarely left their villages.
The jazz pianist Herbie Hancock said that, “Globalization means we have to re-examine some of our ideas, and look at ideas from other countries, from other cultures, and open ourselves to them.” This all sounds great, until he continues: “And that’s not comfortable for the average person.” From Hancock’s perspective, we Jews are above average. Globalization is not comfortable — it challenges long-held assumptions and can be humbling and even humiliating. For us, it’s a historical default position. And we have learned over time to leverage the discomfort of globalization.
Discomfort creates intellectual capital, the unintended benefit of being denied citizenship, professional access and property ownership for centuries. Property is not portable. Brains move, and they did. Serendipitous discoveries, great literature and scientific advancement are nourished from this global well, and in this sense, we have contributed immeasurably to the growth of science and culture.
Today we move more than we ever did. A Pew study conducted in 2008 found that many people today stay put longer today because we are an older nation with a lower birth rate. It’s also harder to move double-income families. Nevertheless, most Americans will still move at least once, multiple times if they are younger or more affluent. Interestingly, among American-born adults who have lived in more than one community, 38 percent claim the place they call home is not where they are currently living.
All of this dislocation presents challenges and opportunities. It also creates a new reality. Movement is the new norm in society. It’s an old norm for Jewish society, however. Given this fact of our history, it’s mystifying that in our American Jewish organizational culture, we have a huge web of information, but we have not successfully networked, tracked and sequenced our people enough. Jews connect to other Jews by accident when we have enough information to help make it intentional and strategic.
We have important organizations nationally and locally that work with populations from baby to bubbe, yet we still manage to drop people in the liminal spaces. Whenever a Jewish teen makes the transition from a youth movement to a university Hillel to a young professional cohort to becoming a young parent, to moving from mid-life to retirement, we should be able to track and sequence. Where were they? Where are they now? How can we move them as seamlessly as possible? This requires that we lower organizational walls and view ourselves as one community with a big “C.” Coordinating transition and passing on information is not just best practice and collegial; it needs to become an expected norm.
If this needs to happen better locally, it also needs to happen more nationally. When people move from one city to another, a JCC, federation or synagogue should be able to track, welcome and help them transition. We have information. We have to do a better job of sharing it.
But organizations are not omniscient. We need to know if you’re leaving and where you’re going. Stronger networking also means that we as individuals pass on our relocation information to the Jewish community and not only to the U.S. Postal Service. The post office has a way to do this but we don’t yet — at least not uniformly. It’s time to create a way to track and sequence and help Jews move from place to place and from life stage to life stage without losing them in the in-between spaces.
Let’s stay in touch.
[To see the original article click here.]
A Watergate Of Our Own
The mikveh scandal underscores the need for regulating the rabbinate.
It’s been a rough post-Yom Kippur for Jews in DC. What shook me most about the Freundel scandal – our 'Water'gate – is how many people said, “I’m shocked but not surprised.” Really? Rabbi Barry Freundel, who was arrested for voyeurism this past week, is an articulate scholar with a reputation as a forceful leader who put down other rabbis and congregations and could be fierce about institutions and practices he did not like. A friend who heard the news observed, “Beware the rabbi who protests too much.” If the allegations are true, this was not a crime of intimacy. It was a crime of power. Crimes of power happen when power is unchecked. Another friend said, “The problem is that the rabbinate is still a deregulated industry.”
To read more, click here.
The Holiday Sprawl
In day school they tell you that the Hebrew month after the jam-packed fall holidays is called Mar-Heshvan; the pre-fix “mar” here means “sad.” We are sad that we have run out of holidays and have a blank month ahead. I feel terrible admitting this, but I feel a bit relieved and, of course — because being Jewish — I feel a bit guilty for feeling relieved.
We all love holidays, but the condensed way that the season barrels into the first weeks of school and work schedules, knocks us over every time. Out-of-office e-mails, the huge outlay of money and the tedium that can accompany meal after meal, service after service, cleanup after cleanup can be daunting. People at the office think Shmini Atzeret must be made up. How many holidays can one religion possibly have in a month?
To read more, click here.
The Jewish Ego Check
We are approaching summer. Anyone remember last summer, the Jewish summer of scandal in New York? The heat returns, but we hope this time that light comes with it. We hope that these will be good months ahead, months where those in power feel the immense weight of personal responsibility weighing on their shoulders.
It is also the time when presidents and new board members are installed. Many Jewish nonprofits will change leadership over the summer. Many will hold leadership retreats so that people in new positions of power will know what to expect, even if you can never really know what to expect. Now is a good time to take the Jewish leadership IQ test: the Integrity Quotient.
To read more, click here.
A few weeks ago, my housekeeper forgot to take her check on the kitchen counter. I called her frantically; perhaps she thought we forgot to pay her. She simply forgot. It was her problem. No, I said, it was our problem. “Justine, it says in the Bible that you have to pay someone on the day.”
“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Do not oppress the worker who lives day-to-day and will not eat the day you forget or willfully ignore the bill.
There is a lot of talk today about minimum wage, but the issue of when you pay workers hardly gets attention. How can you forget? The worker did not forget to do the work or respect the deadline. Invoices say payment due upon services rendered. Many people read that as a suggestion.
To read more, click here.
An Open Letter to Frank Bruni
Dear Mr. Bruni,
I hope this finds you well. Thank you for your memoir, “Born Round: A Story of Food, Family and a Ferocious Appetite.” I was not born round but have been successfully making my way to that shape for years. I admire your honesty and your discipline in discussing your weight struggles. On the food and family front, Jews and Italians have a lot in common. You do pasta. We do challah. It’s all carbs.
Let me be “Frank” with you. I read your July 23 column in The Times, “The Faithful’s Failings,” comparing abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community and the Catholic Church, and I was upset. You see, while you were fighting a battle with food as an adolescent, I was actually involved in an abuse case. A group of us came forward in this very newspaper. The abuser I helped to “out” was a rabbi. He went to jail, and I learned a lot about perpetrators and protectors. It was painful to see children hurt because of irresponsible adults who turned the other way. It hurt then. It hurts now.
To read more, click here.
Death: A Nice Opportunity for Regret
THOMAS ARNOLD KEMP was executed this past April through lethal injection. He stole $200 from a college student in Tucson in 1992 and then murdered him. It took seven minutes for Mr. Kemp to die. His last words: “I regret nothing.”
I have been thinking about Mr. Kemp and death and regret, perhaps obsessively. Regret incites us to review and reflect on our actions; when we miss the mark, regret generates disappointment and grief. Regret would not have kept Mr. Kemp alive. But it might have kept him decent.
To read more, click here
Good to Go
Right before Yom Kippur, my husband and I put a deposit on two burial plots. We paid with a credit card (we need the frequent flyer miles for cargo) and received word that our eternal real estate in Israel was in process. In case our prayers were not effective, we had an alternative.
We are both young and healthy, but you never know. Having spent the better part of two years researching and writing about the end of life, I learned the importance of crafting burial plans early. It’s one less thing for the kids to fight about, and knowing where you are going when you have nowhere else to go brings some measure of comfort.
I apparently did not fill out the form correctly.
To read more, click here.