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.


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.


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.”


‘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.


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?”


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 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.


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. 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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.