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.


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.


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. 


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:

  1. Am I saying yes to satisfy myself or to satisfy someone else?

  2. Is there anyone else who can do this more efficiently, more capably, or more willingly?

  3. Am I uniquely situated and positioned for this role?

  4. Will this role grow my talent and/or give me needed experience and skills?

  5. Will saying yes help me better achieve my own leadership goals?

  6. Is now the right time in my life to say yes?

  7. 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.


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.


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? 


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.

Thanks, Adele.


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


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?


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.


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.


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. 


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.

Warmly, Erica


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. 


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.