Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Shabbat Shalom!  

Have you seen our Chocolate Seder photo album?  We had over a hundred here enjoying it last week. Pesach never tasted so good!  Everything on the Seder plate was made of chocolate.  Imagine dipping the strawberry into chocolate rather than parsley into salt water.  It was delicious.

With Passover less than two weeks away, people are always looking for ideas to make the Seder more meaningful.  This Sunday at 9:30, I'll be presenting a "Passover Seder Leader's Survival Guide," and next Thursday evening, the Board of Rabbis will join me for a panel on that topic.  You can also download his collection of Seder Activities by Noam Zion, author of the "A Different Night" Haggadah.  See also a personal favorite, The Velveteen Rabbi's Passover Haggadah, filled with poetry and moments of mindfulness.  Click here for the New Israel Fund's packet, which this year focuses on the plight of refugees, and the Shalom Center's "Haggadah for the Earth."  If you are looking for acts of tzedakkah and world repair to do this Passover, check out our updated catalogue of student mitzvah projects of this and last year's B'nai Mitzvah students. Very impressive.  And if you simply want inspiration, don't miss the New World Chorus "Season of Miracles" concert on Sunday afternoon.

Oh yes, and here is the sale of hametz form.

This American (Jewish) (Parisian) (Italian) Life

A major theme of ours this year has been Jewish Journeys.  Since December, we have heard some extraordinary testimonies from fellow congregants about how Judaism and Jewish identify have propelled - or been propelled by - their life trajectories.   The results have been breathtaking - and in my mind proof of the fallacy of surveys depicting American Jewry as being in decline. 

The next presentation in our series will be THIS SHABBAT MORNING.  Lisa Strom, a newish congregant whom I recently guided through the process of conversion, will speak about the intersection of her Jewish and Italian backgrounds:

Parenting as an Italian or as a Jew:  Whose Guilt is Greater?

This session is a must for current, prior and prospective parents....and everyone else!

The snapshots of pollsters cannot account for the twists and turns - and re-turns - that I see all the time.  As Jewish identification ebbs for one, it returns with a vengeance for another, and often it happens many times over the course of a single life.  Passover is ultimately about that process as it occurs in every Jew and every Jewish family.  We reunite around the table each year and mark our place in time, reaffirming our rock-solid values as we churn through yet another tumultuous whirlpool of a Red Sea. 

Reminds me of an old Dan Fogelberg lyric:

"In the passage from the cradle to the grave;
We are born madly dancing.
Rushing headlong through the crashing of the days
We go on and on without a backwards glance."

Passover is that backwards glance.  It doesn't diminish the days - or waves' - crashing.  But it's nice to know that when we turn around, familiar folk are still reaching out for our hand to lead us gently ashore.

As our teens will be quick to attest, I never give up on anyone.  I chase them around relentlessly during their teen years and especially beyond.  As a result, I often hear from young adults, years after they've left Stamford or left Beth El, and they catch me up on their lives.

I received such a correspondence two weeks ago from a former student who hadn't contacted me in years.  I had every reason to believe he might have become one of those nagging statistics from the Pew Report.  But instead I got this:

Dear Rabbi Hammerman

It's me Alan Tanz.  I hope you are doing well.  I am not sure if you remember me, but I had my Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth El January 26th 2002.  I was also converted about two years before that.  I would like thank you for all of the help and support you and Temple Beth El have given me in making me a part of Stamford's Jewish community.  I am now 25 years old and living in Paris, France.  Since my Bar Mitzvah I have graduated from the University of Arizona and done a lot of travelling.  I have only been to Israel once when I took part in Birthright 2010.  It was crazy experience seeing so much of Israel in such a short period of time.  I knew I had to go back.  So in November of 2013 I decided that I didn't only want to return, I wanted to immigrate.  Last month I began the process of making Aliyah with the Jewish Agency for Israel in Paris.  I am now at the stage where I am collecting the necessary documents.  One of these documents is a letter from a rabbi confirming that I am Jewish.  I was wondering if you could provide that for me.  Also, I was wondering if you had any advice for a new oleh.  My goal is to arrive in Israel this summer and to do at least six months of army service.  After that I hope to study at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Attached to this e-mail are a couple of photos of me when I was last in Israel.  Again, I would like to let you know how grateful I am for being so warmly welcomed and accepted into Beth El's community and for everything the synagogue has taught me.  I hope to hear from you soon.   

Ironically, when I received that email, I was in Jerusalem.  I replied right away about how thrilled I was to hear from him and of course I remembered him.  I reflected on how wonderful Birthright Israel is, how it has changed lives and transformed the Jewish landscape - and also how fortunate it is for me to have been here long enough so that students like Alan know where to find me.  I could be that fixed star in the storm. Having journeyed as far from TBE as you can get, he could still set his compass by reaching back to us.  I asked Alan if he wanted to share his journey's lessons with others - a written version of "This American (Jewish) Life."  He said yes, and he sent me this:

I went to the University of Arizona where I was active in Hillel and since graduating have travelled to many different countries.  I worked with Israelis in New Zealand and Australia.  When my boss in Australia sent me to work in Singapore, I still managed to go to their only synagogue for the High Holidays where I met some nice people who invited me to break the Yom Kippur fast with them.  Sadly when I moved to Europe in 2012 I didn't make as much effort to meet other Jewish people or get involved with a synagogue. So my advice would be is that no matter where you are, stay in contact with the Jewish community otherwise you will really miss out.  And if it has been a while since you've said "Shalom," don't be afraid to come back.  They miss you.

Shalom, Alan!  We'll see you in Jerusalem.

The Final Four

I rarely make Final Four predictions based on Jewish sources, but hot on the heels of my Super Bowl triumph and in light of a more-than-casual statewide rooting interest, how could I resist?  With apologies to the Lady Huskies, I'll be focusing on the men here. 

Let's just start by saying that Storrs, Connecticut has become to college basketball what Green Bay is to football.  To have both the men and women's teams in the Final Four and for that to feel routine keeps us from appreciating just how rarified the basketball air has become around these parts. 

That said, U Conn is also the clear-cut favorite to win from a Jewish perspective. 

The four teams left standing this weekend all feature animal nicknames.  Badger, 'Gator, Wildcat and Husky.  All are found in the Bible.  

Some connect the badger to the hyrax, an animal that can be found in remote locations like En Gedi.  I was interested to find out that Bucky Badger, that irrepressibleWisconsin mascot, is Jewish

Kentucky, a traditional basketball power, had the distinction of a Jewish star player named Sid Cohen, who was one of the first junior college transfers to play for the legendary coach Adolph Rupp.  We'll grant that when Rupp's mom gave him that first name, she had no idea that it might not be so popular among Jews later on (and indeed many Jews had that name too).  We also read in Job 4:10, "The lion roars and the wildcat snarls, but the teeth of strong lions will be broken."  If Kentucky were playing Penn State, that would be a very good sign.

But a badger 'aint a lion, and the presence of badger skins lining the sacred tabernacle tells me that Wisconsin will win.

Florida: Let's ignore the zoological distinctions between alligators and crocodiles for a moment.  We're talking creepy crawling things in the water with big teeth.  I've seen lots of crocs in Israel - not just the shoes (or in the form of handbags).  One of my kids' favorite attractions when they were younger was Hamat Gader, a spa / crocodile farm right near the Syrian and Jordanian border, off the Yarmuk River, where Jacob fought the angel and was renamed Israel.  It's the only crocodile farm in the Middle East, but the Jewish sources are filled with allusions to it, like this one in Job, attesting to the animal's ferocious nature.  In modern Hebrew, the croc is Tannin, also a traditional word for sea monster, associated in folklore with the Red Sea.

Add to that the fact that the University of Florida has the largest population of Jews among all public univesities in America.  A great Hillel too.  Wisconsin is #10, incidentally.  Didn't see the others on the list.

But I pick U Conn, specifically for four reasons (aside from my wanting to walk the streets of my fair state safely this weekend). 

1)     Biblical: We read in Judges 7:5"So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the LORD told him, 'Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.'"   Those who lapped like dogs were chosen to be his soldiers.  Why?  Because they were less likely to kneel to idols, and, according to some, because they overcame their fear of crocodiles in the water.
2)     Because of Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld, Israeli hoop legends who came of age in U Conn blue.
3)     And because U Conn is the only team in the final four with a player whose first name is also a major part of the Hebrew liturgy.  Yes, Amida Brimah, the seven foot freshman from Ghana, wins this year's Torah Bright award for most evocative Jewish name ever given to a non-Jew.  I sense a big weekend for Amida, a payoff from his years of "silent devotion" to his craft. 
4)     And to top it all off, U Conn's star guard's name is deliciously suggestive of Judaism's day of rest.

I see a big weekend for U Conn and two more banners for Title Town USA.

Shabazz Shalom and GO HUSKIES   


 Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shabbat-O-Gram March 28

Shabbat Shalom!  

I want to give you a photographic taste of Jerusalem in spring, which I experienced just last week. The colors, the flowers, the vivacity of the people (especially on Purim) are simply spectacular.  Above you see the sunrise over the Mount of Olives (with the Moab mountains of Jordan in the background) that I was privileged to witness, thanks to jet lag, from my room in The Mount Zion Hotel (a shameless plug for this summer's trip, since we will be staying there - space is still available - trip details are here).

See more photos throughout this O-Gram and at the bottom, a sunset from Old Jaffa.

 Jerusalem marathon last Friday

This Shabbat morning, our service will be dedicated to TBE's teens.  Lots of them will be involved, some reading Torah, some leading discussions, some just hanging out.  Noah Zussman and I will be hosting that rollicking Game Show, "Is It Good for The Jews?" and I'll have special treats direct from  Israel to incentivize participation (read: shameless bribe).  Then, we'll all be enjoying a kiddush lunch, sponsored by the Young family.  There are very few opportunities during the year for our teens to touch home base (a perfect metaphor for baseball's opening weekend) here at their synagogue.  If you are a teen or a parent of one, please join us tomorrow!  I'd love to see you!
I'm also really looking forward to our young family Chocolate Seder this evening.  We have a huge crowd already signed up.  If you haven't yet, join us! 

 Even Moses ran in the Jerusalem Marathon


Speaking of Passover, don't forget our Passover Food Drive (details here).  For the past several years, we have not had a congregational seder, primarily for logistical reasons as well as lack of demand.  Each year, though, we have matched people looking for seders to congregant families with extra space at the table.  If you fall into either of those categories, please let me know - and if you have space, let me know how many places and for which night(s), and we'll go from there.

It is customary to sell hametz before the holiday - a legal fiction that essentially means you can store it away in your home without deriving benefit from it.  Download the Sale of Hametz Form,  And click here to download the complete Rabbinical Assembly Passover Guide.Also see my extensive list of Seder guides and passover supplements.

And since Purim is still fresh in our memories, see our complete Purim album here.

 Purim on Ben Yehuda St

April Fool's, "Noah" and Nisan: A Case of Cabin Fever

The highly touted film "Noah" is opening this weekend to generally positive reviews, and this coming week we begin the months of Nisan and April on the same day, Tuesday, A.K.A. April Fool's Day.  The first of Nisan is also known as the biblical New Year, as it is the month of Passover - and this Shabbat we announce this most important of months with special fanfare (the name of the Sabbath is in fact Shabbat Ha-Hodesh - the Sabbath of THE Month)

I'll bet you did not know that all of these things are connected!  Allow me to explain...

The most popular explanation for April Fool's Day involves the revolutionary change in calendars that occurred 500 years ago. Until then, many ancient cultures celebrated New Year's Day in late March to coincide with the arrival of spring. However, March 25 was the Feast of the Annunciation in much of medieval Europe, so the more pagan New Year's celebrations were postponed until April 1.

Then, on Feb. 24, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced his Gregorian calendar, which had a bold change -- the New Year would begin on Jan. 1. In the next few months, a handful of countries signed on to the pope's idea.

This is where the fun supposedly began. One of the countries that adopted the new calendar almost immediately was France. But as you might imagine, word of the change didn't reach all the French people with lightning speed in those days.

As a result, the story goes, some people refused to change, some forgot and some apparently even were tricked into celebrating New Year's Day on April 1 as they always had. Those who had changed made fun of these rubes and reportedly sent them on fool's errands or tried to trick them into believing other things that were not so. Hence, the origin of April Fools'  Day.

But as snopes.com points out, there are problems with this theory (you can read about them here).

Here's where Nisan and Noah come in.  Some say that April Fools has biblical origins.One theory holds that it stems from the time when Noah sent out a dove on a fruitless search to find dry land, speculating that Noah felt foolish and that the dove came back with a sheepish expression, knowing that she had been sent on a wild goose chase  (to mix three animal metaphors in one sentence).  According to some traditions, this happened on the first day of the Hebrew month that corresponds with April, Nisan. 

In the end, historians say that April Fool's Day probably evolved simply as a result of pent-up energy being unleashed during the spring equinox after a long winter. Those fun-loving Romans, for example, celebrated Hilaria on March 25 to mark the arrival of spring. 

Well, when it comes to having cabin fever, no one was more pent up than Noah's gang - until us this past winter.  Now we are clamoring for April, the first pitch, the annual removal of the deck chairs, for Nisan, for spring cleaning and Passover and for the time when, as Song of Songs 2:12 proclaims, "The flowers are springing up, the season of singing birds has come, and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air." 

I brought my car to a car wash yesterday to remove the winter "schmutz" from the outside and the hametz from within.  Boy did it feel good!  Liberation is around the corner.

It's all coming VERY SOON, and not just to a theater near you.

No foolin' about that!

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Springtime (a photo essay)

 Jaffa Street, now a pedestrian boulevard

 Tel Aviv at sunset

Old Jaffa at sunset

Profiles in Luggage 

This week, Ha’aretz revealed that a new security system at Ben-Gurion International Airport seems to have suspended the invasive and humiliating security checks that have until now been routine for Palestinian and Israeli Arab travelers. 

The article states:

For the past two weeks, these passengers say, they have been treated exactly the same as Jewish passengers, instead of being subjected to interrogations, searches and delays.

The change is due to the installation of a new, automated system for checking passengers’ bags.

“The technological [baggage] check systems have replaced the physical security checks, and their goal is to significantly ease the physical security check process,” Israel Airports Authority spokesman Ofer Lefler said in a written statement to Haaretz.

Since the system went into operation on March 9, the practice of selectively and publicly searching the contents of certain suitcases in the departure hall has ceased. Instead, after the routine security interrogation, all passengers are sent straight to the check-in counter, where their baggage is examined in the automated system.

So in other words, Israel is teaching the world how to profile in a manner that upholds both security and dignity.  Bravo!  Instead of profiling people, they are profiling their luggage, when the people aren’t there.  No wonder I was instructed at the airport last week to leave my luggage unlocked.

Part of me suspects that the automated system has four legs and barks, but even so, I did notice that my check in went much more smoothly last week - for a while.  As we neared the final security check, Mara and I were pulled aside and technologically frisked by a sophisticated brush-like instrument, inspected very carefully for residue of ... who knows what ... on our person, our shoes, and in our carry ons.  In effect, WE were profiled - after all, how many middle age Conservative rabbis from the US do they see?  Verrry suspicious.   We were asked lots of questions - thankfully I remembered my Bar Mitzvah date.

Did something on our passports give them pause?  I hadn’t been to any places hostile to Israel lately, save for a few college campuses, so maybe they suspected me  of being anOpen Hillel advocate from Vassar, where things have getting messy.  So I boldly asked the agent why we had been selected. He said it was just a random thing and sent us on our way.

Well, better to inconvenience me than a real terrorist, who might have had lots more items on his duty free shopping list.  No matter.  He can shop til he drops now.  Because behind the scenes his luggage is being profiled by Fido in the back room.

So some nice things happening in Israel right now. (You can read about the unisex bathroom in the Jewish Quarter that also gave me hope.)   

Let's hope it continues...

Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The View from Israel

I’m just back from a whirlwind week long vacation in Israel – it was great to spend time with my family there, including Dan, who is having a great semester at Hebrew U.  You can read one interestgin anecdote that I shared on my Times of Israel blog.   

This Thursday at 7:30 PM I’ll be sharing some reactions from my trip, plus reviewing the must-read Israel book of the year, Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  I’m delighted to be joined by co-presenter and TBE member Yaelle Azagoury, whose excellent review of the Shavit book appears in this week’s Jerusalem Report

Whether or not you have read the book, you should join us on Thursday.  You can also download a comprehensive reader’s guide here.

For those who have read the book, it would be very helpful if you could jot down one or two quotes from it that you found most interesting and bring them with you.

Yaelle, who grew up in Morocco, has taught Literature-Humanities at Columbia University, French and English Literature at Barnard and SUNY (Purchase College).  Her articles and book reviews have appeared in academic and non-academic magazines such as Lilith, the Jerusalem Report and the Jerusalem Post. She writes about art, literature and culture, primarily French, American and North African.

Purim Photos

We had an unforgettable Purim this year!
See our complete Purim album, including the family megilla reading and carnival, here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shabbat and Purim - O - Gram for March 14


I'll be bringing this basket of Mishloach Manot (Purim gifts of food),
prepared by our TBE 7th graders, to the Jewish Home in Fairfield today. 
Giving the gift of food says at once: "I don't want you to be hungry" and "I want you to really enjoy life." In the face of the grim story of Purim, not only should we note that we're indeed still alive enough to eat - we should revel in it.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy Purim, Happy St Patty's Day and, yes, AT LONG LAST...



This evening I'll be joined by Cantor Mordecai and Beth Styles as we celebrate having survived both the endless winter and all the blows aimed in our direction throughout Jewish history - to this very day, when rockets still rain down on Israel's south.  And join us on Shabbat morning, when I'll be focusing on the Jewish concept of revenge, as exemplified by Shabbat Zachor and the prayer Alenu

But I digress... back to PURIM.  Join us for Purim for Adults on Sat. night at 8 (when the teens will be having a simultaneous sleepover) and for the Kids' Megilla and Carnival on Sunday morning.  Come in costume (gee, what will the rabbi be wearing?)

At the conclusion of the holiday, Mara and I will be heading to Israel for a week to see Dan, who is enjoying his semester at Hebrew U.  Maybe I'll rip myself from endless bowls of Abu Shukri's hummus to send a photo or observation or two via Facebook.  So if you haven't friended me yet, by all means, look me up!  

Polish Pubs & Purim


See this excerpt from a feature story about our Purim night speaker, Glenn Dynner in this weeks' Tablet magazine

There's nothing particularly boozy about Jewish economic history or culture, prior to or since this period in Poland. There are no Jewish cocktails and no spirits that are uniquely Jewish. There weren't any major Jewish innovations in the industry, and the Jewish legacy left to the world of booze is essentially nil. Why?

Polish nobles were eager to have Jews run their taverns, largely because of prevalent myths about Jews-chiefly, that they didn't drink. Dynner provides abundant evidence of what he calls the "myth of Jewish sobriety." The 19th-century Polish nobleman Antoni Ostrowski described Jews as "always sober," adding "drunks are rare among Jews." Indeed, Dynner writes, "Polish folk idioms mocked Jews for having so much  liquor at their disposal yet being so stupid as not to drink it themselves."

Well, Dynner's talk will be fascinating, especially as we then taste some Scotch and ask how and why that myth about Jews not drinking is no longer even close to valid.  We Jews have become quite adept at imbibing. 

But is that a good thing?

In my column in this week's N.Y. Jewish Week, I make the claim that the prevailing mythology regarding the obligatory nature of getting drunk on Purim is all wrong - and dangerous:

This year's trending Purim parody topic is the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado. President Obama's recent public admission about getting high will no doubt fan these flames. And when there's fire, there's smoke. There will be, no doubt, lots of non-medicinal smoking going on, in and out of Colorado, this Purim.

One of my colleagues wrote a satiric piece for his synagogue bulletin about a new mile-high synagogue whose motto is, "Let's Get Chai," where Shabbat services begin at a mellow 1 p.m., the hamentaschen are cannabis-infused, where they say "ShaPOT Shalom," the rabbi's name is Moshe Stone and their website proclaims, "WEED love to see you."

OK, I get it. There's a lot of pot-ty humor going around these days, and Purim is a great time to indulge.

In humor, that is.

But something gnaws at me about this preoccupation with getting high and, more to the point - since it is legal everywhere - drinking. I don't want to get caught up in the incessant debate as to which mind-bending substance is the most harmful when consumed in excess. I also do not question the medical benefits of medicinal cannabis. My point is that I don't believe the ancient rabbis really intended for Purim to be a drunken orgy in the first place, and even if they did, that was before Jews drove these large metallic unguided missiles called cars.

Yes, it's true that in the Talmud, Rava (Megilla 7b) states that a person must get so inebriated on Purim as to be rendered unable to distinguish between "Cursed be Haman and "Blessed be Mordechai." But this flies against a strong Jewish aversion to excess, and later authorities tried to water down that quip to the point where it would be impossible to distinguish Rava from the Church Lady. 

Maimonides assumes that we should drink just enough to gently fall asleep. Others like Rabbi Menachem Hameiri who, being from Provence, undoubtedly knew his wine, stated, "We are not commanded to get drunk ... for we were not commanded to engage in debauchery and foolishness, but to have heartfelt joy which will lead to the love of God and to gratitude for the miracle that was performed for us."

Purim calls upon us to indulge in satire, but truthfully, getting drunk and stoned is no laughing matter.  I'm not trying to be a killjoy here.  I just want to make sure that no one actually kills Joy...or Bruce, or Joe, or Dawn, or any of the tens of thousands killed each year by drunk drivers.

See also Vigor Juice Jews and Booze, a fascinating new history of Prohibition-era bootleggers, barmen, rabbis, and cops, which picks up where HBO's Boardwalk Empireleaves off, by Allan Nadler.  See a more lighthearded look at Jews and getting drunk on Purim here, a quick historical and halachic survey here, and a detailed, annotated responsum here

This History of Hamentaschen

According to Prof David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute, there are three customs that are connected to today's custom of eating hamentashen on Purim.  When you read this article, you'll come to realize that all this fuss about hamentaschen is just a bunch ofkreplach!  Read the complete essay here.  And click here for an article about Purim's origins

What is a Purim Spiel? 

We'll have a nice home grown Purispiel here on Sunday, produced by our teens.  If you want to learn more about the principles behind a Purimspiel, check out this online seminar from the Rabbinical Assembly, utilizing YouTube videos.  Also see Purim Articles from the Hartman Institute, The Book of Morman Purim Parody and my personal favorite on the eve of the "Big Dance," The Evil Doers Final Four, created a few years ago by my son Ethan.

And finally....

Hammerman Likes Ham

Some of my friends received this interesting announcement on Facebook this week:


Yes, my secret is out.  

Happy Purim! 

 - and check out the Forward's Purim parody with this photo of the latest Wicked Wicked Man learning how to read Torah... and the always funny Jewish "Weak" spoof


Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman