Thursday, December 15, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 16


Last weekend's highlights included "Banot" on Friday night plus a wonderful turnout for our first "wine and cheese" Shabbat; and on Sunday, our Sisterhood cooking seminar and 7th Grade mock bris and naming ceremony.  See more in our

Shabbat Shalom

Mazal tov to Evan Goldblum and family, as be becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat.  We are expecting a big crowd Friday evening for our pre-Hanukkah dinner, followed by a "family style" service, including lots of participation from our students.  Please note that the service begins at the special time of 7:00 PM.   Mazal tov also to Joey Barocas, who will become Bar Mitzvah in Israel over the coming days!

With Hanukkah just a week away, don't forget to send me your candle lighting photos for our Hanukkah album.  See some of last year's here
Jewish Arts Festival at TBE

Our professional and lay leadership have been seeking new ways where we can leverage our strengths to make a positive difference for the youth of our community.  We feel we have hit upon an area where we can do just that.  Thanks to a grant from the Mann Family Foundation, we are beginning to lay the groundwork for a major initiative in Jewish culture for our children and teens.  The focus will be on music, drama, video, dance and the graphic arts.  Our preliminary goal is to produce a Jewish Arts Festivalfor kids throughout the community, much like what Maccabi did here last summer.  We are calling on parents and youth who might be interested in this long term project to come to an organizational meeting on Sunday, January 8 at 11:30 AM.

At this point, we've not yet determined exactly what dimensions this project will take, which is why we are seeking the input of congregants.  But we feel that with the assistance of Cantor Fishman, artist-in-residence Assaf Glaizner, Lisa Gittelman Udi and other experts in their artistic fields, we can offer students an experience that will link them to the rich heritage of Jewish creative expression, in a manner that is not available elsewhere.  We seek to partner with others in our community to bring these opportunities to the widest possible audience.

So if you are interested in helping to get this idea off the ground, please RSVP to me at and let me know if you can be here on Jan 8.

We're All People of Color

This op-ed, appearing in this week's Jewish Week, highlights some points I first introduced to the congregation on Rosh Hashanah.  The ideas expressed here are no less relevant today than they were then. Click here to see the article on the Week's site and if you wish to share it on social media.

For this year's High Holidays, I decided that I would step on that most perilous of third rails and speak with my congregation about racism. My goal was to move the conversation away from the partisan clichés and focus on deeper truths. Racism has the power to erode our basic humanity. We need to recognize that the toxicity is found in each of us. 

I confessed to my own failings. While I firmly believe that I am as colorblind as they come, I know that I am the product of a society that is struggling so mightily to overcome a pathology so inbred, so pervasive and so insidious that it affects us all.  
My congregants quickly understood that I was framing combating racism not as a political issue but as a moral imperative, and that I was not speaking as an accuser, but as one who has been complicit in the sin.  It helped people with vastly differing political allegiances to receive my message positively. But I needed to get deeper.

So I decided to have my DNA analyzed. I spat into a test tube (my most expensive spit since Mrs. Allen's class in third grade), mailed it in, and here's what I discovered about my ethnic background:

I am:
  • 97.2 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. No shocker, there;
  • 0.8 percent Eastern European - I knew there would be a Cossack in there somewhere;
  • 0.2 percent Southern European, which includes Italy, Iberia and the Balkans. It's noteworthy that 20 percent of the current population of the Iberian Peninsula has Jewish ancestry;
  • 1.7 percent Broadly European - pointing to some more generalized strands of genetic material going back to the hunter-gatherer days when Europe was settled;
  • And finally, (wait for it...) 0.1 percent Native American. 
Call me a mutt.

Did you know that one-in-five African Americans has Native American roots? In Louisiana, 12 percent of European Americans have some African ethnic ancestry. We are all people of color, it seems. Not just color, but colors, the colors of the wind. There is a veritable rainbow coalition within each of us.

"It turns out that most white Americans actually do have black blood," says the civil rights expert and activist john powell, a professor at U.C.-Berkeley. "White blood and black blood have been mixing up for a long time. And so as we deny the other, we deny ourselves. Because there is no 'other.'"

It brings a whole new meaning to "Love thy neighbor as thyself."  The revised translation should be, "Love: your neighbor IS yourself." We should see a bit of our own genetic heritage even in the one who looks very different. Genetically speaking, all human beings are 99.998 percent the same.

My DNA study revealed other hidden genetic traits. I tend to favor salty snacks over sweet ones; I am likely to have little or no upper back hair. Not that there's anything wrong with that. (I don't want to get nasty emails from the Anti Back Hair Defamation League).   I'm also genetically marked for hazel eyes, thinning hair, a few freckles, no dimpled chin - oh, and by the way, fair skin.

Skin color is not racial; rather it results from generations of exposure to ultra-violet radiation from sunlight for those living in hotter climates, which increases the production of melanin in the skin, making it darker. It then, of course, becomes a crucial part of one's ethnic heritage.

But pigmentation is just one marker among an untold number of markers that tell us so much of what's on the surface and what lies beneath.  But while there are markers for skin color predisposition, there is none for race. There is no single gene for race. The more we learn about the genome, the more scientists conclude: Race is not genetic, and skin color is just the wrapping for a much more complex package. "Do not look at the flask," says tractate Avot, "but at what lies within."

As I explored the history of this subject, I discovered that race is an artificial construct, based on faulty theories of Europeans like Johan Blumenbach, a 23-year-old grad student, who in 1775 correlated human character with skull size. He found the biggest skull while rummaging in the Caucuses, so he called it Caucasoid.  He created the "oids." The larger skulls, in his mind, correlated to larger brains, which he connected to light colored skin. Spoiler alert - Blumenbach's pigmentation was also white. That's like standing in the end zone and inventing the touchdown.

Of course, if brain size were truly a determinant of mastery and superiority, we would all be working overtime for whales and elephants, whose brains are much bigger than ours.

There is little doubt that the racial theories that evolved in the 18th century have tainted the soul of humanity more than just about any other system of ideas. Communism killed its millions, true. Millions more have also been killed senselessly in the name of God and religion. But think about the tens of millions of lives destroyed by these misguided theories of racial superiority, which justified American slavery, spawned South African apartheid, led to the genocides of indigenous populations everywhere, including here, and culminated in the Nazi Holocaust. 

Here is where my sermon turned to why it has become obligatory for Jews to lead the charge against racism. Jews believe that all human beings are of equal value in God's eyes. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man's gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking."

And today, with some dangerous theories of eugenics still being propagated, in particular by the increasingly empowered white supremacists, who are also virulently anti-Semitic, we must extinguish this insidious brand of hatred. We must extinguish it in society - and in ourselves. 

Hanukkah: It's Complicated

Hanukkah is complicated. Nothing is as it seems. For one thing, it is the festival the ancient rabbis wanted to get rid of. They hated the Maccabees (primarily because their descendants, the Hasmoneans, became corrupt rulers) and devoted very little space in the Talmud to discussions of this holiday. Purim gets an entire tractate, Hanukkah barely a page.  But it was too popular to get rid of.  So the rabbis tried to gerrymander it to fit their visions.

Some have asked me how we can say, in the blessing, that we are "commanded to light the Hanukkah candles," when Hanukkah is not even in the Torah and doesn't seem to have been commanded anywhere.  The rabbis got around that one by invoking a verse from Deuteronomy ascribing special authority to sages living during the Second Temple period.  It's complicated, but the idea is that the verse gave these sages authority to give a non Torah activity "mitzvah" status, to be included among the 613 commandments.  So a new commandment was shoehorned into the Torah for a holiday that's post biblical.
Even the simple dreidel game, one of Hanukkah's best known customs, is complicated. It's in fact derived from an English and Irish medieval Christmas custom.  Sorry, Virginia, it's one of those freaky ironies of Jewish history that in order to celebrate a holiday that marks our victory over cultural assimilation, we play a game that resulted from cultural assimilation.  You can read more about the origins of the dreidel and more Hanukkah exotica, here

As we delve more deeply into Hanukkah and find other examples of cultural borrowing.  What is this season about, after all, for so many cultures, but the spiritual power of fire and night.

In a technological society, one of the great purposes of religion is to enable human beings to return to the bare essentials of life.  In our age, religion serves as a sort of paint stripper, removing layer upon layer upon layer of artificiality, reminding us who we are and where we come from, begging us to embrace simplicity and rediscover the basics.

Hanukkah is the holiday of fire and night, two of creations most necessary, and most feared, phenomena.  The festival comes at a time when the days are shortest and even the night sky is at its darkest - since it is the end of the Jewish month.  With no sun or moon to light up the sky, and December's winds blowing briskly, it is up to us to create the fire that will sustain us physically and spiritually while the days begin to grow longer and the moon larger.

On Hanukkah we light that fire, demonstrating that human beings have the capacity to create light and harness the power of fire. That's why it's possible for so joyous a celebration to occur at so dark a time of year.  The fact that Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev and Christmas occurs on the 25th of December is not entirely coincidental - and this year, the stars are aligned perfectly and the two dates coincide.   Both holidays are responding to the universal and ancient need to light up the night of winter - it's a need that gave rise to all the winter festivals celebrated throughout the world.  It is the bond that links the flickering Hanukkah menorah to the Christmas tree, and it is a need that predates both.

You can read here how Christmas originally was moved to the winter months in order to compete with Zoroastrian and then European pagan celebrations.  Also, at this time of year, Hindus in India, and all over the world, celebrate Diwali (or Deepawali), a festival of lights that is as big as Christmas is for Christians. And the Chinese New Year, celebrated in several weeks, is also a festival of light featuring lanterns and flames (and if you've dodged the fireworks in Chinatown on that day, you know exactly what I mean).

So cultures share.  That is a fact - one that we should celebrate.  We are all human beings, after all, with the same fears and hopes.  But we Jews also celebrate the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, with our great heroes of the battlefield and of the spirit.  And the fact that our ancestors had the faith to light the lights, even when all seemed so hopelessly dark.


Also, see these Hanukkah goodies from the Rabbinical Assembly:

  Prayers & Kavannot (meditations before lighting candles)

And see below a Hanukkah video for kids:

Maccabees and Miracles: The Hanukkah Story for Kids
Maccabees and Miracles: The Hanukkah Story for Kids

 Moment of Truth for Israel (that few here are talking about) 

And finally, see this article by Gershom Gorenberg, which explains with clarity and detail why December 25 could be a landmark moment for Israel, having nothing to do with Hanukkah or Christmas, but everything to do with a small symbolic outpost called Amona.  Click here for Times of Israel coverage, and here for Shmuel Rosner's take in the New York Times, here for old friend Marc Schulman's take in Newsweek and here for a JTA report.  See Naftali Bennett's takeIt's important to note that both sides of the Israeli political divide are in complete agreement that the actions being taken could well be the first steps in Israel's annexation of at least parts of the West Bank.  It is so important for all who love Israel to understand the implications of what is happening right now, and what that could mean for the future.

Shabbat Shalom!

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