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Harmony and Discord

This past Sunday evening, Steve and I attended a most enjoyable concert at the Jerusalem YMCA— known to Jerusalemites as “Imka.” It was a joint concert of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, and the Yale University Whiffenpoofs. Of course we already knew the music of the Whiffenpoofs. This was the first a cappella all male college choir, founded at Yale in 1909. Steve played violin in the Yale Symphony while he was a student there, and also played trumpet in the Yale Precision Marching Band. But he never sang with the Whiffenpoofs, even though he has always loved them. The members of the Whiffenpoofs take a full year off from their studies in the senior year, and devote all their attention and time to the group. They travel all throughout the United States and the world. This week they were in Israel. In September, they will resume their studies and look forward to their graduation next June.

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is made up of about 25 high school kids, both Jewish and Palestinian. They also are an a cappella choir, though occasionally they are accompanied by keyboard and/or drum. They sing in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French. Whereas the Whiffenpoofs all wear white ties and tails, the kids—girls and boys—dress more informally, in shirts and pants. At this concert they made it a point to all wear different colored shirts, I suspect to stress their individuality within the remarkable ensemble that they have. The group is conducted by Micah Hendler, who himself was a member of the Whiffenpoofs six years ago.

This is the stated mission of the YMCA Youth Chorus:

“The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is a choral and dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. Our mission is to provide a space for these young people from East and West Jerusalem to grow together in song and dialogue. Through the co-creation of music and the sharing of stories, the chorus seeks to empower youth in Jerusalem to become leaders in their communities and inspire singers and listeners around the world to work for peace.”

I have to tell you that the sound that these kids produce together is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. It is a pure sound, the pitch is spot on, and the kids themselves are clearly delighted to be there, singing and making music with one another. Their singing was so beautiful that at one point Steve and I both were moved to tears.

This is harmony at its finest.

Sunday night and Monday were also Rosh Chodesh Av—the first day of the month of Av. As happens on every Rosh Chodesh except for Tishrei (which is Rosh Hashanah), Nashot Hakotel—Women of the Wall—gather at 7:00 in the morning in the women’s section of the Kotel to pray the Rosh Chodesh Morning Service. This Monday was no exception. Steve and I got up early and joined them, both with our Women of the Wall Talitot. (Yes, Steve has one too, which he wears frequently.) Incidentally, you might be happy to know that we were joined by Cantor Lauren Phillips, who was there with her husband Dan Fogelman on vacation.

This was the first Rosh Chodesh since Prime Minister Netanyahu nullified the agreement that took some 5 years to hammer out regarding a new egalitarian platform along the Wall that would be designated specifically for liberal, egalitarian prayer. The case itself, of course, has been dragging on for 28 years. But, as I wrote earlier this month, even after reaching a carefully negotiated agreement, Mr. Netanyahu caved in to pressure by the ultra-Orthodox power mongers, and reneged. So not only are the women of Nashot Hakotel subjected to the taunts and terrible noise of the Haredim, we are now segregated even further behind an additional barricade within the women’s section, mostly for our own protection.

While it’s not unusual for cat calls, whistles, and obscenities to be hurled at the women who gather together by the Haredim, both men and women on their respective sides of the mechitza, this particular Rosh Chodesh seemed particularly loud. And, at one point, the Sheliach Tzibbur in the men’s section got hold of a microphone that is only legal to use during public commemorative events. But no one made any attempt to take the microphone from him. As he chanted the service in the men’s section, his voice bellowed over the loudspeakers, in an effort to drown us out. The one positive effect this did have is that the whistles and cat calls stopped for awhile, because they did not want to drown out the sound from the men’s section. As though only the prayers of men may be heard on high.

This was discord at its most irritating.

Rosh Chodesh Av ushers in a 9-day period leading up to Tish’ah B’av, the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem. The huge stones of the Roman destruction some 2,000 years ago, still lie in the rocks and concrete, as they tumbled randomly and violently to the ground. Tish’ah B’av is known to Jews as the saddest day of the year. This is not only because of the destructions and additional calamities themselves which befell us on this day. It is because of the discord and infighting that accompanied these catastrophes. Sinat Chinam is the term—

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus

hatred without cause.

Within a 12-hour period we experienced the melodious sounds of harmony and the distressing cacophony of discord. The harmony, from a group of high school kids, Jews and Palestinians, seeking to create understanding and a better world for themselves and their peers. The discord, from a plaza full of Jews, some of whom are so rigid and closed-minded that they are unable to tolerate differences among us.

As we anticipate the observance of Tish’ah B’av this coming Monday night and Tuesday, it would behoove us to contemplate the significance of this spectrum, and where we would locate ourselves level upon it. Then it is up to us to assert our position, and uphold it.

The Shabbat of Blessing, and an additional note

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New Moon signals Rosh Chodesh

Shabbat HaChodesh… This coming Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul – the beginning of the month of Elul. Elul is one of the months that has a two-day Rosh Chodesh; this year, Shabbat, September 3rd is the 30th day of Av and Sunday, September 4th is the first of Elul. Elul, of course, is the last month of the calendar year before Rosh Hashanah. This Rosh Hashanah, the year will change to 5777. But the months of the Hebrew year actually begin in the spring with Nisan, the month of Passover, so Elul is actually the sixth month of the year. If Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh, it is called Shabbat HaChodesh.

The month of Elul… The word itself, “Elul,” comes from the Aramaic for “to search.” It is an appropriate name, considering the season we are about to enter. During Elul we begin searching our hearts, and looking back over our behavior during the past year. Elul is the month during which we begin the process of Teshuvah – Repentance – as we seek to repair the fissures that have occurred in our relationships with other people this past year. This of course should be an ongoing process for us all year-round! Nevertheless, it is during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, that we are specifically commanded to engage in this process. The month of Elul gives us a special opportunity to begin our soul-searching and seeking of rapprochement with other people.

Shabbat of Blessing… Shabbat Mevarchin, the “Shabbat of Blessing,” is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh. Last week was such a Shabbat. On Shabbat Mevarchin we recite the Birkat HaChodesh (Blessing of the Month). With this blessing we announce the day on which the new month will begin, and pray for peace and well-being during the coming month. The practice of reciting this blessing emerged during the Geonic period, around the 9th century C.E. Tishrei is the only month that we do not anticipate with the Birkat HaChodesh of Shabbat Mevarchin. The general explanation for this is that there is such intense build-up to Rosh Hashanah – the 1st of Tishrei – that a special blessing to announce the month is unnecessary. But there is also a nice Chassidic midrash that suggests that it is God who blesses the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, and thus leaves the privilege of blessing all the other months to humans.

The Blessing Itself… The Blessing of the New Month appears below. It expresses the hope that we all have for this month, for every month, and indeed, as we anticipate it, for the New Year as well.

Our God and God of our ancestors,
May the new month bring us goodness and blessing.
May we have long life, peace, prosperity,
A life exalted by love of Torah and reverence for the divine;
A life in which the longings of our hearts are fulfilled for good.

Rosh Chodesh Elul will be this Shabbat and Sunday (1 Elul is on Sunday).

4 additional notes… We have not one, but four additional blessings to mark this month.

Our new student cantor, Benjamin Harris, will be with us for Shabbat services this week. And, we will welcome him formally next week, September 9th. Kabbalat Shabbat begins at 6:30PM as usual, and then Ben will present for us a short program of cantorial art songs, both in Hebrew and Yiddish. A festive Oneg will follow. We hope you will join us next Friday!

We rejoice with Cantor Lauren Phillips, who served so beautifully as our student cantor from 2010-2013. Lauren is getting married this Sunday to Dan Fogelman, a New York– based attorney. Lauren began serving this summer as Senior Cantor of Temple Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. Mazal Tov Lauren!

On Tuesday evening, Steve and I had the thrill of a lifetime as we stood at attention at Citi Field, listening to Cantor Todd Kipnis sing the Star Spangled Banner before the awesome crowd of Mets fans. Todd, of course, served as our student cantor from 2003-2005, and now is the Senior Cantor of Temple Shaarey Tefila of Manhattan. He was stupendous! (By the way, also in the stands with us was Cantor Maria Dubinsky, the Assistant Cantor at Shaarey Tefila, and also former student cantor [2008-2010] at Union Temple. Maria grew up in the FSU, and this was her first baseball game ever!) And, by the way, last year, in May of 2015, Lauren Phillips, who at the time was serving as Senior Cantor of Temple Sinai in Milwaukee, sang the Star Spangled Banner at Miller Park before the Brewers game.

We wish our Temple Musician, Dr. Shinae Kim, our warmest Mazal Tov on becoming an American citizen just yesterday. A wonderful simcha!

All our musicians are awesome!

Welcome New Student Cantor Benjamin Harris

benjamin-harris

Student Cantor Benjamin Harris

We are delighted to announce that our new Student Cantor for next year will be Benjamin Harris, who will be entering his second year at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music of the Hebrew Union College (DFSSM) in September. A native of Atlanta, Ben is a graduate of the Boston University School of Music. During this past year of studies at the DFSSM in Jerusalem, he has sung with Nava Tehila, a progressive community that has amassed a significant following all over Israel in recent years. Ben has a wealth of experience as a NFTY song leader, both in the Boston and Atlanta areas. He served as the Music Educator and Youth Advisor at Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA, Head Song Leader and Assistant Director of Judaic Programs at Camp Micah in Bridgton, ME, Song Leader of NFTY-SAR (South Atlantic Region), and as a teacher at Temple Sinai of Atlanta, GA, his home congregation. In addition to English and Hebrew, Ben speaks fluent French, and is an accomplished guitarist and pianist. He has a beautiful baritone voice and a warm smile, and we very much look forward to welcoming him into the Union Temple family.

Ben will be with us for Shabbat Services on Friday, June 17, when we also will welcome the members of the Introduction to Judaism Class that is meeting at Union Temple this semester. He also will be with us for the service on Saturday, June 18, when we will celebrate the Aufruf of Ben Halioua and Natalie Roth, who will be getting married this coming July. We hope you will join us at some point during this Shabbat.

The Voice of a Woman

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The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall. 1966. Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to the Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)

These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.

There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.

This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”

But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.

If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.

Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.

The Greatness of Yiddish, and A Few Rotten Words

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Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride)

Thanks to the efforts of our wonderful congregant Peter Gomori, a group of us will soon treat ourselves to a performance of Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It is being presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and is one in a series of performances this week in Lower Manhattan celebrating Yiddish song, dance, theater, culture, history, food, neighborhood tours, and more, called YIDDUSH NEW YORK (click for schedule of events). For at least fifteen years, there was a huge gathering during this particular holiday week called “KlezKamp” at a hotel up in the Catskills. Of course, it was a play on the word “Klezmer,” the name for the type of music characteristic of the street musicians of Eastern Europe, and has become such a beloved medium, both within the Jewish community and out in general culture as well. (The word “Klezmer” is actually an amalgamated pronunciation of “Klei Zemer,” “instruments of song.”) But this year, the gathering upstate has moved its format and venue to Lower Manhattan, which of course has been the seething hub of Yiddish culture from the time it arrived here with the massive Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century.

During the Holocaust, some 80% of the Yiddish speaking population of Europe was brutally murdered by the Nazis. And, truth be told, the first generations American Jews made every effort to learn English, speak it with their children, and cast aside the Yiddish language and culture of their parents and grandparents, along with the baggage of ostracism and persecution in the Old World. In the years after the establishment of the State of Israel as well, the early generations of Israelis also rejected Yiddish as the language that was spoken on the way to the gas chambers. Nevertheless, history is like a pendulum in a number of respects, particularly as it has swung back and forth through successive generations of Jewish life. In the case of Yiddish, it has been the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Yiddish speakers, whether here, in Europe, or in Israel, who have virtually jumped onto the pendulum themselves and swung it with determination back to reclaim the treasures of an almost vanquished world. And, they have succeeded. The revival of the language, music, literature, politics, and cultural activity of this world, has been nothing less than miraculous.

As we know, Yiddish has a particular “ta’am” – a flavor, if you will, that is hard to duplicate exactly in translation. And we in New York particularly are fortunate that Yiddish language and culture still float in our air, if you will, to a much larger extent than elsewhere. Yiddish words and expressions have found their way into common parlance here in a way that most of us, whether Jewish or not, have come to take for granted.

In light of this, I must ask for a moment, my friends, to register my deep resentment at the crass remarks coming from Donald Trump this week, even though he is by no means the first in this regard. Politicians in past campaigns have also used such words through the years. I understand that Yiddish slang, particularly in its colorful array of words referring to male body parts, seems to punctuate certain conversations more satisfyingly than ordinary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, when this slang is used in public settings by those running for public office – President of the United States, no less – it takes on an even more offensive cast. Yes, Mr. Trump is from New York, and I’m sure he has come to think of Yiddish slang as nothing unusual. But in fact, there is a serious problem with it in my view. First, it is indeed crass language, and someone aspiring to hold the most powerful position on the world stage needs to figure out a more respectful and dignified way of expressing himself. But in addition, it smacks of an abuse of the richness and creativity of Yiddish language and culture itself; an abuse which portrays this culture with the vulgarity that has all too often been ascribed to Jewish people for over a thousand years now. (Not to mention the disrespect of these remarks to women AND to men.) In short, it is completely repulsive and unacceptable, and Mr. Trump, and anyone else who abuses their public notoriety in this way, should be roundly called into account.

With this said, I will now redirect our attention away from the crassness of Mr. Trump and others, to the more constructive and sophisticated activities going on in New York this week, and to the importance of kindling and rekindling our interest in the richness and vibrancy of Yiddish. Indeed, it is our rightful inheritance. And thus I say to one and all, Sholom Aleichem, and Aleichem Sholom!

 

The Message of Chanukah: Making War or Pursuing Peace?

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Chagall Window Hadassah Hospital

Our Haftarah for Shabbat Chanukah is taken from the prophet Zechariah, Chapter 4. It envisions the lampstand once again in the Temple in the Jerusalem, as the angel explains its meaning. Verse 6 proclaims: “Then he explained to me as follows: ‘This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel. Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the LORD of Hosts.’’ We in the Reform Movement particularly know this verse as it was popularized in the beloved song by Debbie Friedman, ז”ל, “Not By Might, Not By Power,” with which (hopefully) all our Religious School and Youth Group kids are quite familiar. The primary verse of Debbie’s song goes: “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone shall we all live in peace!”

Debbie plays beautifully upon this verse from Zechariah, particularly since the Rabbis of the Talmudic period fixed this section as the Haftarah for this Shabbat. But, my friends, let’s be real. In actuality, the celebration of Chanukah is rooted in a major military victory by Judah the Maccabee and his foot soldiers, as they defeated the army of the Syrian despot Antiochus IV, who had defiled the Temple as he tried to prohibit the practice of Judaism in the land of Israel. “Chanukah,” as we remember, means “dedication.” When the Jews defeated the Syrians, Judah and his army held an eight-day festival to “rededicate” the Temple to the God of Israel on 25 Kislev, 165 BCE. That is history.

Not by might, nor by power? Not according to Judah the Maccabee! But as the Talmudic period progressed, Jewish observance had to become more insulated and systematized as it coped with the realities of Roman rule. As a result, the Rabbis became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating a military victory, as it might stimulate militaristic impulses among the Jews, which ultimately would be deleterious to their well-being as a community until something could realistically bring them out from under Roman rule. Extremism had no place in the community for the Rabbis. So the Rabbis looked at the rededication ceremony, which of course required pure olive oil for the lamps that flanked the altar of the Temple, and wrote into the Talmud the story of how, when Judah’s soldiers expelled the Syrians from the Temple, they only found one jar of pure olive oil, only enough for one night. But the Festival of Rededication would be an eight-day festival (most probably modeled upon the Festival of Sukkot). And then, THE MIRACLE! That single jar of oil lasted for eight days and nights to keep the lamps on the altar burning!

What, then, do the Rabbis encourage us to celebrate? Not raw military might, but the story of the miracle of the oil for rededication. As the letters on the draydl would indicate, NES GADOL HAYAH SHAM – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED THERE. (By the way, the letters on Israeli draydls stand for NES GADOL HAYAH PO – A GREAT MIRACLE HAPPENED HERE!) It is a powerful message: the pursuit of peace is a more desirable aspiration for us as Jews.

Modern secular Zionists have rejected this pacifistic miracle-driven portrayal of this festival. This controversy continues among our people. Most of us are willing to acknowledge both the militarism of the history, and the more fantasy-driven miracle of the oil. Either way, the Festival of Chanukah is one of our most beloved as Jews, and brings its message of light into the darkness of the season, and of the times. And indeed, we are living in rather dark and dangerous times at this very moment. Thus we all hope that the lights of Chanukah will help to illumine our community and our world, particularly at this time of trouble.

A Chag Urim Sameach to all – a joyous Festival of Lights!