Friday, December 28, 2007

Behind the Scenes

Dedicated to the loving memory of Bert Walker, whose Yarzeit falls this month. He was a man of the highest moral character, fearless, lived his life according to the motto that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and above all, devoted himself to his family.

For the first time in two years of sending these Table Talks, I would like to invite you to a behind-the-scenes look at what Jewish Spiritual Literacy is doing.

In addition to spending my Friday morning conjuring up “great”, “thought-provoking” “ really nice”, “enjoyable”, “beautiful and touching” stories and questions [actual reader comments] for your spiritual nourishment, I spend the rest of the week bringing Art-of-Amazement type of Judaism to individuals and groups around the country.

Some pay their way and others – notably college students – don’t have the funds to cover our costs. We also train teachers both live and via our website,, to teach the Art-of-Amazement style Judaism. AND we give away thousands of books every year. Technically, we sell them at a loss, otherwise they don’t have a budget for them. You should see the kind of feedback we’re getting from readers! We are enabling teachers to inspire their students of all ages and parents to transmit a Judaism that works.

By reading this weekly blog, you are part of a national effort to uncover and promote this kind of engaging, down-to-earth, spiritual Judaism.

To close out 2007, I would like to ask you to become my partner in this national effort for 25¢ per week.

There’s your question of the week: Is the thought-provoking Table Talk worth a quarter to you?

If so, please use the info below to send in your 2-bits. But if you want, I’ll offer you something on top of partnership just to sweeten the relationship. 25¢ a week comes to 13 bucks a year. If you are willing to double that – 50¢ a week or $26 for the year, I’ll send you a thank you gift that I know you’re going to enjoy. I’ll send you an audio CD of a new class that premiered this week: A Jewish View of the Messianic Age. The audience feedback was tremendous.

I appreciate your occasional feedback (both enthusiastic and critical) and generosity. But whether or not this is a good time for you, please help me by completing a one-minute anonymous on-line survey about the Table Talk blog. All those who complete the survey will receive an additional free gift. Here’s the link to the survey. (note – survey site will be down for maintenance Friday night)

Please send your tax-deductible donation to:

Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
3700 Menlo Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215-3620
A 501(c)3 organization.


If there is an honoree or dedication, please let me know. All gifts will be gratefully acknowledged.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – want to give without spending a dime? This video will show you how to support your favorite non-profit just by searching the web:

Or go straight to their site:

Friday, December 21, 2007


How are you going to live forever?

If you google the phrase “Santa doesn’t come down my chimney” you will find several interesting sites.

One is a forum where someone asks, “So what's your story as to how you found out Santa didn't exist as a kid?”

My favorite answer: “I found my presents early. That's when I knew the horrible secret. The world then started to collapse.”

Do parents who tell their kids about Santa Claus realize that they are setting them up for disillusionment?

If you read some of the responses on that forum, you’ll see many stories of disillusionment, people who were seriously led to believe in Santa Claus, up to the point where their parents outright lied in order to cover up the fact that the presents had arrived early.

2 questions for your table:

1. What’s the greatest piece of wisdom your parents taught you?
2. What’s the greatest piece of wisdom you would hope the next generation will remember you for?

The top hit for the Santa phrase is this blog from a year ago, when we exclusively published the lyrics from the new hit song, “Chinese Food On Christmas”.

Last year, you could watch the song as a piano solo:

This year, if you hurry, you could be one of the first 1,000,000 people to watch the new video:

Judging from viewer comments, the video contains one or two controversial scenes. I’m curious to know what you think – witty satire or offensive?

Regardless of the stories you tell to the children in your life, there is an ancient, ancient Jewish custom to give them a blessing on Friday night and holidays.

You can make this into an enjoyable family tradition. Here’s how: have the children line up from oldest to youngest, put your right hand on each one’s head or shoulder and say:

For girls: “May you become like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”

(i.e., wise, generous, spiritual, discerning)

For boys: “May you become like Ephraim and Menasheh.”

(Not exactly on the caliber of the women? Why not bless them to be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Moses? David and Solomon? Ephraim and Menasheh felt no rivalry and knew who they were and where they came from despite growing up in a challenging culture.)

Shabbat Shalom

PS - You’re running out of time to support Table Talk and JSL’s work with a tax-deductible contribution for 2007. Is this message worth 50¢ a week? Even that will help make get this message out, as well as book distribution, seminars for college students, and other under-funded programs.

> On-line:
> Donate your used car, boat, etc:
> Stock transfer: send email for directions
> Paypal:
> Snail mail: 3700 Menlo Drive, Baltimore MD, 21215

Friday, December 14, 2007

Who's on?

This week I found myself in San Francisco having great coffee shop conversation with a thoughtful friend. I'll call him Mike.

Mike said, “The way of religions to try to motivate with fear just doesn’t appeal to me.”

“I feel the same way. But here’s a problem: people are mostly motivated by fear.”

Mike looked at me skeptically, so I gave evidence: “Take drivers, for example. How many people obey the speed limit because they want to be safe drivers versus avoiding a ticket?”

He admitted that I had a good point. People tend to change their behavior out of fear more than the desire to do what is right. There are countless examples of this.

But then we’re stuck with that aversion we have to scare-tactics.

“Fortunately, Mike,” I offered, "There is third way. The Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘fear’, as in ‘fear of Heaven’, really doesn’t mean fear. It means awe. Awe means that I recognize that I am not the be-all and end-all of existence, that there is something much bigger than me, and that my actions and choices do have consequences.”

Mike’s face lit up, almost like a light bulb turning on. “That could work for me."

“Now, let’s think for a minute. Where does awe come from?”

“Well, it can come from observing something really big and powerful, like a thunderstorm. Or from observing a person who is really powerful at something they do, like a professional athlete or musician.”

“How about learning about how the human body works, it’s incredible! Or simply contemplating the fact that I’m sitting here contemplating...!”

Question for your table: Is this week’s baseball-on-steroids story good news or bad news?

Wait, before you answer that, let’s try to put this in perspective....

Baseball is a game.
Baseball is a business.
Baseball is not a religion (although for many it is spiritual)
Baseball is not helping solve problems like war and global warming and cancer.

Oh, by the way, today, Google found
- over 17,000 news articles on steroids in baseball
- about 7,000 articles refer to a player or players who deny their guilt
- Only find a handful of players who admitted their guilt or apologized

At the end of the day, is it true that how you play the game is more important than winning or losing? What if you own the team?

Would it be possible to change the scoring of sports to give a team extra points for playing fair, instead of penalties for playing unfair?

Too many questions, too many questions. Are we moving toward or way from a more truthful culture of love and awe?

Here’s my contribution to the effort, sharing with you something that simultaneously inspires both love and awe, and it’s about baseball:

Shabbat Shalom

PS – to hear my Tuesday night class on “the Secret of the 36”, click here.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Dedicated to the memory of Yeudel ben Fruma who passed away this week – may his inner inspiration and optimism be a light for all of us.
(to dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email)


Question for you and your table: What does that expression mean? How is “Happy Hannukah” different from “Happy Passover” or “Happy birthday”? Is it the same kind of happiness that we are wishing each other? Are there different kinds of happiness, or is happiness one-size-fits-all?

Two stories for you this week.

The first is from a reader of Table Talk, short and very sweet:

My favorite Chanukah story: I got engaged on the last night of Chanukah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. My husband-to-be told me that night that the time period of Chanukah contains tremendous power for dedication, and the eighth night contains the greatest potential for dedication of all. So, thank God, almost twenty-nine years ago we dedicated ourselves to each other, and we’ve been on an awesome journey together ever since.

Story number two is a legendary tale that has been around for years but getting more attention in the past year since a children’s book came out called “Hannukkah at Valley Forge”. Some wonder whether or not the story is true. The author himself notes:

"This story of George Washington and Hanukkah is based on facts, but the tale itself must be taken on faith. It is known that in December 1778, Washington had lunch at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish Merchant in Easton, Pennsylvania (cited in Jacob Rader Marcus's United States Jewry 1776-1785). It was the middle of Hanukkah, and when Hart began to explain the holiday to the general, Washington replied that he knew it already. He then told the merchant and his family of meeting a Polish soldier at Valley Forge the year before. It was Hart's daughter Louisa who reportedly committed the story to her diary (which was later recounted in Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman's book Jews on the Frontier).

Since Washington himself kept no diary during the war years, he left no personal record of the event. Certainly, though, the story fits in with the curiosity and reactions Washington displayed on later occasions. In that spirit, some of Washington's dialogue here has been borrowed from his later writings in the hope of echoing his real voice."

Once source told me that the story is sourced in an actual letter or diary from this Jewish Polish immigrant solider in the Smithsonian; however, I have not yet been able to verify it. There are several versions circulating around, but they all agree on most of the details. Here is one version, written as the journal of one Jeremiah Greenman.

Chanukah 5538 (1777)

A difficult winter. Terrible cold. We are sitting in Valley Forge and waiting. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps for better days than these. I am the only Jew here. Perhaps there are other Jews among us, but I haven’t seen any. We hunger for bread. We have no warm clothing or shoes to protect our feet. Most of the soldiers curse George Washington for going to war against Britain.

There are those who hope for his downfall, but I believe that his cause is just. We must expel Britain from America. She wants to put her hands in everything her eyes see. Although we are suffering here terribly, I am loyal with all my heart to George Washington. More than once I see him at night, passing through the camp, between the rows of sleeping soldiers. He gazes with compassion upon the soldiers who are suffering from the cold. And sometimes he approaches one of the sleeping soldiers and covers him, as a father would cover his son.

There are times when the hunger and the freezing cold torture me to death. But I don’t curse General Washington who is fighting for the freedom of America. At moments like this I think of my father in Poland. I think about all that he suffers at the hand of the cruel "Poritz". I remember: I was a child then and I saw my father dancing before the Poritz. What an awful thing to see! My father was wearing the skin of a Polar bear - and danced like a bear before the Poritz and his guests.

What terrible pain! What great shame! My father dancing like a bear - and the "Poritzim" laughing and rejoicing at the sight. I decided then and there that I will never dance like my father before the Poritz. Afterwards, I escaped to America.

And now I am lying in Valley Forge and shivering from cold. They say that Washington is losing and that he can’t win this war. But I don’t believe all that. I lie at night and pray for him.

The first night of Chanukah arrives. On this night, years ago, I left my father’s house. My father gave us this Chanukah menorah and said to me, "My son, when you light the Chanukah candles, they will illuminate the way for you".

Since then, the Menorah has been like a charm for me. Wherever I go, I take it with me. I didn’t know what to do - to light the Chanukah candles here, among the goyim, or not. I decided to wait until they were all asleep, and then I took out my father’s Menorah. I made the brocha and lit the first candle. I gazed at the light and remembered my parents’ home. I saw my father dancing like a bear before the Poritz and I saw my mother’s eyes filled with tears. My heart was filled with pain and I burst out crying like a small child. And I decided then in my heart, that for the sake of my father and mother, for my brothers and sisters in Poland. I must help George Washington make America a free country, a land of refuge for my parents and brothers who are subjected to the cruelty of the Poritz.

Suddenly I felt a gentle hand touching my head. I lifted my eyes and it was he - he himself was standing over me and he asked, "Why are you crying, soldier? Are you cold? ".

Pain and compassion were in his voice. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer. I jumped up, forgot that I was a soldier standing before a General, and said what came from my heart, like a son speaking to his father:

"General Washington," I said, "I am crying and praying for your victory. And I know that with the help of G-d we will win. Today they are strong, but tomorrow they will fall because justice is with us. We want to be free in this land. We want to build a home here for all those who flee from the hands of "Poritzim", for all who suffer across the ocean. The "Poritzim" will not rule over us! They will fall and you will rise!" General Washington pressed my hand.

"Thank you, soldier," he said. He sat next to me on the ground, in front of the Menorah.

"What is this candlestick?", he asked.

I told him, "I brought it from my father’s house. The Jews all over the world light candles tonight, on Chanukah, the holiday of the great miracle".

The Chanukah candles lit up Washington’s eyes, and he asked, "You are a Jew from the nation of Prophets and you say we will be victorious?!"

"Yes sir," I answered with conviction. "We will win just like the Maccabees won, for ourselves and for all those who come here after us to build a new land and new lives."

The General got up and his face was shining. He shook my hand and disappeared in the darkness.

My faith prevailed. Washington’s victory was complete. The land was quiet. My General became the first President of the United States and I was one of its citizens. I soon forgot the terrible days and nights in Valley Forge. But I kept the memory of that first night of Chanukah in my heart like a precious dream. I did not relate it to anyone because I said to myself: Who will believe me? I was certain that the General forgot it completely. But that was not the case. He didn’t forget.

The first night of Chanukah 5549 (1788)

I was sitting in my apartment in New York, on Broome Street, and the Chanukah candles were burning in my window. Suddenly, I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door and was shocked: my General, President George Washington, was standing in the doorway (there himself), in all his glory. "Behold the wonderful candle. The candle of hope of the Jewish People," he proclaimed joyously when he saw the Chanukah candles in my window.

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "This candle and your beautiful words ignited a light in my heart that night. It was a bleak time for our army and for our country, and your candle gave me knew hope and courage. Soon you will receive a Medal of Honor from the United States of America, together with all of the brave men of Valley Forge. But tonight, please accept my wishes for a Happy Hannukah."

Happy Hannukah and Shabbat Shalom.