Friday, December 26, 2008

Hannuka for the Rest of Us

Guess what? I just made my 4th foray into the youtube world. Please check it out here (and leave a rating!).

In case you are not able to view the vid, here’s a rough transcript:

Take a look at this picture:
Is this what Hannuka has become?

How do you have a Hannuka that is more in tune with the ancient, pre-Xmas wisdom of the holiday?

The secret is on the last night, the eighth night.

This year, on Sunday night, get yourself a menorah and those eight candles lit.

While they are burning in the darkness of the night, take a few minutes to meditate on the candles.

What the 8 candles represent is that totally spiritual person that is inside of you trying to get out.

On Sunday night, meditate on those candles and find that person inside of you who wants to have a totally meaningful life. That person inside of you who wants to change the world.

Then you can enter 2009 inspired with the simplicity and joy of a child, and the wisdom of the ancients.

Have a Happy Hannuka!

and Shabbat Shalom.

PS – here is an inspiring article on Hannuka in a concentration camp.
- here are some jazzy new Hannuka songs.
- feeling the winter blues? Here’s Tom Lehrer to bring you some Hannuka sunshine:

Tis the season.... If you enjoy this weekly message, please support it. For as little 25¢ a week, you can become a partner in our educational mission. Make your tax-deductible contribution to the address below or go online to the website below and click on the “donate” button.

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

Friday, December 19, 2008


In memory of Yeudel ben Avraham, z'l, on his first yahrzeit. “He was a quiet person but he did not live his life in a quiet way.”
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

+ + + national Hannuka class via conference call – see below for details + + +

3 questions for your table, followed by some Hannuka fun.

I don’t know about you, but I’m flabbergasted.

Say what you want about human nature. There are crooks out there. But this is staggering.

Isn’t it?

No, it’s not surprising that he tried to pull of the biggest heist in history. It’s not even surprising that he ripped off friends and family, and wonderful charitable organizations (although it is extremely upsetting.)

That’s the kind of thing they make movies about.

What is staggering is that he thought he could get away with it.

Or did he?

Question 1 for your table – Why do you think Madoff did it?

Question 2 - Did you ever know someone who turned out to be not at all how they portrayed themselves?

Question 3 – Did you ever know someone who turned out much better than you had thought they were?

+ + + +

You probably heard by now that Hannuka starts Sunday night.

My class, “The Jewish Xmas?” is available for a free streaming or download at – the goal is to make Hannuka an adult holiday again. Please let me know what you think!

There will be a phone-in class Sunday night on “The Hannuka Secret to Happiness”.
If there is sufficient demand, we can run a separate session for each coast; otherwise, it will be 9:00 Eastern / 6 pm Western.

Email me if you’d like to join.

This animated menorah is...well, for kids.
This animated shorrer is...well.... (it’s Madoff in an interview from the past talking about the problem of too much regulation)

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, December 12, 2008

Split Personality

This week: 3 questions.

Do you ever feel like you have a split personality?

Let’s say you have a sweet tooth. OK, you probably don’t have one, but maybe you know someone who does. This person gets up every morning and declares, “Today I’m not going to eat those sweets! I’m going to stick to my healthy diet!”

And they go to bed each night feeling, “I blew it again! How could I have let myself do that?”

There is a secret to our dual nature.

There were originally 12 tribes in Israel.

Each tribe was like a unique wavelength of color that combine to make the rainbow.

Most Jews today are “Jews” - i.e., from Judah, which means appreciation.

All the tribes together - the full spectrum - is called both “Jacob” (as in children of Jacob) and “Israel” (as in children of Israel).

“Jacob” is the person who is always devising plans, figuring out how to be successful in life. Jacob is often reacting to other people and situations.

“Israel” is the person who is struggling with his or her own self, struggling to master one’s own self-destructive tendencies.

First question for your table
: As an appreciative person, are you more of a “Jacob” or more of an “Israel”?

+ + +

This morning, someone sent me a list of “isn’t it funny” questions. Here are three:

Isn't it funny that $10 seems like a lot when we give tzedaka, but so little when we go shopping?

Isn't it funny how one hour seems so long in shul, and so short when we watch a ball game?

Isn't it funny how readily we forward email jokes and hoaxes, but when we receive something about Judaism or spirituality, we don't
re-send them to anyone?

Second question - a thought-experiment: Try reading the questions first as a “Jacob” then as an “Israel”.

+ + +


Are you tired of all the end-of-the-year fundraising pitches? Donate now, get your tax deduction (as if any of us need one this year!)

Last year at this time, I devoted an entire week’s Table Talk to ask you to support the organization (JSL) that makes Table Talk possible. I suggested 25¢/week as a reasonable level, and many people responded much more generously than that.

This year, I thought it would be interesting for you to have something other than an old-fashioned plea. How about a Chinese auction? But what can I auction that would be meaningful to Table Talk readers? I know, how about a class on Happiness? But would it work? Would people want to bid on happiness? Last week, if you read the blog, I challenged you to do just that – bid on happiness. If you do so, do so with a happy spirit, that you are really showing how much you value getting this email. If you read it from time to time, I assume you value it. Is it worth two-bits a week?

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 – cannot. We also train teachers both live and via our website,, how to teach the Art-of-Amazement style Judaism. AND we give away (or sell at a loss) thousands of books every year. You should see the kind of feedback we’re getting from readers! We are enabling individuals of all ages to discover a Judaism that works, and helping teachers 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 2008, I would like to ask you to become my partner in this national effort for 25¢ per week.

To make it fun, here’s the question: How much is happiness worth to you? The highest 20 bids will be invited to a new class (via conference call): “Hannuka and the Secret of the Darkness”.

Every pledge will be thanked with a recording of last year’s Hannuka class: “Hannuka and the Secret of the 36”.

Third question of the week: Is the weekly 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 last August: A Jewish View of the Hinduism and Buddhism. The audience feedback was tremendous.

Please send your tax-deductible donation to:

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

or via Paypal:

Donated frequent-flyer miles are also a huge help.

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

Finally - here’s a short movie that made me smile and I’ll bet it will do the same for you.

Shabbat Shalom

Click here to help rebuild the Chabad House of Mumbai

Other Chabad centers in India are in dire need – email me for details how you can help them

Speaking schedule:

December 25 – Baltimore (Etz Chaim) - “A Spiritual Interpretation of the Economic Crisis”

Friday, December 05, 2008

Happy Dreams

Dedicated to the memory of all the Mumbai victims.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Please print this message for your Friday night dinner table.

Happy Dreams

What’s the secret to happiness?

Would you like me to tell you?

I mean the real secret, not some paltry aphorism.

And not some rabbi’s opinion.

The real, bona fide secret.

If you’re interested, how interested are you?

We show our interest in things by assigning them value.

How much would you be willing to pay for the real secret of happiness?

Would you be willing to pay $1? (I hope so!)

How about $100? (Probably, right?)

How about $1,000? (“Wait a minute, that’s real money!”)

What if we throw in a money-back guarantee – if you try the secret and it doesn’t work, you lose nothing. But if works, you have to pay. How much would you be willing to spend?

We’re talking real happiness here, the real McCoy.

The happiness itself is free, but the secret is going to cost you. Before I tell it to you, I want to know how much you value it. Really.

If you are interested in learning the secret, send me your bid by December 19, to secret (at)

The 20 highest bidders will be invited to join an invitation-only conference-call seminar on the first night of Hannuka: “Hannuka and the Secret of the Darkness”.

All bids that meet the reserve will receive a recording of last year’s Hannuka class: “Hannuka and the Secret of the 36”.

(PS – This is a silent Chinese auction - we'll let you know if you are outbid. We’re talking about a charitable, tax-deductible donation to a worthy educational cause).

You say you value happiness – put your money where your mouth is.

In the meantime, here’s a thought and a question for your table:

We all hope for happier times. Some of us even dream of happier times. What is your happiest dream?

Shabbat Shalom

To help rebuild the Chabad House of Mumbai:

Someone sent me this inspiring post-Mumbai vid:

Speaking schedule:
December 25 – Baltimore (Etz Chaim) - “A Spiritual Interpretation of the Meltdown”
January 6-8 - Los Angeles – details TBA

Friday, November 28, 2008

Your Brother’s Blood

In memory of Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holtzberg and all the other victims.

Please print this message and read/share at your Friday night dinner table.

November 27th, 2008 (Ynet News): The two-year-old son of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka is asking about the whereabouts of his parents, his nanny told Ynet. The nanny, Sandra Samuel, is a local who had been living with the family. She and the toddler are currently staying in the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai. “The baby is okay, but I have no idea about the couple. Nobody told us anything,” she said. “In the evening his mother always puts him to sleep and now he doesn’t understand what’s going on,” she added.

I’m very sad. I did not know the Hotlzbergs, yet I knew them intimately.

I am them. Like the Holtzbergs, my wife and I, too, left our comfort zone to go to the high tech capital on the West Coast, in order to do a little Jewish outreach.

OK, so they chose Mumbai and we chose Silicon Valley, but believe me I can relate to them. I know many Chabad emissaries (several of whom knew the Holtzbergs) and they are as a rule the most giving, loving, selfless and hardworking people you will ever meet. When they move to a community, they are committed forever to that community (unlike yours, truly, who relocated to Baltimore). Contrary to popular myth, they don’t enjoy long-term support from some golden Chabad bankroll. They quickly have to support themselves. I know several who moonlight in other jobs just to pay the bills. Abandoning their mission due to hardship is not an option, not because they took an oath but because they care.

Now, my style of teaching Judaism is slightly different than some Chabad rabbis. Some will tell you, “Just put on the tefillin, it’s good for you, even if you don’t understand it, it’s a mitzvah.”

I will tell you, “You want to learn about tefillin? So come and learn. Whether or not you put it on is your business.”

You may prefer one style over the other. Different strokes for different folks.

But make no mistake: the terrorists did not choose the Chabad House of Mumbai randomly. It was a premeditated attack on Mumbai’s most visibly Jewish target. Unlike all the other victims of this tragedy, the Holtzbergs and their guests were not killed because they represented international business or because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were killed because they were Jews.

This week’s question for your table is: what does that simple fact mean to you?

In other words, do you agree with this news analysis:

For a change, I’m going to put on my Chasidic hat and ask you outright to do a mitzvah, even if you haven’t learned about it.

Please, tonight, 18 minutes before sunset, light Shabbat candles. If you light them anyway and know someone who doesn’t, phone them up and encourage them to – just this one time.

In memory of those who lost their lives, in honor of those who need healing, and in solidarity with the frontline soldiers of Chabad worldwide.

Time to light Nov 28:
Los Angeles: 4:26
New York: 4:12
San Francisco: 4:34
Seattle: 4:03

Other cities – try one of these sites:

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 21, 2008


Dedicated to the memory of Miriam bas Simcha (Rudick), who passed away last week. She was an extraordinarily loyal wife and mother who taught her children the art of lovingkindness.
(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

Please print this page for your dinner table....

A story, a question, an enigma and a question.

The story – remember the sukka rain cover that I blogged about a few weeks ago? (here’s a photo)

So last weekend, a fairly strong (but not unusual) wind blew off one of the plastic roof panels. It looked to me that this specific panel had been improperly secured in the first place.

When I phoned the carpenter on Sunday to tell him what happened, the conversation went something like this:

“Hi Mike (not his real name)? How are you?”

“Fine Mr. Seinfeld, what can I do for you?”

“Well, unfortunately, one of the roof panels came off.”

“How did this happen?”

“Well, I think I know exactly how it happened, but I want you to come look at it. I think it was the wind.”

“The wind?! Then it’s not my fault! I cannot be responsible for wind! You expect if a tree falls on your roof that I will be responsible for it? This is not my fault!”

“Mike, it wasn’t a hurricane. It was a regular wind. Are you saying that you didn’t build the roof strong enough to stand in a regular wind?”

“Of course I did. There’s no way a regular wind could have blown off one of those panels. They had plenty of screws. If one blew off, it’s not my fault!”

“Mike, I think that the way this panel was attached was the problem, but I want you to come look at it. Will you please come look at it?”

This leads to my first question: We all have our bad moments, our moments of anger or frustration – what creates the tipping point?

+ + + +

The Enigma – A married guy calls to ask how to deal with his anger problem (actually, this happened several times recently; is it a trend?)

After we discussed the roots of anger and certain strategies, I told him the midrash about Moses.

In the Torah, Moses is described as both the “greatest” person who ever lived and the “most humble.” Yet the midrash describes him differently, as having an angry nature, burning with an intense and ugly wrath.

How do these two versions of Moses fit together?

My answer is that greatness is not defined by your natural abilities. It is in fact defined by your natural shortcomings, and what you do in this very short lifetime to transcend them.

In other words, Moses wasn't great in spite of his anger. He was great because of his anger. Conquering his anger was the key to his personal shleimus (spiritual completion). His anger was a gift.

Which leads to my second question – since I’m confident that only good people read this blog, I’m wondering if there are any wanna-be great ones out there? If so, would you mind sharing your secret?

Shabbat Shalom.

Some anger vids 4 U...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What Goes Around

In honor of the birthday this week (Hebrew) of Harmon Shragge, one of the most giving people I know.

There’s a story in the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva’s encounter with Roman governor Tarnus Rufus. The latter asks the rabbi, “If your God loves the poor, why doesn’t he help them? If you believe that God made them that way, then giving them money is going against God’s will!”

Question for your table: What would you guess was Rabbi Akiva’s reply?

Shabbat Shalom

PS – your movie of the week is about that uplifting topic of the national debt: IOUSA
(please don’t shoot the messenger!)

And if you missed last week’s most amazing film, here's an encore:

Friday, November 07, 2008

B + W

If you don’t live in NY, you may have missed this poster campaign on the eve of the election.


Real change, deep change, requires departing from prejudices, stereotypes and biases of the past. Usually these are rooted in people’s childhood, so they are very hard to change.

Obama’s first move as Pres-Elect was interesting... He offered the real seat of power (Chief of Staff) to a Hebrew-speaking, shul-going Chicago Jew. Don’t believe it? Look up Rahm Emanuel on Wikipedia.

Someone in China must have cursed us a few years ago....the are sure interesting times.

Question for your table: If you knew that your family and friends would support you unconditionally and lovingly, what radical change(s) would you make in your life?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 31, 2008

Rain, Rain Go-Away

"So, do your kids celebrate Halloween?"

That's what someone asked me this morning.

I said, "Sure, but we do it in February and we call it Purim."

He laughed. "I guess once a year is enough, right?"

"It's not only that. Think about what you're teaching your kids. On Halloween, people teach their kids to ring doorbells asking for gifts of food. On Purim, people teach their kids to ring doorbells to give gifts of food."

That's the thing about spiritual values. When you really start to plumb them, you often find that they are the diametric opposite of modern mores.

Question for your table - did you ever find yourself wanting to go against the grain and march to a different drummer than your neighbors all around you? Did you ever succeed? (and did they think you were crazy?)

By the way, last week - in my zeal to tell the story, I left off the punch line. After all that effort to rain-proof our sukkah - for the first time in 6 years, it didn't rain!

My neighbors gave me credit for the beautiful weather.

Anything like that ever happen to you? Where you go to a lot of trouble to prepare for some "rain", and the weather turned out fair? (post your answer below)

Watch (Purple Rain)Superbowl Halftime Performance - Prince in Music Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Winter Begins

If you were wondering why I did not blog last week, I have a story to tell.

It has to do with Sukkot, aka Sukkos, that holiday that when I was a kid didn't exist except as some quaint harvest-celebration that meant nothing to a town-mouse like me.

If the High Holidays are like a meal, then Rosh Hashana is the first course, YK is the second course, and Sukkos is dessert.

Why anyone would want to leave the table before dessert is beyond me.

It reminds me of when my friend BJ joined me at a family wedding in Oakland. He only stayed for the reception after the chuppa, then left with some disappointment - "That wasn't no wedding! There was no wedding cake!" Boy was there cake, but you had to linger a little longer....

So here's the story:

The problem with Sukkos in Baltimore is that in our first five years here, we got rained on. Rained on hard. It ain't fun sititng in a sukka when it's pouring rain. People here try to rig up some kind of tarp to pull over the sukka quickly when the sky opens up. We tried this for five years and for five years had a wet sukka. I suppose our standards of comparison (Jerusalem and Palo Alto) are a little high.

Anyhow, this year I decided I was ready to have a dry sukka where I could live like I live in my house (that's what they say you're supposed to do). Complete with furniture, carpeting, books, artwork on the walls, etc.

The plan was to build a fiberglass roof that opens up on a hinge with a pulley.

Sounds simple enough, but the carpenter I hired to build it disavowed any responsibility for the mechanism. That part was up to me.

"No problem," I told him. "With a couple pulleys, a child will be able to lift it."

The problem was that he didn't get his part done on time. In fact, he only finished around 2 pm the afternoon before the holiday. At 2:05 I realized I was going to need a winch, and the closest winch dealer was down in Glen Burnie, a good 40 min drive.

No problem, I still had 4 hours.

The guy who sold me the winch also sold me a 25 foot cable with a hook on it - strong enough to pull a boat out of the water, definitely strong enough to lift a few pounds of wood and fiberglass.

On the way home, I made my umpteenth stop at Home Depot "just in case". By then, most of the swarms of Jewish people who had filled the aisles earlier in the day had left. Why not pick up an extra steel cable and ropes, "just in case"?

I arrived home at 4:00 and somehow had to thread these cables through the roof's trap-door and eye-hooks on the side of the house 20 feet up. I roused the troops for the job.

Avrami (11 years old) went to the upstairs window while Goldi (9) stood guard at the foot of ladder. I heaved open the heavy trap with a 2x4 and gingerly slid onto the fiberglass. The door is so wide that I could only reach one side of it from that position. I then had to go down, outside the sukka, up a different ladder, and hook on the other cable.

Then I tied the loose ends of the cables to a string that ran up to Avrami's window. He pulled them up to the window.

I ran upstairs and, using a long bamboo stick that Avrami had found two years ago near the Puget Sound, I leaned out the window and threaded the first cable through it's eye-bolt (I had duct-taped the cable to the stick).

"Get ready, Goldi," I called down to her. "I'm going to try to throw this stick through the bolt and it will fall down to you. Are you ready?"

1-2-3 - I threw the stick and it went about 90% through the bolt then got jammed.

"Someone get me a long stick" I called back into the house (remember, at this point, I'm halfway out the window.

Avrami ran to get me a giant 2x4. In the meantime, Yosephi (4) who had until now been on the sidelines, stepped up to help, handing me a yardstick. It was perfect, enabling me to push the rest of the stick through the eye-bolt. It went through and dangled, and with a bit of additional prodding with the yardstick, it went down to Goldi.

Well, almost.

It turns out that the cable was too short. There was no way around it. It was not going to work.

We were now about an hour before the holiday.

I remembered the two 50-foot ropes I had picked up, "just in case."

Back to inside the sukka, up the ladder and out over the fiberglass to unhook the steel cable and tie on the first rope. Then out to the second ladder to the other side of the trap to tie on the second rope. These I tied to the useless steel cable and had Avrami pull it slowly up to the window.

Back upstairs, we had a mess - the two ropes somehow got tangled. What a mess. We got them untangled and then I tried the same trick with the bamboo staff, leaning out the window and threading it through the eyebolt.

"Are you ready, Goldi?"


"A-one, and a-two, and a-three!" I jabbed the staff as hard as I could. It sailed right through the bolt then, just like before, jammed on the last 10 percent.

"Where's the yardstick?"

Yoseph had it ready and waiting.

This time, when I tapped it through, instead of falling to Goldie, it just hung there, dangling. Out of my reach.

"Maybe if I could lean a little farther out and tap it..."

I did. It swung. Finally it swung enough to come back to me so I could grasp it and give it a really good toss down to Goldie.

"Hang on to that rope, don't let it go!" I yelled to her.

I ran down to get the staff and she was holding on to that rope as if her life depended on it.

Back up the stairs to thread the second rope through its eye-bolt. Same thing, same jam, same swing, and finally the two ropes were threaded.

That may have been the hardest part, but it wasn't done yet.

The guy who sold me the winch told me he wasn't sure it would work with a rope. The clamp for the cable wasn't big enough for a rope.

At this point, about 30 min before the holiday, I was out of options. If my boy-scout knots at the other end of the ropes are going to work, they oughtta work at the winch end, I thought. So I tried it.

At this point, I was all alone. Everyone else was in some stage of showering or getting dressed. If this didn't work, we and our guests would be joining our neighbors in their sukka.

The crank seemed too easy to turn. And as I turned, nothing was happening. Then suddenly, the trap door over my head began magically to lift. Magestically. It was really quite awesome and most gratifying.

Sukkos, as a dessert to the High Holidays, can be boiled down to one thing - internalizing a deep happiness that should endure the entire year.

We have no more Torah holidays until the spring (Passover). Six months of winter. Six months of focusing on our daily lives and worries and not having to "worry" about Jewish stuff (except the "minor" holidays of Hannuka and Purim that were added later).

I find there are two kinds of people out there. As the economic pain deepens, there are those who say, "Thank God the holidays are over, I have too much else to worry about!" And there are those who say, "Thank God for the holidays, without them I would never stop worrying."

Question for your table: What type are you?

(and what are you going to do about it?)

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Bottom Line

A story, a thought, and a question (and a P.S.)

There is a lot of worry about the bottom line right now.

Let’s see if we can find a “karmic” response to our plummeting “securities”.

The story:

Yesterday during Yom Kippur I found myself in shul beside a fellow Jew who happened to be deaf. A couple times there were announcements or stage-directions that he was unable to hear so I (and my son) clued him in via a combination of gestures and oral interpretation (he’s a good lip-reader).

The thought:

It seemed to me not a big deal, no different than helping anyone anywhere who needs a hand at something.

Evidently it is a big deal.

Evidently, people who are deaf, even members of our Jewish community, often feel excluded from the community because:

1. Many people do not say “Hello” to them, let alone strike up a conversation.
2. Some people interrupt a conversation between a hearing person and a deaf person.
3. Few people go out of their way to let a deaf person know what was announced in public.

I will say quite frankly that communicating with a person who cannot hear, or hear well, is more difficult than with a fully hearing person. Sometimes you have to speak louder, sometimes you need to repeat yourself, sometimes you need to enunciate better.

So what?

I cannot even imagine what would prevent someone from helping another who needs help for any reason.

In my opinion, it’s not a question of deaf/hearing, it’s a question of general sensitivity to others, sympathy and empathy.

Are we all just too busy to pause and do a little kindness?

I don’t know about your town, but in our town there are numerous elderly people who are not able to get out of the house. Most of them are widow(er)s. Loneliness is one of the greatest afflictions of old age. And if that’s not enough to get you away from the TV/internet/golf course/etc., think about the tremendous amount of wisdom that comes naturally from a long life.

Someone once said that the best measure of how Yom Kippur went is how a person thinks and acts after Yom Kippur.

The question for your table: How did your YK go?

Shabbat Shalom.

The P.S. – Monday night is the start of Sukkot. You can now get an affordable, easy-to-install sukka (no tools needed) that can give one a true dessert to the 2 main courses of the High Holidays.

First, try your local Judaica shop – they usually have the best ones and they usually will ship just as readily as anyone else, plus it helps to have a local dealer in case there is a problem AND it helps your local economy to shop locally.
If for some reason your local shop cannot get you one, there are online locations. I do not have any particular recommendation because there is so much competition and I am not familiar with all of the outlets. However, here is an example of one that will show you the various options.

Make sure you get the schach (or cut your own)!

PPS – if you didn’t enjoy vid #3 there is still time! It can be seen here.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why K?

Well, how was it?

Was your RH different this year than last?

Should the holidays be the same each year or different? Justify your answer in 20 words or less.

All tongue-in-cheekiness aside, seriously - why go through this routine again? Moreover, what are you going to say to an 18-year-old who asks you, "Why should I care?"

Isn't it true that most of us are emotionally driven?

I'll give you an example.

This week, for the first time I ran something we called "The Concise Traditional Rosh Hashana Service". We wanted something that had a lot of tradition, but that was simultaneously exceedingly user-friendly. That means we kept the pace up, did not drag on for hours and hours, had a kiddish in the middle, and lots of pauses to explain what's going on and how to enjoy the next part of the service.

On the traditional side, we wanted to make sure the environment was conducive to intense meditation and not socializing or distractions. Therefore we kept a symbolic (but not opaque or overbearing) separation between men and women. This set-up allowed husbands and wives to see each other (and sit practically beside each other) but not get distracted by each other.

Most of the participants were not used to this kind of service or set-up. Yet the proof was in the pudding - everyone came back for the second day.

But get this - I know of at least one woman who would not attend because she heard that women and men would be sitting separately. This is inherently an emotional reaction. There was nothing "unequal" about the service (unless you think that my being male and leading made it unequal). But she, in my opinion, missed out on what could have been uplifting for her and her family, for emotional reasons.

There is nothing wrong with emotion-based decisions. But they don't tend to lead us to greater success. In fact, success, whether in the market or in my job or in my personal life, is correlated to using my reason. Emotions should inform my reason, but not guide it.

At the same time, this anecdote teaches us how to help young people connect Jewishly - make sure they enjoy it.

If you did not see my attempt on Monday to find some some mental and emotional spiritual meaning in the current business news, you can still read it online here

There you will also see film #3 – or you can click here.

...and please send your feedback.

In the meantime, what’s the best way to transition from RH to YK? How can we connect the two holidays in a meaningful way?

In my opinion it comes down to two things:

1. An ideal RH gives us clarity on the kind of life we want to start leading this new year
2. An ideal YK helps us grow spiritually in order to start leading that life.

For most of us, #2 requires getting rid of some egoism and increasing altruism.

Therefore, this transition time is a time to start giving.

It’s a great, unifying project for the family, to sit down together and decide where to give.

Bottom-line: buck the trend – stop worrying so much about our own assets and focus on helping those who are really suffering.

Here’s a link to my Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur posts from last year, which includes some amazing films and some recommended charities:

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, September 29, 2008

613 Billion Dollars

That’s the official debt that Lehman Brothers filed, in the grand bankruptcy that got this whole downward spiral going.

Like 9/11, and the 2001 crash, it happened just two weeks before Rosh Hashana.

Just a coincidence, right?

A debt of 613

Something to think about.

Here’s Part 3, for you groupies out there:

If you want to rate it, add comments, or send out the link, use this:

As the late great Paul Newman said, Some people dream of doing something, others get up and do something.

But first you have to dream....

My family and I would like to wish you - and all of us - a year of upward spirals!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Spare some change?

Here’s a thought, a question, and a challenge.

The Thought

Don’t know about you, but I can hardly keep my head on straight, with all of the news.

Trying not to pay attention to it doesn’t help, because everyone else is talking about it.

The news should wake us up to a couple things:

1. A lot of people are hurting.
2. We are all connected

One of the best things I learned this year came from someone else, a local rabbi here in Baltimore. He told me that he always carries a small wad of $1 bills. You never know, he said, when you’re going to be standing in line somewhere, and someone is a little short, you can help them out.

That sounded like a great idea, so I started doing it. I’m not taking sides on the issue of whether or not to give to every pan-handler who approaches you. But maybe to end the year right, practicing a little extra generosity will help us get the message of the 2 wake-up calls I mentioned above.

The Question for your table – What’s the best thing you learned this year? Share your answers in the comments section below.

In the meantime, someone alerted me to 2 terrific Rosh Hashana – themed articles and one video that I’d like to share with you.

Article one is a perspective on the market turmoil by Rabbi Blech:

Article two is a practical guide to preparing for RH by Rabbi Friedman:

And the video is a great and funny example of what can be done if you have the budget to hire a good animator:

If you’re wondering about the third installment of my series, I need some feedback from you – did you watch the first 2, and did you forward them to anyone else?

The Challenge: This is the last Shabbat of the year. It is going to be very tempting to watch the debate tonight. Could you put it on Tivo and watch it Saturday night? Highlights? What do you think?

Wishing you a final Shabbat Shalom for 5768. Make it a good one.


Rosh Hashana for the Rest of Us Videos

Part 1
Part 2

Speaking schedule:
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – Baltimore program - “High Holidays for the Rest of Us” - the Concise High Holidays Service!

If you're looking for something similar in another part of the country, let me know, they do exist if you know where to look!

For details, send an email.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Top 10

If you know someone (yourself included) who is on their own for Rosh Hashana and would enjoy an invite – anywhere in the country – please let me know.
If you know someone (yourself included) who would like an “alternative” Rosh Hashana program – anywhere in the country – please let me know.

OK, if you missed my debut youtube video last week, you can still catch it here:

Here's the link if you want to see it on youtube or send to anyone else:

Last week I said, “Don’t go to shul on Rosh Hashana.”

Question for this week: What do you I think I meant by that?

This week’s video, 10 ways NOT to prepare for Rosh Hashana, is now available:

Please send your feedback.... And if you want to send the link to anyone, use this:

Wishing you a great New Year,

and for now,

Shabbat Shalom

Speaking schedule:
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – Baltimore program - “High Holidays for the Rest of Us”

For details, send an email.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Rosh Hashana...for the rest of us

You are encouraged to print this short table talk for sharing at your Friday night dinner table.

It’s that time of year again – Rosh Hashana – Yom Kippur.

How would you like to hear a rabbi tell you NOT to go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana?

Take a look at this picture:

Does this pretty much sum up what you have to look forward to? Same-old, same-old?

If so, then take it from me – don’t go to shul.

But before you blow off the entire day, let’s clear up one myth of Rosh Hashana.

The first myth is that Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year.

It is not the Jewish New Year.

In fact, there is nothing in the Torah that says such a thing. Nor in the Talmud or anywhere else in Judaism.

So what’s Rosh Hashana?

What Judaism says is that Rosh Hashana is the day when our karma is set for the coming 12 months.

What that means is: the thoughts I think, the feelings I feel, and the actions that I do on the day of Rosh Hashana will set the course for my entire year.

It’s like a rocket ship taking off – if the initial trajectory is off by a fraction of a degree, after a few days or weeks, it will be off by millions of miles.

Therefore, the key to an amazing, life-changing Rosh Hashana – regardless of whether you’re in synagogue or not - is to spend the day thinking, feeling and doing according to how you want your new year to be.

In the next couple weeks, I’ll suggest some ways to make that happen.

In the meantime, please do me one favor – watch this new 3-minute video I made on the subject, and if you like it, forward it to all your friends.

Shabbat Shalom

Speaking schedule:
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – Baltimore program - “High Holidays for the Rest of Us”

For details, send an email.

Know someone who might enjoy this message? Please forward.

Want to be added or removed from the list? Send an email with SUBSCRIBE or UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject.
This mailing list is private and is never shared.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Back to School

In fond and loving memory of Harold Schwartz,
who taught those around him many things through example,
including not to be judgmental and to dare to be different.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Our four-year-old Yoseph started cheder this week. I love calling it cheder. It reminds me of my grandparents.

He was so excited on Tuesday morning, with his backpack and lunch. He didn’t fuss one bit when I dropped him off, but returning home to mommy was a bit traumatic and emotional.

On Wednesday, it got worse. I think riding with a strange mommy home is getting to him.

On Thursday, he came home happier, saying, “Mommy, I had a happy day today.”

This morning, he refused to get in the car, insisting on his mommy taking him. She had already left for work.

So for next week, he has a chart – if he goes to school nicely all week, he’ll get a can of soda for Shabbat. That’s a big deal when you have parents who never buy soda (OK, the truth comes out).

His sister Emuna (6) just started first grade. Every day last week we had this conversation:

“Abba, I’m starting first grade next week.”
“How exciting, first grade!”
“I’m scared.”
“What are you scared of?”
“My teacher is supposed to be strict.”

After the first day:

“How did it go? Was your teacher strict?”
“Yes, but if you listen and follow the rules it’s OK.”

Remember the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?

Question for your table: What’s the most important thing you learned in kindergarten? What’s the most important thing you didn’t learn?

can't leave you without a great video...:

Shabbat Shalom

Speaking schedule:

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – Baltimore program - “High Holidays for the Rest of Us”

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Chosen

Dedicated to the memory of Katharine Shragge.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

We encourage you to print this short table talk for sharing at your Friday night dinner table.

2 questions for your table, followed by a special announcement...

A high school student very thoughtfully asked me yesterday: What is the bottom-line vision of Judaism?

I'll tell my response - It seems to me that the Jewish vision statement is to help, via education and modeling, a human society that is infused with spiritual awareness and purpose. To get there does not require that Gentiles convert to Judaism. Judaism is a system to teach us how to create a role-model of that society.

That system includes everything that you would expect from a social-spiritual model - ethics, tradition, ritual, discipline, law, philosophy, etc.

Question 2 - What is the bottom-line definition of being Jewish?

Love to hear your answers.

Here's the special announcement:

I am pleased to announce the launching of Jewish Spiritual Literacy's new website. If you saw the old site, you will notice that this is a complete makeover. It still has some rough edges, but I hope you will be pleased. Moreover, please send your constructive criticism to help us improve it. Here's the link:

...AND HERE'S YOUR UPLIFTING VIDEO OF THE WEEK (watch the interview at the end!):

Shabbat Shalom

Upcoming events:

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I will be leading a user-friendly meditative program in Baltimore. Send email for details.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Is Life Fair?

In memory of Bobbi Frankel, who exemplified the search for honest meaning and profound human connections.

I owe you an apology.

Last week, I made a mistake. Here, I found a fascinating article from the Guardian newspaper, read the first half and the last bit, but in my haste (and family vacation) did not read the entire piece word-for-word.... Should I have considered that the Guardian, that venerable bastion of British middle-class culture, would publish profanity? In my naïveté, I did not. The Guardian’s mission since its founding in 1821 has been promoted at various times as “non-conformist”, and it has been a great supporter of Israel, but in my innocence did not suspect that nonconformist meant the use of profanity. Please accept my apology (the online version was cleaned up after the problem was reported to me, but the email, like lashon hara, was like the cat out of the bag...)

That said, one reader complained last week that the article was too long to read - “who has time?” he asked.

The answer is – the idea of this weekly email is not to read it on the computer screen, but to print it out and read at leisure Friday night or even Saturday afternoon, when you (supposedly) have the time. Please, do yourself a favor, click PRINT right now and take that long walk over to the printer to fetch it before you forget.

+ + +

The other day I was sitting at a picturesque little paradise on the Puget Sound with someone in the spot where my father hit his head three years ago and never woke up. (If you want to get a tiny sense of what kind of person he was and why he was mourned by so many, read this)

My interlocutor asked, “How can you understand how a just God could allow this to happen? Or the hurricanes or earthquakes where thousands of innocent people die?”

It seems to me that there are 3 things that anyone asking this question might think about:

1 – The issue of a “just God” does not need to be framed in terms of hurricanes and earthquakes. Even if a single child suffers, the question could be asked.
2 – This question is not a new one. In fact, not only is it discussed by all major Jewish thinkers, it is the subject of an entire book of Tanach, the book of Job.
3 – Why is it that we are troubled by our failure to understand God? Is the God of our conception so puny an idea that we can understand it? Shouldn’t we expect that whatever God is, if God is, God is beyond our understanding?

In fact, Maimonides says that the more you meditate on #3, ironically, the more you understand “God”.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 15, 2008


I found an amazing story for you this week, as told in the Guardian newspaper, and a question (the original with a photo can be found here).

The story

Two years ago I read a strange little story in an obscure American magazine for Orthodox Jews, claiming that a descendant of Adolf Hitler had converted to Judaism and was living in Israel. I had heard rumours in Jewish circles for years about "the penitents" - children of Nazis who become Jews to try to expiate the sins of their fathers. Could it be true? I dug further and discovered that a man with a family connection to Hitler does indeed live in Israel as an Orthodox Jew. Virtually unnoticed in the English-speaking world, he was exposed seven years ago in an Israeli tabloid. Then he sank from sight. I went to Israel to meet him - and on the way I was plunged into the strange subculture of the Nazi-descended Jews.

I am walking through the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, to meet Aharon Shear-Yashuv. He is the son of a Nazi. And yet he was a senior rabbi in the Israeli armed forces. He lives in an apartment in the Jewish quarter, near the Western Wall. I walk through a pale gold alley; Orthodox Jewish men in long black coats and round fur hats dart past. He opens the door and looks like every other rabbi I have ever met - a black suit, a beard, a questioning shrug. He takes me into his study, settles into a chair, and says, in a thick German accent: "My father was in the Waffen-SS."

He was, he explains, born in the Ruhr Valley in 1940. During the war, his father served on the eastern front with Hitler's elite troops. What did his father do in the Waffen-SS? "I don't know," he says calmly. "When I grew up I tried to ask, but there weren't really answers."

He was four when he first met his father. "I don't remember anything about that," he says. It seems he doesn't want to talk about his father; he doesn't describe his conversion in psychological terms but in grand theological and historical ones. "During my theological studies at university it became clear that I couldn't be a minister in the church," he says. "I concluded that Christianity was paganism. One of [its] most important dogmas is that God became man, and if God becomes man then man also can become God." He pauses. "Hitler became a kind of god."

So would he have become a Jew even if the Holocaust had never happened, even if his family had been anti-Nazi? He looks surprised. "Oh yes." I try to draw him back to his father, but he seems exasperated. "Well, you see, he is a father, of course, but ideologically, there was no connection. I was so involved in my conviction that I had found the right path, all the other items no longer had any importance."

Fragments of the story begin to emerge through the haze of theological reasoning. His father was "shocked and enraged" when he went to study Judaism in America, he concedes. "For him that was the end of the world. 'My son is leaving Germany to study in a Jewish rabbinical seminary!' He told me I was crazy and renounced me as a son." When he moved to Israel, his parents pretended that it hadn't happened; they told their neighbours he was still in America. Years later, his sister arranged a meeting with his parents at a station in Düsseldorf. Shear-Yashuv arrived with a Jewish friend. His father peered out of the train, saw the Jewish stranger, and refused to get off.

Today, he believes Germany is doomed. "People there don't get married, and if they do they have one child," he says. "But the Turks and the other foreigners have many children. So it is a question of time that Germany will no longer be German." Why does he think this has happened? "I think it is a punishment for the Holocaust," he says, matter-of-factly. "Germany will leave the stage of history, no doubt about it." But the Jews, by contrast, will never die. This is a neat irony of history that he loves. "All the great cultures have left the stage of history," he says. "The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Babylonians. But this little people, who gave so much to the world, do not." He chuckles. "That is something."

I walk through the Old City, pondering my encounter with this strange, kindly man. Something seems to be missing from his story. To stand in front of a rabbi whose father was in the SS and to hear he became a Jew because he doubted the Trinity is absurd. So I telephone Dan Bar-On, a professor of psychology at Ben Gurion University, and a world expert on the psychology of the children of perpetrators. He tells me, flatly, pitilessly: "The motive of the converts is to join the community of the victims. If you become part of the victim community, you get rid of the burden of being part of the perpetrator community." He interviewed Shear-Yashuv for his book Legacy of Silence. "For me," he says, "Shear-Yashuv represents a person who ran away from the past."

A few days later, I take a tatty bus to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, on a mountain just outside Jerusalem. There is an air of absolute, manufactured silence. In the middle is a glass-and-concrete mausoleum - the memorial. I am here to meet a woman who works in the educational department. She was born in Munich, she told me on the telephone, and she is a convert. I meet her in a cafe on the terrace; it is very chichi, but the wind is blowing in from the desert. She is in her late 30s and her head is covered. Her face is stereotypically German but the mannerisms - her emphatic movements and the soaring cadences of her voice - are all Jewish.

I cannot name her, she says. (Apart from Shear-Yashuv, every convert refuses to be named.) She tells me, briskly and crossly, that although her grandparents were not perpetrators in the Holocaust, they were bystanders, anti-semites. Her mother, she explains, still says things like, "There are a lot of rich Jews in America," and her family have what she calls "a classic German narrative" about the war. She bunches her fists. "There were no Jews in these stories and no Nazis in these stories," she says. And she imitates them, angrily. "No, no, there were no Nazis, we are not Nazis. We didn't know any Jews, we didn't know anything." How did she feel about it? She pauses, and then says, "I was annoyed."

Her favoured word for Germany is "annoyed". She was "annoyed" when a synagogue recently opened in Munich. "People said, 'Now we have closed the circle; now everything is fine,'" she says. "It was like nothing had happened. But there were 11,000 Jews in Munich before the Holocaust. Where are they now?" She is annoyed by the affluence of Germany. "Everything is so clean," she says. "Everything is so ... nice. And here," she stares out over the mountains, "the life is so difficult sometimes."

Why did she become Jewish? "Because I was annoyed by how the narrative was fixed," she says. She tells me a story from the Midrash, a Jewish commentary on the Bible. There are, it states, non-Jews who are born with Jewish souls. They belong to the Jewish people, and will eventually join them. "It is only a matter of time," she says, speaking very seriously, "before you learn you should convert." I remember Shear-Yashuv said this too.

I ask her if she believes that Nazi children convert to expiate the guilt of their parents - but this angers her. "There is something not right when you do it to get rid of your German burden," she says. "That is not honest in my eyes. Do you stop being the daughter of a Wehrmacht soldier if you are Jewish? No. That is no solution. You don't get rid of it." So why is she here? "To live here, to work here, to be this bridge between two worlds." She repeats the word "bridge" and she calls it "exciting". She talks of her "motivation package" and she calls the "discourse about the Holocaust" in Germany "sophisticated". There is something emotionless about it, something deeply unsaid. And precisely on the stroke of the hour, she looks at her watch and says, "I have to go now."

I call Bar-On again. I feel the converts are giving me half-answers, scraps of answers. They talk about despising the Trinity and the terrible things that the Germans did to the Jews, but it seems like they are talking a genocide that doesn't exist, even in their memories. I can't escape the feeling that it is all about something else.

I tell Bar-On they talk obsessively about the Trinity. But is incredulity really a reason for abandoning a religion with a three-in-one god for one that still believes bushes talk and that waves are parted by the will of God? "That is another way of saying what I have already told you," he says. "They want to join the community of the victim. They may have their own way of rationalising it."

Later that day, I meet a young man. He bounces into a kebab shop on West Jerusalem's main drag. He is 24, handsome and excitable. He tells me, simply, that he hated Germany. "In Germany I didn't care about anyone," he spits. "I didn't give a darn." He describes a jumbled youth, being thrown out of school, joining the army, rejecting the army. After a while, he drags me off to the Independence Park, sipping a Coke, and telling me how wonderful it all is in Israel.

He describes growing up in a small town in industrial western Germany. A terrible anger leaks into his sentences. When I ask him why he converted, he stares at the spindly trees, bunches his arms between his knees like an adolescent boy, and says, "I hate that question. I don't know." He calms down and says that something wasn't right for him in Germany, ever: "I was always looking for my place. I hated Catholicism. I have hated it since I was 14." He educated himself and what he likes about Judaism, he says, is that "what counts is the deed. In Christianity it is enough just to believe."

"I didn't think of my family of being like 'the Germans'," he says. "I didn't say, 'Grandfather, did you kill anyone?' My grandmother said, 'As kids under the Nazis, before the war, we had a wonderful time. They sent us to Croatia, they sent us to Sweden, and we had youth camps. How could we not be thankful for what they gave us?'" The Holocaust was just a subject you learned in history, he says. "You went in the classroom twice a week, they told you, you fell asleep."

But he tells me one of his grandmother's anecdotes about Nazism. "She remembers Kristallnacht," he says. "She was 13. She says she remembered there were Jewish shops that got burned down and it was a big loss. Because, she said, you could always go to the Jews and buy something and if you didn't have the money you could bring it in next time."

And that is his family. He never asked them about the war - I have yet to meet a convert who has. According to Bar-On, converts and their parents almost never speak about the war. He calls it the "double wall": both the parent and child erect a wall of silence; even if one tries to break it, the other will keep it firmly in place.

This man told his parents he was converting one Christmas Day. He has had death threats from neo-Nazis, he says. His hometown is full of them. Why does he think they became neo-Nazis? "Ask them - don't ask me," he replies. Did he become Jewish because of the Holocaust? "People ask me that a lot," he says, "and when I say no they don't believe me." Does he really believe that? "Maybe." He sighs and looks around at the trees. "Maybe what the war made Germany into ..." He pauses and then says, "I feel myself turning into a block of ice every time when I go back. I have to force myself to melt down again."

I call Bar-On a final time. They all say they are happy now, I tell him. Is this true? The conversion "may give them an illusion of peace", he says. "But it is not the way to work through the role of the parents [in the war]. I think it is running away from it. In order to be able to really work through the past, you have to try to understand how could it be that your father was a mass murderer. You have to think of the possibilities that had you lived at this time you might also have been able to do such things."

Is he telling me that they are always wondering what they would have done in Nazi Germany to the Jews they have become? "Being in Israel is to keep away as far as possible from it," he replies. "I am not sure to what extent they have really been accepted into Israeli society. I think they are struggling. I don't envy them."

As far as I can tell, the converts may know of each other, but they do not come together. In Judaism it is a sin to point the finger at a convert. And why would they? They are not here to be German; they are here to be Jewish.

I return to the suburbs to meet an artist. This convert is also a member of an organisation that promotes human rights for Palestinians. An incredibly beautiful woman answers the door and I say hello. "Oh, no," she says. "You are not here to speak to me - you are here to speak to my girlfriend." The woman I have come to interview is small and wiry, with short hair; she says she is 42. She speaks very, very fast. The words pour out of her.

She sits me down and gives me cake and coffee. I say I have interviewed a lot of converts. "Are they all mad?" she asks me, and laughs. What does she mean? "Well," she says, "I met some who surprised me. Some of them were shockingly unintelligent. I even wondered why they would have the intellectual independence to make this choice - especially the people who chose to be ultra-Orthodox, who chose to throw away their freedom." She shrugs. "There is stigma in conversion," she says. "People end up being fanatics."

She sips her coffee and says that she believes there is a parallel between the way that some Jews respond to the Palestinians and the way some Germans responded to the Nazis. She never asked her grandmother about the war, she says, because she loved her too much. "I was worried I would get hurt by information I didn't want to know," she says. "Sometimes I feel that a lot of Israelis live that way. It is better not to ask questions, and not be hurt, and so you don't have to look at yourself or your family or your nation. And you can live with the illusion of who is good and who is bad."

She says she was eight years old when she first heard of a Jew. "I heard a boy next door call another boy a 'stupid Jew'," she says. "I asked my mother, 'What is a Jew, and is it something bad?'"

When she learned about the Holocaust, it literally made her retch. "I was horrified by what Germans did to Jews," she says. "I was physically disgusted. And I was totally disgusted by even my own Germanness." It is strange to hear things like this over coffee in a clean apartment in the Middle East. "I didn't want to be German," she says. "And because this entered my mind so early, it became as natural as brushing my teeth."

So why did she convert? She grimaces. "It isn't rational. We are talking about religion here." But she says she ran away to Israel to convert when she was 25. And today, she berates herself for her immaturity in doing it. She was shocked by the racism in Israel. Towards her? "Towards the Arabs," she replies. "I felt that I was being told that to be a good Jew, you had to hate Arabs." So she stands at West Bank checkpoints to observe the behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians.

"It causes a lot of tension to come here and say the things that I say," she says. So why does she say them? "Because it would be very inconsistent to have had so much criticism of Germans who were terrible cowards when it was still possible to say something, and then to come here and not speak up for justice."

She is through with Israel. She says it is because of the triple whammy of otherness - German, leftwing, gay. A shrink would say that she came here to be wrong, I tell her. "Don't think I haven't thought about it in those terms myself," she replies. "I had wanted to connect myself to a history I did not perceive as shameful. Now I am wondering if I will stay. I am more or less sure that I won't. Sometimes I feel I am not built for it, that I am not strong enough for this country." She runs her hands through her hair briskly, and shakes her head. "Sometimes I feel that just by existing I am always wrong here. But I cannot live with personal attacks now. I cannot bear it."

Later that day, I meet the man who brought me here to Israel, the man who started all this - the so-called Jewish Hitler. He is a professor at the Jewish studies faculty at one of the universities. I telephoned him, and to my surprise he answered. How could I ask: "Are you a Hitler?" I told him I was writing a story about German converts to Judaism, and he said I could come over immediately. So I go to an apartment just around the corner from where the artist lives. It is a grimy white block, with a few scrubby bushes outside.

I walk upstairs and a woman with the headscarf of all married orthodox Jewish women answers the door. She doesn't say anything, simply gestures for me to sit at a table in a room heaving with books. And then he comes in. Is this my Jewish Hitler? He is incredibly tall and slim, in a blinding yellow shirt, very animated, and his accent - an odd pulp of German, English and Hebrew - seems to zoom out of him. He is holding two pieces of paper. One is a family tree; the other is a printout of an account of the life of Alois Hitler Junior - Adolf Hitler's half-brother.

"I will tell you the whole story," he says, "on the condition that you do not print my name". He places the first piece of paper in front of me, points at names, and begins a strange, almost incomprehensible account of the lives of Germans who died more than a century ago. At the end of each summary of a long finished life, he jabs his finger on the table and says, "OK?" It only becomes clear what he is doing when I follow the tree down to a name I know - Alois Hitler.

Alois Hitler had two sons who lived to maturity - Adolf (that Adolf) and Alois Junior. This half-brother of the Führer then produced an illegitimate son called Hans. "OK?" he says. "Hans married my grandmother Erna after she divorced my grandfather."

He immediately states that he hates the Hitler branch of his family. He becomes agitated. "I have neither any blood nor DNA from Adolf and his family," he insists. "I was not socialised by that family." He met Hans only once. The Hitlers came for tea when he was 12 years old. "Hans was a very nice man," he says. "No passions, no brutality." But Erna was thrilled to have married into the Hitler clan, and remained a Nazi until she died. "I didn't know her," he says of his grandmother. "She wasn't part of my family."

The professor explains that his mother severed all connections with the Hitlers. As a teenager she was beaten for refusing to go to Hitler Youth dances, and when she gave birth to the professor - an illegitimate child she conceived during an affair with a married man - her mother and stepfather disowned her. He was raised in a series of rented rooms, while the Hitlers lived well. After the war, his grandmother changed her name, but her beliefs remained.

He begins to tell me what happened to his mother during the war. She worked as a typist for the Wehrmacht in Poland and she saw dead Jews hanging in the town squares. "She was a girl in the war," he says, "but I always appreciated that she told me the truth about it. We spoke frankly. I never heard that normal German lie you hear so often from that generation." His voice rises and he impersonates them with a fierce whine: "'We didn't know, we just did our duty.'" And he thumps the table. "My grandparents never understood what they had done," he says. "My mother understood." When she came home after the Allied victory, she was denounced as a Nazi, and the Communists seized her flat. "She became one of those German ladies who cleared up after all the bombing." He stomps to the kitchen and comes back, thrusting two silver spoons at me. "That is all that my mother brought home from the war. I keep them to honour her."

It was a brutal childhood: he barely saw his father, and his mother beat him - one time so severely that she couldn't go to work for three days because her fingers were too swollen to type. "She was a fighter," he says. "It is not the nicest thing you can be." Was she religious? He gives a deranged giggle. "She had the religion of herself," he says.

His mother was entirely alone. "Nobody helped anybody at that time," he says. His father had another family - a real family: "I saw my father very seldom and the times I saw him I was so proud to have a father that it was not the time to ask what he did in the war. He died when I was 19. So I never asked him what he did." But he does know his father was a major in the Wehrmacht. So, barring a miracle, he killed people for Hitler.

His journey towards Judaism was long. "It was not a sudden light from heaven that came down." When he was a teenager he met a girl who was interested in Judaism, and he read Mein Kampf. "I was embarrassed when I read it," he says. "How could people be so stupid as to elect a person who was writing things like this? It's awful." He blinks at me. "I don't think you can really understand how awful it is if you don't read it in German. I put it away. But I keep it here." Did he ever finish it? He scowls at me for the first and only time. "No."

When the time came for him to be conscripted into the German army, he decided to take a theology degree, because he wanted to benefit from an ironic leftover from Nazism: Hitler promised the Pope in 1933 that he wouldn't conscript priests, and the law has never been repealed. "I am a pacifist," he says. "You raise up an army if you think you have to use it." As part of the degree, he was due to spend six weeks in Israel in the early 1970s. "I felt at home. I was no longer living in a conflict. I didn't have to reject the older generation. And I thought I had met for the first time a nationality that at that point in history - today it is more problematic - still had good reasons to be proud of itself." So he stayed.

We go out on to the balcony to smoke. He really enjoys his cigarette; I can see he is a pleasure-savouring man. He does not have the heaviness of the other converts, who all seemed crushed by an invisible burden. Is it because he spoke to his mother about it all? I steel myself and ask: would he have become Jewish without the Holocaust? "I think not," he says. "The sharp distinction between the generations that committed the crimes and the generation born after wouldn't exist. Non-Germans hardly understand that a whole generation checked out our teachers and asked, 'Where were you 20 years ago?'"

And then, to my surprise, he calls his son - his Israeli son - a fascist. "When I hear my own son speak - as I did last weekend - I sat like this," and he does the Hitler salute. "Two of my sons are chauvinists and one of them is even partially racist. I can't listen to fascistic discourse. I don't suffer that." They talk about the Palestinians with contempt. "Each time I hear it is another time too much. If the Holocaust and the Third Reich have really somehow shaped me, I am a sworn democrat. I believe that democracy has to prove itself by keeping the rights of its minorities."

I have been with this man for three hours, insistently asking why - why did you convert? Why? This stray branch of the Hitler family tree stares out at his dull suburban street at the heart of the Jewish state, puffs on his cigarette, and begins to talk about the images of the Holocaust that linger in his mind. "I see that soldier trampling that child and in the end killing it, and I remember that kind of aggression. I remember the feeling of the child, too. I remember both. I could see my father or my grandfather really standing there."

And as he says this, his shoulders seem to relax. He is giving me my answer. "And all I can say, Tanya," he says from inside his little cloud of smoke, "is that since I came to Israel, that feeling isn't there any more."

- Tanya Gold, The Guardian, Wednesday August 6 2008

Here’s the question for your table – Why did he convert?

Shabbat Shalom u’Menucha.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Hard Rain

Dedicated to the memory In memory of Miriam bas Chaim, who passed away this week. Our deepest condolences to her family, and all those who have lost loved ones. May their memory be for a blessing.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Frankly, I’m having a hard time writing the Table Talk today.

The sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, it’s a fine summer day.

A perfect summer’s day.

The other day, I was trying to get my children to eat their vegetables. I tried a trick that I learned years ago from a reader of this blog – I placed a plate of red and yellow peppers and cucumbers on the table and said, “These are dragon fingers, toes and eyes, please make sure that nobody eats them!” Then I walked away. Yoseph, who is 4, popped them in his mouth with a giggle and made sure that I saw him.

Devorah, who is 2, wasn’t quite there. I sat down next to her and put a baby carrot on her plate without saying anything.

When she noticed it, she picked it up with an exclamation, “For me? Just for me, not for ‘Sephi? Thank you!”

The other day, another reader of this list phoned me to relate that his sister, at age 50, had gone to bed with nausea and never woke up. They delayed the funeral to determine cause of death, but ultimately were unable to. Her time had come.

Around 600 years ago, Jewish people who lived in Spain, who were socially, financially and politically full participants in Spanish society (like our situation in America today?), faced such pressure to convert to Christianity that about half did. And those who converted were under constant suspicion of maintaining their Jewish identity in secret, to the point that the officers of the Church would interrogate neighbors and even servants to find out if the conversos were eating or avoiding pork, etc.

It got worse and worse until 516 years ago this weekend, when any non-converted Jews were told to leave the country. They were not allowed to take their money of course, just one suitcase per person, and the port of Barcelona was so clogged with ships of Jews who had waited until the deadline (perhaps hoping that the royal decree would be rescinded) that Columbus had to delay his departure by a day.

The Expulsion was just one of many catastrophes and holocausts. Most of us don’t like to think about these things too often, but the 9th of Av has been set aside for the past 1,938 years as a day to contemplate this pattern of Jewish history. The worst (at least in our minds) was the Holocaust. Here’s a trivia question for your table – when did the German Holocaust begin?

The answer: the 9th of Av, 1914. That’s when World War I began, an event that from a Jewish perspective was not separate from WWII. It was the beginning of a tremendous upheaval of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that of course culminated in their destruction 30 years later. The destruction of 1,000,000 of our Yosephs and Devorahs.

If you would like to download some interesting ancient and modern readings for Tisha B’Av (Saturday night), please try these links:

1. Josephus Ch. V
2. Josephus Ch. VI
3. Josephs Ch. VII
4. Talmud Gittin
5. R. Weisz

Question for your table – The Destruction of both Temples, the horrible Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust - What’s the common denominator?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Just Wandering

Dedicated to the memory In memory of Haym elazar Rohollah Babazadeh ben Shalom and Heshmat Babazadeh, whose 8th yahrzeit is this week. May his memory be for a blessing.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

Do you remember Andy Shulman?

That’s Chaplain Andy Shulman.

That’s Captain Chaplain Andy Shulman.

He’s the chaplain I’ve mentioned a few times in the past year or so, serving the Jewish troops in Iraq.

He used to send us photos of Jewish programs in Sadaam Hussein’s palaces. At no time did he forget that he was in the land where one of the greatest Jewish communities in history flourished for 1,000 years, where the Talmud was created.

We would like to officially welcome Andy back to the states, where he returned this week after a long tour of duty. We are grateful that he made it back safely.

Transit from Iraq to the States isn’t easy. Andy spent the past Shabbat in a tent in Kuwait. The temperature outside was in the low 20s, and for his Shabbat menu, he had decided to load up on carbs – grape juice and matza. Stuck inside, all the matza you can eat, a copy of The Art of Amazement – what else does a guy need?

I doubt he's sorry to see his wife and two daughters again.

If you would like to send a personal note of appreciation to the Chaplain for his service to the country and the Jewish people, please let me know and I'll send you his email address.

I would also like to welcome back my father’s sister Deanne who decided she was going to see the Promised Land while she was still fit enough to enjoy it. She went with several of her family members and a group from their Portland synagogue and, like everyone else I know on their first tour of Israel, came back inspired.

So what about the Jewish soldiers still serving in Iraq and the Gulf? I will try to get an updated list for those who would like to send Rosh Hashana care packages. Let me know if you’re interested.

Shabbat Shalom

PS – Here’s a couple for you, Chaplain:

Speaking schedule:

Aug 4 – Baltimore – A Jewish View of Hinduism & Buddhism
August 11-12 - Vermont (CAJE Conference) - 2 sessions

For details, send an email.