Friday, June 26, 2009

If it isn't, should it be?

Dedicated to Yaakov ben Suzanne - may he get well soon.

Two stories that happened this week, both of them point to the same question.

I was back in San Francisco / Bay Area. What a great place.

While I was gone, our five-year-old Yoseph went to bed nicely every night in anticipation of receiving a reward from me today - a toy jet plane. There were not a lot of options in the Oakland toy store, so I hope he likes it.

Even though I told him on Monday that he'd get it Friday afternoon, this morning he was begging me for it and using just about every argument in the book to convince me.

He first started off trying to be discreet because he was within earshot of his 3-year-old sister Devorah.

"Abba, can I have the thing?"
"Yes, after school today."
"But I want it now!"
"Sorry, I said you would get it this afternoon."
"But I went to bed nicely for five nights!"
"But I want it now!"
"Can I at least just see it? I just want to see it!"

This was too much for Devorah. She got between Yoseph and me and looked up at me with her big brown eyes, "Can I have a thing too?"
"No, this is for Yoseph."
"But I went to bed nicely for five nights!"
I tried to ignore her.
"It's not fair..." (never heard that expression from her!) "I should get something too!"

Among my meetings in SF were two guys who are not content with being single.

Both of them are gentle, soft-spoken men over 40. Both are highly intelligent. Both are financially stable. Both are good looking and fun to be with. One of them is on the fast-track to getting married, the other isn't, and I'll tell you why I think so.

The one has made marriage a priority. He has had serious discussions with experienced match-makers on what steps he should take to fund his soul-mate. He has made the crucial "A" list and "B" list. But not only is he focused, he is open to feedback and able to adjust his thinking and strategy based on that feedback.

The other one has paid lip-service to marriage, and is open to finding the right woman, but has not pursued the goal with the same dedication and professionalism that he pursued his job. He has not, in my opinion, made the choices that he must make. He listens to feedback, but rarely acts on it, and ends up spinning his wheels with the feeling that life is a game of chance and not particularly fair.

So here's the question: Is life a game of chance and not particularly fair? Or is reasonable to expect ultimate, Hollywood-perfect justice? Are there any limits to the ethic of giving equal opportunity?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What is it?

In memory of my grandmother, Yehudis bas Alexander, whose 3rd yahrzeit is on Monday. She epitomized the truism that "you're never too old to learn."

What is it about Israel?

Here's a story, followed by an observation, followed by a question.

The story goes like this.

When I was in Paris way back when, this Jewish family I met told me that you could go study ancient Jewish wisdom in Israel, in English, basically for free.

They called it a yeshiva. I wasn't entirely sure what that was.

Well, I was intrigued, and I went to the Israel tourist office in the center of Paris to find out what my options were.

After sufficient security measures were taken to assure them that I was not a terrorist, I found myself sitting at the desk of a pleasant Israeli woman.

"How may I help you?" she asked.

"I would like to learn about the options for studying in a yeshiva in Israel."

She started to chuckle as if she thought I had made a joke. When she saw that I was not smiling, her eyes widened and she started laughing. Then she called to her colleague, "Chagai, bla-bla-bla-bla-bla-ba-bla-ba YESHIVA!"

Chagai rushed over, blurting, "Bla-bla-bla-bla-bla-ba-bla-ba YESHIVA!?? Bla ba bla ba bla!"

After the laughter subsided and she composed herself, she turned to me. "Sir, we do not send people to yeshiva. We send people to Eilat for vacation. If you want to go to yeshiva you have to talk to a rabbi."

Well, I didn't know any rabbis, not in Paris and certainly not in Israel. But I learned something at least. I learned that Israel means different things to different people.

A couple weeks ago, I challenged President Obama's assertion that our connection to the Land of Israel is based on the Holocaust.

You may have noticed that I didn't offer an alternative - I put the ball in your court.

Any thoughts?

I saw that other bloggers made the same point, but most referred to history - we Jews are supposedly the natural heirs of the Israelites who conqured the land 3,300 years ago and lived there for 800 years before being booted out, and who returned later to settle it once again for 400 years before being disenfranchised a second time by the Romans in 70-135 CE.

This argument is complicated because 600 years later some Moslem Arabs conquered the land, were disenfranchised by European Christians 500 years later, and then some otheSr Moslems reconquered it later, and there are Arab families today who can trace their ancestry back at least several generations.

From their perspective, they belong there more than I do, because my ancestors haven't lived there for nearly 2,000 years.

So the historical argument isn't so cut-and-dry. It feels good for a Jewish person, to feel connected to all that history, but frankly I have as nearly as much history in Eastern Europe as I do in Israel.

So what is it about Israel?

Here's one thought to share at your table. During the seven years that I studied there, and the several trips back that I've made since, I noticed something very strange.

When I'm studying in Israel, I learn more. Rabbis in Israel seem sharper than rabbis here with comparable training. These are subjective impressions, but I've noticed them again and again.

What is it about Israel? The Talmud says that its "air makes you smart".

There's only one way to test this. Next time you plan a trip to Israel, try to set aside at least 1 day to study in some kind of yeshiva (if you need suggestions, ask me - don't ask at the Israeli tourist office!)

Spend a day in some kind of yeshiva and see if it makes you smart.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 12, 2009

Going Digital

In memory Chaya Miriam bas Zev HaLevi (Proctor) and Aharon ben Baruch (Dr. Aaron Zeldman). She passed away after a long illness; he passed away suddenly. Both were parents of young children.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

The goal of this blog is to stimulate conversation at your Friday night or holiday dinner table. Please print and share.

A question, followed by a story, followed by a question.

The question: What would you imagine are the qualifications to sit on the Sanhedrin (the Biblical Jewish Supreme Court)?

Answer: Have to have a multi-cultural background, fluent in numerous languages; have to know the Torah so well you can prove that pork is kosher using Biblical sources; and here’s the big one: you have to be a “tov”. A tov means someone who goes to bat for others. Who goes the extra mile to help someone, even a stranger, in need.

Think about that while I tell you the digital-conversion story for your table.

Our family joined the trend (or did we set the trend?) not to have TV at home, not at all. Some people think we must be fanatics.

Recently, someone gave us an older computer that had great software for kids. They quickly learned how to paint, write, learn to type, and play various games and so on. I was pleased.

Then I saw it turning into TV – ie, . Soon the computer was gone.

People with children talk about teaching children the value of money. Why is this important?

Probably because we want them to be successful in business – buying and selling, working and spending and saving.

Here’s the second question for your table: Can you judge a person’s values based on how they spend their money?

Don’t look outward, look inward.

Our country has spent over $800 million to help people convert their TVs. We seem to have decided collectively that TV is a very high value. More valuable than all of the programs that are not being funded.

Now for you – what is your monthly and annual expenditure on TV and high-speed internet. How does this amount compare to what you spend on tzedaka?

You could put the question in terms of time – what is your weekly amount of TV watching and web-surfing – and how does that compare to your time doing chesed?

I just learned of a new children’s book on this topic – Aliza in MitzvahLand (a play on Alice in Wonderland) – teaches kids who are bored that

"When I've got nothing to do,
It's because I'm forgetting...
Our world was made for giving
Not getting!"

Here is a link to the book.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 05, 2009

Free Speech

In memory of my grandparents (Eliezer ben Zelig and Sima bas Golda) whose yahrzeits are yesterday and tonight.
To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.

The goal of Table Talk (the Art of Amazement blog) is to stimulate conversation at your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Ahh, the power of concentrated thinking.

Yesterday, I heard a scientist interviewed on the radio about the development of “ivisibility cloak” technology. There have been recent breakthroughs on bending light around an object, so that a viewer would not see the object. The sharp reporter asked, “Since the light is being bent around, if you were wearing one of these, would that mean that you couldn’t see anything, because the light would not be reaching your eyes?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” admitted the scientist.

As you know, I generally avoid politics in this forum.

I don't intend to change that practice today.

So I will not discuss, for instance, the way the President's Cairo speech seemed to equate Nazi genocide with the suffering of Palestinians.

(By the way, if you search for the text of the speech, most websites have the AP transcript, which is inaccurate and leaves out most of what he said about Israel. The accurate (searchable) text can be found here and here is the video:

What I would like to suggest as food for discussion is the following line:

"America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied."

Is this the basis for Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel? Is this a tenable argument from an Arab perspective?

It seems to me that the Holocaust has been used as the basis for modern Israel, but the further it recedes into the past, the less compelling it becomes for Jews and presidents alike (not to mention Arabs).

But...if Israel’s not justified by the Holocaust, then what?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - my grandfather was particularly fond of Johnny Carson, and this was one of his favorite sketches: