Friday, July 29, 2011

Older But Wiser?

In memory of my father, Dennis Seinfeld (Dovid ben Eliezer).

Last Friday night I went as usual to the nearby assisted-living home.

Small place, only about 30 residents.

As a rule, by the time I arrive (after dinner) the only residents I see are those who want to participate in the Shabbat program (kiddush + story). Everyone else go up to their rooms straight after dinner.

So it surprised me to see Mr. Aaron still sitting there. At 103 years old and nearly deaf, I doubted he had stayed around for me, maybe he was just feeling too tired to get up.

Anyway, after the program, as I rose to leave, he suddenly stood up and asked me, "Would you walk me to my room?"

He was shuffling with a walker. Big man. Strong man. You could tell he had been fit once upon a time.

We walked to the elevator. I wish I could say we had a meaningful conversation. With his hearing loss, it was next to impossible. I knew that he had a lot going on inside there, because over the course of the past few years knowing him, a great sense of humor occasionally came out.

Like the time 2 years ago he had been in the hospital. When he returned home, I told him, "Good to see you on your feet!"

"Better than on someone else's feet!" he retorted.

Last Friday night was the last I saw him. He was "niftar" this week and the funeral was yesterday.

Yesterday was also the 6th Yahrzeit (anniversary) of my father's petira.

Many people don't know the word "petira" (and niftar, the adjective form) but it's a great word to add to your Jewish vocabulary.

It doesn't mean "passing" or "death".

It literally means "exemption" or better, "absolution".

Exemption from what?

From doing mitzvot (mitzvos).

Isn't that a strange way to refer to someone's passing?

Well, what does "passing" mean?

Think about it.

I did several things in his memory yesterday.

- Lit a 24-hour candle Wednesday night.
- Said kaddish in a minyan
- Learned a little bit of Torah in his honor.

I also went to a funeral.

Of course, the funeral had nothing to do with my father, but it brought back memories.

I sat in the back, and listened to Mr. Aaron's grandchildren (he had outlived his children) talking about this man's long, productive life.

Like my father, he had been an attorney. Like my father, he had been the epitome of compassion.

One time, a grandson told, they were having lunch at a restaurant and his grandfather ordered an extra sandwich to go. What was this for? For a hungry person he had seen outside on the way in.

It's great to hear these kinds of stories, because if you only know someone as a 103-year-old man, you only know him as a disabled, hard-of-hearing wrinkled old fella.

My dad, in contrast, never reached old age. He was niftar in his prime.

Sometimes I wonder what my dad would have been like at age 70, or 80, or 90, or 100.

Sometimes I wonder what I will be like at those ages, should I enjoy living so long.

(Apparently, this site will transform your photo to show you past and future selves.)

First question for your table - What kind of person do you see yourself as in 10 years? In 20? In 40?

One of the things I learned about Mr. Aaron was that he had always had a sense of humor.

Riva, the nurse who cares for the seniors over there, observed after the funeral how for most people, when they age their personality doesn't change.

So it sounds like if you are a complaining person today, you have a high chance of ending up a cranky old man or woman.

If you are a cheerful person today, you have a high chance of ending up a cheerful old man or woman.

Some people feel that they are stuck. They are stuck in their bodies, stuck in their personalities. Change may be possible, but it's just too darn hard.

Question #2
- If there were one thing you could change about yourself between now and when you reach 103, what would it be?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Here is a recent video of Mr. Aaron

PS - Looking for a bargain birthday gift for someone? For 99¢ send them the amazing Jewish iphone/ipad app that they will love and use every day -

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Heart

Last week you may have noticed that I dedicated the blog/Table Talk to the memory of Leiby Kletzky, and then went to write about music, something apparently completely disconnected to this great tragedy to befall the Jewish People - the murder of an innocent child.

One reader from Los Angeles questioned my silence on the issue:

"When I saw your email I was looking for some comfort....I am kind of disappointed and I was expecting to learn a lesson when I opened your email, instead with much surprise I read about music. The whole world was mourning for that boy, he was on media, he was all over the news and you just decided to mention his name and that’s it!!!!!!!!"

First of all, there is a piece of ancient Jewish wisdom that says don't offer a person words of comfort while his deceased lies before him. Meaning, while someone is grieving, let him grieve. Comfort - and all the more so with any lessons - are for later.

As others have written, what words can I say? I could have left the Table Talk blank, maybe that would have been appropriate.

Now that shiva has passed (although mourning continues for 1 year), I will take up the reader's request.

There is a rule of thumb for interpreting the "karma" of events in one's life: When something happens, our reaction is a clue to the purpose or meaning of the event.

What were some of our reactions?

1. Achdut - Unity - Jewish people all around New York and the world working together with one heart to find Leiby. Interpretation: We need to work on our achdut (and eliminate those things that are hindering our achdut, like lashon hara).

2. Pain at the loss of an innocent child. Interpretation: We need to work on our compassion for "lost" children (not necessarily dead.... think of all the children who are growing up without a Jewish education....)

3. Pain at seeing the security videos of Leiby wandering around and no one helping him. Interpretation - we are

As Shlomo Katz, a New York paramedic, wrote:

"The videos have shown Leiby standing lost for SEVEN minutes!!!! None of us, none of us, stopped to talk to help this little boy, looking so obviously lost! It was only this monster who had the time for this little boy! I am just as bad as the next, I am always doing one thing to many, rushing to try to get it all done, busy on my cell phone and often distracted. But my Grandfather ob”m never had a cell phone and never was too busy for anyone on the street, he could stop to show his concern and love for any of Hashem’s creations....So we as the Jewish People, merciful people, we have received a brutal wake up call. Are we ready to answer it? Will we stop the next time something might not be right, with a child, with an elderly, or even with one of those that makes us a little uncomfortable?"

That's a poignant message. It seems clear and to the point. A child was lost and the only person who stopped to help him was a murderer. What's wrong with us?

I would like with all due humility to expand on Shlomo's point.

Shlomo addresses the Jews of New York. He takes them to task for a lack of chesed. Some of the reader comments attest to this, a feeling of everyone rushing around doing their own thing and not looking out for strangers - yes strangers - in the street.

But my reader is from LA. Surely the Jews in LA who cried over Leiby, the Jews in Mexico, in Russia, in Israel, and everywhere else, is our lesson also that we need to look out for lost souls in the street?



We cried over Leiby. One sweet innocent child. My reader tells me that she "could not sleep for 3 nights" because of this unspeakable tragedy.

Yet I wonder: Should we also be losing sleep over the 16,000 children who die EVERY DAY from starvation and malnutrition in Africa?

(This is not an exaggeration:

4. We recoiled at the ugliness of HOW he was killed. Interpretation - our bodies are precious gifts, are we taking care of them properly?

5. We shuddered at the idea of an evil person among us. Interpretation - evil comes in many forms. This form was blatant. But for a member of the Tribe to be unethical in business is also an act of evil among us.

On the one hand, we should not live in fear, nor should we become depressed nor anxious. On the other hand, we all have a tendency to become complacent. We're "busy", trying to be good people, good parents, good neighbors. But Jews are not supposed to become complacent. We can strive to do better, in the above 5 ways at least.

Your thoughts?

PS - Leiby literally means "my heart". Think about it.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Want to help another Jew learn what it means to be Jewish? Send them the link to the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar - or send them to

Friday, July 15, 2011

Edison Scooped

In memory of Leiby Kletzky, the 9-year-old boy senselessly murdered in Brooklyn this week.

One of the marvels I enjoyed on my recent trip to Israel was the "Nisco Museum of Mechanical Music" at Ein Hod Artists' Village.

The proprietor, 75-year-old Nisan Cohen, had to rebuild his 45-year-old collection after last year's devastating Carmel fire.

What he has salvaged is worth a visit: with visible joy he plays for you (and will let you play) antique music boxes, hurdy gurdies, an automatic organ, a reproducing player piano, a collection of 100 year old manivelles, gramophones, hand operated automatic pianos and so on.

Imagine the delight of children (and adults) at these 100- (some 120 or more) year-old marvels.

There you can see not one but several original Edison phonographs. You may recall from pictures that Thomas Edison's phonograph did not play disk-records, but actually played cylinders.

The first disk-phonograph was built by Emile Berliner, a rabbi's son. His machine, the "gramophone", became the standard for recorded sound. (Berliner also invented the microphone among other things.) Berliner's vision didn't stop at mechanics — he conceived of an entire industry built around the production of musical phonographic disks. His company, Berliner Gramophone, is known today as RCA.

Here's a book about Berliner.

This week's question for your table is a bit philosophical: We all know what music is, right? And we all know the difference between good and bad music, right? So then: What is music? What makes music "good"?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - The bit about Berliner is excerpted from the popular iphone/ipad app, the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar.

PPS - Here's an ear-opening discussion of the role of music in Judaism.

(For the biggest enjoyment of this email, try printing it out and sharing at your dinner table.)

Friday, July 08, 2011

Scientific Mystery

This week's email is dedicated to our friend Steve Goldstein, who had his second brain operation yesterday to remove a malignant tumor. Wishing you a speedy and complete recovery! (to dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email)

Just back from Israel.

On the flight back from Tel Aviv to New York, I witnessed something that I would guess very few people ever see.

I will give you the facts that I know, and see if any of our astute subscribers can solve this one.

The plane left at around midnight and arrived around 4:20 am (both local times).

At some point during the flight, I woke from my slumber to see a beautiful sunrise in the making. The horizon (I was on the right side of the plane) was filled with a thin but gorgeous band of colors.

An hour later, the sky was completely black again, and when we landed in New York one could see a hint of the earliest dawn light, but it was still dark out.

Question: What 3 unusual factors coincided in order to make this phenomenon possible?

This trip enabled me to reconnect to my friend Raffi, currently working on a Master's in physics at the Hebrew University after completing 15 years in yeshiva.

I complimented Raffi for pursuing the Rambam's (i.e., Maimonides) vision for science. Learning about nature, says Rambam, is REQUIRED for the path of transcendence.

Raffi retorted, "Many people say that, but that's a misreading of the Rambam." He says it's the CONTEMPLATION of nature, not merely learning it. If you spend all your time crunching the numbers and never step back to appreciate it, you're missing the point."

(Note, Raffi is preparing for an examine in lasers.)

Question #2 for your Table: Assuming Raffi is right, is the scientist better able or less able than the non-scientist to contemplate the amazing natural world?

Shabbat Shalom

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.
- Albert Einstein

PPS - Don't forget to print and share!

Friday, July 01, 2011

Being Childish

This week's post is dedicated to my wonderful wife, a true woman of valor, who has stuck with me for 15 years (this week).

As always, the goal of this blog is to give you something interesting and meaningful to discuss at your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Shalom from Jerusalem.

Here visiting my sister and family.

One of my favorite things about visiting Israel is getting to spend time with them all.

Her six-year-old, Yehoshua, looks like one of those religious kids in the movies. Extremely short hair, long side curls, fringes dangling from his waist.

And like kids anywhere, he can say the darndest things.

To understand the first vignette, you have to know that that in the Torah there is a concept called "tuma" which is a ritual impurity. One can contract it and become tamay, among other ways, from contact with someone or something that has died. Sort of like the cooties.

We're exploring an ancient site called Maresha, which was a cave-town carved out of limestone. It's just a stone's throw away from where David fought Goliath. Today you can easily explore these labyrinthine caves, a child's dreamscape.

The last cave we visit had been used for burials. Yehoshua starts to climb into one of the crypts.

His eight-year-old sister stops him. "You can't do that! You'll become tamay!"

But Yehoshua is no dummy. "We're all tamay anyway!"

"Yeah, but then you'll get more tamay!"

First question for your table — Is there any benefit to giving people a rule to follow that defies reason?

So then later when I'm walking them home Yehoshua suddenly says to me (or to himself?):

Kol ha-goyim magiah may-ha-kotel ad kahn
Hashem ohev lishmoah otam.

That translates roughly as:

The voice of the Gentiles reaches from the Western Wall until here
Them God loves to hear.

Which Gentiles? What voice? Why does God love to hear them?

As we walk, he explains: the Moslems in the mosques, you hear their prayers (on loudspeakers). God loves to hear them because they are monotheists and not worshipping idols.

It took some prying, but I finally get it out of him that he got this idea from the rabbi who is his primary school teacher.

"And their voice reaches all the way to here?" I ask.

"No, back there!" he corrects me.

Question #2 for your table: We adults spend a lot of time talking about what and how to teach children, but what should we be learning from children?

(Rav Nachman, the famous Chasid, used to say: We should learn three things from children: They're always busy, they're always happy, and when they want something, they say "please, please, please Daddy" until they get it.)

Shabbat Shalom

(Did I mention printing out this message and reading at your dinner table? Try it, they'll love it.)