Friday, December 28, 2012

How to Live Forever

Ask this question at your table - How can you live forever?

You may be surprised at the answers you get.

Some take a scientific approach to this age-old question. I'm not opposed to that.

But I'm going to suggest a non-scientific answer and I'm betting you'll agree with me.

But first, a word from our sponsor.

It's that time of year again, end of the tax calendar: Your last chance to make a 2012 donation. So all of your favorite charities are sending those last-ditch emails.

Let's try for something more appealing here (pardon the pun): just a question.

This is not a question for your table. This is a question for you.

What's this weekly blog actually worth to you? A nickel? Two bits? A dollar?

Think about it for a moment.

Think about your favorite table talks. Maybe the Sandy Hook one last week did it for you. Perhaps it was We of the Storm. One of the most popular of all time was Late for the Train (2006). Some still remember the musical Chinese Food on Xmas, dedicated to the yahrzeit of Bert Walker that falls at this time of year.

If you had paid a buck for your favorite one, would you have said, "Money well spent"?

Now what does it say that it comes to your inbox for free every Friday? Does that make worthless or priceless?

This blog actually costs several nickels to produce, and we rely on readers like you to keep it going. There are the costs of the 7-year-old computers and the rest of the office overhead. There is staff time.

Yet this blog is provided as a free service by JSL in order to achieve our mission of increasing the level of Jewish spiritual literacy worldwide. You have the opportunity today to enjoy being being an active partner in this mission. At any level of contribution, you will be a partner. (If you are already a JSL partner, thank you.)

Once you estimate the average value of the weekly blog, please multiply by 50 and show your appreciation by making a tax-deductible contribution. For online and snail-mail instructions click here (and read about the thank-you gift you'll receive).

(If you cannot become a partner today, then at least enjoy the fact that when you read this blog, you are enabling someone else to give to you!)

With that out of the way, the promised answer....

To remind you, the question was, How can you live forever

Try asking this at your table before reading my three answers.

My first answer is very simple and perhaps too obvious. When I give to you - anything, whether a physical gift, time, or just a smile - some of me is now part of you.

Maybe you'll give to others, so that some of me now gets further redistributed.

But you may or may not give to others. So to maximize my immortality, I need to give to as many people as I can.

You already knew this answer, didn't you? Maybe this answer is reminding you to be a bigger giver, but so far, you haven't heard anything new.

My second answer: acquire wisdom. Whatever wisdom you acquire in this life stays with you in the next world (Talmud).

My third answer is deeper: Someone who learns to live in the moment turns every moment into eternity.

"Living forever" is therefore possible right here, right now.

It takes practice, spiritual practice. Some kind of meditative practice.

(If you would like to learn this kind of meditative practice in the comfort of your own home, shoot me an email. Perhaps we can create an online program.)

The fourth answer is deeper still.

(Wait, didn't he say there were 3 answers? This is a blog, not a math class.)

Jewish wisdom teaches that we all live forever. Nothing to worry about. But the quality of that forever - the experience you will have after you leave this world - will be a sum of three things:
  • the wisdom you acquired
  • the giving that you gave
  • the meditative level that you achieved.
We need to strive for all three. Yet most of us excel at one or two, and find at least one much harder. Now you know what to work on.

Shabbat Shalom 

PS - If you didn't do so already, please click here and enable us to send you that thank-you gift.

As always, if you enjoyed this message, please forward the link to others who may enjoy it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sandy Hook: Blame the Maya?

The goal of Table talk is to turn the Friday night dinner table into Shabbat experience. Please print and share.
20 Sandy Hook Teddy Bears

Someone asked me the other day if I was going to write about Sandy Hook Elementary School.

To be honest, I wasn’t.

What more can I offer for your table talk that hasn’t already been offered?

Half of the victims have yet to be buried; emotions are too raw. Words of comfort are what are needed.

There are no words. Maybe hugs.

But he insisted that you, dear reader, would want a table talk on this theme.

As I have noted in the wake of other calamities like the earthquakes in China, Haiti, and Japan, the daily level of human suffering in the world is high.

Since last Friday’s massacre, approximately 50 American children were killed with handguns.

Some of them are accidental, like the father who accidentally shot and killed his seven-year-old son in the gun store parking lot.

Today, some 16,000 young children died of starvation. Oh, and yesterday too. And the day before that.

Vibrant young Americans continue to return in body bags from Afghanistan, more than one per day, yet their photos never appear on the first page of the newspaper. Most of them don’t even appear on any page of the newspaper. (If you'd like to do the media's job and know their names, bookmark this page. If you want to gaze into their eyes, click here.)

American bombs – sent with your dollar and by your government – accidentally kill and maim  thousands of women, children and other innocents in Afghanistan, but we don’t see their pix or hear their names on NPR. Here's a site that tries to humanize this tragedy.

Yet unlike these daily tragedies, our collective grief for the angels of Sandy Hook reached such a level that Newtown had to open a special branch of the post office to handle the influx of care packages.

We’ve got big problems, but together, we have the wealth and knowledge to end hunger, eradicate many diseases and reduce violence.

But our wealth and knowledge has to be mobilized. Otherwise we’re back to auto-pilot.

So here are three questions for your Shabbat table… and I’ll venture one suggestion below.

Q1 – Why wasn’t the Batman massacre enough to get us moving?
Q2 – Do you think Newtown might be the same – all too soon forgotten?
Q3 – If you were personally moved to action by Sandy Hook, what would it take to get you to stay awake and not slip back into business-as-usual?

Jewishly, there is simply ethic that – should you choose to adopt it – will guarantee that you will put your money where your mouth is.

The ethic is – if you are really serious about doing something to help repair the world – right here and now make one commitment.

Commit - out loud - to give X percent of your net income for the rest of your life to worthy causes.

10-20 percent is the recommended range, but if that's above your comfort level, start with less. But make that commitment in this rare moment of clarify.

It’s hard to do, right?!!!

But if you will just do it, you might just find that not only will you heal the world, you’ll heal yourself.

Teach this to the kids: When you get 10 bucks, a dollar goes to the charity of your choice.
As I wrote in May, 2008, I’ve never met someone who didn’t want to leave the world better off than we found it. Anyone who has ever loved a child wants to. So here's a fourth and hopefully uplifting question for your table:

Is life on earth getting worse, or is the world in balance getting better?

Shabbat Shalom  

(PS – volunteer time counts)

(PPS - One of our biggest needs is demonstrably in the area of education.... How did the Maya, an abhorrent civilization of warfare and human sacrifice, become a respected source of futurism? Or any other wisdom? Should this man have been protected from himself? How about this one? Finally, read this and weep.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Beautiful People

The purpose of this email is to help you turn your dinner table into a Shabbat table. Please print & share.

Trivia question for your Shabbat table:

What's the darkest day of the year?

Winter solstice, no?

No!!! Sorry Charlie, buzzer.

I didn't ask what's the shortest day of the year.

I asked what's the darkest day of the year.

The answer is: the new moon closest to the winter solstice.

For if the winter solstice happens to coincide with a bright moon, it will be a brighter 24 hour period than the most recent new moon.

The new moon happens to be today.

And every year, Channuka, the festival of lights, happens exactly at this darkest time. That's why it jumps around a lot, following the moon and not the sun.

In the darkest time of the year, light a candle.

In a world that cares about who won the ball game, be the rare one who can enjoy the game without losing a minute of sleep over it.

In a world rewarding beauty and honoring net-worth, be the one-in-a-million who honors kindness, hard work and wisdom.

In a world spending $160 billion on "hope in a jar", be the crazy one who gives 20 percent to charity.

In a world chasing randomness, be the leader who projects faithfulness.

In a world directed by gossip, be the oddball who runs from lashon hara (even the really juicy stuff,)

In a world of science-worship, get in on the broader and deeper meaning of "Torah" without sacrificing the truth or joy of nature.

If you are already a candle in the darkness, then you are one of the truly beautiful people.

And this song is for you (or this version, or this one).

Shabbat Shalom & Happy Hannuka

Friday, December 07, 2012

Thanks for Saying Thanks!

The purpose of this blog is to help you turn Friday night chat into conversation. Please print & share.

If you have not seen the Guitar Dreidel, the Texas Dreidel, the 101 Things to Do for Channuka, or the stylish Rambam Menorah, your Channuka is certainly not going to be complete!

You might also like to know that Apple now allows you to gift an app — such as the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar. It's an easy system, you pay the 99¢ and Apple either sends the recipient an email for you or gives you a digital card that you can either print or email yourself. For all the iphone/ipad/ipod users in your network of family and friends, wouldn't some of them enjoy an app that puts a nugget of amazing Jewish wisdom on their screen every day? Can you think of a better last-minute Channuka gift? 

Tonight's questions for your Shabbat table are inspired by leadership teacher Peter Bregman.

Bregman thinks that every personal email deserves a reply.

His full argument will take you about a minute or two to read, here on the Harvard Business Review.

Bregman challenges us:
Consider what saying "thank you" represents.
On a basic level, it communicates that you received the email. While there's a lot of advice that discourages writing "thank you" emails because they contribute to email overload, I disagree. I answer every real email I receive because I want to avoid the recipient's "Did Peter get my email and what's he thinking?" angst. It takes three seconds to respond "thanks" and it completes the transaction initiated by the sender.
Ultimately, saying thanks for even a brief helpful email is a moral duty: "Acknowledging each other is our basic responsibility as human beings living in community with other human beings."

Question #1 for your table: Do you agree?

(perhaps I'll know when I see what kind of replies, if any, I receive to this email ;-)

Question #2: If every act of kindness needs a thank you, and saying thank you is an act of kindness, where does it end?

Question #3: Where off-line might this be a point well taken?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hannuka.

(Yes, that's right, I spelt it with a simple "H" even though when I pronounce it that way it drives my kids batty.)

PS - we've added two short Hannuka videos that will make you smile (I hope), on both home pages:

(if you need help downloading these videos, send me an email and I'll teach you the trick)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Our Man in the White House

The purpose of this blog is to help you turn Friday night smalltalk into bigtalk. Please print & share.

Is President Obama good or bad for Israel?

That's not the question of the week. That's just to get you to read the rest of this post, since eleven out of ten Jews have a very strong opinion on this question.

(And they're all wrong, of course.)

It's such a charged question that I've been sitting on this topic for weeks, afraid of appearing partisan.

This is not an endorsement of any candidate, party or platform, OK?

But here is an interesting story, worthy of table talk.

First, as you probably know, the Jewish blogo-twitter-facebook-sphere was all abuzz before November 2 about whether or not President Obama is "good for Israel".

During all of these discussions, I never saw anyone mention Jack Lew.

Yaakov Who?

If you google "Jack Lew" you will find many articles about the White House Chief of Staff.

Most of them are highly flattering.

Jacob Lew
Most of them for some reason mention the fact that he doesn't work on Friday night or Saturday.

Such as the Huffington Post:

"He packed in long hours six days a week, taking off every Saturday to observe the Sabbath (he is an Orthodox Jew), honing the type of negotiating acumen that would prove useful for Obama."

The Atlantic Monthly at least finds a reason to mention Lew's private life:

"Faith is another guiding force in Lew's life. An Orthodox Jew, he tries to observe the Sabbath. This means forgoing work, cars, phone calls, and other technology from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, hardly an easy commitment for a man who has answered to two presidents. The full day of respite from a bruising Washington schedule helps him maintain his characteristic calm, friends say."

The Forward profile revealed even more:

When Jack Lew was appointed chief of staff to President Obama in January, many in the Jewish community wondered how he could observe Shabbat in such a demanding position.
Luckily, Lew has the most powerful man in the world to keep track of time as the sun starts to dip low in the sky on Friday afternoons.

Yaakov Lew
“I saw the president on many occasions on Friday afternoons look at his watch, and ask: ‘Isn’t it time for you to get going?’” Lew said, “or, ‘Why are you still here?’ The president was not checking the clock “because he doesn’t think I can keep time,” Lew said. Rather, the extra care on this issue reflects the President’s wish “to remind me that it’s important to him, not just to me, that I be able to make that balance.”

Questions for your table: With Yaakov Lew as one of the smartest and most powerful players in Washington, does it matter to you that he's Jewish? That he keeps Shabbat? Is that good for Israel? Is it good for the Jews?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - don't forget our awesome suggestions for Channuka here.

Friday, November 23, 2012

White Friday

The purpose of this blog is to help you enjoy your Friday and Shabbat and avoid the Black Friday syndrome. Please forward to everyone.

If you google "best jewish kids books" one of the top results is our site,

It's one of the best-kept secrets on the Jewish web.

We're not selling books. It's a searchable index of handselected, house-reviewed books, toys etc.

The site links to and other sellers. We're just providing a service to you.

You can search for yourself. But we've done the searching for you.

Channuka is early this year. We've chosen five great menorahs of different price levels. Candles, both wax and no-mess oil. Chocolate coins. Games and toys. Activities to keep kids busy. Books for all ages, including adults. Just browse the topic "Hannukah".

Check out our suggested Bar and Bat Mitzvah gifts.

Why sweat the shopping? Turn Black Friday into White Friday. Enjoy your family. Spend 15 minutes with and enjoy your famly. This is a service provided by JSL, and if you use it, Amazon donates a nickel or two to JSL's educational mission.

Much of the world of marketing is trying to get you to buy stuff you don't really need.

Question for your Shabbat table: How do you avoid getting sucked in to all of that?

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How Jewish is Thanksgiving?

Imagine you are the first European to visit America.

Of course, you think you're in India.

It's an amazing New World! Strange people, strange foliage, strange animals.

And you see this funky chicken. What do you call it?

Remember, you think you're in India, so you naturally call it "Indian chicken."

Are you with me so far?

So French explorers dubbed this new bird poulet d'Inde (Indian chicken) later shortened to dinde (pronounced "dand").

English settlers called the bird turkey because they thought it looked like another type of fowl that was imported from Turkey.

Jewish explorers sided with the French and called it tarnegol hodu which means "hindu chicken" and was later shortened it to simply hodu.

What's interesting for us is that the Hebrew word HODU also happens to mean "give thanks."

So from a Jewish perspective, you could say it's very appropriate to eat hodu on "hodu"-day.

But does that make Thanksgiving Jewish?

Look up the word "Jewish".

It means from the tribe of Judah.

Look up the word Judah.

It means, you guessed it: "thankful".

Therefore, being "Jewish" means cultivating a thanksgiving mindset every single day.

(I can hear it already - "Gee honey, I'm watching so much football because the rabbi told me to....)

Wait a second (I know you're thinking this)... Did he say "Jewish

I did.

In fact - and this is a juicy one for your table - when Columbus
famously came to the New World, who among his crew was the very first
to spot land? Obviously, it must have been the man working in the
upper mast on the front ship, right? And we know who this was:
Roderigo De Triana, a Jewish sailor.

So for your table: How Jewish is Thanksgiving? 
(Overheard from the mouth of a child, "They don't have a mitzvah to honor their parents, so they have mother's day and father's day, but for us every day is mother's day and father's day. They don't have a mitzvah to be thankful every day, so they have Thanksgiving, but for us every day is thanksgiving.)

Below: Two links on cultivating gratitude...

Article on gratitude by the renowned Rabbi Pliskin
Audio on gratitude by the inimitable Rabbi Rietti

This nugget of wisdom is a sample from the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar for iphone, ipad, Android or Kindle:

Android (Google)
Android/Kindle (Amazon)

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2012

This is Your Brain

The purpose of this blog is to help you use your brain at the Friday night dinner table. Please print & share.

This week's question is about what makes you happy.

But first a short personal story.

Long, long ago in a land far, far away....

Known as the Land of Israel...

You know that place that seems so small and distant but keeps making headlines...

I decided to spend a year studying in a yeshiva.

Some of my extended family back in the States became a bit...concerned.

Who could blame them - what were those four years of college for? What about all that tuition? So you could become a monk?

One family member, when she got wind of my derailed "career", was baffled: "Don't you want to have nice things?"

Hmm.... nice things....

Nice things are nice, but do they make you happy?

No really, this is Question #1 of the week: Does your _________ (fill in the blank with a nice thing) make you happy?

There are many paths to happiness, but they all have one thing in common.

Whether your bliss is experiential, connecting to other humanoids or creative, there is one required feature for happiness:

You have to focus on what you have rather than what you're lacking.

Children teach us this great truth. A child eating pizza is happy. A child whose sister got a bigger slice is unhappy. A child feeling the warmth of a goodnight hug is happy, a child being told to go to bed is unhappy. A child building a lego masterpiece is happy. A child whose friend has more legos is unhappy.

I would like to learn a lesson from Steve Martin.

Remember Steve Martin, the banjo player?

How did he get so good?

He explains it like this:

"I got my first banjo when I was 17 and I started to teach myself one note at a time. I figured, Hey, if I keep this up for 35 years, pretty soon I'll have played the banjo for 35 years!"

The point, I think, is to figure out what you emjoy doing on the creative side and stick to it for a long, long time. You may not become a grammy-winner, but you'll be happy.

But then again, maybe you will win a grammy, who knows?

Question #2 for your table: What's the world's greatest creative challenge?

As a departure from my usual style, I'm actually going to give you my answer to the question.

I believe that the greatest creative challenge in the entire universe is one that every one of us has an equal gift at doing.

It may sound corny, but if you think about it, it is absolutely true.

The greatest challenge is to create - or recreate - yourself.

A person who grew up angry can become calm.

A person who grew up moody can become cheerful.

A person who grew up impatient can be patient.

A person who grew up blaming can become accepting.

A person who grew up lazy can become energetic.

A person who grew up stingy can become generous.

A person who grew up a gourmand can become a gourmet.

A person who grew up self-absorbed can become comradely.

And so on.

There ain't no grammy for self-perfection. But there is no greater pleasure than conquering even a single bad character trait.

Question #3 - What area of self-perfection would give you the most pleasure?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 09, 2012

Help is On the Way

The purpose of this blog is to help you transform your Friday night table from a meal to a profound encounter. Please print & share.

This week: A Question, a Problem, a Solution for your table

1. The Question: Were you profoundly happy or profoundly disappointed Tuesday night?

Most people I spoke with were one or the other. I have found very few people who (like me) are unconvinced that the differences between the two candidates were more significant than their similarities.

2. The Problem: Since the country - and much of the world - is so divided and believes so much that they are right and the other side is wrong, is that OK? Does unity matter?

3. The Solution: There is one way to create unity, whether between two people or between two groups of people. That is to have a common purpose, a common goal.

Sometimes that common goal is to defeat a common enemy.

This would be a bottom-line level of unity.

Other times, the common goal is something positive, like educating our children.

Right now we have a common enemy, and I would like to use this soapbox to encourage you to join with me in unity to fight it.

Imagine a newlywed couple who are renting a basement apartment.

In the apartment they have all of their wedding gifts.



Photo albums.

Childhood mementos.

Many precious books.

All of their clothing.

The basement was flooded by Sandy and they lost...


Their cars were completely destroyed.

They still have to go to work.

They still have to eat.

They are lucky that they are renters.

Homeowners have the added pain of losing the entire house AND needing to make mortgage payments. AND paying for the demolition of the condemned house. (Can they even think of rebuilding?)

We're not talking about a few hundred people here. There are thousands.

From The Jewish Week: “We have families who have lost all their cars, totaled from storm damage,” Dolgin said. “We have families whose basements are completely flooded, homes that will surely be condemned. One grandfather died in his sleep during the storm, another grandfather had a stroke as the house was flooding. Worst of all, there are many families we have not yet heard from.”

If you are the director of a school with hundreds of children and overnight the school building is destroyed, what do you do?

The needs in New York are enormous and profound.

Just like you shouldn't believe all the bad news you read, you also shouldn't believe all the good news.

From this eyewitness account in Tuesday's Forward: "The newscasters and papers are reporting that we’re turning a page. They’re reporting that the lights are coming on, the subways are running, people are back to work. That is not the case in Far Rockaway.....For three straight days I’ve been in Far Rockaway, I’ve not seen a Red Cross volunteer, I’ve not seen FEMA, I’ve not seen the National Guard."

Yet together, we have enormous resources.

Let's work together to help these people. Now. Today. Please.

If you live close enough to New York to assist with physical cleanup, please go this Sunday.

Bring extra gasoline for generators.

Achiezer provides direct service to many families who lost everything they owned. These families must start from scratch; literally.
Many Jewish groups have relief funds, including the JFN.
The Mazal School was destroyed and hoping to survive as a school.

If you know any victims, you might help them navigate their own recovery with these articles from Consumer Reports:

a. Car damaged or destroyed by flood
b. Preparing to deal with home insurance company
c. Other useful articles

If I have failed to move you, read this journal of a survivor.

Chesed - the giving of oneself to help another - is the foundation of everything Jewish. Everything.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 02, 2012

We of the Storm

The purpose of this email is to help you turn your Friday night table into a haven. Please print and share.

Hurricane Sandy passed directly over Baltimore's Jewish community where we live.

Part of me wants to write about that.

About the remarkable chesed in the community. The Chesed Fund who gave away flashlights and batteries. The Hatzala group of volunteer EMTs who carry walkie-talkies 24/7. Chaverim dispatch, who rush to anyone in need of roadside assistance, 24/6. Shomrim and NWCP — two all-volunteer citizen patrols who work in association with the police. The Jewish Caring Network providing meals to dozens of families. Bikur Cholim helping the hospitalized.

Part of me.

Part of me wants to write a sympathy blog about the sufferings, the phenomenal scale of New York's calamity. We in Baltimore know what it's like to lose power for a week - it's a true hardship - remember last summer's derecho? But that's nothing compared to losing everything in a flood.

 Part of me.

Part of me really wants to write about the awesomeness of the Frankenstorm, about the concept of making a bracha to capture that awesomeness and frame it in one's mind.

Part of me.

But then part of me wants to wonder why we allow our media to entertain us with storm stories while ignoring the 16,000 children who die every day from starvation and malnutrition (mostly in Africa). That's one kid every five seconds.

Question for your table: Do you have parts too? Which part is the real you? Which part do you want to be the real you? And what are you going to do about it?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 26, 2012

Exhuming Obama

The purpose of this blog is to help you turn your Friday night table into the talk of the town. Please print & share.

(If you have our iphone/ipad app, The Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar, and it has been malfunctioning the past few weeks, some good news. We have submitted an update to Apple that includes fixing many broken links. If you do not have the app, from now through Sunday we have made it FREE. That's right, that is not an error. The app will be free through Sunday night. All owners of the app (paid or free) will receive the 2.6 upgrade when Apple releases it.)

True story: A woman is just leaving the house on the way to do some really important shopping.... and there's a neighbor whom she always finds so annoying.

"Oh what great timing! My phone is out and I really need to make a call. Do you think I could borrow your cell phone for a few minutes?"

The woman really doesn't want to help. She has a tight schedule and a list of errands. Let her borrow someone else's phone, she's thinking.

This woman is being tested. I will offer my interpretation of her test and how it applies to you and me.

Last week, several astute readers caught an error in this email. I had written that the ghost of Samuel came up feet first. In fact, he the story tells specifically that he came up head first, unlike ordinary ghosts.

The reason is quite simple: he was being called by King Saul, and when being called by a king, you don't come feet-first. See Miss Manners, Chapter 1.

So this leads us to the obvious question: Does the same protocol apply to the president of the United States?

If President Obama were to hold a seance to contact the ghost of, let's say, Jimmy Carter, no wait, technically he's he's still alive. Let's say, the ghost of Dick Cheney....

No, he's technically still alive too.

OK, let's imagine Obama, he's rounding the corner to the final stretch of this horse race, he's got Romney so close behind he can feel his breath on the back of his neck. He's tried everything to get those poll numbers higher, nothing is working. He's into the low 50s, but it's too close for comfort.

So he holds a seance in the Rose Room to see if he can get a little pep talk from the ghost of Ronald Reagan.

Wait a second. Would Obama, a Democrat, turn to Mr. Conservative Revolution for eleventh-hour counsel?

Here's a little presidential secret for you: these presidential guys have a lot more in common than you think.

Anyway, the real question is - does Reagan come up feet first like an ordinary ghost, or does he come up head first in honor of the President?

(Believe it or not, this is actually going somewhere....)

On the one hand, King Saul was a monarch-for-life, while Mr. Obama is an elected, term-limited official.

On the other hand, he's the President. You know, hail-to-the-chief and all that.

Where this is going:

One of the most fundamental of all Jewish values is the concept that every person you meet is created in the same Divine image. (For John Lennon that means, "You better recognize your brother in everyone you meet.")

A person with no Torah but treats others well - especially opponents and adversaries - has a foundation to acquire wisdom, and the wisdom he acquires will stick.

A person who knows the entire Torah but has no respect for others, his Torah has nothing to rest on and he will lose it.

If we Jews were living up to the Torah, we would be so ethical that any non-Jew would do business with us on a handshake.

If we were getting the Torah's core message, we would be so concerned for others that there wouldn't be any hunger.

I think we're on the right track. But we're being tested all the time.

Question for your table: When were you last tested in this area, and how did you do?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ghost App

In memory of Andrew Sarosi - Aharon ben Chaim. May his memory be for a blessing and his family be comforted.

Good news and bad news on the app front this week.

The good news is that the App is now available for the Kindle Fire. If you have any Kindle Fire users in your family, on your Facebook network, or beyond, please let them know about the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar.

The bad news is that Apple's iOS 6 upgrade a few weeks ago seems to have been a bad fit for the app, which is now crashing on many iphones and ipads.

The good news is that our crackerjack programmer has found the bug and we are working on an upgrade.

The bad news is that in the meantime thousands of users around the world are missing out on their daily amazing Jewish fact.

So I thought I'd share today's fact with you, for you to share with your table.

=== October 19, 2012 / 3 Cheshvan 5773 ===

Ghost Story

Do you like a good ghost story?

One of the world's oldest ghost stories is in Tanach, the Bible. King Saul is desperate. He is facing a massive battle with the dastardly Philistines and is not getting any guidance from the usual prophetic channels.

In desperation, he turns to a sorceress, the so-called Witch of Endor.

The king goes incognito and asks her to bring up the prophet Samuel, Saul's mentor, who had died a few months earlier.

To her surprise, the seance works - Samuel's ghost comes up (feet first, by the way).

"What are you disturbing me for? Is that you Saul?"

"Sorry, I just need to know what's going to happen in this battle, I'm quite afraid."

"Well, in that case, I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?"

"Tell me the good news first."

The good news is that you are eventually going to be joining me here" (i.e., despite your many mistakes, you're going to have a share in the World to Come).

"Umm... that's reassuring! What's the bad news?"

"The bad news is that you're going to be joining me tomorrow...."

2 Samuel, Ch. 17

Here is a related link to Rabbi Becher's 'Intro to Kabbalah' class.

From the Amazing Jewish Fact-a-Day Calendar, now downloadable on Amazon.


Question for your table: Do you believe in ghosts? Why? Or, why not?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 12, 2012

Begin Again Now

The purpose of this blog is to help you turn your Shabbat table into an vibrant salon. Please share.
In honor of my dear Mother's birthday - Happy Birthday Mom!
(To dedicate a future TT, send an email.)

For a conversation-starter, try showing this photo around the table and ask everyone what they think it depicts:


(If you cannot view the photo in this email, click here.)

Hint: The snap shows a street at Foxconn, the Shenzhen (China) factory that makes our iphones, ipads, ipods and many other gadgets.

So what are those nets for?

They were installed in 2010 in response to the high rate of suicide at the factory that year.

That's the screaming headline.

In fact, even at the peak of its problem, Foxconn (which employs a mind-boggling 400,000 people in Shenzhen) had a lower suicide rate than the national China average.

But I'm re-hashing this topic because it makes an interesting conversation starter and an opener to the bigger question of the week:

What is wrong with suicide?

I'm sorry if that sounds morbid, but it's really a question about life and meaning, and purpose. So now that the High Holidays have passed and Jewish life is "back to normal", I'm challenging you to ask this at your table: Why shouldn't suicide be a moral and legal option?

I hope that the discussion will lead to an affirmation of the value of life, and perhaps greater scrutiny of what makes life itself precious.

Shabbat Shalom

PS -  If you haven't already, please download our (corrected) fall bulletin here.
PPS - This week's title is borrowed from a terrific book by Rabbi Pliskin well worth your time.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sukka in a Snap

The purpose of this blog is to help you turn your Shabbat table into a salon. Please share.

It has come to our attention that some people out there are "kind of interested" in having a sukkah but find the project a bit daunting.

Maybe you don't know where to get one.

Maybe you don't know how to build one.

Maybe you don't think you're capable.

Now YOU TOO can build and enjoy a sukka.

There are now two sukkahs you can get that go up without tools or significant effort. One is so portable you could take it on a road trip.

We have links to both of them, plus a humorous short Sukka video here.

(Note - the seller we link to has announced that orders after today - September 28 - will not be filled.)

Question for your table: Is Sukkot part of the High Holy Days?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot

PS - Many people enjoyed the Yom Kippur video I sent on Tuesday - if you didn't see it, it's timeless: The Landlord.
PPS - Please download our new fall bulletin here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Three Things for Yom Kippur

In honor of Kyle and Shelli's anniversary. Mazal tov .... may you break many fasts together!

1. Please download our new fall bulletin by clicking here. (On the first page there is a New Year's challenge and on the second page a "secret" challenge....)

2. Please enjoy this video of Yom Kippur inspiration:

3. Saved the best for the last: The Landlord.

Happy Yom Kippur

PS - Today's your last chance to benefit from this year's Rosh Hashana - Yom Kippur prep class. To hear the audio and get the handouts, including the new "24 Questions to Think About from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur", click here.

PPS - If you haven't already, please tell everyone you know about the amazing Jewish app - (Android version: )

And our free database of the best Jewish books and gifts keeps getting better: .

Friday, September 21, 2012

Whose Coat are You Wearing?

The purpose of this blog is to provide something creative for Shabbat table conversation. Please print and share.

So on Rosh Hashana morning it's a little drizzly and I throw on my light raincoat.

These new men's raincoats have become all the rage in Baltimore. Lightweight and inexpensive. They won't keep you warm, but they will keep you dry.

As long as it doesn't rain too hard.

And you can have them in any color you want!

So long as it's black.

But you know, regardless of whether or not my coat is hung in a sea of look-alikes, I don't like to have to go searching for my coat. So I developed a system to find my coat extremely quickly.

I turn the hanger around, hooking it on backwards.

(Hopefully no one in Baltimore is reading this, because if the word gets out, everyone's going to do this, and then it won't work anymore.)

Well, actually, on Rosh Hashana this year, my foolproof system failed me for the first time in years.

Unbeknownst to moi, someone (whom I know) had hung his nearly identical black raincoat right beside mine, also with the hanger turned around.

You know where this is going. When Rosh Hashana services are over, I take the coat from the reversed hanger. I.e., his coat.

Later in the day, towards evening, I decide to go to a different synagogue for the afternoon service. Again, a light drizzle, throw on the coat.

This time I notice that it isn't quite fitting me right but it isn't wrong enough for me to pay attention. I am in a hurry after all.

I get to this other synagogue and opt for the hooks instead of the hangers. Doesn't really matter, there aren't so many coats and besides, my name is in it, right?

The problem is, when I'm fixing to go home, I go for my coat and where I expect to find it, I find this other fellow's.

"Oh no," I'm thinking. He must have taken my coat by mistake. I could just take his to him, but what if he's already realized his error and is en route here to swap them?

So I leave it, and when I get home, I phone him up.

"Did you happen to be in such-and-such a shul tonight?"

But he's quicker-witted than I am.

"No, why is my coat there? Because I saw your coat in the other shul this morning where mine should have been."

Notice how I didn't accuse him of taking my coat.

But nor did I assume from the beginning that the error was mine!

"By the way," he added, "didn't you notice that it was a little big on you?" (he is about 50 pounds heavier than I).

"Well it wasn't raining, so I slung it over my arm."

"Oh, well that explains it."

You see, he had also stumbled, thinking for a moment that I must have been preposterously absent-minded not to notice that I had the wrong coat.

How many times has this happened to you, when you saw an error that you committed and assumed someone else had done it? (that's the weekly question, by the way)

Last week I challenged you to choose one character trait to change this year. It could be jumping to conclusions. It could be a short temper. It could be complaining. Or perhaps laziness. Maybe too much criticizing.

The trick to making it happen on Yom Kippur is:

1. Really regret it. Contemplate the damage you've done, or the opportunities lost, due to this trait. Let yourself feel bad about this, for a few moments.
2. Apologize if needed.
3. Commit to not doing it again - just this one trait. But if you're truly committed, you'll have a plan of how to eradicate it, such as reading a self-help book, or practicing meditation, etc. Without a concrete plan, you're paying lip-service but you're not real. Make it your mission, with daily practice, to conquer this trait before next Rosh Hashana.

We all share these bad habits to a greater or lesser degree. In this sense, they're like the ubiquitous, monotonous, homogeneous black rain coats. We've put on the homogenized raincoat of our socialization.

But to conquer one bad habit - even a small one - is so rare, that doing so is like wearing a new custom-made coat. Do this and there won't be any chance of mistaking it for someone else's. This is the path to revealing the real you beneath the socialized façade.

Wishing you a Shana Tova

and a

Shabbat Shalom

 PS - This year's High Holidays prep class is a short 45 minutes. To hear the audio and get the handouts, including the new "24 Questions to Think About from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur", click here.

PPS - Help your friends and loved ones break in their new iphone or ipad: The most amazing Jewish app - (Android version: )

And of course you can search our free database of the best Jewish books and gifts here: .

Friday, September 14, 2012

What Matters Most

The purpose of this email is to provide something different for Shabbat table conversation. Please print and share.

Note -  This year's High Holidays prep class is a short 45 minutes. To hear the audio and get the handouts, including the new "24 Questions to Think About from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur", click here.

Last week, I promised some thoughts about how to use the High Holidays to make an incremental but real change in yourself so that 20 years from now people who haven't seen you every day will do a double take.

I'll give you one simple thought, and one simple, true story that I think sum up what Rosh Hashana is all about.

The thought:

The main theme of Rosh Hashana is once a year to stand up and justify why you deseve another year of life.

Whether you are a true believer or agnostic or even atheist, the exercise of justifying your own existence is pretty powerful stuff.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next year that justifies your continued existence?
And your answer doesn't have to be earth-shaking.

It could be as humble as, "If I can live another year, I want to conquer my complaining. I want to become a person who appreciates everything that I have! A happier person!"

The rabbis teach that if I person could conquer even one negative character trait, that would not only justify his/her own life, it would justify the existence of the entire universe.

Think about it.

That's Rosh Hashana. Try to do this on Monday/Tuesday next week, and then next Friday I'll send a short email on how to actually achieve that change.

Now here's the story:

The Secret Race (book)The New York Times this week reviewed the new exposé by former Lance Armstrong teammate, Tyler Hamilton.

Hamilton tells in detail how the doping is/was done, not only by Armstrong, but by himself and practically every other cyclist.

Evidently it became so pervasive and the peer pressure so great that if you didn't dope, you might as well not compete. Here are Hamilton's own words:

“I think everybody who wants to judge dopers should think about it, just for a second. You spend your life working to get to the brink of success, and then you are given a choice: either join in or quit and go home. What would you do?”

I'll leave you, dear reader, with Hamilton's question to field at your Shabbat and Rosh Hashana tables.

Wishing you and yours a sweet, healthy, happy, successful 5773!

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Shabbat Shalom and l'Shana Tova

PS -  This year's High Holidays prep class is a short 45 minutes. To hear the audio and get the handouts, including the new "24 Questions to Think About from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur", click here.

PPS - has great High Holidays books and gifts.
Another great Jewish gift: The iPhone/iPad app
( Android version: )

Friday, September 07, 2012

Can You Ever Go Home Again?

A couple days ago, I was showing someone in San Francisco JSL's newest (top secret) project. He liked the project, but out of the blue asked me the following question:

Why do you do what you do?

My answer is simple: I get to speak with (or communicate in writing with) highly intelligent people about interesting, meaningful things - greatest job in the world.

So here's one such topic for your Shabbat table that we discussed in San Francisco. It begins with a question:

Have you ever gone back to a town, maybe your hometown, after having been gone for a long time? What was it like?
Probably you were amazed by all the changes.

Similar question (for adults): Did you ever see someone as an adult that you'd last seen as a child? What was it like?

Why is it so amazing to see these changes after big gaps of time, but for the town we live in, or the children we see every day, the changes are not so amazing?

I'm sure you'll get various answers to this question and there is no need for me to add my 2-bits. But if you care to hear it, here's my take:

When we see a person or a place every day, the changes are so small and incremental that we hardly notice them, and then we grow accustomed to them and gradually forget how they used to be, how the town used to look.

One building built here, one facade changed there. Slowly, slowly.

But then there's the second question for your table:

Have you ever seen someone after 10 or 20 years or more, and they didn't seem to have changed at all? Same personality, same bad jokes, you know what I mean?

The purpose of this life is to grow and to change (for the better). The third and forth questions for your table are:

- Do you want to be the same person 20 years from now that you are today, or do you want to be greater? More caring, more patient, more disciplined, more honest....?
- If so, how are you going to get there?

Next week, the final email before Rosh Hashana, I'll send some thoughts about how to use the High Holidays to make an incremental but real change in your life (in yourself) so that 20 years from now people who haven't seen you every day will do a double take.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - has great Rosh Hashana books and gifts.
The iPhone app:
Android version:

Friday, August 31, 2012

Temporarily Embarrassed

The purpose of this blog is to provide something inspiring for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

 Here's a trick pair of questions for your Shabbat table:

1. How would you like to become the greatest philanthropist of all time?
2. What does it take?

It's a trick question because many people will answer, let me win the mega-jackpot and then I'll become the greatest philanthropist of all time.

But it don't work like that, kee-mo-sabee.

Two weeks ago the world lost such a man.

And you probably never heard of him.

Not that he gave anonymously, only that he focused on the success of the project, not wanting an ounce of the spotlight for himself. He never put his name on a building or project.

So what did it take for him to become the greatest philanthropist?

The following story perhaps gives us a clue:

Once upon a time, several years ago, a young Jewish businessman asked the philanthropist if he would be willing to meet with a group of young professionals to advise them on "how to get involved in helping the community".

"I don't believe there is such a group," he retorted.

"No, there really is," said the young man.

"I don't believe it, but if you insist, have them come here tomorrow morning."

"Umm...they have all just begun new jobs, would it be OK if we make it in one week?"


A week later, they show up and Mr. Philanthropist tells them, "When I was asked to meet with a group of young men who want to become activists for the Jewish community, I didn't believe that there were such men. And now that you're all here, I still don't believe it. Do you know what it means to be an activist? I'll tell you what it means. When I was your age, I bought a train ticket to Washington. I knocked on the door of every single senator. I had the door slammed in my face dozens of times. Finally, one was willing to talk to me.

"I didn't wait for someone to help me become an activist. I didn't wait for someone to tell me what to do. I went out and did it. If you're serious, you don't need me or my advice."

The philanthropist's name was Zev Wolfson.

He was Israel's biggest advocate before there was AIPAC. Through tireless effort, he had the ear of senators and congressmen, members of Kenesset and many others.

One of many anecdotes told:

During the first Gulf War, Wolfson invited Senator Inouye out on his boat, which he used almost exclusively for entertaining politicians or officials he felt it important to impress. He asked Senator Inouye if there was not anything in the American arsenal to protect Israel from the Iraqi Scud missiles. The senator told him about the Patriot missile batteries. If so, Wolfson asked, why hadn’t the United States supplied Israel with the Patriots? 

Senator Inouye replied that Israel must not have sought them. Zev immediately got on the yacht’s phone and called then-defense minister Yitzchak Rabin to relay the message. The next day’s New York Times headline read, “US to supply Patriots to Israel.” The last paragraph explained that the decision had been taken after a meeting between “US officials and Jewish leaders.” 
He wielded similar influence in the power centers of Israel and even France. Senator Trent Lott was of the opinion that Wolfson's success at lobbying came from his pure, selfless passion, never seeking anything for himself. While he did help politicians raise funds, he was not a mega-donor to their campaigns. He did phone them up late at night and early in the morning. He shunned honor and chased results.

He built or persuaded others to build Jewish schools all over the world, including North and South America, Israel, France and the FSU.

Yet he despite his yacht and prime real estate in lower Manhattan, he personally lived simply, with a "child-friendly" home for his many children and grandchildren, some of whom learned from friends that their own family was wealthy.

Think of the walk-of-shame past the first class seats boarding an airplane, which the average person endures because we know that one day we'll surely be able to fly first class too. "The poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires" (Steinbeck). Wolfson flew economy because First Class was an unnecessary luxury to him. His wealth was for public service, not for indulgence.

I haven't told you the half of the amazing things Zev Wolfson accomplished for the Jewish People and the world. Yet he always said, "There's nothing special about me. If I could do it, so could you." Something to contemplate approaching Rosh Hashana?

May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 24, 2012

Greatest Teacher

The purpose of this blog is to provide something cool for a heated Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

This week, a question for kids, and a question for adults for the Shabbat table.

The kids' question of the week: What makes a great teacher? How can you tell that someone's a great teacher?

The adults' question: How can parents help their kids' teachers become better?

One way would be to share with them the most important book on teaching that most teachers never read:

The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.

The greatness of the book is its understanding how setting the right tone on the very first day of school makes all the difference in classroom management. Do your kids/grandkids/nieces/nephews/neighbors a favor and get a copy to each of their teachers.

Another tool that few teachers are aware of but should be is this remarkable new approach to classroom management. You have to see it to get it:

Chris Biffle, the creator:

Middle school science teacher implementing:

HS math teacher using technique:

4th grade reading

1st-grade teacher who is using the technique (modified) to teach math:
(Does the method make her a better teacher?)

And Kindergarten:

Did you know: The Jewish People invented the concept of compulsory public-supported education nearly 2,000 years ago? It had been the responsibility of every parent to teach their own children, but the rabbis observed that orphans were not being educated, so they instituted a new rule - everyone will use and support a new public school system, so that no child will be left behind. Along with this history, the Talmud gives a few rules for how to run a school, including the necessity of evaluating a teacher's effectiveness and making whatever changes needed in order for the children to learn.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - has school supplies and gifts for teachers.

The iPhone app:
Android version:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Wedding or Funeral?

In memory of Gerda Haas, who was laid to rest this week at the age of 98. See below.
The purpose of this email is to provide something meaningful for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

Wedding or Funeral?

Here's the question of the week for your Shabbat table:

If all factors were equal, would you choose to attend a wedding or a funeral?

For instance, say you had a friend getting married and another friend sitting shiva. Keep the factors equal - they both equally would want you to attend, they both equally would understand if you did not attend, etc. etc.

In other words, the question is what you would prefer to do for you.

King Solomon asked this question some 2,900 years ago.

His answer?

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting."

Second question for your table: What was he thinking?

(For a clue, see the source of the quotation, Ecclesiastes 7:2 - I only quoted the first half of the sentence.)

Mrs. Gerda Haas, to whom this week's message is dedicated, made it out of Germany with her husband and infant son just in time to save their lives. Most of their extended family perished, but they survived, via Marseilles, Shanghai and San Francisco.

In her memory, here are two anecdotes to show you the strength of her character.

In her 80s she had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and of course spent some time at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I saw her that evening and she only had one thing on her mind.

On a bus with other tourists, she overheard a German man behind her say, "Ach. I don't know why they have such a thing. We lost a lot of people in the war too."

She turned around and told him off in impeccable German that his people murdered her entire family because they were Jews and how dare he speak that way. She wasn't shocked that someone should think such a thing, but said it took incredible chuzpa for him to say it aloud.

Another time she had surgery that required a local anesthetic to her leg but she chose to have a general anesthetic as well, but not a deep one.

Evidently the buzzing of the surgeon's saw woke her up and seeing what was going on she exclaimed in her German accent, "Doctor? You call yourself a doctor? You are no doctor! You're a carpenter!"

I cannot do this great life justice - she touched many, many people her her 98 years.

She is survived by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and many friends of all ages whom she inspired. May her memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom has last-minute school supplies and gifts for teachers. The iPhone app:
Android version:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Don't Think Too Much

The purpose of this email is to provide something deep for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

"Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so." - Bertrand Russell

As you may know, I put that great Russell witticism in Chapter 3 of The Art of Amazement, along with a parallel quote from Thomas Jefferson.

Today's first question for your table is a simple one: Why do we hate thinking?

Here is a short provocative article on the nature of "nothingness" that may get you thinking....or not.

Question #2 - What is fundamentally missing from this article?

(I have tried to write a comment but keep getting a "technical error" - so if you'd like to hear my own critique, send an email.)

Shabbat Shalom

The iPhone app:
Android version:

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).