Friday, January 27, 2012

Get Moving

The purpose of this blog is to provide a conversation-starter for your Friday night dinner table - please print and share....

Remember the Little Engine That Could?

Does any kid ever believe that story?

We all believe in the power of positive thinking, but is it enough?

Three months ago or so I wrote about my year-long attempt to get into shape and  my quest for a 6:30 mile.

It appeared that much of what was holding me back was my belief that I could do it.

Since then, I've been pushing myself hard to stay at that plateau.

Then, last week, it occurred to me that I wasn't pushing myself as hard as I could. So it was time to try for hte 6 minute mile.

For the record, I don't have a particularly intense exercise routine. Just 3x/week, walk a mile, stretch, run a mile, stretch, calesthenics and maybe a few weights. That's about it. Unstudied, unschooled, I do what feels right to me.

But following the strategy as then, I got the same results, i.e. I'm now a 6 minute miler.

Who cares? The length of 1 mile and the time are so arbitrary. What difference does it make?

I think the answer is that although they are arbitrary, they give me a goal to work for. Without concrete goals, it's hard to feel like you're getting anywhere.

Have you ever tried to learn a language outside the classroom? You get a book, maybe some CDs or videos. You dabble. But if you decided, "I'm going to try to learn the Hebrew alphabet by February 27, 2012" you are highly likely to succeed. Or how about this: "I want to learn 1 new Hebrew phrase a day for 30 days." You'll do it, if you give yourself a deadline and numerical goal.

(I'm not saying you have to be Daniel Tammet, the kid who learned fluent Icelandic in one week, but watch this video and maybe you'll be inspired.)

Some readers may recall that when I first started exercising a year ago, I was so afraid of failure I actually bet a friend $500 that I could lose 8 pounds in 8 weeks. I knew that I could do it but wanted to make sure I did it. Put my money where my mouth was, quite literally.

But now something new has happened. For the first time, I'm thinking the previously unthinkable. I'm wondering if I could run a five minute mile. Is it conceivable or ridiculous? Understand, I'm not even close to what you would call an athletic person. I'm the kind of guy that real athletes smirk at if they see me in the gym. I did some googling around to see what's considered a good mile for the over-40 crowd. It seems that five may be a bit optimistic. Very very few achieve this, even with the intense motivation of competition. Five minutes looks too ambitious.

What do you think?

Here's today's question for your table: Which of your goals do you know you could achieve in the next 60 days if you were sufficiently motivated?

(If you say it's a top goal, and you know you could achieve it, but you're not willing to put your money with your mouth is, then it's not a real goal. Think about it.)

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Part of Me

Part of me.

Do we have parts?

Part of me really wants to write about the Costa Concordia. I want to compare it to the Titanic. I want to talk about the way everyone rushed to judge Captain Schettino for reckless driving and abandoning ship among other things, and now we are reading reports that his driving may not have been as reckless as everyone assumes and he may not have intentionally abandoned ship.

And you have to wonder if the lighthouse was in service.

Lots of great fodder there, on fate, hubris, judgement, yada yada.

But then part of me wants to wonder why we care more about this tragedy in Italy than the 100,000 avoidable deaths in Somalia last year. Deaths by starvation. Or the 16,000 children who die worldwide (mostly in Africa) every day from starvation and malnutrition. That's one kid every five seconds.

Do you have parts too?

Last week's blog about the snowstorm brought two diametrically opposed reactions.

One reader said, "Thank you for making my day! I forwarded it to everyone!"

Another reader wrote, "I think this notion of 'nothing happens by chance' is the worst kind of magical thinking."

(Incidentally, the latter reader is now digging out of the a "freak" snowstorm - the worst in a decade - in Washington State. Of course it's just a coincidence.)

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 do you do about it?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - thanks to Krosbie Arnold for the inspiration

Friday, January 13, 2012

Every Cloud Has One

The purpose of this blog is to provide a conversation-starter for your Friday night dinner table - please print and share.

Flew across the country this week. Everywhere I go, I hear the same thing: "What's with this warm weather in January?"

Look at this weather map - almost no clouds on the lower-48.

I know what you're thinking, the fair weather ain't going to last forever.

Chances are, at some point, most of us are going to experience a flight delay, an extremely inconvenient traffic jam, and so on.

Today's story, which I told five years ago in this space, is to help you get through those frustrating times.

The Cast: Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, the late great Dean of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, and 8 students.
The Setting: A few years ago during a snowy winter.

One of Rabbi Gifter’s students was getting married in New York and had sent nine tickets to bring his rabbi and friends to his wedding. They were leaving on an early morning flight to attend an evening ceremony. It was a very happy time for all of them.

Halfway to New York, the pilot came on the loudspeaker.

Pilots do not ordinarily interrupt you halfway to New York with good news.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain. The storm in New York has become an unexpected blizzard and all airports in the region are closed. No flights are taking off or landing. We are being diverted to Washington National Airport. I am sorry for the inconvenience.”

There was obviously nothing that Rabbi Gifter and his students could do. They were going to miss the wedding. This was not a pleasing outcome, but there was nothing they could do. They were not going to share this celebration with their friend.

Facing an indefinitely long wait in the Washington airport, Rabbi Gifter told his students, “Let’s go find a quite place to say Mincha (the afternoon service).” Because of the storm, the airport was jammed full of stranded travelers. They could find neither nook nor cranny conducive to the intense meditation that yeshiva students prefer.

Finally, one of the students stopped an airport custodian. His name tag said “Joe”.

“Is there a room here we could use to pray?”

Joe dropped his mop and gaped at them like they were from Mars. He evidently didn't speak English very well, so the student tried to communicate with a combination of monosyllabic words and sign language: “ROOM – FOR PRAY - QUIET – WHERE? QUIET ROOM?” he asked, gesturing.

Joe replied slowly and quietly, almost a whisper, “I have a work room you can use. Follow me.”

Pleased, they followed Joe into a room that felt a little bit like squeezing into a closet, but it was quiet. They were grateful, and they began their service.

The entire time they conducted their service, Joe stood at the door and watched. When they had finished and were moving to leave, he asked, “Why don’t you say Kaddish?”

Needless to say, they were not expecting that question from Joe the custodian.

Nonplussed but without missing a beat, Rabbi Gifter responded, “We need ten men to say Kaddish, and you see that we’re short one.”

Very deliberately, Joe said, “I am a Jew. Let me complete your minyan.” Then without waiting for their response, he became plaintive: “Please,” he begged, “Let me say the Kaddish.”

Needless to say, Rabbi Gifter and his students agreed.

Joe put down his mop, moved to the center of the room, and took a deep breath. “Yisgadal v’yiskadash...” His voice trailed off, for he did not know the Aramaic by heart. So Rabbi Gifter coached him through every word and he and the students responded at all the appropriate times.

At the end of Kaddish, Joe cried.

He dried his eyes, then told his story.

“As you can see, I am not a completely ignorant Jew. I was brought up practicing. But as a young man I rebelled against my parents, especially my father, and stopped being observant. This caused an even bigger fight with my father and we didn’t speak for nine years until he died. I didn’t even go to his funeral last week.

“But last night I dreamed about my father. In my dream he spoke to me and said, ‘Yosaif, I know you’re angry at me! You didn’t even come to my funeral! But you must say Kaddish for me! You’re my only son!’

“In my dream I said back to him, ‘But how can I do that, I don’t know the words, and anyway you need a minyan!’

“He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a minyan. Tomorrow!’ And then I woke up. And then the next day, that’s today, the nine of you show up, Heaven sent!”

Yosaif cried again.

Rabbi Gifter then told him their side of the story, about the wedding and the storm. “You see,” he said to the students as much as to Joe, “that literally nothing happens by chance. Not the wedding, not the nine invitations, not the snowstorm. Someone is looking out for you!”

Joe didn’t take much persuading to find a local minyan and continue saying Kaddish for his father for the duration of the eleven months, and on the annual Yarzeit thereafter.

For your table – Have you ever felt that events in your life were being orchestrated or that you were being tested?

Shabbat Shalom.

PS – if you would like to arrange Kaddish for a parent or other loved one, almost any yeshiva that has a daily minyan will make sure that it is said on your behalf in exchange for a small donation.

PPS - If you have smart phone, and don't yet have the Amazing Jewish app, please click here to see what you're missing....

Friday, January 06, 2012


We lost a friend and neighbor this week, Steve Goldstein.

After two brain surgeries and chemo, the cancer won.

He was a guy who collected broken lawnmowers. By the end of this eulogy, I hope you'll appreciate why.

Steve was one of those rare guys who was both sensible and 100 percent genuine. He never did things to be "politically correct". That meant that if he said something, you knew he meant it.

No one else in our neighborhood would mow the lawn shirtless. But if it's hot out, that's the most sensible thing to do, right?

Steve also helped everyone, and I mean everyone, with any kind of problem with their home.

Your pilot light went out and you can't figure out how to turn it on? Ask Steve.
You have a loose shingle on the roof? Steve would notice it before you and be up on his ladder fixing it before you could blink.
You need help cutting a board for a DIY project? Borrow a tool? And so on.

Most men like to have their "cave" as John Gray calls it, a place to retreat and do whatever men like to do, smoke cigars or whatever.

Steve built the greatest man-cave in his back yard, a 50x30x20 (that's feet) shed.

That's where he did his projects, that's where he stored his "stuff".

A woman's nightmare. But every man reading this will nod his head in understanding.

As I said, he collected broken lawnmowers. Maybe that would be a good question for your table - "Why do you think the guy collected broken lawnmowers?"

The answer, of course, is because he enjoyed fixing them and then giving them away to his neighbors.

That's the kind of guy he was.

But he was also a reverential guy. In his youth, he had the good fortune of spending a few years in a New York yeshiva. Somehow he ended up there even though he was born and raised in Pensacola. And that experience fostered in him an indelible respect for Torah and Torah scholars. None of his other life experiences could erase that. Not his service in Vietnam, not his years on the road as a salesman, to places that one might think are the diametric opposite of a yeshiva experience.

Almost to the end he attended Baltimore's most famous weekly class, the "Thursday night class". I saw him walking home Thursday night. Here's how the interaction would go:

"How was the class?"
"Good. It was a good class. I didn't understand half of it, but the half I understood was good."

Often after helping a neighbor such as us, we'd feel so much gratitude that we would try to pay him something. He wouldn't hear of it. "I'll tell you what, have us over for a Shabbos meal."

And so we did. Many times. After his brain surgeries, with giant stitches on his skull, the kids thought he looked a little scary, like Frankenstein's monster. But they all loved him, they could tell there was something special about him, about his intelligent frankness.

The decline was swift. As recently as Thanksgiving he had his wits. But by Channuka he was having trouble finding familiar things.

Our street will never be the same. Condolences to Abby, his wife of 25 years, and the rest of the family.

To end on an "up" note - one of the eulogists at the funeral mentioned that he hadn't known Steve as well as he would have liked, and now it's too late.

Question for your table - Is there anyone in your life whom you'd like to know better before it's too late? Is there anyone you'd like to do an act of kindness (chesed) for, before it's too late? Here's a zinger - How do you want people to remember you at their Friday night dinner tables?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - to see today's "Amazing Jewish Fact" - on Reincarnation - click here.