Friday, May 25, 2012

Jew, Jewish, Hebrew, Yid?

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

This week's Table Talk comes in 3 parts, beginning and ending with a question for your table.

Question: Did you ever know someone uncomfortable identifying as "Jewish"?

I remember my first day in Mississippi, where I accepted a high school teaching job right out of college, at a rural school.

That first day, in late June, the air was so heavy that walking outside felt like you'd feel if you took a bath with your clothes on.

My boss, the inimitable Billy Joe Ferguson, took me on a tour of my new home-away-from-home, the blistery-hot, plastery-white Vaiden High School.

We bumped into the gym teacher, Coach Gant.

James Gant was a tall, muscular 30-something man, graying early but handsomely. He seemed friendly enough, but suddenly asked me a question that made my heart beat a bit faster.

Looking down on me, he drawled, real slow, "Seinfeld? What sort of name is that?"

Looking up at him, trying to discern whether there was anything remotely threatening in his voice, I piped, "German?"

"Oh. Ah din know if it was German or Jewish or what."

(I wasn't wearing a yarmulke at the time.)

I haven't thought much about this encounter with my self-ID but a conversation yesterday brought it rushing back.

Part 2:

Yesterday someone asked me, "When did the term 'Jew' become au currant? It's not in the Torah is it?"

Once upon a time, a Jew was an "Hebrew" (Ivri) or an "Israelite".

But by the 5th Century BCE, Judah was the only landed Israelite tribe left standing. So "Juda-ite" or "Judean" or "Jew" won the test of time.

Jerusalem was in Judea, so "Judean" or "Jew" persisted.

But something interesting happened in the eary history of the USA.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, post-Civil War Jewish immigrants to the USA thought that if they could get a new ethnic name, they'd be able to diffuse the antisemitic prejudice that seems to follow us everywhere.

So they called themselves "Hebrews" or "Israelites" for a few decades, until resurgent ethnic pride made it cool - or at least cooler - to be a Jew.

Part 3:

Last week, someone I know was visiting a certain Jew who is living the good life, retired, healthy, and married to a somewhat religious Christian woman. Needless to say, this man's Jewish identity is not outwardly very strong. In fact, it would appear to be non-existent. Moreover, he is not a Jewish person who has discarded his Judaism or Jewish identity. He was raised that way, with zero Jewish education or affiliation.

In the course of this visit, the conversation turned to politics and the president's declaration about gay marriage.

Listen to what this disconnected, completely assimilated Jewish man said:

"When they want to talk about special treatment of the Jews, then we can talk about special treatment of the gays."

Question for your table: Where did that come from?

Shabbat Shalom

and Happy Feast of Weeks (what's that?)

(don't eat too much cheesecake)


Friday, May 18, 2012

Where Do U Draw the Line?

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at

Where Do U Draw the Line?

One of the most disturbing stories of the year appeared last week then completely disappeared.

The New York Times did NOT cover it (except in a blog).

MSNBC did, as did the Huffington Post (don't read if you're squeamish) and of course the macabre-loving BBC.

Here's the headline:

Korea strengthens customs inspections to stop smuggling of 'human flesh capsules"

Since last August, customs officials in South Korea say to have intercepted between 17,000 and 17,500 pills filled with some type of finely ground white powder. The powder is said to be a stamina enhancer and medical panacea in parts of Asia.

The Korea Customs Service said it had found almost 17,500 of the capsules being smuggled into the country from China since August 2011.

Let's put all cultural issues aside. You and I cringe, but maybe that's merely our cultural bias?

After all, no American dog-lover is up and arms about the consumption of dog meat in some Asian countries and by some US presidents....

So aside from our cultural aversion, is anything wrong with this fetus-pill practice?

According to the South Koreans, the pills are objectionable on the grounds that "such pills could pose serious health hazards".

I hear that. Unregulated ground-up-aborted-baby-flesh could be full of nasty "super bacteria", which was the BBC's angle on the story.

In other words, this is a public health story, which is why it only generated a few brief headlines.

Question for your table: Is there anything else objectionable here? Is the health issue the only ethical red-line? Or are all non-health-and-safety red-lines just cultural bias?

And if there is something wrong here that transcends culture, where is tha red line?

Shabbat Shalom


Friday, May 11, 2012

Boray Pree

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at
Mazal tov to Mordechai Zev and Aviva Margolese, who were married yesterday. It is rare and special to dance at the wedding of a couple who were both recently widowed. And mazal tov to Sophia Felson who is celebrating her entrance into the Covenant (Bat Mitzvah) this week. May all of you enjoy much nachas in your new phase of life and give much nachas to your families!

Boray Pree
When the rabbi made the first bracha under the chuppa, he pronounced the words, "boray pree ha-geffen."

Yosephi (7), sitting beside me, whispered to me, "Is it ha-geffen or ha-gaffen?"

He was pretty sure he'd heard his father pronounce the final word "ha-gafen". In fact, he has heard me say "ha-gafen" every Friday night for seven years - over 350 times! Not to mention holidays etc.

First question for your table: What do you think was my reply to Yosephi?

Answer: "Some people say ha-geffen and some people say ha-gaffen."

He thought about that for a minute, then observed, "People with long beards say ha-geffen, and people with short beards say ha-gaffen."

Which reminded me of Mr. Rosenthal.

Mr. Rosenthal lives in a nearby assisted living home where the kids and I sometimes visit. He is 92 or so, and has vivid memories of fighting the Japanese island-to-island across the Pacific.

A few months ago, Mr. Rosenthal told me, "My father wanted me to go to yeshiva but I didn't want to. I should have listened to him! Now it's probably too late for me to learn anything."

Second question for your table: How did I respond to Mr. Rosenthal?

Obviously I told him it's never too late, but to start with small steps.

"What's an example of a small step?" he asked.

"Did you ever make a bracha? Like a ha-motzee? Or boray pree ha-gaffen?"

"Yes, I used to make those brachas. It's been many years, I think I still remember them."

"So the first small step you can take right now is to make a bracha on your food before you eat it. It will give you a meaningful Jewish connection without much effort."

"OK, I will. I'm going to try it."

My next step - give him a copy of my book, The Art of Amazement. Remember that book? Do you know how often someone asks me a question that is answered in the Art of Amazement? That's why I wrote the book, to answer all your most basic questions about Judaism but were afraid to ask. And if you already got them answered, to remind you of the answers.

And if you know all the answers, so that you can share them with others.

As Hillel says, "If not now, when?"

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, May 04, 2012

Chase of Dreams

The goal of Table talk is to add some depth to your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

See our continuously-expanding Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at

Our neighbors had an attempted break-in the other day and it reminded me of a story I told in this space five years ago. It's the kind of story that one ought to retell every few years.

The story starts with a question:

While I hope you will never experience this, imagine you were walking down the street and someone snatched something from your hands, running off. How do you think you would react?

Would you shout? Call for help? Run after him?

After everyone at your table gets a chance to answer, tell them this true story:

The famous Chafetz Chaim (who died in 1933) was once walking down the street in Radin.

Someone stopped him to ask for a handout. When he pulled out his wallet to give the beggar a coin, the beggar grabbed the wallet and ran off.

Again, put yourself in the rabbi's shoes: how do you react?

The Chafetz Chaim ran after him and shouted, “I forgive you! You can keep it! I give it to you! It’s yours!”

When an onlooker asked the rabbi why he responded that way, he explained:

“The fellow is obviously in need, desperate even. Eventually, he’ll think about what he did and may regret it. So why should he then benefit from stolen goods? Let him enjoy what’s his!”

I suspect most people reading this, and most people who hear this story at your table, would not have reacted that way. Correct me if I'm wrong.

And that gives us the second question for the table: What sort of attitude to you need to cultivate towards other human beings in order to react in that way?

Shabbat Shalom.