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