Friday, December 26, 2014

Merry HUXmas?

The goal of this blog is to shake things up a bit at your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

This week my friend Raffi phoned from Jerusalem.

Raffi is a husband and father, and a graduate student in physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI).

He told me that he was unhappy about an announcement from the University this week:

All classes would be canceled on December 25.

Yes, you heard it here first:

For the first time in its ninety year history, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - home to the world's largest Judaica book collection - had Christmas vacation.

They called it "Yom ha-Molad" - literally, "Day of the Birth".

Raffi was not merry.

He was merely perplexed, given that HUJI's student body are ninety percent Jewish and nine percent Muslim.

One of his fellow students complained, "What's next, Christmas trees?"

It seems to me that such chagrin is misplaced.
Their real complaint should be that they only got one lousy day - in the middle of the week!

Why not two weeks like every other country? Or at least a 3-day weekend?

For your table: What do you think? Did HUJI go too far on this one, or not far enough?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, December 19, 2014

What's Hannuka?

The goal of this blog is to disrupt your Hannuka routine. Please print and share. 
how-do-you-spell-hanukkahLast week I asked a group in San Francisco the following question, which would be a great opener for your table:

Is science inherently good?

One woman said it certainly is! Look, for instance, at how many people have been helped by modern medicine.

You can probably guess my response.

Can't science be - hasn't science been - used for great evil?

So in my judgment, that means it isn't inherently good. It's neutral, like any tool, and can be used for good or evil.

Now you know what Channuka is.

We tend to get wrapped up in our media's trumpeting of certain values — science, technology, athletics, histrionics, and so on. We are brainwashed into feeling that these things are inherently good.

Channuka is our annual values reset, to remember that context is everything.

(If you doh't believe me, watch this:

So how do you get the "right" context for your perceptions?

Today's the 3rd day of Channuka; tonight the fourth night. For the five remaining nights, here are five questions to stump your table.

Q1: Which parts of Hannuka are the actual mitzvah, and which parts are custom?
The only mitzvah is to light one light per person per night. All additional lights, songs, games, etc. are bonus-points. "The rest is commentary" as the saying goes.

Q2: Why one per person? What’s the connection between the light and a person?
It says in Proverbs 20:29 “The lamp of God is the soul of a person”. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilnius (the Vilna Gaon) explains that the soul – neshama – has the same root letters as oil – shemen. Just like oil is contained in the wick and rises up, the soul is contained in the body and rises. The flame of the candle is like the light that a person brings into the world when learning Torah or doing a mitzvah. This model gives you the essence of Hannukah; the rest is commentary.

Q3: What’s the best way to “do” Hannuka?
If you want to use the holiday to change yourself, to become a different person, the main thing is to light the candle(s) and use them for meditation or conversation for a half-hour or so. For that precious time, focus on presence not presents. Stop running around, cooking etc for that half-hour and find a way to get yourself and anyone with you involved in the moment and to think about how your Torah and mizvot (a little more or a little better) makes you a brighter light in the darkness of these times. Everything else about Channuka is commentary.

Q4: What language must a Torah scroll be written in? And what's the Channuka connection?
Everyone thinks that the answer is Hebrew. According to the Talmud, a Torah scroll would be kosher if written in Hebrew or Greek – i.e., Greek letters spelling Hebrew words. In other words, we believe that the aesthetics of Hellenism can be made holy. Think about it: Greeks exposed unwanted babies, Jews upheld the sanctity of life.

Be cautious when embracing the arts and sciences — gotta lead with your ethical conscience. Make "pursuing good" your essence and "pursuing beauty" your commentary.
Q5: How are you supposed to spell (C)han(n)uk(k)a(h) anyway?
Your guess is as good as mine.

The rest – the latkes, doughnuts, dreidel and all that – is, as we say, commentary...."Now go and study...."

Hannuka Sameach

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Friday, December 12, 2014

The Art of Channuka

The goal of this blog is to make you into your local Hannuka Hero. Please read carefully and click, click, click (or tap, tap, tap).
Happy Birthday Calla - May you live in continued inspiration til 120!

menorah glassesThis week's blog contains my Channuka gift to you.

It comes wrapped between two questions for your table.

The first question is about gift-giving itself.

What do gifts have to do with Channuka?

I mean did you ever just stop and think: "What's the connection?" - ??

I used to think there was no connection, that Channuka gifts come from Xmas-envy.

I was wrong.

But rather than spill the beans, let's make this the first question for your table:

Why do so many people like to give gifts specifically during Channuka?

Now, as you surely know from our cool Channuka Countdown Timer, you're running out one of the few things in life that is truly irreplaceable: time.

I can't give you time.

But I can save you time.

Need a beautiful menorah? Click here.
How about candles? Try these.
How about pre-filled oil candles? These are great.
Dreidels? Look no further.
Chocolate coins? Thought of that too.
Kids books and activities? Got 'em.

(Please remember that using our links is an easy way to support JSL's mission as Amazon contributes about 5% of the purchase.)

Now that pretty much takes care of the physical side of Channuka.

How about the spiritual?

Where are you going to find a good transliteration of the Menorah bracha/blessing and Ma-oz Tsur song?

How about the song "I Have a Little Dreidel" in English and Yiddish with guitar chords?

How about a Podcast of my class, "Channuka and the Secret of the 36"?

Help JSL with an end-of-the-year tax-deductible donation and receive all of these as our thank-you gift.

Let's now wrap up this email with the second question for your table:

What's the ideal Channuka gift?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hannuka

PS - Still looking for a meaningful and useful gift for a teacher in your life? How about a parent who is struggling to inspire her children? Send them a subscription to the Amazing Nature for Teachers program @

PPS - A fancy Chicago chocolatier is now producing hand-crafted gelt for grownups.

PPPS - In case you were wondering, the Menorah Glasses really do exist. As does the dreidel headbopper.


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Friday, December 05, 2014

Let's See, How Can We Blame This on the Jews?

The goal of this email is to add some controversy to your Shabbat table. Please print and share.

Important Channuka announcement #1: We have added a handy Hannuka-countdown timer to the JSL homepage.
Important Hanuka-announcement #2: We have added a slew of new Chanukka books etc. to

ferguson-palestine-cropJust when you thought you'd seen it all....

Under the joyous holiday lights
march the righteous Seattleites.

They evidently consider the Treaty of Point Elliott (1855) to be fair and just and the Battle of Seattle (1856) decisive. Or perhaps they're doing penance for Seattle's founders, who (in the 1860s) banned Elliott Bay's native Duwamish people from their new town.

First question for your table: Why can't we all just get along?

The answer is that some people really don't want to get along with us.

They really don't.

That's what a certain wandering Jew said to me yesterday.

I reached him via Skype at his current abode on an island in the Pacific. The main attraction there is scuba diving. He sent me some images — Wow!

Here's the thing: this guy is literally on the other side of the planet from his native New York. He's living a pretty easy life, running his US business long-distance.

And what's on his mind (besides the situation in Israel)?

"Why does the Torah have animal sacrifices?"

(Note, he assures me that this question is not connected to the fact that he's an ethical vegetarian. His point is that it seems inexplicable that a transcendent, infinite God would want or need animal sacrifices.)

The second question for your table is a question about his question:
Given all the things one could be thinking about, why do you think this bothers him so?

"Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it." - Chief Seattle

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Looking for an unusual Hannuka gift for a teacher in your life? Send them a subscription to the Amazing Nature for Teachers program -


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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Art of the Silent Thank-You

thank-youLongterm readers of this email/blog know that I have written almost every year about the numerous Jewish connections to Thanksgiving.

Brush up on the connection to Columbus and turkey with my 2012 message.

Last year T'giving happened to occur on Channuka so I wrote "The Channuka-Thanksgiving Myth".)

For this year, let's begin with this question for your table:

Question 1: What is the etymology of "Jewish"?

Answer: "Jewish" comes from "Judah" which comes from "Yehuda" which means "be thankful".

The essence of Jewishness is thankfulness.

Every day.

Isn't it wonderful that there is a country — not just any country, but the world's richest, most cuturally influential country and moreover home to half the Jewish People — that has made a national holiday of being thankful?

I'm thankful for that, how about you?

Question #2 for the table: How can you show gratitude to someone without saying or writing a single word?

(Hint - refer to the graphic above!)

Happy Thanksgiving and

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Have you thanked your children's current or past teachers lately? Show your gratitude by sending them a subscription to the Amazing Nature for Teachers program - Or using our searchable index to find a meaningful Hannuka present for your favorite teachers - includes a section for adults.

PPS - You will enjoy this extremely creative use of those leftover Thanksgiving vegetables:

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Can You Kill an Angel?

The goal of this blog is to bring a bit of comfort and hope to your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Untitled-1_bBy now I have had several days to struggle to find the words to respond to this week's news. The enormity of the tragedy risks overshadowing last week, and Dahlia does not deserve to be overshadowed.

The five precious lives destroyed on Tuesday in Jerusalem left 25 children without a father.

It left Eitan ben Sarah fighting for his life after being chopped in the head with an axe. The names of the other wounded survivors are Shmuel Yerucham ben Bayla, Chaim Yechiel ben Malka and Yitzchak ben Chaya.

(To help the families of the victims, click here.

First and foremost, I just want to make it clear, this was not an act of terror. Terror is a badge of honor for the terrorist. Murder, on the other hand, is a badge of shame.

Every society since the beginning of history has outlawed murder — the intentional killing of an innocent person.

There have been different definitions of "intentional", "innocent" and "person". For example, Nazi Germany classified certain races as "sub-human", enabling them to be killed without resorting to murder.

But the broad concept is universal: "murder" is immoral, even ev

Mass-murderer Ramzi Yousef said in court: ""Yes, I am a terrorist, and proud of it."

Al-Qaida trainer Shehada Jawhar said, "Yes, [I'm] a terrorist. What's the problem with that? If I want to terrorize the enemies of Allah, what's the problem with that?"

Murderer Ibrahim al-Aqari's community declared a day of mourning to celebrate his crime.

When you and I call it "terror" we are actually subtley encouraging them.

This week's first question for your table: Should we call these perpetrators "terrorists" or "murderers"?

Regarding the one gentile man pictured above, someone asked me this week's second question for your table:

Do you think those religious Jews from Har Nof will attend the Druze police officer's funeral?

???? The man who gave his life to save others ????

I predicted that many would, without a doubt.

What do you think? Click here to find out.

The sister of police officer Zidan Saif said, "Zidan was full of joy at life, always laughing and creating a good atmosphere.”

A cousin of Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg (born in Liverpool) said, "He was a peacemaker. If there was an argument he always tried to sort things out. He was just a nice guy."

Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky (grew up in Detroit) was described as "known to never refuse anyone seeking assistance in any form, always seeking ways to assist others."

The sister or Rabbi Kalman Levine (grew up in Kansas City) said, "“He would do whatever he could to fulfill all the kindnesses of us as humans. His essence was that he was a man of great wisdom and prayer.”

RavMosheTwerskyBy accounts of all who knew him, Rav Moshe Twersky was a bona fide holy man.

He was so pure, so humble, so unwilling to take credit for himself.
So single-mindedly dedicated to the principle of love your neighbor and all of the details of thought and practice that flow from that.

Someone described him as "the gentlest, most affable, most loving and tolerant person you would ever meet. It’s just such a terrible contrast between such sublime gentleness and such horrible brutality.”

You know why he was one of the first to be slaughtered Tuesday? Because he always stood at the back of the shul, even though by merit he should have been in the front.

He knew, he held in his mind - all of the Torah. All of it! The written Torah, the oral Torah, the hidden (Kabbala) Torah, all of the Torah.

He received his Torah from his famous grandfather, HaRav Yoseph B. Soloveitchik

Rav Soloveitchik was quoted as saying that of his thousands of students, he had only four close disciples.

And then he had Rav Moshe Twersky, in a class of his own.

That his grandson's single-minded dedication to Torah was a throwback not one or two generations, but several centuries.

Harvard was a cakewalk.

Yet at his Jerusalem yeshiva, this supernal genius was no ivory-tower sage. He had personal relationships with his students. For instance, he never went to lunch, using the time instead to engage with a student.

Every one of his students felt that their rebbe was an angel in their midst. That's how they felt.

The third question for your table is simply, How can a person not react to such a loss? What can we do? What should we do?

I'm not going to give you a difinitive answer, but would like to share with you some thoughts I heard from others.

  • Some are moved by the manner in which these men were murdered - in the midst of prayer - to try to pray better.
  • Some are moved by the holiness of these men to try to be more holy, at least on Friday night.
  • The widows issued a statement asking each one of us worldwide to dedicate this Shabbat to love your neighbor - to avoiding arguments, lashon hara, insults etc. 
Their statement ends:

And may this serve as to elevate the neshamos of our husbands, who were slaughtered al kiddush Hashem.
May God look down from on high and see our pitiful state, wipe away our tears and put an end to our pain.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Loving your neighbor surely includes telling your favorite teacher or school about the Amazing Nature for Teachers program -
Or using our searchable index to find a meaningful Hannuka present for your favorite teachers - includes a huge section for adults.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Dahlia's Hand

In memory of Dalia Lemkus and Almog Shiloni, murdered this week because they were Jews who dared living in the Land of Israel.
The goal of this blog is to bring a bit of contemplation to your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

Dalia headshot 2According to accounts, Dalia Lemkus was a normal young woman.

When she was murdered this week, she was hitchhiking to her volunteer job at Yad Sarah.

Yad Sarah means "Sarah's Hand". The name is a nod to the great Matriarch who ran (with her husband Avraham) an enormous free hospitality enterprise some 3,700 years ago.

Incidentally, in the vicinity of Dahlia's home.

(And, ironically, in the vicinity of the murderer, who murdered in order to market the idea that his people are the more authentic heirs to the legacy of Abraham. How do you say "confused" in Arabic again?)
Yad Sarah is one of the biggest charity organizations in the Land of Israel. They serve without discrimination Jews, Arabs, Druze, Christians - namely everyone. With 6,000 volunteers and only 150 paid staff, they lend for free over 244,000 pieces of medical equipment every year.

Someone broke their leg and needs crutches? Call Yad Sarah.
Need a wheel chair? Call Yad Sarah.
How about an oxygen concentrator, apnea monitor, infant scale, hospital bed, shower chair, high-tech or assistive device? Call Yad Sarah.

Someone in a wheelchair needs a ride to a medical appointment? Call Yad Sarah.
Someone needs to make a decision on medical devices, needs advice, needs training? Call Yad Sarah.

And this is only a partial list! Learn about the extent of their services here.

Even tourists enjoy the free services of Yad Sarah.

(Yad Sarah's entire $23 million budget comes from private donations. Their main website is here; their American site is here.)

This background tells us a lot about Miss Lemkus. But there's more.

She was just completing her training as an occupational therapist.

She spoke English with a South African accent, thanks to her parents who made aliyah thirty years ago.

When she went to synagogue on Shabbat she made a point to smile at everyone in her row before anything else.

She was sought after by brides to do their makeup on wedding day because she loved doing that chesed and was good at it

When Yad Sarah needed a volunteer to cover the evening shift, what would they do? Call Dahlia.

We know where she got it from. Her father, an optometrist, serves as a volunteer ambulance driver. Her mother, an international sales rep, cares for the elderly. When her brother Chaggai celebrated his bar mitzvah a month ago, guess who cooked all the food?

When a neighbor had to go to the hospital with a sick child, guess who stayed with the other young children all night and refused to be paid?

In other words, she was a normal Jewish girl from a normal Jewish family.


She couldn't afford a car, so she had to hitchhike: to get to her job in a Kiryat Gat kindergarten and to her volunteer work at Yad Sarah.

attack sceneShe was murdered at the bus stop / hitchhiking post of Alon Shevut.

The town stands on the site of the Battle of Beit Zechariah, fought between the Maccabees and the Seleucid army after the defeat of the Seleucids in Jerusalem.

That modern road is in fact an ancient road to Jerusalem, still marked by Roman milestones. Many ancient mikvaot have been found in the surrounding hills, presumably used by pilgrims heading up to Jerusalem.

Dahlia was trying to head up that road when she was brutally run over then stabbed. Oh, I forgot to mention that she survived a knife attack at that exact spot in 2006. I guess she didn't get the message then.

The murderer first tried to run her over with his Subaru minivan. When he saw that she was still writhing with life, he jumped out and stabbed her in the neck, over and again. Two others were wounded before the murderer was immobilized by a security guard.

“Dalia! Dalia!” wailed her mother as her daughter was lowered into her final resting place.

Her uncle described her as "the angel of our family."

This week's questions for your table:

1. Do you agree with me that Dalia was a "normal Jewish girl from a normal Jewish family"?
2. Did Dalia live a full life?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Fellow the Leader

The goal of this blog is to bring out the great leader in you at your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share
mgt100This week's horse race has distracted many of us from horrendous and scary events in Jerusalem.

But wherever you look, there is this common thread:
wildly different visions of leadership.

First question for your table: What is great leadership?

How about answering rom a Jewish perspective?

Maybe I should just leave it there.

But I'll make it a little easier for you.

Let's make this a multiple-choice quiz: Which of the following traits would you guess the Torah teaches as vital to great leadership?

1. Honesty.
2. Compassion.
3. Self-discipline.
4. Vision.
5. Communication skills.
6. Decisiveness.
7. Teamwork.
8. Creativity.
9. Piety.
10. Commitment.
11. Intelligence.
12. Wealth.

After you've made your list, put them in order from most to least important.

After that, ask everyone at your table today's 2nd question: Would you rather be a good leader or a great follower?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - I'm happy to report that we're continuing to sign up new subscribers to Amazing Nature for Teachers -  Please let your favorite educator or school know about it. Just highlight this paragraph and click "forward". We've even had parents sign up who want to inspire their families with these amazing photos and facts.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Who's a Hero?

The goal of this blog is to make you the hero of your Friday night dinner table. Please print and share.

superjew-434Smack in the middle of the Jewish Book of Ethics (Pirkei Avot), the Rabbi Ben Zoma asks four questions:

Who is "rich"?
Who is "wise"?
Who is "strong"?
Who is "honorable"?

All good stuff for your Shabbat Table.

Now here's your answer key:

1. One who is contented.
2. One who learns from everyone.
3. One who has self-control.
4. One who honors others.

If you don't mind, I'd like to add a 5th question to Ben Zoma's list:

Who's "a hero"?

After everyone at your table contemplates that for a bit, try these:

1. Can you name a well-known person generally treated as rich, wise, strong or honorable but according to Ben Zoma is not? Can you think of anyone who is?

2. I say that a hero is someone who is falling short in one or more of Ben Zoma's ideals but then works on himself and masters it — even just one of the four. If you could become a hero in just one of them in this lifetime,  which would you choose?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, October 24, 2014

What's in a Tongue?

In honor of my mom's 75th birthday this week (on the Hebrew calendar). Happy Birthday Mom! May you live in good health, increasing wisdom and simchat chayim until 120.

TongueThis week for your Shabbat table I have a question followed by two interesting stories, followed by another question, followed by a challenge.

The first question: Can most human relationship problems be healed with better communication?

Think before you answer.

The first story: Yesterday I made a shiva call to someone bereft of his mother. She had been a refugee from Germany. Her parents had fled with her through Italy, then France, then Spain and Portugal, and from there to South America before arriving to the USA.

The girl had the gift of gab, and in each country she picked up the language.

By the time she arrived to the States at age 22, she was fluent in some seven languages. This gift enabled her to land a job in the executive offices of an international toy company.

"The fact that it was a toy company was good for me," said her son at shiva.

The second interesting story was reported in the news yesterday.

Four years ago, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg set himself the goal of learning conversational Mandarin.

I don't know what his daily schedule is like, but it's hard to imagine that he has more free time than you or I. I suspect he may have less.

In any event, he put his proverbial money where is mouth is and began studying at the breakfast table.

This week, he visited China and gave a thirty minute public interview entirely in Mandarin.

These two stories lead me to the second question for your table and the challenge:

Question #2 - What language or "language" would you like to learn? (By "language" with quotation marks I mean various communication skills like empathy, attentiveness, and it may include music theory or even music appreciation. Or even....??)

The Challenge - When are you going to start?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Anyone who is interested in learning to read and understand Biblical Hebrew would be well advised to try this fabulous book. If you would like to learn spoken Hebrew, shoot me an email.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Do you say "rooof" or "ruf"?

In memory of Ronald Fischman, 54, was stabbed to death in his Philadelphia home last week by a man he had tried to help. He was described by his rabbi as "one of the most compassionate people I know - he had an enormous heart."
(To dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email.)

mendel-sukkahToday's title is a serious question - How do you pronounce the word "roof"?

Where I grew up, the top of your house was pronounced "ruf" (rhymes with book) and the horse's foot a "huf".

Then I moved to Mississippi. Down there folks say "reeuf" (sounds better in a phrase, like "cat on a hot tin reeuf").

Then my Mississippi buddy and I drove across the country in his pickup. His name is Billy Joe. I am not making this up.

When we got to California, we happened to arrive in time for my cousins wedding. He didn't want to stay for the whole wedding of distant cousins of mine that I myself hardly knew. But he stayed for the ceremony and reception.

Upon departure, BJ made this observation:

"That wan't no wedding."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm telling you, that wan't no wedding. There ain't no wedding cake!"

(BJ likes cake.)

Here's the deal. The High Holidays are a banquet. Rosh Hashana is the Entrée. Yom Kippur (ironically because we fast) is the First Course. Sukkot is the Main Course. Simchat Torah is Dessert.

Now, if you had your Entrée and First Course but don't have your Main Course, you're going to leave the Banquet a bit hungry.

So first thing to do over the next 8 days is find a Sukka to sit in for a few minutes. Chances are there's one near you.

Now, you could have the Main Course but leave before dessert, but if you do, your soul is gonna say, "That wan't no wedding!"

And if and when you find yourself in a sukkah, here's the question to ask: What's the most important thing to have in a sukkah?

Happy Holidays and Shana Tova and don't forget to enjoy our beautiful new Fall Good News Newsletter.

(This blog will be enjoying the Banquet until October 24)

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Friday, October 03, 2014

Yom Kppur (no, that's no typo)

The goal of this blog is to foster a meeting-of-the minds at your pre- and post-Yom Kippur meals.

In case you missed last week's post, I would like to wish
you and yours a healthy, happy and sweet new year.

Cartoon Source
Q: Why the intentional misspelling of Yom Kippur in today's title?

A: To give you a question for your pre-Yom Kippur dinner table, of course.

The first question for your table is:

Today Rabbi Seinfeld intentionally spelled Yom Kippur K-P-P-U-R. Why do you think he spelled it that way?

Let them guess, then tell them:

Obviously, he spelled it without the "i" to remind us that ego is the root of all evil.

Think about it:

This is not going the way I want it, therefore I'm getting angry.
I want that object, therefore I'm stealing it.
I don't understand God, therefore God cannot exist.

I don't feel like smiling, so I'm not going to smile.

And so on.

Two weeks ago I asked, For you, what's a good life?

Last week, I mentioned the Talmudic warning that news about knife-violence (think ISIS, think White House) and plagues (don't be scared but do be informed) (and this) is a wake up call to increase Torah and giving tzedaka (see PS on this below).

The problem with that message is that it's far too easy to pass the buck — "Let someone else learn Torah, let someone else give tzedaka! I'm too busy!"

This week, the message is less dodgeable: How are you going to change for the better this year?

Rosh Hashana is about dreams. Yom Kippur is about reality: Where are you falling short? What are you going to do about it? Actually do?

For instance, practically everyone says, "I'm going to try to get more exercise."

Don't fall into this trap.

Rather say, "I'm going to take a 10 minute walk every day for a month."

It's got to be real, concrete and realistic. It has to be measurable.

And obviously, it should be a change that will make you a better person.

Use my Yom Kippur Prep Worksheet and narrow your resolutions down to one or two. Then, at the end of the big fast, right at sunset, when you're beyond the pain of hunger make that specific commitment.

cartoon - spiritually empty 

May you and your family be sealed in the Book of Life, health, happiness and peace in 5775. 

Have a sweet and successful year.

Happy Yom Kippur


PS - Thanks to all those who sent contributions last week of all sizes to help keep this Table Talk and other JSL projects going.

For those who would like to get on this particularly meaningful bandwagon, this week we are offering two great downloads to thank you for your one-time or monthly donation to support JSL's teaching of Torah wisdom:

1. 25 Questions to Think About From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur (2014 edition) (sample)
2. Yom Kippur Prep Worksheet (2014 edition) (sample)

Here's the link to learn more about JSL:
Here's the donation link:

Please create or renew your partnership now so we can get you these materials in time for Yom Kippur.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Overwhelmed? Here's what to do.

The goal of this blog is to inspire a new year of engaging dinner table discussions with the whole family. 
Dedicated in honor of Kyle and Shelli's anniversary - mazal tov! You are true roll models for how to create an amazing family.

I would especially like to wish
you and yours a healthy, happy and sweet new year. As many have noted, 5774 was a challenging year for the Jewish People and the world. May 5775 be a year of true peace.

bigstock-The-word-Everything-on-a-To-Do-45656401Last Friday, I asked, For you, what's a good life?

By now, I assume you've had deep meaningful discussions around that question. Therefore the goal today is to create some action points for Rosh Hashana, to turn theory into practice.
Let's make it global in perspective, local in action.
Globally, there's some highly disturbing news. So much so that it can be overwhelming.

First, there's global warming. It's happening too fast and is alarming. 

Second, the incredible rise in violence by the anti-idolatry group in Syria and Iraq (who named themselves after an ancient Egyptian goddess by the way).

Third, let's add the ebola tragedy. Some of the world's experts in infectious diseases are quite worried about this one. It is becoming an historic pandemic of biblical proportions.

To call the suffering heart-wrenching seems like an insultingly huge understatement. Is this what it takes to get Americans to wake up?

Fourth, let's not forget about the new reality of Big Brother. He appears here to stay.
( : -  ( >

What does all this have to do with Rosh Hashana?

More important what does it have to do with you and me?

Most important, what does it have to do with me?

The connection is through a little tidbit of rabbinic wisdom.

The rabbis tell us that in order to live a meaningful life, don't just absorb the news passively. Don't just react as if it's happening somewhere "over there".

Instead, react as if you are living in a Matrix-like virtual reality where everything that happens is custom-designed for you.

For example, take the ISIS stuff. A historian will react with detached historical question, a sociologist with a detached sociological question.

A Jew entering Rosh Hashana will ask a very attached question: What is the message here for me personally?

It is interesting that the ancient Pirkei Avot - the Jewish book of ethics, deals with these very two issues - an increase of knife violence and an increase of infectuous disease. The rabbis who wrote Pirkei Avot transmitted two very specific, very attached interpretations of these two news events.
The sword comes to the world for the procrastination of justice, the corruption of justice, and because of those who misinterpret the Torah.

Plagues the fourth year [of the seven-year cycle], because of [the neglect of] the tithe to the poor that must be given on the third year; in the seventh, because of the tithe to the poor that must be given on the sixth; on the year after the seventh, because of the produce of the sabbatical year; and following each festival, because of the robbing of the poor of the gifts due to them.
In other words, to use the current news as a call to action should mean increasing the learning and teaching of Torah, and increasing tithing (giving 1/10 of your income to charity).

What's the connection to Rosh Hashana?

Rosh Hashana is our annual chance to recalibrate. Where are you going? What kind of person do you want to be? Patient or impatient? Giving or selfish? Warm or cold? Energetic or lazy?

And why?

Rosh Hashana is an amazing day for revisiting yourself. My handy one-page sheet may be a useful guide (see below).

That said, Rambam (Maimonides) says that one of the best ways to change your personality is to start by changing a habit.

For example, a person who wants to become more friendly but doesn't feel like it could start by trying to smile more. That smiling will lead to a greater inner sense of friendliness.

I have a worksheet to help you think about these big questions on Rosh Hashana. I'd like to send it to you.

But the news is telling us - screaming at us - to do more: to increase Torah and increase tzedakah (charity).

Hey, great timing! There happens to be an ancient Jewish tradition of increasing Torah and tzedakah at this time of year. Giving tzedakah is the action Rambam was talking about - its a selfless action. Most of my shortcomings are rooted in selfishness! What a smart tradition!

In fact, there is a present need. As long-term subscribers know, I rarely ask for anything. Although there are expenses involved in creating this weekly email, it comes to you every week like public radio, free of charge. Once or twice a year I ask for your support. For the above reasons, this is the best time of year for you to become a partner, or to renew your partnership.

To thank you for your one-time or monthly donation to support JSL's teaching of Torah wisdom, we'll send you these new 2014 materials:

1. 25 Questions to Think About From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur (2014 edition)
2. Traditional Simanim-Omens for Rosh Hashana Dinner.
Here's a sample.

3. My Rosh Hashana prep class (audio) from last week

Here's the organization website:
Here's the donation link:

Finally, I'd like to end with an update on our friend Harmon, in San Francisco.

Harmon loves to sail. So much so that when given the opportunity to put his life on hold and jump on a world-class sailboat in Alaska as a voluntary crew member, Harmon signed up. It was to be a month or more at sea.

Think of all the preparations you'd have to make to leave your family and business for a month. Not to mention the sailing-specific prep.

Think of the disappointment when the trip has to be cancelled due to weather etc. Docking for the winter. Yada yada yada.

The reason that Harmon's story is an inspirational Rosh Hashana story is because he dared to dream big. BIG. It didn't work out this time, but the dream is still there. The prep work, that's all the hard work, but it has to start with a dream, a vision.

That's Rosh Hashana - a day to clarify your dreams. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life do you want to live? Get my 25 Questions sheet and start to work it out, and use Rosh Hashana to set sail to a great year.

  Positive thinking can only get you shofar 
L'Shana Tova!

May you and your family be inscribed and sealed for life, health, happiness and peace in 5775. 

Have a sweet year.

PS - If you search youtube you may find my experimental RH/YK videos from a few years ago.

PPS – To find High Holiday books and activities for kids, or gifts for teachers (and other thoughtful adults), please use

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Friday, September 19, 2014

For You, What's a Good Life?

The goal of this blog is leverage the last Shabbat of the year to steer us towards a meaningful Rosh Hashana.

We are working hard on a special Rosh Hashana Table Talk for next Wednesday. In the meantime, if you are still looking for books, activities and gifts for all ages, see our suggestions and links at

I gave at the synagogueThis is the final regular Table Talk of the year, folks.

For today, to prepare you and your family for next Wednesday's Rosh Hashana email, I have three questions.

First, take a moment to look at the photo to the left then read on.

What was your first reaction to the photo? Did you see a poor sheep missing a horn, or a sheep that thankfully has a horn?

Think about your reaction for a moment and how that may reflect your general attitude towards life.

Second is a simple question that doesn't get asked often enough:

If you had to choose, what would you rather have:

A) A long and comfortable, healthy life devoid of meaning.
B) A long and uncomfortable life full of meaning.

Think before you answer.

I know you want to say an answer that isn't one of the choices. Stick to those two choices.

Now for today's third question, after everyone picks between those two choices, ask them to choose between their answer and option C:

C) A short and comfortable, healthy life full of meaning.

In other words, in the first round, you're asked to choose between comfort and meaning, and in the second round between comfort and longevity.

What do you choose?

Shabbat Shalom

To find Amazon's best High Holiday books, activities and gifts, please use and help support JSL's work.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Could You Come Out of the Closet?

The goal of this blog is to get some honest talk going around your Shabbat table. When are you going to admit to your family that you're reading this stuff?

Szegedi_CsanadCould you imagine having your most fundamental beliefs about your life shattered?

Could you imagine discovering something about yourself so radical that, if it became known, would probably cause you to lose most of your friends, and your job?

How would you respond?

Would you adjust? Or deny?

Or cry?

Meet Csanád Szegedi, Hungarian member of the European Parliament.

He was a leader of the extreme-right Hungarian Jobbik party.

Extreme-right as in jingoistic, xenophobic, antisemitic.

Then (two years ago) he discovered the truth.

His maternal grandmother - then 94 - was an Auschwitz survivor.

And she and her extended family who were murdered weren't there because they were gypies.

"She opened up and she talked about her life and how she was sent to Auschwitz and how our family was annihilated. I was shocked. First of all because I realized the Holocaust really happened."

You can read more of his story here. As you can imagine, it has generated some headlines in both Germany and Israel.

For now I'd like to share with you his most inspirational quotation:

"It has changed everything. It is like being reborn, and the changes in my life are still happening. I had this set value system that I ahd to change completely. I had this value system until I was 30 and I had to admit that it was all wrong and to find the will to change."

There's the question for your table: That amazing ability to admit that he had been completely wrong, why would anyone want to do that?

Shabbat Shalom

PS – The new apple: parents and grandparents in the know are sponsoring a 1-year subscription to for their children's and grandchildren's teachers and schools. Click now while the school year is still young and there is still time to facilitate the adoption of this amazing, no-brainer curriculum.

PPS - Happy birthday Scarlett!

To find High Holiday books and activities for kids, or gifts for teachers (and other thoughtful adults), please use

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is

The goal of this blog is to up the ethical ante around your Shabbat table. Please print and share.
zip-itA reader of this blog, in response to my Deadliest Weapons post a few weeks ago, replied with a list of practical questions about ethical speech.

These issues are so interesting and relevant, I thought you might find them great conversation-starter for your table:

1. What to do if one is asked for an opinion about someone for the purpose of a job, as service provider, participation in a project or an activity, etc.?

2. What if one knows something negative about the person’s professional abilities or personal conduct?

3. What if one heard from someone else something negative? Say, someone asks me about a doctor or lawyer or gardener or plumber etc. and even though I don’t have personal experience with this doctor, lawyer, etc. I heard from someone else negative things (professional or personal) about this person. Should I provide the information I heard to someone asking me about that doctor, lawyer etc.?

(I don't want to spoil your fun by telling you my answers, but if you'd like them, I'll swap you for yours!)

Shabbat Shalom

PS – To find High Holiday books and activities for kids, or gifts for teachers (and other thoughtful adults), please use For the amazing teacher in your life, we recommend a 1-year subscription to

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