Thursday, January 30, 2014

How Do You Define "Good Art"?

The purpose of this blog is to help your family and friends turn your Shabbat table into a work of art. Please print and share.

Emuna's starfish 3Please look at the picture to the left.

What do you see?

A. A starfish
B. A work of art
C. A proud father of a budding art student's first effort
D. Some wood, some glass, some pastels.

Our daughter spent many hours on this creation, during six sessions of her first-ever art class.

Question 1 for your table: Does knowing that background information make it more beautiful?

devorah fish1While we're at it, I might as well show you her sister's first creation as well:

Truly stunningly fabulously thrillingly amazingly earth-shatteringly beautiful, right?

Great art teachers often say that the main skill to learn is not how to draw, not how to paint, but how to see.

How to get started learning to see?

You could take the neuroscientist's route and read Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.

Or you could go the artist's route and read the classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

This is all a build up to Question 2 for your table: What's the point of art?

And what does all of this have to do with being Jewish?

Shabbat Shalom

"Wagner's music isn't as bad as it sounds." - Mark Twain

PS - If you like, please like, tweet, or just forward to someone who might enjoy.

As always, this message can be read online at

Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld
Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
3700 Menlo Drive
Baltimore, MD 21215-3620
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Friday, January 24, 2014

What's your answer to the Jewish Question?

The purpose of this blog is to help your family and friends feel smarter at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

gI_0_mystmanSomeone asked me the other day about how to deal with a bad neighbor.

Ever happen to you? That you had a malicious, vindictive, or otherwise harmful neighbor?

What did you do?

Here's an answer in good rabbinic style, in the form of quesitons.

First question, see if anyone can guess what famous person said this:

"Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are, beyond all question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world....

We owe to the Jews…a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilization."

Do you want a hint?

The same guy who said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Same guy who said, "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."

Still don't know?

How about this one: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

Yes, indeed, it was Sir Winston Churchill.

But the more important second question to ask is: What did he mean by "system of ethics"?

Churchill's knowledge of Judaism was mainly through the eyes of Christianity. But he was giving credit where credit is due. He got that Christian ethics is largely a reframing of Jewish ethics.

That takes us to the third question for your table: What's your favorite ethical teaching from the Torah?

The easiest answer is the Golden Rule or the verse, "love your neighbor as yourself".

Here's mine:
When you see the donkey of your enemy struggling under its burden you should help him reload the donkey.

Now why in the world should you help your enemy?

And does it matter if you help him with a frown or a smile?

And what does this imply about helping someone who isn't your enemy?

And what does this imply about being Jewish?

Shabbat Shalom

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." - Churchill (the original tweeter)

PS - If you like, please like, tweet, or just send to someone who might enjoy.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Are You On the Bus?

Happy Birthday Jorun!
The purpose of this blog is to help your family and friends get on the bus at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

Prankster BusImagine you are Ken Kesey.

Actually, don't.

But you can appreciate that if you were Ken Kesey or one of the Merry Pranksters on their 1964 travelling vaudeville lysergic acid diethylamide tour of the USA, you might invent some creative expressions.

They were traveling by bus.

And they were "traveling by bus".

Therefore, if someone was part of their mission, supporting their mission, synchronized with their mission, he or she was "on the bus."

Anyone else, like those who were there for pure entertainment, for their own ego, or for some non-non-comformist purpose was "off the bus."

(BTW, is someone who doesn't fit in to a group of non-conformists a conformist? Just wondering.)

Now imagine you never read Tom Wolfe's biography of the Merry Pranksters, and you recently lost your car, and a friend - unaware that you recently lost your car - calls to check on you, asking, "Are you on the bus?"

Are you offended?

OK, now imagine you're at a Jewish wedding.

A beautiful and graceful wedding. Where family members form an a-capella choir under the chuppa that blows everyone away.

What does it mean to be "on the bus" in that setting? Eating and drinking? Shmuzing?

OK, now imagine you are reading this weekly blog.

What does it mean to be "on the bus" in this context?

(Hint: read the top line)

(Hint: not like the reader who complained yesterday, "Last week's message was pretty short, not much to it." "But did you share it at your Shabbat table?" "No." "So you are mainly reading it for entertainment? It wasn't entertaining enough for you? Even with the great Far Side cartoon and the uplifting music video?")

Let's do one more.

Imagine you are a member of a Jewish community. What does it mean to be "on the bus" in that setting?

(Hint: not necessarily joining a synagogue.)

And so, nu, are you?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you like, please like, tweet, or just forward to someone who might enjoy.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Happy Birthday Marc Sarosi! For those who haven't seen his dazzling website, better check it out now, it's about to be overhauled. Mazal Tov to Clara on her Bat Mitzvah celebration...It's nice to see you older and wiser, but don't grow up too fast!

The purpose of this blog is to offer some sparkle to your Shabbat table. Please print and share.

stick_shift_60Scene: A preschool "fun room".

In attendance:

1. Yours, truly
2. 60 four-year-olds.

Me: "Are you happy?"

60 four-year-olds: "YES!"

Me: "I said, ARE YOU HAPPY?"

60 four-year-olds: "YES!!!!"

Me: "I SAID: ARE ... YOU ... HAPPY??!!!"

60 four-year-olds: "YES!!!!!!!!!!"

Me (pretending to be knocked backwards): "I can hear you, you don't have to shout!"

60 four-year-olds: uncontrollable laughter.

Question for your table: Why is that shtick so funny to a four-year-old?

Then last night, I found myself talking to a group of sixty-four-year-olds (OK, some were younger than that).

To get them to laugh, I showed them cartoons like this:

(click here if you can't see the image)

Question #2 - Why is that shtick so funny to a 44- or 64-year-old?

Question #3 - What changed in 40 or 60 years?

Finally, this: The Wall Street Journal reports that gratitude is actually good for you (and will improve your kid's GPA)!

Who knew?

Rabbi Nachman, for one.

Taught Rabbi Nachman:

We should learn three things from children: they're always busy, they're always happy, and when they want something, they say 'please, please, please Daddy' until they get it.

Do you get it?

Shabbat Shalom

PS -

PPS - If you missed the fabulous snowflakes last week, click here.

PPPS - If you like it, you can like it, tweet it, or just forward it to someone who might enjoy it.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Be a Flake

The purpose of this blog is to inspire some unique conversation at your Shabbat table. Please print and share.

 This week's question for your table is an old one, but I'll tell you a story that will wake everyone up at the table.

The question is: Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?

A kind reader sent me this WSJ link of some stunning snowflake photos by Russian photographer Alexey Kljatov. The photo above is my personal favorite (what's yours?)

Now, regarding the question, the pioneer in snowflake photography was Wilson Bentley, who made thousands of snowflake photos in the 1890s.

(Think of what cameras looked like back then. If he could do it, so could you.)

Judging from the 500 that he donated to the Smithsonian (see some here), it would appear that, indeed, no two snowflakes are alike.

Now for the story.

Did you ever have a dream where you were awkwardly naked in public?

Who hasn't?

Another reader this weekly email found this dream became a reality for him this week.

He's at his local downtown gym before work, having a swim. His valuables are locked up, but not his clothes.

This is a private gym, business community. Not the kind of environment where one expects to find an underwear thief.

But these days of freedom, with marijuana now legal in how many states? who knows what to expect.

So our friend comes out of the pool to find that not only is his towel missing, but also his shirt, pants, shoes, socks, underclothes....

OK, so this doesn't quite equal "naked in public" but it comes a little too close for my comfort, how about yours?

How about if you are a 30 minute drive from home, and it's 25 degrees outside?

Let's just say it's a bit awkward.

(Personally, it puts a different perspective on someone pilfering my shampoo at the JCC this week!)

Question #2 for your table: Why is being undressed in public so uncomfortable?

And while we're at it, what do you suppose this story has to do with snowflakes?

Here's a thought:

When we're undressed, everyone's attention is to our outside.

On the outside we are basically animals and we're all basically the same.

But on the inside, we're like snowflakes, each one of us is unique.

This is why it has always been a Jewish value to dress with dignity and not show off too much skin in public. To do so says, "look at my body" while covering up says, "look at the real me, the snowflake."

Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you missed my musings on snow two weeks ago, click here.

PPS - If you were thinking of launching 2014 with an act of tzedakah, please click here.

PPPS -  Like it, tweet it, or just forward it to someone who might enjoy it.