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

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