Friday, March 27, 2015

The Down-Home Matzah Ball Blues

The goal of this blog is to help make this Shabbat "gadol" - truly great. Please print and share.

matzo_soup Serious question: how are you going to make next Friday night different from all other nights?

If you're leading a Seder, you might want to start with my 2-page Art of Leading an Amazing Seder and get a copy of the Art of Amazement Haggada.

(If you already have one and want to know what's trending in Haggadas, shoot me an email.)

When you look at my 2-pager, you'll see a list of 10 Tips and Tricks.

Tip #5:
  1. Prepare two gifts for each participant. One is a small inexpensive gift: a toy, silly glasses, etc. The second is a more meaningful gift: preferably a book. (See for suggestions of both types.) Gifts are especially important for young children. Give the small ones at random times, such as when a child answers a question or reads a line from the Haggada. Tell them that you have a bigger gift for anyone who stays awake until the end of the Seder....
Tip #6:
  1. Other props to prepare, for the Ten Plagues — again, we've compiled a quick list for you here.

Now, here's a question to stump everyone at the Passover Seder. I asked this one a few years ago, maybe it's a good time to dust it off:

What did ancient people call Egypt?

Romans called it "Egypt" - from the native name for Memphis.

What did Egyptians call it?

Kemet - "Blackland".

But what's most interesting, and the main question this week for your table is:

What does the Torah call it and why?

Answer: We call it Mitzrayim: "land of boundaries" or "place of limitations"

Think about what it means to leave a place called mitzrayim.

Think about how important it is to re-enact that every year.

Look at these two short, entertaining vids. The first one nicely reminds us why we're doing this:
  The second one will get you pumped up to make it great:

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Pesach.

PS - For the JSL Passover Kit, including a printable PDF of the Art of Amazement Haggada, click here.
PPS - This blog will soon be busy leaving Mitzrayim… see you in 3 weeks.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Springs When It . . .

The purpose of this blog is to help conversation bloom at your Shabbat table. How about printing it?
Happy Birthday to Barry in Mill Valley. Happy birthday to Dee-Dee in Portland.
Wishing you health and wisdom til 120.

Mar21snowLast week's email about Stephen Flatow* generated a massive response. (If you missed it, his inspiring story is archived here.) It's a story of persistence. Commitment. Intellectual clarity.

This week the world is facing a more.... let's call it an critical thinking issue.

Today is supposedly the first day of Spring.

So how come it's snowing in New York?????

In other words, who says it's the first day of spring?

And why should we believe them?

Think about it.

Look it up: the official answer is, "equinox."

OK, how many people reading this know what that means?

How many people reading this know someone who knows what that means?

Look it up, it's not as simple as you thought.

In other words, once upon a time, spring meant, "when flowers blossom".

Spring meant an experience of rebirth and renewal.

Spring meant a spring in your step. Spring meant a new hope. Spring meant optimism.

Then somebody somewhere (probably Julius Caesar) said, "Hey, in mid-March the sun appears to traverse the equator - let's call that "spring".

And we all said, "Okay" without giving it a second thought.

Nevermind that it's snowing and nothing is blooming.

It's spring, buddy, ignore your feelings and watch your step on the ice.

Come to think of it, maybe that's why Brutus et al. killed him on the Ides. "You want to tell us when spring begins? We'll show you!"

"Et tu, Brute?"

"Out, et moi! That's for trying to tell us when spring begins, and that's for your stupid Julian Calendar being off by three days every 400 years, and that's for the seriously unhealthy ceasar salad."

So on this allegedly auspicious week I challenged a group of 10th-graders to a critical-thinking exercise: come up with five different ways to define spring.

They came up with six.

How many can you come up with?

Shabbat Shalom

* Clarification: I received the story via email from an unknown source. I edited the story. My edits were both major and minor. I did change the font in the story to indicate where the (revised) text begins and ends. I probably could have and should have tracked down the original author, but (as I wrote), I was pooped.

PS - It is really time to start thinking about Pesach - 2 weeks! If you want my list of suggested seder gimmicks and gadgets, send me an email. Browse books and toys here and don't forget the Art of Amazement Haggada — Leader's Edition.
You can download a preview here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

What do you do when things go horribly wrong?

The purpose of this blog is to help you get your head out of the sand. Please print and share.

alisa-flatowOriginally this was going to be a very short email:

"Sewage backup this week. Life is good. Shabbat Shalom."

After this week's journey, that's really all that I had in me to write.

But as I was about to send it, the following story appeared in my inbox.

It shows the power of one. It shows the power of vision. It shows the power of perseverence. It shows how a tragedy can lead to blessing.

And it shows the importance of putting life's challenges into the right perspective.

Alisa Flatow grew up in West Orange, NJ and attended Brandeis University in the mid-1990s.

She chose to spend the spring semester of 1995 studying in Jerusalem. On April 9, a Sunday morning, she and her roommates hopped on a bus to visit the beach resort in Gaza.

This was soon after the Oslo accords, and Gaza was still under Israeli control. It seems unfathomable now, but people used to vacation in Gaza at the beach resorts.

En route to the beach, a man rammed the bus with his van. As the collision occurred, he flipped a switch on the steering column which detonated a bomb. Seven Jews on the bus were killed.

53 others on the bus were wounded, including Alisa. The van was filled with shrapnel that exploded through the windows of the bus and struck her head. She was unconscious, but her body was unharmed.

The doctors called her father in America and told him to come right away. When he landed in Ben Gurion airport, government agents met him on the runway, and escorted him straight from the plane to the hospital.

By the time he arrived, Alisa was brain-dead. The doctors offered their condolences and asked the father if he would be willing to donate her organs.

This was not a simple question. The Flatow family was Orthodox and observant. It was not customary for Orthodox Jews to donate organs, and they were not sure it was allowed by Jewish law. So the parents called their rabbi and asked what to do. He told them to donate the organs, and so they did.

That single act became a sensation in Israel.

Background: there is much in Jewish law and custom that would discourage organ donation.

It has been our longstanding tradition to treat a dead body as sacred. Our custom is to watch over it, cleanse it, and prepare it carefully for burial. The body is buried whole and unaltered. That is why rabbinic authorities have generally discouraged autopsies.

But organ donation is special. It presents the opportunity to save a life. In Jewish law, the saving of a human life takes special precedence. You can violate just about all the other commandments if you can save a life. Therefore, some believe that Jewish law not only allows organ donation, it requires it.

The problem was that most Jews in Israel were not aware of this. The rates of organ donation were extraordinarily low. Israel was part of a European consortium of organ sharing nations, but was suspended because too few Israelis were registered donors. It was a stunning irony for a nation famous as an innovator of advanced medical technologies. The problem was that Israelis knew about the tradition of burying a body whole; they were not so aware that their rabbis allowed organ donation.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, various medical groups and the government in Israel tried to educate the public, but nothing worked. Organ donation rates were terribly low. People were desperate for organs, but few were donating. It just wasn’t what people did.

And then the Flatows offered their daughter’s organs to the people of Israel. The news made headlines in every newspaper throughout the nation. Her heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and corneas were able to save six lives in Israel. Notably, at least one of the recipients was Arab Palestinian. The people of Israel were amazed, and grateful. They had felt so alone in suffering against terrorism, and here this family from America made such a gesture. They felt that the world Jewish community was with them. We were one.

Days later, Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin came to Washington DC and addressed a gathering of 12,000 American supporters of Israel. He warned about the danger of radical Islam and the role of Iran in sponsoring it worldwide. He also spoke about what Alisa’s gift meant to the Israeli people: “Today, her heart beats in Jerusalem.”

After Alisa’s death, the Flatows lives were shattered. Alisa’s mother withdrew into herself and her home. But her father Stephen decided to take action. He wanted justice. It was widely reported that the State of Iran was the sponsor and financial backer of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It angered him that there were no consequences for Iran. They had funded his daughter’s murderers, and no one was doing anything about it. The bomber himself was killed. The terrorist ring was being pursued by Israel. Stephen Flatow decided to take it upon himself to go after Iran.

A lawyer by training, he sought justice through the courts. He had an idea. If he and other victims of terror could file suit against Iran, they could exact punishment on the regime. They would make it costly for states to sponsor terror, and then maybe Iran would think twice about doing it again.

But there was a problem. United States law did not allow private citizens to sue foreign governments. It was expressly forbidden. So Stephen Flatow went to Washington to change the law. His senator, Frank Lautenberg, happened to be in Israel at the time of Alisa’s death. He took a special interest in her family and drafted legislation. Flatow testified before congress, and even gained the backing of President Clinton. Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 to make an exception to the longstanding rule. In cases of state-sponsored terror, individual US citizens could sue foreign nations for damages in US courts. It was the first victory.

It did not last. The courts threw it out. So back to Washington he went for a new law, one written specifically to override the objections of the court.

Once again he sued the state of Iran in a US court. But his time, one of his allies became an adversary. The Clinton administration began to see Flatow as interfering in national diplomacy. The White House was against Iran, but they did not want Flatow dictating the terms. So the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case, and actually filed a brief in support of Iran and against the victims of terror. Once more, Flatow returned to Congress and this time he got a third law that gave citizens even more strength to sue foreign governments, this time with teeth.

Finally, in 1997, he received his judgment. A court ruled in favor of the Flatows and against Iran. The family was awarded $26 million in compensatory damages, and over $200 million in punitive damages.

But the issue was hardly over. How do you collect money from a rogue state? They weren’t paying. Stephen Flatow devised a plan. Since the United States had ended diplomatic ties with Iran following the rise of the Ayatollah, the Iranian embassy in Washington and the residence of the Iranian ambassador have been in control of the United States Government. The State Department holds them in trust with the goal of returning them to Iran someday when relations resume. Stephen Flatow now had a ruling that said the Iranian government owed him $247 million.

He sought possession of the embassy and the residence, property owned by Iran. The State Department refused. They feared that if the United States confiscated sovereign property here, our embassies and properties abroad would become threatened. So instead, they paid Flatow $20 million from US funds with the understanding that the United States would collect that money from Iran someday.

Stephen Flatow was furious. His goal was not to get money. His goal was to make Iran pay so they would stop sponsoring terror. He had won in court and he had received money, but Iran had still not paid one cent.

And this leads to the third chapter of this amazing saga. Stephen Flatow did not give up. He began to look for other assets in the United States that were owned by the government of Iran. Officially, there were none. United States sanctions prohibited Iran from doing any business in the United States, or for anyone to do business with Iran in the United States. But Flatow had suspicions that a charitable foundation in New York was actually a front, laundering money for the Iranian regime.

Why would the Iranians funnel their money through New York? Because the financial exchanges are there, and you can’t get anything done internationally without going through New York’s markets. Iran’s economy, its nuclear weapons development, its sponsorship of Hezbollah and other jihadists groups – all required moving money across currencies. They needed a secret foothold in New York. The Alavi Foundation was established decades ago by the Shah to promote Iranian culture abroad. It owned a gleaming skyscraper on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, between Rockefeller Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Ivan Boesky used to office there. Stephen Flatow did a lot of digging, and then filed papers in court demonstrating that the foundation and the building were secretly operated by the Iranian government. And if they belonged to the state of Iran, they were subject to his financial ruling.

(Note: the Government of Iran has a different opinion.)

Stephen Flatow’s case was a civil matter, but it came to the attention of a young analyst sitting in a cubicle at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. If what Flatow was saying was true, there was some serious criminal wrongdoing going on. That young analyst’s name was Eitan Arusy. Before he starting working for the District Attorney, he served in the Israel Defense Force as a spokesman. He was one of the first responders to the scene of the carnage on the day that Alisa Flatow’s bus was bombed. He had a special interest in the case. The district attorney’s office did their own digging, and came to the same conclusion as Flatow – the Alavi Foundation was actually a front for Bank Melli, the State of Iran’s government-owned national bank. But how did the Iranians do it? How did they get their money in and out of the United States?

The district attorney’s office soon discovered that two European Banks, Credit Suisse and Lloyds of London, were moving money and falsifying documents for the Iranians. When the FBI raided the records of the charity, they found vast deposits from Credit Suisse and Lloyds. The banks cooperated with investigators. They provided emails and memos detailing how they took Iranian money and sent it to the United States in their own names. Without admitting guilt, Lloyds agreed to pay a fine of $350 million, and Credit Suisse $536 million.

They were not alone. It was soon discovered that most of the major European banks were laundering money for the Iranians into the United States, in direct violation of US law. Barclays Bank settled in 2010, paying the United States $298 million. In 2012, ING, Standard Chartered, and HSBC also settled. HSBC agreed to pay $1.9 billion.

Flatow wasn't exactly floored by these tiny settlements.

Then came the big one. While all these banks were making deals with the US government, two employees of BNP Paribas became whistleblowers. They shared with investigators that their bank had laundered tens of billions of dollars of Iranian money. They had also laundered money for Sudan while its regime was committing genocide. BNP is the largest bank in France. This summer you may have seen the news. BNP became the first bank to admit guilt in laundering money for the Iranian government. They agreed to pay $8.9 billion in fines to the United States. It was far and away the largest penalty ever paid by a bank in history.

The New York Times headline said it best: “A Grieving Father Pulls a Thread that Unravels BNP’s Illegal Deals”. A dad lost his girl. The hole in his life will never be filled. He thinks about her every day. He never gives up. He is a small-time attorney doing title work in New Jersey.

But his tenacity and his grit and his smarts were beyond anyone’s estimation. This one man in New Jersey uncovered an international conspiracy of bank fraud

The story is not over. Stephen Flatow is not done. The man who instantly changed the culture of organ donation is Israel is trying to do the same here in America. He takes every opportunity to speak to Orthodox congregations to encourage organ donation. Though the rate of donation consent in America is strong at 60%, the rate among Flatow’s fellow Orthodox Jews is only 5%.

stephen flatowHe is on a mission to change that. He and his wife have also established a foundation in Alisa’s name. They sponsor young Jewish women from around the world to take a semester of study in Jerusalem. The money they have received in their fight against Iran is now sponsoring women’s Torah study and the vitality of the State of Israel.

Flatow has also become a credible voice speaking truth to power, such as in this anti-Netanyahu op-ed.

And, in the months ahead, he may finally achieve his goal of making Iran actually pay. A federal judge has the ruled that the assets of the Alavi Foundation be liquidated. The gleaming office tower in New York and other properties around America will be sold and the proceeds will go to the victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. That will be Iranian money. Finally, Iran will pay a price.

All of this because of one man who never quit.

Sort of puts a sewage backup in your basement into perspective, doesn't it?

What do YOU do when things go wrong? Even horribly wrong?
Shabbat Shalom

PS - It is time to start thinking about Pesach - 3 weeks! Browse books and toys here and don't forget the Art of Amazement Haggada — Leader's Edition.
You can download a preview here.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

What's with Hamantaschen?

The purpose of this blog is to help you put your head into Purim while perhaps putting some Purim into your head. Please print and share.

Plate of HamantaschenWhy are they shaped like that, and what does hamantashen mean, anyhow?

When I was a kid, we used to call them “Haman’s hat”. But that’s because we didn’t spreken Yiddish. Then I went to Israel where they call them “Oznay Haman” - Haman’s ears.

So I thought that tashen meant ears.

(Do Israelis imagine themselves as cannibals when they munch on their hamantashen?)

In fact, if you look in your Yiddish dictionary or talk to your Bubbe, you will learn that a tasch is a purse or bag.

There you have it. Hamantashen = Haman-bags.

Maybe they’re called “bags” because they are folded over with fruit inside, and “Haman” because they do look like Haman’s hat.

Or maybe he carried a triangular handbag.

Or maybe he did have triangular ears.

At this stage of my investigation I stumbled upon hard evidence that the ear theory is correct:

Meshaal earsSo what are supposed to do – defeat our enemies by mocking them? Sounds like a Monty Python line:

“We spit on you, you silly Persian. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries. Now go away or we will taunt you a second time!” (say with French accent)

Sometimes they make it so easy, by making themselves into clowns:


But if you look in that Yiddish dictionary again, you'll learn that man means "poppy". So the word mantaschen means "poppy-pockets" and therefore "Hamantaschen" is punny. (Hat tip to Natasha Shabat!)

Hamantaschen remind us that the truth is sometimes hidden, and that sometimes it helps to laugh.

....Even at ourselves.... Here's an oldy:

How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?
All of us and we feel guilty for not changing it earlier.


For your table: What's your favorite Jewish Joke? And what makes a joke a "Jewish joke"?

Remember, every Haman has his hour, and then his downfall.

Happy Purim, and Shabbat Shalom

PS - Here's a recipe for low-cal, no-gluten, no-cane-sugar hamantaschen.

PPS - Purim goes Western