Friday, November 27, 2015


The goal of this blog is to invite angels to the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

BJ and friendsJust about every year somebody asks about the Jewishness of Thanksgiving.

For example, the funny coincidence that "hodu" in Hebrew means both turkey and "give thanks".

To add to that interesting detail, a friend in Jerusalem sent us a fascinating article by CNN's Charles Garcia.

Evidently, Columbus himself may have been one of Spain's (or Portugal's) tragic secret Jews.

For this year's installment, I'd like to share a personal note of thanksgiving.

As you may know, every week I study Jewish wisdom with individuals and groups around the country, both live and long-distance.

Today, I surprised my phone-study partners with a guest-voice from the past.

The voice was none other than the legendary Billy Joe Ferguson, whom you read about a few weeks ago.

After more than a decade, he finally paid our family a visit, driving 1,000 miles in his pickup.

The reason I brought him to the phone study session is because these two study partners had met him many years ago.

Despite the many years, they instantly recognized his inimitable Mississippi drawl.

One of them, who had visited our home a few weeks ago, warned him: "If (5-year-old) Tehila challenges you to any game that involves skill, do not take her on."

Well, he failed to heed that advice. The results were not pretty.

But remember how unusual this man is.

This is a man who has spent very little time in his life outside the 600 square miles of Carroll County, Mississippi.

This is a man who is so dedicated to his students that in 28 years as a classroom teacher he called in sick only once, and that bothered him so much that he dragged himself out of bed for a school event that night.

He is so dedicated that he ran for Superintendent on a platform to improve the schools and won by a whisker, then the enemies of the public schools through him out four years later and replaced him with a woman who was so incompetent that over 10 years later he is still trying to undo the damage she wreaked.

He is so dedicated that after that defeat, rather than pack, he fought back and won re-election four years after that, and four years after that, and four years after that.

And this is a man who still farms 100 acres as a hobby. And he's still looking for his bashert.

As you can see in the photo, seeing his face is almost like seeing an angelic being.

As he was departing last night, the Thanksgiving guests of our neighbors across the street were also heading out. One of these guests approached the truck to speak with him literally as he was about to the pickup into gear. It turns out that while unloading the night before, in the darkness he had left a small bag sitting on the truck's saddlebox.

This lady, not knowing whose truck it was, had been so concerned that the bag would be stolen, she moved it beneath the saddlebox, out of sight. Angel meets angel?

So as he journies back to his homestead, we are greatful for such friendship and goodness that can be found in such an out-of-the way place the world hasn't yet heard of called Vaiden, Mississippi.

Question for your table: Do you know any angels?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Now's the real Hannuka countdown... (so hurry up and click here.)

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Friday, November 20, 2015

The One Less Traveled By

The goal of this blog is to turn the Shabbat table into an adventure. Please print and share.

Danny Kaye Travel QuoteA couple years ago I wrote an amazing "true" story that allegedly happened in an airport.

This week, I learned that the version I told is not entirely accurate.

In fact, the true story is even better.

Last week, someone asked me if I had ever verified the story, and I hadn't. So I decided to do so.

I was able to track down one of the actual participants.

His name is Mordechai Koval. I reached him at his home in Cleveland. Here is his story, in his own words.

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It was mid-August, 1988, a month before Rosh Hashana. I, my brother and a business partner were traveling to New York for a trade show at the Jay Javitz Center.

Because it was going to be Rosh Chodesh, we really wanted to davven in a minyan. So my brother worked out that if we took the first plane to Laguardia at seven a.m., we would arrive early enough to make a minyan and still get to the trade show early.

I'm telling you that I never oversleep. I'm usually up before my alarm. But for some reason, that day, I am lying in bed and am awakened by a knocking on the door. I'm thinking, "Who's knocking on the door in the middle of the night?"

I go to the door and it's my brother and his partner. They're ready to go and I'm in my pajamas.

What am I going to do? I still have to get dressed and get my coffee (I don't go anywhere without first having my coffee).

My brother said, "What should we do?"

I said, "You go without me, I'll see if I can catch up. There's no point in all of us missing the plane."

You know, I've never got dressed and out the door so fast in my life. Eleven minutes, including the coffee.

I also grabbed my radar detector, because I was going to need it.

It was early the morning, maybe I didn't need the radar detector. Don't the cops have anything better to do than to stop a guy trying to catch a plane? But if I was going to catch that plane, I had no choice. At one stretch of the highway, I floored it - you couldn't even see the odometer! A couple times the radar detector lit up and I slowed down, but fortunately I didn't get pulled over.

I get to the airport and am running like mad, and I caught up to my brother and his partner on the shuttle bus, totally out of breath. You should have seen the look on their faces. They were totally amazed. I was totally amazed! I don't know how I made it, I don't know why I made it, but I made it.

The flight from Cleveland to New York should take about an hour, and when we should have been landing, I could tell something was wrong.

We were not landing. We were circling.

Sure enough, the pilot came on the PA and announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, all New York airports are fogged in. We have to land at Washington Dulles. There will be an estimated half-hour wait until we can take off again for New York.

As I said, it was Rosh Chodesh, and we needed to davven. Now, that Shabbos, Cleveland had hosted a Rebbe. The Nikolsburger Rebbe 
(also this
). It was Sunday morning, and he and his entourage were going back to New York, they were on the same plane. We counted the Jewish men on the plane.

Would you believe we had exactly 10? I said to myself, "That's why I made the plane - I made the minyan! It was meant to be."

So we went through the airport and found one of those glass rooms that was empty and we davened in there.

As we finished, this guy pops his head in. He's wearing one of those black mourning ribbons that the Reform wear during Shiva. He asks us, "Can I say Kaddish?"

"Sure," we say.

So he says it, and he's crying.

Afterwards, someone says, "Hey we're going to miss our flight." We all dash out of there. Except the Chassidim. They seem to be taking their time. Their attitude is more like, "If Hashem wants me to make the flight, I'll make the flight." Don't worry, they made the flight.

Anyway, the whole day I'm just so happy that I made the minyan.

That night, my brother says, there's a Jewish event at the New York Hilton, let's go. So we go. After that, we find there's another dinner in the same hotel, for a school for special education for chassidim.

We pay a visit there and I happen to run into a friend. When he finds out that I came on the early flight from Cleveland, he says to me, "That's an amazing story of what happened this morning!"

I'm about to ask him, "How do you know?" when he continues, "This guy Robert, just an amazing story!"

I say to him, "Who's Robert?"

It turns out Robert is the name of the mourner. After we dashed to catch the plane, he told the chassidim his story. He said that he lives in Virginia far from any Jewish community. On Saturday night (the night before), his father came to him in a dream and said to him, "Please say Kaddish for me."

In the dream, he said to his father, "But Dad, I don't live in a Jewish community, there's no minyan here."

"Robert, if I get you a minyan, will you say Kaddish?"

"Sure Dad."

He wakes up and thinks, "What a strange dream!"

"Imagine," he told the chassidim, "I'm walking through the Washington-Dulles Airport. I see all these Jews davvening. I said, OK, Dad, you got me a minyan, I'll say Kaddish."

travel quoteSo I thought that the reason I made the plane was to make a minyan. But little did I realize there was an even bigger plan at work.

God in his kindness has been ery good to me. I see the hand of God in everything. Only the Creator of the world can put things together that way. But the average person just sees randomness.

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Question for your table — What's more important, the journey or the destination?

Shabbat Shalom (and happy travels)

PS - How many days did you say it is until Hannuka? (You may need to click here too.)

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Even Higher

The goal of this blog is to bring some fresh air your Friday night dinner table a little higher. Please print and share.
Happy recent Amy in San Jose, Harmon and Steve in San Francisco.

atmospheric_layersQuick - can you name the four major layers of the atmosphere, from bottom to top?

OK, forget their actual names... How about what each one does for us?

If you look at a typical high school science textbook, you might see a diagram like the one to the left.

For 75 percent of the students, that is BORE-ing.

Why are we teaching to only 25 percent of our students?

Here's a way to teach it that will excite 95-100 percent of your audience.

There are exactly two things I want you to know about the atmosphere:

1. There are four layers of the atmosphere. (We know this because there are sharp changes in temperatures between them.)
2. Each layer does something for us we couldn't live without!

Layer 1 - where we live - the Troposphere. Holds 80% of the air (thanks, gravity!) and all of our weather. Without it, we would suffocate.
Layer 2 - where airplanes fly - the Stratosphere. Has the ozone layer which stops over 90 percent of the UV rays. Without it, we would fry!
Layer 3 - the middle area - the Mesosphere. Really hard to study, too high for planes and balloons, too low for sattelites. But what we do know is that it stops about 19,000 meteors from becoming meteorites - every day! That's about 100 tons of junk we are being protected from.
Layer 4 - where the ISS and other satellites fly - the Thermosphere. Gives us long-distance AM and shortwave radio and absorbs deadly x-rays from the sun. That's fortunate. And gives us the awesome Northern (and Southern) Lights, for which to my knowledge there is no practical benefit whatsoever!

If that doesn't give them a breath of fresh air, nothing will.

Thin atmosphereBut here's something else to add:

Ask at your table: If I made a basketball-size model of the Earth, how thick should I make the atmosphere? A centimeter? An inch?

Answer: the thickness of a sheet of paper.
Get that?
Just a thin blue line protecting you and me from the black chasm of space.

You are walking around all day, minding your own business and not even thinking about all of this. Admit it — you are living as if the 4 layers of the atmosphere don't exist and don't matter.

But they do exist, and without them, you wouldn't.

That's something amazing I learned this week. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Have you checked how many days til Hannuka?

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Friday, November 06, 2015

It's In the Air

The goal of this blog is to bring some fresh air your Friday night dinner table a little higher. Please print and share.

alveolus-gas-exchange-pulmonary-alveoli-capillaries-lungs-48200122Here's something cool to stump everyone at your dinner table.

If it doesn't impress them, they're surely asleep.

Question: What are the two primary gasses in the air we breathe, and at what ratios.

Answer: Nitrogen (78%) and Oxygen (21%)

Only 21 percent oxygen? That's counter-intuitive.

Does all that nitrogen do anything, or is it there just as a sort of accident of nature

It turns out that it does something very, very important.

Or actually two things that are very, very important.

First, when you inhale, all that air fills your lungs. Specifically, fills little sacks inside your lungs called alveoli. (Here's a detailed illustration.)These mini sacks achieve the truly remarkable feat of absorbing about 1.5 gallons (6 liters) of oxygen per minute, which is 378 gallons per hour, which is over 9,000 gallons per day (and I suppose exchanging the oxygen for equal amounts of CO2).

Now, take a deep breath and hold it for a moment:

Wwhile all that air is in your lungs and the oxygen is going into your blood, you have all this extra gas (nitrogen) just sitting there.

But it ain't just sitting there - it's keep your alveoli inflated!

A long time ago, doctors and nurses learned that if you give a patient pure (100%) oxygen, it will lead to a collapse of the alveoli.

That would be bad.

Even a slight increase in the amount of oxygen - let's say up to 50 percent - is risky and has to be managed carefully.

Also, too much oxygen itself may speed up aging.

But that's not the only amazing thing about the nitrogen in the air.

Let's say that the air had less nitrogen and more oxygen and our bodies somehow were able to adjust in order to handle it.

We'd still have a really big problem.

How do you put out a fire quickly? Get rid of its oxygen. Snuff it out.

Oxygen, you may recall, is the key ingredient to combustion.

If the atmosphere contained more oxygen, things like wood, dry leaves and so on would catch fire a lot quicker. One little spark and ... watch out!

(It is also possible that insects would grow much larger. And it may have happened before.)

So we could probably survive, but Spaceship Earth would be a treacherous place to live.

That's something amazing I learned this week. How about you?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Clock's still ticking... do you know how many days til Hannuka?

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