Friday, June 26, 2009

Zchut Avot, Michael and Farah

I’ve been listening to the continuous reports on NPR about Michael Jackson’s tragic passing. Now it’s getting a tad scandalous. His physician’s car has been impounded and said physician is, at the moment, “unavailable” for questioning. Curiouser and curiouser. And I can’t help but think about poor Farah Fawcett. Her death is truly tragic, what with her public fight against cancer. No scandal there. Of course, in the shadow of Michael’s death, Farah’s demise has been relegated to footnote status.

All this brings me to the concept of Zchut Avot – roughly translated as “the merit of our ancestors”. In our Jewish tradition there is an intrinsic connection between those who came before us, the current generation, and those who will follow. The way we remember our predecessors should reflect the way we live our lives and how we teach our children.

My question is: How do we teach the proper way of respecting and honoring those upon whose shoulders we stand, in light of the manic media feeding frenzy we are witnessing on all things Michael and the peripheral coverage of Farah Fawcett? Is it honorable to constantly remember the weirdness that characterized one person’s life and ignore the poignancy of another’s? Doesn’t that sully both memories? Shouldn’t we strive to learn from whatever goodness can be found in both their truncated lives?

Michael Jackson’s gift to the world was music - beauty. Farah Fawcett gave the world a sense of grace, providing us a lesson in humanity in the face of tragic illness. This too is beauty. May their memories be for a blessing. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My pet fly, Vinnie.

OMG!!! Obama killed a fly, and on network television yet!! This cruel act of arthropodocide raised the hackles of PETA, which proceeded to send the POTUS a humane fly catcher.

So my question is: Is there a point when our striving to be humane borders on the absurd?

Let me assure one and all that I was not the type of kid who used to pluck wings off of flies or legs off of daddy-long-legs or stomp on worms. I don’t even like to go fishing because I don’t eat freshwater fish. But, I’m sorry; when I heard about PETA’s reaction to the President’s act, I thought that it was a sentiment so sublime that it bordered on the irrelevant.

Flies, I know, are part of the ecosystem. Like mosquitoes and lice and deer ticks. They serve a purpose in the food chain. They also cause disease. We kill them because they can harm us. Malaria or cholera or lyme disease, anyone?

PETA gave Obama a humane fly-catcher. Let’s say he catches a fly. Then what does he do with it? Keep it as a pet? Call it Vinnie? Let it go? Where?

When we all stood at Sinai, we heard the Ten Utterances. One of them was that we are not allowed to murder. Doesn’t say don’t kill. Just don’t murder. We kill only in self defense: if we have no choice. Now, I know that this mitzvah concerns humans, not members of the class Insecta, but the way I figure it, if a mosquito lands on my arm, I’m gonna kill it. It’s not because I revel in exterminating bugs. I have no choice. Ever try to catch a mosquito? If I let it hang out on my arm, it’ll sting me. And that’ll not be good. Same thing goes with a fly. Also, I suppose I could make the argument that I don’t know where these flying creatures have been, and by killing these winged pests, I am potentially saving my life and the life of others. A form of self-defense if you will. It’s a stretch, but no more then humane fly catchers.

So…to all PETA supporters: Your hearts are in the right place, and I laud you. I think throwing paint on people wearing fur coats may be going a tad too far, but I understand where you’re coming from. Declaring that we humans should be vegetarians is also comprehensible, though I personally like meat too much. But go ahead with promoting your agenda. B’vakasha. But let’s be reasonable. Catching a fly? Methinks PETA doth protest too much.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jewish Identity Crisis-Victim and Oppressor?

On Wednesday some anti-Semite nut job tried to shoot up the Holocaust memorial. What I’d like us to think about is how we react to hate and how we teach our kids to respond to anti-Semitism. Facts are facts. Anti-Semites killed Jews. My dad has a number on his arm to prove it. We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. The question (here goes!) is: What is the price WE pay to fight anti-Semitism?

A story. As a former member if the Israel Defense Forces, I subsequently served a monthly stint every year in Miluyim (Israeli reserves). Sometimes I would find myself at a checkpoint outside of Eilat – Israel’s southern most city, and the only port city in the south. As such, it was considered a strategic asset, with special security protocols. We were commanded to “detain all those with an ‘eastern complexion.’” In Hebrew: “la’atzor kol echad im d’moot mizrachit”. So, being good soldiers, we followed orders. It got weird, as many of the guys in the unit were S’faradim (Jews of Mediterranean origins) and had dark skin, but we all knew what the order meant. You see an Arab. Pull him over. Take him off the bus.

Long-story short: An Eged bus came to our checkpoint. We got on. We checked the passengers’ I.Ds (those who looked Arab anyway). I got off the bus and saw that one of our guys had pulled off a gentleman with his wife. She was dressed in traditional Arab garb – a hijab and robe. And she was very very pregnant. He was from Jerusalem. He was okay. She was not. I think she came from Ramallah – in the West Bank. She didn’t have the proper papers. So she and her husband were not allowed to enter Eilat. I argued with my C.O. At least they gave her a chair to sit on, under the hot desert sun. They had to wait for a taxi to take them back north. I don’t think she was a terrorist.

What does fighting oppression do to us victims?

A few days ago, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn publicly declared that a memorial to the victims of Nazi genocide should only be in memory of Jews and not the other victims, such as Gays or the disabled. “To include these other groups diminishes their memory…These people are not in the same category as Jewish people with regards to the Holocaust…It is so vastly different. You cannot compare political prisoners with Jewish victims.” (
Tell that to my dad, whose barracks in Birkenau was directly across from the gypsies’ area. He remembers waking up to the shots and the screams as the Roma children were driven out to be burned. Assemblyman Hikind, where is your sense of all people being created B’tzelem Eloheem?

So what do we teach our kids? That only we Jews have a monopoly on suffering? That the world is against us and so we can do whatever we want to protect ourselves? Should we agree with Chabad Rabbi Manis Friedman, who wrote in the recent issue of Moment magazine that “The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle),”

What do we tell our kids? How do we teach them compassionate self-preservation? How do we, the victims, not turn into the oppressors?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Tony Awards made me think...

When I started out in Jewbiz back in ’93, I was hired to run a Reform-Conservative supplementary school, serving the needs of two neighboring synagogues separated only by three city blocks and one religious movement. The experiment was born out of financial need, and died for the some reason. The powers-that-be decided after 6 years that the combined school was no longer financially beneficial (the idea of creating community be damned) so the time had come to create separate schools.

What this teaches us is that in the current reality many think it is easier to make our own Shabbat. And you know what? Sometimes that works. Sometimes collaborating with another synagogue doesn’t work. Is that intrinsically bad? Torah Aura recently tweeted a link to a piece on cooperative schooling – which I guess is another way of saying community school. The referenced article waxed prosaic on sharing resources. Great, if But one size doesn’t fit all. Which means that making my own Shabbat doesn’t negate your Shabbat, and in fact may help you light the candles.

That being said, on the Tony awards one of the winners talked about the concept of Fine Arts – how that means that the craft of acting is constantly being tweaked and modified. That’s sort of like what we, as Jewish educators and passers-on-of-traditions, are doing, or should be doing. Looking at what we are transmitting and making sure it makes sense to those receiving our message.

Which brings me back to the question: how do we create meaningful opportunities for Jewish engagement in each of our communities? And what does the concept of engagement mean? What is Jewish Fine Arts?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Fifth Child - the first question

As a lurker in the Jewish blogosphere, it’s taken me a while to get the courage to stop being a voyeur, and to start getting into the thick of things - virtually speaking. So here goes:

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present my first foray into blogging: “The Fifth Child”.

We’re familiar with the 4 sons of Passover: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask. These characters are meant to teach us that we must recognize the different types of learners that cross our paths. I think that many of us (including yours truly) fits into a fifth category – a combination of all of the above. Sometimes I know something and want to find out more. Sometimes I revel in questioning authority. At times I really don’t know what’s going on. And then every once in a while I don’t even know how to ask. Ergo “The Fifth Child”.

I’ll be writing about questions I have that touch upon how the modern world interfaces with the Jewish past, present and future. With answers that you can provide, together we can explore ways that will enable us to transmit what we know (or think we know) to the next generation.

I start with a couple of (my) "givens":

1) Technology, such as twitter, Second Life and iPods, is poised to be the connective tissue that links tomorrow's Jews to Judaism and the Jewish community today.

2) Learning and teaching need to be experiential. The effectiveness of what has been dubbed “formal education” has been exposed to be a myth, especially in supplementary Jewish education. We understand that learning must involve doing, experiences.

Does anyone out there have other "givens"? Anyone disagree with mine? Let's start the conversation.

I think it’s time for tachlis…what works and what doesn’t. As a Jewish educator in a congregational setting, I am fascinated by how we can engage our students with their Jewish heritage. I’m not talking about ideas that can be applied the day after tomorrow (like my friend, Adrian Durlester’s idea of divorcing supplementary schools from synagogues. Check out his blog at I want to know what we can do this afternoon, and tomorrow. What can we do to keep our students interested? What can we do to get the parents to park their cars and to come into the building? What works? What doesn’t?

The next question, of course, is what I mean by the concept of “our Jewish heritage”? Well, that’s the 64 thousand shekel question. I maintain that it is time for us to reevaluate what we are teaching. What (if any) role does the modern State of Israel play in the lives of 21st century American Jews? Do denominations matter? And when you get down to it…what in tarnations IS a Jew anyway? In a world made up of what Joey Kurtzman of called “Frankenjews” (, what does it mean to be a Member of the Tribe? How does it impact what we teach about ourselves and about the idea of Klal Yisrael?

I’ll stop here for now. If anyone is reading this, please respond – let’s start a discussion about what are the practical steps in creating a meaningful Jewish future.