Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Friday Night Chicken Soup

Here's a chicken soup recipe that's low in fat and chock full of heathful veggies:
Place chicken bones in a mesh bag and tie the bag.  Put the bag into a large pot and fill with filtered water until about 2” from the top.  Add 1 T. of salt and bring to a boil.  When it reaches a boil, cover, and turn the heat down to simmer.  Cook 8-10 hours.  Add onions, carrots, parsnips, yam, cubed celery root, rutabaga, zucchini, celery, and green pepper. Cook for 40 minutes.  Remove and discard the bag of bones and pour the soup into storage containers.  Chill or freeze, then skim and discard the fat.
Serve with cooked rice, angel-hair pasta, matzah balls or flour knaidlach (recipe to follow soon).  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Getting Ready for Shabbat

Here at JLI we're getting ready for our upcoming course, Oasis in Time: The Gift of Shabbat in a 24/7 World. 
How do you get ready for Shabbat?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Serenity Now

For more inspirational Jewish video, check out:!

In 1895, New Zealander, George Vernon Hudson proposed the idea of Daylight Savings Time. Germany was the first country to establish DST, known there, and in Great Britain, as "Summer Time," on April 30, 1916. DST has its fans and those who are convinced it's dangerous and ineffectual. From 1986 to 2006, DST was observed in the United States from the first Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October. Following a congressional vote, DST was pushed out on either end to begin from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.
While not every country - or even every state - participates in DST, it's clearly here to stay.
As Jews, we have our own time. Once a week we enter the world of Shabbat, 24 hours of serenity and pleasure – and that’s true whether we’re clocking DST, Summer Time, or Standard Time.
Join us in May 2011, as we explore the gifts of Shabbat, and how it enables us to simultaneously achieve inner peace and outer productivity.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Behind the Mask

Just a few weeks after G-d took the Jews out of Egypt, the nation of Amalek traveled far from their home in order to attack the Jews in the desert.  Moses appointed Joshua to lead the battle against Amalek, and with G-d’s help, the Jews won.  Since then, we’ve been engaged in eternal war against Amalek and all they stand for. 
Fast forward nearly a thousand years, to 362 BCE, Persia.  Hadassah, known by her Persian alias, Esther, has just entered Achashveirosh’s palace as queen.  Torn from the arms of her husband, Mordechai, forced into marriage with a wife-killer, Esther is shaken by her fate and future.  What does G-d want of her?  Why is she here?  Years pass without answers.  But when Haman’s plan to wipe out the Jews, ‘man, woman, and child on one day,’ become known, Mordechai tells her, “Perhaps this is why you are here.”  As we know, Esther acted bravely and saved her nation, and through them, us.

One of the distinguishing features of Purim is the absence of G-d’s name from the Megillah.  The scroll tells a story of palace intrigues, the rise and fall of political fortunes, and “The King,” whose name appears again and again, but is never explicitly described.  We eat hamantashen - pocket pastries whose sweet filling is concealed.  Hadassah goes by the name Esther, which means “I will hide.”  We wear masks and take on others’ identities.  Purim is stage-show of the ways that truth plays hide and seek with this world.  It’s a script on the theme of concealment – most of all, G-d’s concealment.   

In this world of concealment, where The King is hidden, it’s hard to maintain our faith-equilibrium when  faced with the Hamans who want to kill us.  Like Esther, we want to understand, “What does all this mean?  Why are we here?  What does G-d want of us?”  But years pass and it’s not always clear.  We want Mordechai to tell us, “This is your moment,” but instead, we feel like we’ve been abandoned to chance.

Then Purim comes, and whispers in our ear, “You know what?  Everything is Divinely decreed.  The good stuff, the bad stuff – it’s all from Him.”  We put down our lists of what He’s done for us and what He’s done to us and we realize, that we have no idea what the view is from Above.  We dig in to that.  We eat the hamantashen with its concealed goodness, hide behind a mask or costume, and lay down our limited rational judgments of ‘good,’/ ‘not good.’  (Still, we swing that gragger to drown out the name of our enemies.)
We accept that even in the face of the inexplicable loss of life in Itamar -- and the pain and questioning it elicits from us - that G--d is by our side, albeit masked.  And the only workable response to that, is to overwhelm our pain with joy, through giving to others, and strengthening the bonds of brotherhood. 
Happy Purim.
In Memory of the Fogel Family of Itamar, Israel.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Got Faith?

I was five, and sitting at the arts and crafts table at my afterschool program.  We were making “G-d’s Eyes,” weaving scrap yarn around two crossed popsicle sticks.  “This traditional Central American craft was placed on an altar so G-d could ‘watch over’ people,” our instructor said.  “This is stupid,  I thought, “G-d doesn’t have eyes,” and refused to participate.    Only later would I learn about Judaism’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of which states that G-d has no body – nor even the image or shape of a body.

As I grew I also learned that faith was seen as naïve; that truly intellectual people were skeptical and critical of wholehearted belief in a Higher Power.  Faith was to be shunned in polite society, like yawns or hiccups.  But I also noticed that these non-believers didn’t seem very happy.  But maybe happiness, too, was naïve?
The book of Genesis details the faith of the first Jew – Abraham.  Those around him believed in idols of all sorts, but he maintained that there was only one intangible and invisible G-d.    It was this contrariness in the face of public opinion that led people to call him Ha-Ivri, the one on the other side, from which we get the word Ivrim – Jews.  On some level faith requires us to have the courage to stand on the other side – whether that’s idolatry or logic’s disdainful dismissal of faith.
Why do people have trouble believing?  Some earnestly want to believe, and are searching for G-d.  They may have doubts.  But doubts, too, are a sign that they are entertaining the idea.  Others are afraid to believe, because consistency would require them to act on these beliefs.

Logic and reason try to convince us that only that which can be measured or quantified is real.  But as anyone who’s ever filled out a survey of happiness and satisfaction can attest, there is much in life that defies quantification.   We simply don’t have the right measuring instruments.  Can ticking boxes really capture the gestalt of a person’s emotional state?  Can G-d be measured with a ruler?

And yet, the scientific perfection of the universe is so striking that physicists are busy searching for The Force that Interacts with Every Particle and Holds All Matter Together.  Although the scientific name for this is Higgs Boson, others – half honestly, half humorously- dub it “the G-d Particle.”  Of course, they’re going about their search for the G-d Particle scientifically, using their version of the ruler -- the Large Hadron Collider. 
But we don’t need CERN to help us find G-d.  We need to stop the hubbub of the world, disconnect from our obsession with concrete thinking, and listen to the innate voice within that whispers to us of G-d’s existence.  Thanks to Abraham blazing the path, we’ve all inherited the gene for true, deep faith.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Establishing a Relationship with G-d: Part Two

So, how do we get that Sephardic Grandmother connection?  Here are some accessible ways to make your prayer-conversations with G-d real:

Learn the translation of one tefillah.  Simply understanding the words you are saying is connection!
Once a week, study one tefillah in depth. Over time, you can work your way through the entire siddur.  You can annotate your siddur with notes or reminders of what to think about at certain moments. 
Levites serving in the Temple studied for five years before they began performing.  Picture yourself in the Temple, standing before G-d.  How would you prepare for this?  One example is the Amidah prayer: we take three steps back, then forward, entering the King’s audience room. 

One grounding thought for prayer is: "Even if I don’t understand everything I’m saying, I am aware that I am speaking to G-d, Who understands, and that these words contain everything I need and want." 

Slow down: saying three words per breath forces us to be more conscious and invested in our words.

According to the Midrash Pinchas, any prayer that does not include requests on behalf of another person, is not a prayer.  When we feel another’s pain, sense his needs, and understand our oneness with him – then G-d feels our pain, responds to our needs, and unites with us.  So, one kind of connection involves removing our focus from ‘self,’ and directing it to ‘other.’ 

You may see something that sparks understanding and kavanah.  For years I recited the “Mar’eh Cohen” prayer that describes how the High Priest looked as he emerged from doing the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.  It is a poetic and beautiful prayer, but it wasn’t until my brother got married that I really had an image to go with it.  From the moment my brother entered the room to veil the bride, through the chuppah, his face was literally shining, eyes closed and deep joy across his face.  When, a few weeks later, I read how the High Priest’s face shone like the “grace on the face of a bridegroom,” I suddenly had a vivid image of what that might look like.

Prayer is also a way of learning what to ask for.  It requires us to make a self-assessment.  If I’m asking for livelihood, what I use it for?  What does it mean to have joy from my children?  Am I being patient enough?

And what if prayer is hard?  If we struggle to infuse excitement into our words, or our mind wanders, or we feel distant from G-d or angry at Him?  The Chassidic masters say, “So ask G-d for help!  Pray for powers of concentration, for zest, for the wisdom to know what to ask for.  This is why so many of our prayers conclude, “le-Tovah,” for good. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Establishing a Relationship with G-d

In the course of preparing the kids for school, I went to Borders for a pocket dictionary and thesaurus.  I was drawn to a table of sale books marked “50% off of marked price.”  One entire stack was comprised of a book called “Life After G-d.”  The blurb said it was about what people believe in when they have given up on the “idea” of G-d.  Where do they find meaning in life?  Who do they turn to with a heavy heart?

I immediately thought of something I had seen almost two decades ago, when I spent a year in Israel, studying and learning.  At the burial place of Maimonides in Tiberias, a wizened Sephardic Grandmother washed down the stone, then rubbed the water from the stone on her hands and face, all the while praying loudly and emotionally.  Her relationship with G-d and His messengers was unabashed and palpable. 

For years I was jealous of her deep kavanah - concentration – how did one get to that real, uninhibited connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu?  What I didn’t understand at nineteen is that praying is like learning a musical instrument: it’s not just reading the notes, it’s infusing the soul into the notes. 

What the Sephardic Grandmother had was deep "kavanah" – not necessarily the mystical and kabalistic nuances, but she had deeply integrated the understanding of G-d’s Omnipresence.  He was there, and listening to her.  She understood that a relationship with G-d is a real living thing, that in the space of our relationship with G-d there’s what He puts in, and then there’s what we put in – and both are important. 

In the book HaYom Yom we meet the Sephardic Grandmother again:  “When a Jew studies Torah he feels like a student before G-d, his Teacher, whose wisdom he is studying.  When he prays, he feels like a child before his father.” 

Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz, “The Holy Shalo”h," and Rabbi Nachman of Breslev advise us to speak to G-d every day in our native tongue.  This reminds us that prayer is not just reciting words – it’s speaking to G-d, when we share everything that’s in our hearts. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Finding Faith

Today’s post is from guest blogger, Allison Josephs, who blogs at about faith and finding meaning in life.

Grandpop Sam, an avowed Capitalist by the age of 12, fled Communist Russia, leaving his entire family—and religious observance—behind. He arrived in America penniless and barely conversant in English.  Within a decade he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, married, opened a cigar factory, and was soon buying himself a new Cadillac every two years. Sam never returned to his homeland—or his Judaism.

Great Grandfather Abraham did not fare as well. His haberdashery barely made a trifling profit, despite staying open on Shabbat.  He died at 36, leaving his young wife and three children to struggle through endless financial hardship.

But three generations later, my sisters and I typified secular American Jewry: upper middle class, educated, and assimilated. My father was a doctor. We had a pool, vacation house, and attended private school. We took dance, gymnastics, ice skating, tennis, baton twirling, piano lessons - and Hebrew school. Saturday mornings we played tickle-wars with dad, followed by mom’s waffles-and-bacon breakfast. We rarely missed Thursday night out for Chinese food.
And yet, at a young age, I felt a growing sense of existential angst.

It began when I was eight. Dad told me about this idea called “infinity.” He was trying to explain that not only do numbers go on forever, but there is also infinite space between every integer. Along the way he mentioned that the universe has no end.  I went to bed utterly confused.

A few weeks later, my parents got a clock for my bedroom. As I stayed up nights thinking about an endless universe, the loudly ticking clock also got me thinking about the endlessness of time.

A tragic event when I was in 4th grade, launched me into years of insomnia, panic attacks and existential angst. My schoolmate Angela’s father went crazy. Thinking he was going to die, he took his kids along. Angela’s mother came home to find her whole family dead at her husband’s hand.

I realized that I too, could die at any moment; that life was not as stable and predictable as I had assumed. This got me thinking about the eternity of death—how I’d be either somewhere or nowhere forever. Then I realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life, before I had to confront eternity.

I asked my parents, “Why are we here?”

“Where?” they responded.

“You know, living. What are we here for?”

My parents’ inability to answer this upset and surprised me. They had brought me into this world. How could they not know what they were doing in it? They’d gotten me tangled up in this mess of existence when they hadn’t even figured it out for themselves yet. 

I asked others, but no one seemed able to answer this very basic question.

During the day, when I was tied up with school or other activities, I pushed away the big question, but at night I was left alone with my thoughts.  Why did the day I just lived even matter? Why should I bother waking up tomorrow to do it all over again?

I worried that I might die without ever having figured out my purpose here; but I never once considered the possibility that there was no purpose. The world seemed too detailed and complex, human beings too full of talent and abilities, to be for nothing. But each day that passed brought me one day closer to the end; once my time ran out, I would get no more.  As my mind fixated on the fact that there was no escaping the eternity that awaited me, I’d get a nauseous, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Junior year of high school I took a class called “Taoism and Pirkei Avot” at the local Jewish supplementary school. My teacher, a young Orthodox Jew, showed us that Pirkei Avot was profound and relevant. For the first time I understood that Judaism had more to offer than good food, humor, and guilt.

That winter, my family took a trip to Hawaii. We stayed right by the shore, and for a week I listened to the waves, morning, afternoon, and evening. They never stopped crashing. My father and I figured out that if the world was only a million years old, the waves on that shore would have crashed 10 to 12 trillion times, without stopping. But not just on that shore—on countless shores across the planet.

It hit me: if I had spent 16 years taking something so profound for granted, I must be missing much more. I spent the rest of my vacation trying to appreciate the natural world.

On the last day of our trip, my family and I were hiking through a breathtaking tropical rainforest. We came upon some bamboo shoots whose bark was covered in green and gold vertical stripes.  Another tree had smooth bark, a lavender background, and was covered in pink, blue, and green swirls.

“Did someone paint these on here?” I wondered aloud. Everyone had an opinion. Some said painted, some said natural. 

“These lines are too straight and flawless to be natural,” my father assured us.
But when I looked up, I saw that the shoots towered fifty feet up, with stripes all the way to the top.

For a brief moment, I tapped into the harmony in existence.   I realized that every thing in the universe, from comet to caterpillar, was in exactly the right place and time - including me. 
And in an instant, I went from intense doubting to intense belief in G-d.   

Friday, March 11, 2011

Is Suffering a Punishment for Sins?

Demonstrators at military funerals shout slogans and carry placards reading, “G-d Hates You,” blaming military deaths on American moral corruption.  In 2005, a Muslim cleric in Indonesia said the tsunami that 170,000 was a result of women not wearing headscarves.  In the 1980s a rabbi in Israel said the Holocaust was caused by people eating non-kosher food.   What are we to make of this?  Certainly, each person should examine his own deeds and ask, “Am I doing everything I can to tilt the balance of the world to good?”  But is suffering a punishment for sins? 
The Bible tells us of Job, who fathered a warm and loving family that treated each other with kindness and brotherhood.  In spite of this blessing – and his considerable wealth – Job was truly humble, thankful to G-d for these gifts, understanding that he had done nothing to “earn” them.  But one day he lost his entire fortune.  In a daze, he received further bad news - his house had collapsed, killing all his children.  Day after day, Job was struck with illness, pain, emotional suffering.  Stunned, he could not understand why G-d – Who is merciful and just – was destroying his life.  Job’s friends rallied around.  Trying to help, they suggested that he must have done something wrong.  If he would just fix that, then all would be right.  But Job knew he hadn’t done anything wrong; his friends’ continued insistence just added salt to the wound that was his life.
Between 1939 and 1942, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, the Piaseczner Rebbe, wrote Aish Kodesh, discourses on the weekly Torah portion.  In the earlier discourses, the Rebbe turns his lens on the Jewish people, examining them for some fault.  But as the inferno of the Holocaust rages hotter, he comes to a “radical” conclusion.  From deep in the Warsaw Ghetto he understands that his fate, and that of the nation, is a mystery that is concealed “beyond the partition.”  G-d has hidden His face from His people. The Rebbe goes on to say that when in pain, a person must turn to G-d.  The weeping and pain a person undergoes by himself, alone, may have the effect of breaking him and bringing him down so that he becomes incapable of doing anything. But the weeping a person does together with G-d strengthens him. He weeps, and is strengthened; he is broken, but finds courage...

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, would later state, "There are things that happen in the world that do not happen as a punishment for sins, but rather as a result of a Divine decree that does not have any rationale in the wisdom and intellect of Torah…” The Rebbe goes on to say that in such cases, it is not our job to justify G-d’s acts – only He can do that.  Our job is to look with a “good eye” at those around us, and in all ways, seek to bring merit to our nation and to the world.  Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Suffering - No Easy Answers

Torah eschews easy answers.  There are no short-cuts.  You can’t pretend to possess perfect unquestioning faith, and religion isn’t meant to shield us from feeling pain or doubt.  It’s not a mantra to chant to close us off from that place of pain so we don’t have to face our true emotions.  It is a guide in how to wrestle with our big questions and come out whole, even if we don’t find perfect answers.

The great Torah sage, Nachmanides, establishes an important principle for textual study: maaseh avot siman l’banim --  the deeds of our forefathers are a signpost for us to follow.  Of all the events and stories that occurred over the millennia, some of them were deemed significant enough to make it into the Torah – because these are the stories we need to know to answer the questions that will inevitably arise in any thinking mind.

In three places in the Torah, Moses is on record as confronting Hashem.  The first occurs just after he’s embarked on his mission to bring the Jews out of Egypt, with G-d’s assurances of success.  He finds, instead, that the situation deteriorates.  Enraged by Moses’ demand to let the Jews go, Pharaoh decrees that from now on the Jews will have to gather their own straw to make bricks – but still keep up their daily quota.  Despairing, Moses confronts G-d (Exodus 6:22-23).  “O G-d, why have you harmed this people?  Why have you sent me?  Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he’s done evil to this people – and You have not saved Your people [as You said You would.]”  G-d responds harshly, saying, “I appeared to the forefathers, and they never questioned my ways!”

The second time Moses confronts G-d is when he’s on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights.  He sees angels tying tagin, crowns, onto the letters of the alef-bet and wonders, “What are these for?”  G-d tells him that in the future, a great Torah sage, Rabbi Akiva, will derive piles and piles of laws from these crowns.  Moses asks to sit in on Rabbi Akiva’s class, and finds himself suddenly there.  From the eighth row, he listens to the Talmudic thrust and parry, but is distressed to find that he doesn’t understand what’s going on.  Then a student pipes up, “How do we know this?”  And Rabbi Akiva responds, “Only as Halachah l’Moshe m’Sinai,” – “A tradition that we’ve received through Moses, from the revelation at Mount Sinai.”  Hearing this, Moses is comforted.  “You showed me his Torah, G-d, now show me his reward.”  But instead of the peaceful and gentle death Moses imagines fitting for such a one as Rabbi Akiva, he sees the sage tortured to death by the Romans.   Moses bursts out, “This is Torah and its reward?!”  And Hashem thunders back, “Such is my decree.  Silence; or I will return the world to tohu-bohu.”

The third time Moses confronts G-d is just after the Sin of the Golden Calf.  G-d tells him (Exodus 32:7, 10), Your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptlyLet Me be in My anger.  I will annihilate them and make you into a great nation!”  Instead of taking G-d up on this offer, Moses lobbies G-d not to destroy the Jewish people.  He then descends from the mountain to deal with the idolators.  Seeing the nation still in wild gyrations around the idol, Moses shatters the Tablets at the foot of the mountain.  G-d calls down to him, “Good on you, for shattering them!” (Deuteronomy 10:2)  Once Moses has administered justice, he ascends the mountain once more, and throws down the gauntlet before G-d.  “As far as Your offer; if You forgive the people, well and good.  But if not, then erase me from Your book that You’ve written!”  And G-d acquiesces.

These three episodes are puzzling.  To challenge G-d to forgive a nation that’s committed a cardinal sin earns a “Good job!” but asking, “Why are You hurting these people?” gets a reprimand?   Expressing outrage at what feels like the unjust death of a righteous person is smacked down with even more vehemence.    What’s going on?
In the first situation, Moses confronts G-d about an as yet unfulfilled promise of redemption.  G-d says, “I promised good things to the forefathers, too, and they didn’t see it fulfilled – but they didn’t give up hope.”  From this, it seems clear that despair is not a Jewish response.  A second related point is that Moses complains to G-d about the situation, but does not act to change it.  Hayom Yom baldly states, “A single act is better than a thousand groans.”  Sorrow and paralysis do not change a situation.  Action does.
In the third situation, G-d tells Moses, “Let me be, so I can destroy the people.”  The clear implication is that, if Moses disrupts G-d’s “solitude,” He will not destroy them.  Furthermore, rather than a dream deferred, this is a promise of destruction.  So Moses acts accordingly; he interferes with G-d’s solitude, pleading with Him not to wipe out the nation.  Moses administers his own justice to the nation, then returns to tell G-d that they’ve been suitably chastised.  Finally, Moses makes his big move.  He’s willing to give up his own connection to G-d, to save the Jewish people.  This is true, selfless leadership, and a model of how to act in a crisis.  If threatened with harm, we do all in our power to avert it; we negotiate with G-d, we pray, we take concrete steps.  We don’t just sit passively by and say, “Thy will be done.”
But now we come to the third situation.  There are times when we’ve tried confrontation, we’ve prayed, we’ve cried, we’ve done all we can – and yet, are powerless to stop the train.  What then?  This is one of the unanswerable, painful mysteries of life.  Our matriarch Rachel is described by the Book of Zohar as “the beautiful girl with no eyes.”  Rachel, too, faced pain in her life.  She confronted G-d, she prayed, she took concrete steps to effect change, and yet there were knots she couldn’t pick apart.  So she closed her eyes to her own pain.  She accepted that G-d had plans that didn’t coincide with her wishes.  She sought reasons to understand her challenges, but where she couldn’t find them, she kept praying; she continued to place her faith in G-d’s hands, and knew that one day, she would learn the whys that exist beyond, “such is My decree.” 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My first real experience with the challenge that suffering throws at a person, occurred when I was ten.
“I was at work – at the blacksmith’s, when I heard.  The Cossacks were coming.  I ran home to tell my father and my sister.  “Come on Pa, we’re going to the neighbor’s to hide.”  But he refused.  ‘I’m not coming.  I’ve lived as a Jew, and if G-d wills it, I’ll continue to do so.  If not, then I’ll die as a Jew.  But I’m not running to hide.’  When it was all over, I went home.  I found him lying on the floor with his head cut off.”  My grandfather paused.  “He was a very religious man: the town melamed.  I said, ‘If this is G-d’s will, if this is what happens to such a good person, then I don’t believe in G-d.’”  My grandfather had no one to help him make his way through this violent physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma – his mother had already died when he was eight, his older siblings had all married or left home.  “The truth is, I did believe.  But I was mad.”  Although he eventually reconciled, this event began my grandfather’s six decades of “silent treatment” toward G-d. 

But in spite of his fervent refusal to speak to G-d, Zaide was a kind, gentle man with a generous spirit and good-natured optimism.  He was not bitter, angry, or cold toward human beings.
My other grandfather endured similar trauma.  His earliest childhood memory was of hiding under a bed during a pogrom.  With his father toiling in the United States to save enough money to bring over his wife and children, one brother drafted into the Tsar’s Army and another into the Red Army, his family was without a father figure.  Growing up as Tsarist Russia was engulfed in the turmoil that birthed the Soviet Union, Zaide’s formative years occurred in the hotly contested ground of Ukraine, where Bolsheviks battled Imperialists; Germany and Poland tried a land grab; and Hetman Semyon Petliura unleashed a year of pogroms that killed 50,000 Jews.   And while I never heard this Zaide say a word about G-d, he radiated intensity.  Whether this stemmed from his childhood, his ten years of childless marriage, or other challenges, I don’t know, but it was clear to me, even as a child, that he was a man in deep pain.
I can never stand in either Zaide’s place to say how I would have responded, what I would have done, thought, or felt.  But we know that in life, whatever we see holds many lessons for us; here are some I extracted.

Caught in the powerful breakers of a major life storm, it can feel nearly impossible to ride those waves.  Giving in to the downward spiral can be a tempting relief. 

But the long-term consequences of despair, bitterness, and suppressed rage, send their ripples far beyond us into the future, leaving a devastating wake. 
How can we marshal the energy it takes to paddle up for air and life?  Faith can help.  Family and friends.  Humor.  Trying to enjoy small daily pleasures.  That love for another person can suspend pain – for a minute, a day, or even for years. That music and song alleviate heartache – dancing, too. 
Where have you found life-lines to safety?

Monday, March 7, 2011

National and Personal Suffering

This week we're examining a difficult part of life: suffering.  What guidance does Jewish tradition offer in coping with life's challenges, big or small?

As a nation we’ve been through millennia of pain and suffering.  From the near death of our forefather Abraham in the Ur Crematorium, to the devastation wrought upon Judea by the Roman Empire.  From the massacres of the Crusades to the bloody pogroms of Eastern Europe.  From the Holocaust to contemporary terrorism.

And yet, as a nation we emphasize joy and celebration.  This does not mean that we shy away from knowing about our dark times, but that we do not identify ourselves through them.  We may suffer, but we are not sufferers. 
Just after the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, later chief rabbi of Israel, paid a visit to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  When the Rebbe asked Rabbi Lau about the mood in Israel, the latter replied that people were despairing, saying, “What will be?”  The Rebbe responded vehemently, “Jews don’t ask, ‘What will be?’ they ask, ‘What will we do?’” 

Our enslavement in Egypt was one of our darkest hours.  We were abused physically and emotionally.  Innocent Jewish babies were slaughtered, leading desperate women to abandon their newborn infants in open fields, hoping that someone would take pity on them. We don’t avoid discussing these incidents—in fact, we set aside an entire night each year to explore them.  Together, we recount how our forefathers were beaten and cried out to G-d.  But our Sages were wise, and knew that descending into a pit without a ladder up is dangerous .  So they established a structure—matchilin b’gnut umesaiem b’shevachwe begin with disgrace and conclude with praise.  We begin in the pit, but by the end of the Seder, together, we are  joyously singing Hallel.  

Thus it is with life.  We can’t protect ourselves or those we love from everything that life can throw our way.  But we can show them how one navigates the painful dark shadows.   We can point to our collective history to prove that we are a resilient people.  We have endured before, we can endure now. 
What is true on a national level is true on a personal level, too.  We have a model to follow and a ladder up.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Money & Happiness

A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. - Jane Austen
Anybody who thinks money will make you happy hasn't got money. - David Geffen

We probably all know a kid from a super-wealthy family, who’s been given every opportunity and advantage, yet is mystifyingly apathetic, unambitious, and maybe even unhappy. What gives?

Back in 1921, Lewis Terman (of the Stanford-Binet IQ Test) started a study of 1500 local elementary school kids. For the next eight decades, he, followed by psychologists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, tracked these subjects as they grew into adulthood and beyond. The results of the survey, “The Longevity Project,” revealed some clear life-motifs that lead to a long, healthy, and happy life.

While most people are familiar with findings that having a strong social network leads to longer life, most of us assume that’s a result of getting a hand up or a sympathetic ear when we hit rough patches in life. It turns out it’s just the opposite: the health benefits are actually a function of what you do for others. Those who give – whether financially, their shoulder to cry on, or their total attention to you - live the longest.

An interesting result emerged from subjects’ reporting of job satisfaction. While many people dream of the high-paying cushy job with a corner-office and personal secretary, it turns out that longevity is more highly correlated with real-life jobs: ones that involve stress, responsibility, and after-hours. Perhaps emotional muscles are like physical ones, and need a work-out to stay healthy. Most likely, the positive messages we get from our successful negotiation of these challenges makes us feel competent and achieving.

Lots of other studies have definitively shown that money does not buy happiness. This is not a promotional for genteel poverty – it’s certainly no picnic, and an income that's doesn’t adequately cover the basics, exacerbates existing problems . But it seems pretty clear that once a family has enough money for shelter, food, clothing, recreation, and some measure of control over life (about $75,000 for an average American family.  Federal poverty level for a family of four is $22,000), increasing their income does not result in a corresponding increase in happiness. Psychologist David Lykken: “People who go to work in their overalls and on the bus are just as happy, on the average, as those in suits who drive to work in their own Mercedes.” India, Australia, Great Britain, Japan, have all found similar results. The traits that mark happy lives are connection, hope, faith, and “flow” in work and play. There is some money that contributes to happiness: the money we spend on experiences, connecting with others, or small daily pleasures. These all being more lasting happiness than a splurge on a big-ticket item.

Of course, there’s always “Jewish gelt.” Looking at my son and daughter, my Bubbie would say, “You’re not a millionaire, you’re a billionaire!”

For more: Time, Newsweek, Scientific American,

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why Giving Charity is So Difficult -- and So Crucial

Yesterday we explored the possibility that the Jewish roots of social activism stem from the centrality of  the mitzvah of tzedakah, and the deep feelings of responsibility for others.   What we haven’t yet addressed is why tzedakah is such a pillar of Judaism.
In this incisive video, Rabbi Dr. Immanuel J. Shochet, pulpit rabbi and professor of philosophy, explains why giving tzedakah is a powerful declaration of faith in G-d.

For more inspirational Jewish video, check out:!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Labor, Union, and Money

The 25th of this month will mark 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the deadliest workplace fire in New York City’s history, and a tragedy that spurred the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and led to stricter workplace safety laws.  Whether one sides with the states of Wisconsin and Ohio or its unions in the current battles there, I think we can all agree that no one wants to go back to the bad old days of sweatshops and locked fire escapes.
The history of Jewish social activism – including involvement in the formation of unions – is public record.  Does it have its roots in traditional Judaism? 
Whether in Eastern European shtetlach, the Mizrachi Mellah, or anywhere else we’ve called home, every Jewish community has ensured that the needs of all their inhabitants were met.  A basic package of social services established and run by an average Jewish kehilah would include a Malbish Arumim society to provide free clothing; free or discount medical care at a “Jewish” hospital;  a general Gemilut Chessed Fund for the poor;  Maot Chitim Passover food packages; and of course, the ubiquitous “pushke” or charity box.  Some cities even boasted groups that organized coupons good for free kosher meat and tickets for free mikveh visits.  And this tradition of helping our own continued even in war-torn ghettoes.

Once in America, Jews tended to congregate more by virtue of one’s hometown, than one’s profession, leading to the formation of landsmanschaften -- benevolent societies formed and named for members’ birthplace in Eastern Europe.  These groups pooled their resources to provide members with medical benefits, interest-free loans, burial assistance.  They also raised money for people from the Old Country who wanted to immigrate to the United States.  Yearly benefit functions were popular, with funds that were raised making their way back “home” via hand-delivery by a lucky courier.
Sam Malamud brings dollars to Maciejow

Perhaps it’s not surprising that with such a tradition of helping before being asked, there was a progression to forming unions and agitating for better working conditions.  Today, the same proactive care can be seen in food pantries, career services, and free-loan societies.  That’s because the tradition of tzedakah has its roots in Jewish Law, and in fact, is the key to the Zohar’s cryptic statement: “One who wants bread should eat it with the blade of a sword.”   To be able to throw ourselves into our work, with all of the mind, energy, and heart that it requires, can be a dangerous endeavor – unless we remember our silent partner – G-d.  Tzedakah helps us stay focused on the true purpose of our work – that it’s part of our service of G-d.  Howso?
The Roman governor, Turnus Rufus, once asked Rabbi Akiva: "If G-d loves the poor, why doesn't He feed them?!"  Rabbi Akiva answered: "So that through them, we should be saved from judgment."  We think that because there are poor people, G-d commanded us to give.  Rabbi Akiva turns that idea on its head.  Because we need to learn what it is to be a giving person, G-d created others with a need.  Knowing that, the correct attitude to being able to give tzedakah - or any kindness to another -- is humble gratitude.  (Take that, Ayn Rand!)
So, while I can’t tell you what Torah says about the labor-union movement, its stance on tzedakah is crystal clear.