What is Amalek?

March 14, 2014
Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

This coming Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. We read a passage from Deuteronomy 25  about Amalek, a tribe who attack the Israelites as they go through the desert:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt, how he met you on the road, and struck the hindmost, all that were enfeebled at the back, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess,  you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Amalek is a frequent topic in scripture (the topic comes up again and again: in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1st Samuel, Psalms, and 1st Chronicle) and in rabbinic and later writing, right down to the present day. We have identified various characters as “Amalek” throughout our history, from Haman to Adolf Hitler.

But as modern people, as people who have been the object of genocide ourselves, how can we talk about obliterating an entire nation of people from the face of the earth? What are we to make of this?

It is tempting to identify any anti-Semite or even a group who hate Jews as Amalek. However, when we look through the Bible, we see many tribes who warred with the Israelites and later with the Jews, and only Amalek merits this “wipe them out” command. There is no tribe of people who identify themselves as Amalek today; there are no Moabites, no Canaanites, no Philistines, no Assyrians, no Babylonians. There are people who live in those lands, but the Biblical civilizations are dust.

In our time, Amalek is a lifestyle, an attitude: Amalek is the idea that it is OK to prey on the weak. Maimonides taught us, in Guide of the Perplexed, that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is not a commandment to hatred; rather it is a commandment to drive Amalek-like behavior from the world. We can see Amalek in business practices that trade on the desperation of others. We can see Amalek in schemes that prey on the sick and the ignorant. If we read Chapter 3 of Esther, we can see Amalek in those who scapegoat minorities to enhance their own power.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg has written, “Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence.” There have been many times in history when Jews have been weak and preyed-upon by the strong. Now in a different time in history, in many ways, we are strong. We are commanded to remember and to act: not for revenge, not for our own satisfaction, but to fulfill the commandment that Amalek shall be blotted out from under heaven.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. – Jorge Santayana

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A Little Yiddish?

March 13, 2014

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Nu, you’ve noticed that around your shul they use a bissel Yiddish?

(So, you’ve noticed that around your synagogue they speak a little Yiddish?)

Yiddish is the language of Ashkenaz, the Jews of Eastern European descent. It sounds a little bit like German, a little bit like Hebrew, and it is written in Hebrew letters. At one time there were Yiddish theater, Yiddish radio programs, Yiddish newpapers, and it was the language for a flourishing culture. That ended with the Holocaust in the 1940′s. But still there are people keeping the language alive, and it survives in words and phrases around many American synagogues. Here are 25 words you may hear from time to time:

A bi gezunt - “So long as you’re well.” Meaning: “Don’t worry so much. You still have your health.”

Alter cockeran old person, not a compliment. “I’m just an alter cocker, don’t listen to me.”

Brucha – a blessing, a prayer. “We asked the rabbi to say the brucha, so we could eat.”

Bubbe – grandmother  - “Sarah was delighted to be a bubbe at last.”

Bubbemyseh – Old wives’ tale. “Hey, the healing power of chicken soup is no bubbemyseh!”

Feh! – An exclamation to express disgust. “You let the cat walk on the table? Feh!”

Goyishe – Adjective for not-Jewish. Goy means “Nation” in Hebrew, but in Yiddish it means “Non-Jew.” Non-dairy salad dressing may be perfectly parve (neither meat nor dairy) but if you put it on pastrami, someone might mutter about your goyishe tastes.

Kvell – To beam with pleasure or pride “They kvelled over their grandchildren.”

Macher – An important person. “He thinks he’s such a macher, driving that car.”

Maven – An expert. Sometimes used sarcastically, but not always. “Mike is a real financial maven.”

Mensch – A person of high character and a big heart. “Abe is a true mensch, you can always count on him.”

Mishegas – insanity, nonsense. “I’m sick and tired of this Daylight Savings mishegas.”

Mishpocha – Family. “Don’t be shy – we’re mishpocha!”

Naches – Joy. “A brilliant daughter like Susie must give you such naches.”

Nu? – It can be translated “So?” It can also be used as a greeting, “What’s up?”  In general, it’s a particle that calls for a reply: Nu, so you are learning a little Yiddish?

Nosh – can be a noun or a verb, means “snack” – “Are you noshing on the salad before I’ve even put it on the table?”

Oy vey – Short for “Oy vey iz mir!” – “Oh woe is me!”  An all purpose response to anything bad.

Punim – Face. A shayneh punim is a pretty face. “I saw Rivkeh’s baby: what a shayneh punim!

Saykhel – Good sense, wisdom. “We would not have survived the recession without Bob’s leadership and saykhel.”

Shabbes – Sabbath, Shabbat. “Goot Shabbes!” is a common greeting meaning, “Have a good Sabbath.”

Shmutz – a little dirt. “He had a little shmutz on his shirt, so I put a fresh one on.”

Tsuris – Serious trouble. “It broke my heart, to hear they had such tsuris.”

Yuntif – Holiday. On a Jewish holiday, someone may greet you with “Goot yuntif!”

Zayde – grandfather

Zai Gesunt - May you be well, good health to you


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Purim has a Dark Side

March 11, 2014
Esther denouncing Haman / Ernest Normand

Esther denouncing Haman / Ernest Normand

I have been struggling for weeks over a post that I wanted to make about Purim. There’s a dark side to Purim, a very dark side. Its yearly permission to hate Haman and to “blot out Amalek” has borne some evil fruit over the centuries.  Finally, though, someone wiser and more articulate than me has written what I was trying to say. Shaul Magid has published  The Dark Side of Purim  in The Forward, and I recommend it.

Purim can be fun, it can bear good fruit, but it always makes me uneasy, too. Magid articulates this unease quite beautifully.


Passover Shopping Tips

March 11, 2014
The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

The variety of Passover products can be dazzling.

Spring is on its way.

I know this because my friend Mark has begun stockpiling matzah. Ever since the Great Matzah Shortage of 5768, he has watched for the first kosher-for-Passover (KforP) matzah to appear in the stores and he snaps it up. He’s discriminating – he has his preferred brands – but he is not going to be caught short of matzah, because eating matzah is a commandment for Passover.

This weekend Linda mentioned to me that Mark found some matzah, so now I know it: spring is coming.

Since some of you may be wondering about shopping for Passover, I thought I’d pass along some basic tips. I hope that some readers will add their tips to the comments, too.

1. BUY MATZAH EARLY – You do not want to be looking for matzah at the last minute. It truly is a requirement for any seder, no matter how liberal or laid-back.  You also want to check the label carefully, because often the nice people at the secular grocery store don’t realize that there is matzah and then there is kosher-for-Passover matzah. Just because it has “Maneschewitz” on the box doesn’t mean it is OK for Passover. Somewhere on that box it must say “Kosher for Passover.” [Some people like to eat matzah year round; they buy regular matzah anytime.  Kosher for Passover matzah is made according to the laws of the season, and for more detail I will point you to the Orthodox Union page on the subject.] (Thank you to Rachel Fleming on Twitter for this tip.)

2. BUY KOSHER WINE EARLY – If you are hosting a seder, or if you are taking a bottle of KforP wine as a table gift to a seder, pick up your wine early. As with the matzah, it is a commandment to serve it or grape juice at the seder. Particularly if you crave “nice” kosher wine (not the cough syrup some of us traditionalists insist on buying) it may be hard to find in the days immediately before Passover.

3. DON’T GET CRAZY – If you shop in a Jewish store or in a city with lots of Jews, you may find the wild variety of processed KforP  food pretty dazzling. Particularly if you are a newcomer to the Jewish world, you may either be dumfounded or you may feel like you need “one of each.” Stop right there: step AWAY from the shopping cart!  All that stuff is still processed food and most of it is not particularly nutritious. If there’s something a family member particularly loves, of course that’s different. But truly, you don’t need to break the bank buying lots of mixes and faux-cornflakes. Passover is a great time to improve our diets by eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies, most of which are automatically kosher for Passover. If you enjoy cooking, get a Passover cookbook and get the ingredients you need for some interesting-sounding dishes.

Speaking of “Don’t Get Crazy,” if you are feeling confused or crazed when you think about Passover cleaning, I wrote an essay a while back that may help: Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

4. STORE YOUR PASSOVER FOOD. Until you get the kitchen and/or house ready for Passover, leave your Matzo and KforP wine in its wrappers and away from your regular food.  You don’t want them mixed in where someone may snack on them or get chametz in there. This is the reason the KforP matzah comes in a box that is also shrink wrapped: the manufacturer is not taking any chances.

5. PACE YOURSELF. I know, it’s easier to say it than to do it. Start early, go steadily, and do your best. Don’t be so busy getting ready for Passover that you fail to enjoy Purim. Always remember that human beings are more important than anything else.

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Simple Steps to Help Visitors Feel Welcome

March 10, 2014

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After watching people at many synagogue gatherings over the years, I am convinced that one reason some members don’t talk to newcomers is that they never learned how to “small talk.” Small talk is an important skill when I am interested in building my community. Small talk is also a way to fulfill the mitzvot of hospitality and kindness, by making someone comfortable at my synagogue or gathering.

The next time you see someone standing alone at the oneg Shabbat (cookies, etc after services), here are some tips.

1. BEGIN WITH COMMON GROUND. You are looking to connect with another person. Go for the things you have in common, rather than the differences. “Wow, long line for the coffee! By the way, I’m Ruth.” is not great literature, but the long coffee line is something you have in common. The room, the weather, the service you both attended, the speaker – all are potential opening moves. Avoid divisive topics (politics, for instance) and don’t focus on ways the newcomer is different.  An alternative, if you can’t think of a common ground, is simply to say, “Hi, I’m Ruth – have we met?”

2. VOLUNTEER ONE PIECE OF INFO. “I teach Intro to Judaism classes in Berkeley,” is a simple beginning, but it gives them a comforting advantage: they know my name and something about me. It also gives them an easy comeback, “Hi, Ruth, I’m Joe and I am visiting from Cleveland.” This is not the time for major autobiography, though – offer one or two conversational “hooks” and then settle in to listen and find out who they are.

3. GO SLOW! Repeat the person’s name and ask for more about the thing he told you: “Nice to meet you, Joe! What brings you to my town?” Or you can share more about yourself if you see common ground: “Joe, my grandfather grew up in Cleveland! The family name was Levi, and they were members at the Temple in Cleveland.” Chat a bit, pay attention. Listening is more important than talking. How long you chat depends on the two of you: if it’s interesting and comfortable, you might chat a while. If you can’t seem to connect with this person, then move on to Step 4:

4. MAKE SURE THEY MEET OTHER PEOPLE. Introduce them to someone else, providing one piece of information about them if possible. This gives you another opportunity to use the newcomer’s name, which increases the chance you’ll remember it: “Joe, I’d like you to meet Adam. Adam sings in the choir. Adam, Joe is visiting from Cleveland.” It also assures that the newcomer will  meet more than one person there. If they let you know they are looking for a synagogue, you may want to introduce them to the rabbi, the membership chair, or someone on the temple board.

5. MAKE YOUR EXIT. One graceful way to move away from another person is by saying, “It was nice to meet you, Joe. I need to…” and then fill the blank with  anything from “Get some water” to “leave early this evening” or “talk with someone.” The idea is to let them know that you enjoyed meeting them, and that something is now drawing you regretfully away. If you can leave them with someone new to talk to, that’s the best scenario.

For the newcomer, all the same rules apply: Start with the setting, introduce yourself (“coming out” as a visitor or newbie), pay attention and repeat names, and look for common conversational ground. If there’s something you want to know, ask.

Most congregations advertise themselves as “welcoming.” To be truly welcoming, though, a congregation needs to acknowledge and engage the people who come in the door. That takes small talk, the social skill that is not really so small.

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My Promised Land – A Question

March 8, 2014

shavitThis week I’ve been reading a book  much more slowly than usual. I’ve been distracted by some conversations about the book that have me running back to reread sections. The book is Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Ari Shavit is a columnist who serves on the editorial board of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times. The man can write; sections of the book are almost poetry. He uses anecdotes from his family history as a framework to look at the State of Israel.

I began reading the book on the recommendation of my rabbi. He said that the writing was excellent and that it was a book that would “make everyone talk.” He’s right on both counts.

You can Google the reviews, if you want. What fascinates me is that Shavit seems to have found a “sweet spot” in which he’s bothering everyone. One reviewer will say that he leaves out too much Palestinian wrongdoing; another will say that he’s leaving out too much Israeli wrongdoing.  Often they cite the same chapter, Chapter 5, “Lydda.” Again and again, informal commenters and reviewers seem to insist that he left something out. The problem is almost always what he failed to say, some element that for the reviewer is essential.

It leaves me to wonder how big a book would need to be to satisfy everyone, to truly address the bitterness on both sides. I wonder what would happen if we were to assemble such a book: a book that both the most passionate Palestinian and the most passionate Zionist could read and say, “Yes, everything is there.” No reasons, no excuses, this book would list the bitter facts, lay them all out so that everything is acknowledged.

Would it help, or would it make things worse?  I do not know.


Here and Now

March 6, 2014

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Sometimes life shakes us up a bit.

Today I pulled into a parking place in a shopping center near my home. I was going to buy some vegetables for dinner, and pick up a prescription. I paused for a moment to text Linda to make sure that dinner together was on her calendar, too. Then suddenly a beat-up green Toyota careened into the parking lot followed by a crowd of police cars, their lights blinking and sirens roaring. 

I froze in the front seat of my car, unsure what to do, as police leaped out of the cars and pointed their guns at the green car. I felt like I’d dropped out of reality into a TV show. The police yelled so loudly I could hear their voices even with my windows rolled up. I hit the button for the door locks and slid low in my seat, aware that I was awfully close, should anyone begin shooting. Stay in the car, I told myself, don’t attract attention. I hoped that whoever it was in the green car did not have a gun, or would have the sense not to shoot.

The situation resolved very quickly, without gunshots. The man in the car surrendered and was arrested, and the crowd of cops relaxed, putting away their weapons, gathering up things and examining the car. After a few minutes, I realized it was over: I could go run my errands.

I still have no idea what it was all about.

Events blow into our lives sometimes as quickly as that fleet of cars roared into the parking lot. One minute we’re planning dinner, and the next we’re wondering if we’re going to be around for dessert.  Once a year in synagogue we recite a prayer about that (Who will live and who will die?) but in fact we live with that reality every day – we simply don’t look at it. If we looked at it too long or thought about it too much, we’d lose heart. But if we don’t look at it often enough, if we don’t stop and remember that we are mortal creatures, we may waste this precious life we are given.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about a car accident that got my attention. Today I got another reminder: Wake up! Pay attention! Next week I will turn fifty-nine, and again, a little voice will remind me that I do not know how much time I am given on this earth. This is why we are advised by the sages to run to do mitzvot: we have no guarantees of months and years ahead. All we have is what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” All we have is now.

So the question is, what am I going to do with this precious time, this now? What will you do with yours?

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