American Jerusalem

January 16, 2014
LeviStrauss

Levi Strauss & Co. on Battery St. in San Francisco

Normally I save my writing about film for the Jewish Film blog, but I want to alert readers to a new film I saw this past week.  American Jerusalem tells the story of the first 66 years of Jewish settlement in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco.

The Jewish community is unique in Jewish history, in that nowhere else in the Diaspora were Jews in the majority during the early settlement period of a city. The Jewish community developed differently as a result of this, without the need to buttress itself against anti-Semitism until a much later period. Jewish families were “society” in early San Francisco, and they did not eat or live separately from their gentile neighbors. Even today, Jews in San Francisco have a curious mix of firm Jewish identity with a low rate of synagogue and other Jewish institutional affiliation. While some outsiders look at the demographics and say, “Wow, Judaism is in trouble in San Francisco,” in fact the Jewish community there is vibrant and diverse. It was influential in shaping the past of the city and continues to be engaged with San Francisco’s future.

The filmmakers were extremely selective in their choices, which may leave some old San Franciscan families wondering, “What about my ancestors?” but I think the choices allow viewers to appreciate the forest without losing their way in the trees. Certainly American Jerusalem is a tantalizing springboard from which one can launch into deeper reading (Fred Rosenbaum’s book, Cosmopolitans, a Social and Cultural History of the Jews at the San Francisco Bay Area would be a great next step.)

If you want to see the film, you’re in luck. DVD’s are available through the film’s website, and screenings are coming up at the Tucson Jewish Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the Center for Jewish History in New York City, the National Museum of Jewish History in Phildelphia, PA, and at the East Bay Jewish Film Festival.

Image: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 FoundSF.org


Why I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree

December 25, 2013
christmas at home

This is not my house. (Photo credit: rzperllian)

My last Christmas tree was in about 1992, I think. My elder son asked me why we had one if we weren’t Christians. I had not identified as Christian for about seven years, and I decided he had a point. I never celebrated Christmas again in my home.

The kids did not seem to miss it. Their birthdays both fell right after Christmas, and they’d always been overshadowed by that other guy’s birthday. From that year onward, I focused on a big celebration of their birthdays.  They got presents, we had cake, and it was good.

So when I became a Jew, Christmas was easy: I’d not been observing the holiday for years. For me it had been a religious holiday, and once the religion dropped away, I discovered that we could enjoy other people’s decorations. When people asked about it usually Aaron would pipe up with, “We’re not Christians.”  My younger son enjoyed celebrating with Christian relatives, and that was fine too.

So when I discovered that some Jews have Christmas trees, I was a little confused. Why do something at considerable trouble and expense while insisting that it doesn’t mean anything? I’ve never completely figured out the answer to that one.

Now that I’m a Jew, I celebrate Chanukah. I like the idea of a festival of rededication, especially at a time of the year when Jewishness seems to disappear into the dazzling show. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the officious folk who sniff that it “isn’t a Torah holiday.” Partly that’s because they don’t act so sniffy at Purim, which isn’t a Torah holiday either. And partly it’s because I think there’s something in the human spirit that cries out for shining lights and gathering when the nights are long and longer.

I still love those bright shining lights, whether they are for Chanukah or Christmas. My neighborhood is full of lights, and I love them all. But my home is a Jewish home, and I can’t imagine putting up a symbol of someone else’s holiday. This is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, and I work to make it bright and beautiful with Jewish symbols and customs, sweet and savory with Jewish smells.

Those are bright enough, sweet enough, and  warm enough: good enough for me!

 


Jewish Blessings for Meals

September 24, 2013

The sanctification of ordinary life is a hallmark of Jewish living. “You shall be holy, as the Eternal your God is holy” begins the Holiness Code, the very heart of the Torah (Leviticus 19.)

So when we eat, we take an ordinary thing (eating) and turn it into something more, something sacred, by surrounding the act of eating with blessings.

First, we NOTICE: I’m going to eat dinner!

Then, we ACKNOWLEDGE by blessing: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of Time & Space, who brings forth bread from the earth. We acknowledge that we are not the Bosses of Dinner: even if I cooked that dinner, I did not grind the flour, I did not grow the green beans, and I certainly didn’t give life to all the various components of the meal. By blessing I acknowledge that it is a miracle that the meal exists and that many human hands and perhaps animal lives went into making it. I acknowledge that this meal is a miracle.

Then we EAT. Yay!

Then we BLESS again. This time it is a long blessing called the Birkat Hamazon, It is a set of four blessings that we say because of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” This time it is a thank you blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessings gives thanks for all the many happy relations between God and Israel.  Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, Memphis has made a very nice YouTube video you can watch below.


Tweet #Torah to the Top With Us!

May 2, 2013

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

For the past couple of years, a group of us have celebrated Shavuot by “Tweeting #Torah to the Top.”  We’re on Twitter (you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi) and in the hours before Shavuot, we tweet  divrei Torah [words of Torah] to try to get to the top of the “trending” [most Tweeted] list.  Every year, I’ve had fun, I’ve met some terrific Jews, and enjoyed a symbolic celebration of this least-celebrated festival.

If you are wondering how to do it, see what my esteemed colleague Rabbi Mark Hurwitz has to say:

——————–
HurwitzI have been exploring how to use Twitter and Facebook as tools for Jewish community organizing. We know that these social media were central to the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in Egypt. How might we use them to raise consciousness among the Jewish people around the world?

Beginning in 2009 Reconstructionist rabbi Shai Gluskin organized an attempt to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot, using Twitter. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):

Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 the whole day.

Each year, those who participated enjoyed a great day of learning, sharing, and meeting. Jews (and others) all over the world, from various walks of life and “flavors” of Jewish life, tweeted what they thought were valuable and important thoughts of Torah. Nonetheless, we have never been able to get “#Torah” to “trend”. Is it because, however broadly defined, “#Torah” is simply not of interest to the vast majority of Jewish tweeters?

What can we do to make #Torah go viral? Are there tools that those of us committed to this effort are missing? I open the question up to this forum for discussion and invite you all to join our project.

This year (2013:5773) our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tweet-Torah-to-the-Top/440987195986359

If you’d like to participate, please indicate so on the event’s Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/354726977977663/

———–

You don’t have to be a rabbi.

You don’t have to belong to anything (other than have a Twitter account.)

If you’ve never tweeted, well, here’s a chance to try it.

C’mon! We’ll have fun!


Beginner’s Guide to Brit Milah (“Bris”)

April 5, 2013

English: A new born baby in his Godfather's ha...

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, ask!

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.

 


Can We Talk?

November 18, 2012
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.


Why I Belong to a Congregation

October 13, 2012
English: Exterior of Temple Sinai - First Hebr...

English: Temple Sinai – Photo credit: Wikipedia

Today I was reminded again why I belong to a congregation.

My partner is out of town, enjoying a long-planned trip with friends. The friends with her are good friends of mine, too — but the three of them are doing something that I wouldn’t enjoy. So I don’t begrudge her being gone, nor do I begrudge them. Truly, it’s all good.

Only I’ve been lonesome. It’s been a stressful week, for a lot of reasons that are not for a public blog, and I was a bit sad and a bit lonely.  I’ve been following my instincts when lonesome and stressed-out, which is to watch more TV than is good for me, and to work more than is really necessary. In other words, I’ve been hiding.

But today I had a commitment to keep: I had promised to read the haftarah for services this morning. This morning, as I got dressed up to go, I wished I didn’t have the commitment. I wished I could just hide some more. But I got up, dressed up, and went to services at Temple Sinai.

As soon as I walked in the door, most things were familiar. I noticed that the prayer books and chumashim (books with the Torah and haftarah in them) were jumbled on the shelf, so I tidied them up. I chatted with a acquaintance, and met a couple of new people. I reconnected with a recently widowed person with whom I hadn’t really talked in years.

The service was nice. Some of the words blew past me, but others reminded me of the person I would like to be, the person I intend to be.  We learned a little  Torah, and the chair of the Green committee told us what that committee does (encourage recycling and improve water use around the shul.)  The music was excellent, although I was a trifle annoyed that I didn’t know all of it.

At kiddush (the Shabbat meal) afterwards: more friends, more little conversations.  Nothing earthshaking, just a reminder that I’m part of a community. I’m needed, if I will just step up and straighten the books, or volunteer for something. I’m needed to pay attention, too. Other people have troubles, bigger troubles than mine: I heard about recovery from surgery, and new widowhood, and disappointments in business.  I heard a few jokes, applauded a couple of impending birthdays, complimented someone’s Torah reading. I resolved, as I left, that I need to be more present in this place, because it connects me to other Jews, to people with Jewish values.

This is the real reason I belong to a congregation.  I came home reconnected to the Jewish people.  That is almost always what happens to me when I go to shul (synagogue). Some of it was good, some of it was boring, some of it was trivial, but it was centered on Torah. I am reminded of who I am, what I want to do in the world.

I am a Jew.  I am part of a People. I remember that best when I can touch base with other Jews, and the best way I know to do that is with my congregation.

Thank you, Temple Sinai.  I love you.


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