Six Lessons from My Grogger

Image: A hand holding a grogger. Photo by Yonina, public domain.

I don’t know about you, but the news of late had really wounded me. I felt sad and angry for the poor people in Istanbul and Brussels, blown up and terrified. I have felt angry and helpless, watching certain candidates in the 2016 American election compete to see who could say cruel things about immigrants, African Americans and other underdogs in our society. I was angry with the behavior of my fellow Jews at the AIPAC Policy Conference, applauding speech that simply should not have been welcome there. (It is supposed to be a nonpartisan organization for improving relations between Israel and the U.S. Trashing the sitting President of the U.S. should not ever, ever be OK there.)

And I’ve done the things I do: wrote letters to my elected officials, wrote letters to Jewish community leadership, sent money to organizations that fight hate speech and ignorance.

Still, my heart was hurting. I felt blue. I did not feel like going to Purimshpiel last night, but I had promised to be there. And after all, it’s a mitzvah to hear the megillah. So I went.

As soon as we were inside the synagogue we were greeted by excited kids and grown-up “kids” getting ready for the Purim show. We admired each other’s silly outfits. I wore a top hat with a big pink scarf knotted around it – not a great Purim costume, but something. I’m so glad I did, because dressing up connected me to the healing silliness of the night.

First we gathered in the chapel to hear the Megillah. Cantor Keys did it beautifully, and I got caught up in listening to the story (learning Hebrew really does enrich Jewish experience!) I anticipated the mention of “HAMAN” so that I could cue the roar of groggers.  Cantor Keys is a scholar and a cantor, and it was a treat to hear her do the Esther chant with all the little trills and ornaments. It was fun to try to catch the HAMAN’s.

There was something therapeutic about the sound of my grogger. It GROWLED. It growled out all my pent-up frustration, all my fury at world events and stupid politicians. It gave a sound to the feeling in my heart. It expressed my anger at all the Hamans in the world.

Then we ate pizza. (“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”)

Then we had a Purimshpiel, a crazy riff on Star Wars that made no sense at all, but which had all of us laughing at the ridiculous puns and inside jokes.

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Purim Wars: The Farce Awakens (at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA) Photo by Susan Krauss.

I woke up this morning with my heart was in an entirely new place. I’m still not at all happy about those things I mentioned above, but I no longer feel defeated by all the evil in the world. I feel ready to fight for goodness and Torah. I will write more letters, I will write an op ed and send it to the paper, I will teach and I will get in faces and I will do what I can. In June, I’ll vote in the California primary.

I’m ready to be an agent for good in this world.

So, my lessons from the grogger?

  1. The obligation to hear the megillah is what got me to synagogue last night. Had I stayed at home, I’d still be feeling blue. Sometimes it is good to be commanded.
  2. Groggers are fun, but they are also expressive. My grogger said what words could not say about my feelings.
  3. Sometimes we need to get mad. Anger can be a motivator.
  4. Haman is all around us these days, but he will lose if we fight him. Evil will only prevail if we allow it.
  5. Silly is good. Silly heals.
  6. Purim works in mysterious ways!

Home Safety is a Mitzvah

Image: Life preserver hanging on a wall. Photo by tookapic.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8

We often think of spirituality as a high and lofty subject, but Jewish spirituality can be a gritty pursuit. At its best, it permeates our daily lives, for the mitzvot [commandments] often address very practical matters.

The commandment above is one of my favorites. It addresses the question of home safety: put a railing on your roof so that no one will fall off. The rabbis extended this to include the principle of all home safety matters: if I have a loose stair, or an unlighted entry, or a tricky throw rug, the Torah commands me to fix it, lest someone be injured.

I’m engaged with this mitzvah right now, because I’ve begun my Passover preparations. Every year at this time I check my “earthquake supplies” (really, emergency supplies) to make sure that I can take care of myself, my family and my two elderly neighbors should a big earthquake hit or some other disaster complicate life in the Bay Area.

I do this as part of my Passover prep because it’s very convenient time to do it. One of the things I do is cart last year’s canned tuna and peanut butter to the Food Bank. It’s all still good, and someone will benefit, but when/if there’s trouble, I won’t be stuck eating ten year old peanut butter for a month. I promptly sell the renewed supplies to my non-Jewish son, who is the official owner of my emergency stash, so I can still observe a kosher Passover.

Silly? Nope. I have vivid memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was not “The Big One” but was certainly the Bad Enough One which wrecked our home and disrupted our lives for more than a year. The next big quake may very well cut me off from water and food for an extended period, so I prepare.

If you don’t live in earthquake country, you still need to be ready for emergencies. Should something bad happen in your neighborhood, can you lay hands on these things?

  • Clean (probably bottled) water (1 gallon per day per person)
  • Nutritious food (high in protein and/or calories)
  • Can opener
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription meds
  • Emergency blanket or wrap
  • Shoes
  • Copies of essential personal documents (whatever you’d want to have if the house burned down, God forbid)
  • Chargers for electronics like your cell phone
  • Phone numbers and contact information
  • Copies of passports and driver’s licenses
  • Cash in small bills (ATMs may not be working)
  • Baby supplies (if needed)
  • Pet supplies (if needed)

I also have a roll of duct tape, a multi-tool knife, a bottle of detergent, a whistle, my ham radios, spare eyeglasses and a spare bottle of propane.

There are also things I don’t keep around, because they decrease the safety of anyone in my house: guns and cans of gasoline top that list.

I hope that we’ll never need this stuff. I hope you will never need your emergency supplies, either. But if you need a push to update your kit, now you’ve got it: it’s a mitzvah!

 

 

What’s “Shavua Tov”?

On Saturday evening or Sunday morning, someone may greet you with the phrase “Shavua tov!” (shah-VOO-ah TOHV).

It means “Good Week!” and it’s the greeting for the new week that begins at sundown on Saturday night. Remember, all Jewish days begin and end at sundown.

You’re most likely to hear it Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but it’s still appropriate (if a little belated) until sundown on Wednesday. You’ll rarely hear “Shabbat shalom” until Friday.

So if someone says “Shavua tov!” to you, you can say right back to them, “Shavua tov!” Alternatively you can say, “Gam l’cha!”  if they are male and “Gam lech!” if they are female.  Either way, it means “Also to you!” or “Backatcha!”

Shavua tov!

 

What is AIPAC?

I got this tweet yesterday, and I know it is a concern for a lot of Jews. However, in keeping with my tagline, “Basic Judaism spoken here,” let’s start with a basic question: What is AIPAC?

AIPAC (pronounced “A-pack”) stands for “American Israel Public Affairs Committee.” It is a lobbying organization that promotes pro-Israel policy to the Congress and the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government. It has over 100,000 members in the U.S. According to its website, “The mission of AIPAC is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.” Membership in AIPAC is open to anyone regardless of religion, age, political party, or race.

AIPAC is not allied with any political party in the U.S. or in Israel. In the U.S., its annual policy conference invites speakers from both major political parties. It does not rate or endorse candidates for political office, and it is not a PAC (political action committee.) AIPAC members are encouraged to educate their elected officials about the importance of U.S.-Israel ties, and the national organization provides a network for accomplishing this work.

At this writing, AIPAC has confirmed the following speakers to its 2016 policy conference on March 20-22: Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton, Republican Candidate Donald Trump, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Member Robert Menendez, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and behavior has made him a controversial invitee. For more about the controversy, I recommend reading the Reform Movement response to the announcement that he will be a speaker.

AIPAC advocates support for the government in Israel elected by the voters of Israel.It is not involved in Israeli elections, nor does it endorse Israeli candidates or parties.

Critics of AIPAC see it as exerting undue influence on the Congress, and some extreme critics paint it as a group that actually “controls” Congress. It is a lobbying group like many others, made up of and supported by U.S. citizens who want to make sure that their viewpoint is represented in Washington. In that respect it is like the American Association of Retired Persons or the National Rifle Association. We may agree or disagree with the goals of a particular lobby, but under current rules, lobbying is what it takes to get the attention of the Congress.

To learn more about AIPAC, take a look at their website.

 

 

 

What is a Semite?

Image: Tee shirt with the words “Yo Semite.” Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History Museum Store.

Actually, there’s no such thing. “Semitic” is a designation for a language group that includes Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew.

The term was coined in the late 18th century by August Ludwig von Schlözer, a historian, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, a German Protestant theologian. They derived it from Shem, the name of one of the three sons of Noah in Genesis 10, via the Greek pronunciation Σημ (“seem.”)  As critics at the time pointed out, this was problematic because in that passage, the Canaanites (who also spoke a language from this group) were descended from another brother, Ham.

Academics began to refer to Jews as “Semites” in the 19th century. Pseudoscientific theories about race abounded in the West and were used to justify hatred towards Jews and other people deemed undesirable by those in power. Targeted groups included people of African descent, Irish descent, Asian descent, and those with brown skin. So-called scientists strove to identify physical characteristics which “proved” that those groups of individuals were inferior to whites. Jews were also one of the targeted groups and were referred to as “Hebrews” or “Semites” to underline the notion of a Jewish race (a concept that completely ignores Judaism’s long history of accepting converts.)

German journalist Wilhelm Marr used the term “antisemitismus” [antisemitism] as a more scientific-sounding, more elegant alternative to “Jew hatred.” in 1880 he published a pamphlet, Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit, which outlined his theory that Jews were infiltrating and damaging German culture. In the same year he founded the Antisemiten-Liga [Antisemitism League] in Germany and the term antisemitism moved into popular use.

It is probably more useful to use the term “Jew hatred” for the fear and hatred of Jews, rather than to get embroiled in arguments about whether or not Arabs are also “Semites” and therefore subject to “antisemitism.” However, courtesy of some 19th century Germans, we seem to be stuck with this misnomer.

Jewish tradition as well as Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore equal:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. – Genesis 1:27

Islam also asserts the equality of human beings, as established in the Quran. God makes distinctions among people only according to their individual righteousness:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). – Quran 49:13

Therefore the hatred of any group of people merely because of their designation as a member of that group is wrong according to all three Abrahamic religions. Nor does science perceive any difference among homo sapiens: despite differences in coloration or belief, we are all one humanity.

Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

It is a pleasure to share this beautiful d’var Torah from Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild with my readers. It prompts us to ask ourselves, “How do I hold the torch of Jewish tradition? Do I simply hold it, or do I actively pass it on?”

rabbisylviarothschild

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it…

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