Wednesday, January 25, 2017


This is one of my all-time favorite Calvin & Hobbes cartoons.

The change of which I write is not as monumental as less jelly on Calvin's toast. It's merely that for those of you who have been reading my posts over the years, you will no longer find new postings at this site. Rather, I will be posting future blogs on my new website It has an RSS feed if you know what that means. (Clearly, I don't.)

See you there.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


I'm reading Rabbi Alan Lew’s ז״ל This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared — again. I never finished reading it the first time I picked it up, and it's all new to me now, having forgotten most of what I had read back then. It outlines a spiritual journey from mid-summer through autumn, from Tisha b'Av — a day that marks grief and mourning, death and destruction throughout Jewish history — all the way through Elul — a month of reflection, to the High Holy Days themselves, and finally the supremely joyous celebration of life and abundance — Sukkot.

I felt inspired to observe Tisha b'Av this year — including the fast. I sensed an opportunity to experience transformation in a much more profound way this Holy Day season. On the mundane level, I am also still searching for the key to a healthy weight — an intrinsic key as opposed to the effective but contrived tools of Fitbit and I want mindfulness to replace my unconscious and hedonistic drive to eat, recognizing that this behavior represents old habitual (non-) thinking. The fast itself made that clear. It was quite different from the Yom Kippur fasts that I am accustomed to. In those instances I'm in the synagogue all day. Sometimes I'm troubled by hunger, sometimes not, but it's made somewhat easier by my being removed from my everyday environment. On the other hand, during this Tisha b'Av fast I was at home doing my usual tasks. When, even while adhering to my fast, I unconsciously found myself wandering into the kitchen in response to boredom or discomfort, it made it evident how I tend to use food as an antidote for those feelings on a routine basis.

As Reb Zalman ז״ל suggests, I am in a stage of life where outward procreative drives, out of necessity, turn to a different kind of creation —  to giving birth to legacy, to teaching and mentoring, to inward expression and spiritual fulfillment.* The thirsts and desires of my body, need to give way to the hunger of my soul. That is a challenging transition. My mind is having trouble acknowledging and accepting this. My mind wants to continue to feed itself at the heedless expansive pace it did in its youth. This is no longer sustainable.

For some, it takes a 2x4 over the head in the form of a heart attack or such to get the kind of clarity needed to make that transition. I choose to avoid that. I seek to gain that perspective by climbing a spiritual mountain for the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps then I may receive a spiritual 2x4 to awaken me to the reality of my life and ultimate death.

I’m hoping that such awareness, such consciousness, will guide the tiny choices I make in every moment — from what I put in my mouth, to what words come out of it; from what I choose to look at, to how I see the essence of another person; from how I hear what others are saying, to how I listen to the voice deep within.

This is an extraordinarily challenging proposition, and I feel foolishly brazen to declare it. On the other hand, what choice do I have? I can choose to continue to go from day to day, living in the same pattern that has become a comfortable and unconscious routine. Far better it is to take a chance on waking up. The shofar sounds the alarm every year. We wouldn’t need to do that if we didn't fall asleep every year. I guess in some way we individually and collectively hit the snooze alarm and roll over into our customary unconsciousness. But there comes a time when it is necessary to arise and greet the day. That way, just maybe, this time I won't be completely unprepared!

* Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 86

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Cry of the Shofar

Was it something Rabbi Ezray said? Did his words unlock a piece of unprocessed grief within me? Did his healing prayer trigger something, or was it just some fleeting holiday nostalgia passing through? I don't know if it was any of these things or maybe all of them, but suddenly I sat there softly weeping.

My sobbing was so gentle I couldn't be sure if Debbie, sitting right next to me, was even aware. It wasn't like last year when sounding the shofar was such a deeply moving experience that when I descended the bimah and arrived back at my seat a deep release came through as tears. I was able to control the sound of my crying that morning—less so the trembling of my body. This morning was different. The weeping was more like a loving hand softly stirring a child from slumber.  Moreover, I had not yet sounded the horn.

I really didn't want to draw attention to my unexpected emotional state. With my index finger I brushed aside a few tears, but when I began to sniffle I had to ask Debbie for a tissue. She had none, nor did Karen next to her. Just about then, Debbie felt the need to leave the sanctuary. She had sat there as long as she could knowing that our 16-month grandson was nearby. She said she was going to check in on the children service and would then bring me a tissue.

Shortly after Debbie returned, the rabbi introduced our new Temple educator, Rabbi Ilana, to instruct the congregation on the meaning of the shofar. She gave a stirring description of the terror that overcame people at the sound of wailing war alarms when she was living in Israel under the threat of Saddam Hussein's chemical rocket attacks. She likened her experience to the response that the shofar must have elicited in ancient times. I had just spent a month preparing my lip and my soul for sounding the shofar. I had also spent the morning in prayer and meditation further readying myself for this solemn obligation. I hadn't imagined that there was more that I could do in this regard. Nonetheless, Rabbi llana's words added another level of inspiration.

Rabbi Ezray called on Debbie who then ascended the bimah and began her reading, “May the cry of the shofar shatter our complacency.” The congregation responded, “May the cry of the shofar penetrate our souls.” As they continued reading about the shofar’s cry, I stood at Debbie’s side holding the smooth ram’s horn close to me, focusing on my imminent task. Instinctively I brought the instrument to my mouth and softly blew some warm air through it. In years past I might have looked out upon the congregation just to get a sense of how many seats were filled or to connect a little bit with the assembly. But this day I kept my gaze averted, my head down, breathing gently, connecting as best I could with the spirit that I hoped would come through the horn. Debbie concluded with, “May the cry of the shofar penetrate our hearts,” and the congregation replied, “May the cry of the shofar bring blessing to us, the people who hear its call.”

The rabbi then added a few words of instruction. He told the congregation, “Yesh and I talked about creating a moment between the blessings and the cry of the shofar just to prepare ourselves in a different way. Please stand."

My eyes were fixed on the prayer book before me. I waited till the sound of people standing up diminished before beginning to chant the Hebrew blessing praising God for making us holy through the commandments, in particular this one —hearing the sound of the shofar. Then I praised God for life itself, for sustaining us, and bringing us to this sacred moment. As I got to the familiar shehechiyanu phrase many joined in. They all sang, “Amen.”

The space of solemn stillness the rabbi had prescribed between the prayer and the shofar blast was short-lived.

A baby’s piercing cry shattered the silence, almost on cue, in tones remarkably reminiscent of the ram's horn. It brought immediate laughter to the entire congregation. Debbie bit her lip and turned away toward the ark. The rabbi said, "That is the perfect shofar!” I instinctively gave a thumbs-up sign recalling how decades ago I had heard another rabbi encourage his congregants who had babies present not to fear if they cried during Rosh Hashanah services because they all sounded like tiny shofars. Despite or maybe because of all of the kavannah — the spiritual focus — that I had developed in order to make the sacred sounds, I felt surprisingly comfortable and not the least bit distracted by this interruption. The rabbi and I were both smiling broadly. After a brief pause I shook my head, still grinning, and brought the horn back up to my lips awaiting the rabbi’s cue.

T’kiah!” he chanted. Before I could finish inhaling the child’s perfect T’kiah notes again wailed across the sanctuary. This brought even more laughter, at which point Debbie turned to me exclaiming, "It would have to be Matan, too!" "Was that Matan? I replied incredulously. I hadn’t noticed our son bringing the baby in to hear me sound the horn.

Rabbi Ezray, always capable of making the best of any situation, stated, "That was perfectly timed. Let's try it again! By the way, whoever that baby is, don't worry about baby noise,” trying to console the as yet unidentified parents who no doubt were suffering some embarrassment at this point.

I put my hand on the rabbi’s shoulder and informed him, "That's my grandson!"

"Nice!" he responded, signaling his own thumbs-up sign and throwing his head back in deep laughter. Wanting to let the entire congregation in on the joke he pointed to the two of us and proclaimed, "It's their grandson!" By this time my son had taken our little "shofar" to the back of the sanctuary and calmed him to a point where they and everyone else could finally listen to the sound of the actual ram's horn.

Once again I shook my head in resignation, smiling, returning the horn to my lips. The rabbi had suggested that we prepare for the shofar in a "different way," but I don't think that this is what he had in mind. One more time he chanted the cue, “T’kiah!” This time I sounded the horn. “Sh’varim-t’ruah!” More blasts. “T’kiah!” One by one his calls came followed by the loud bleating sounds of the shofar. They were truly bleating in a manner that was unique. I don't think the vibrato I was hearing was induced by nervousness. I wasn't any more nervous than any other year. It seemed as if the sound started deep in my belly. It was nothing that I could control. By the time it came through my lips and out the horn it had a frightened edge to it, much like the alarm Rabbi Ilana had mentioned earlier.

I've sounded shofar for over fifty years. It took me decades to understand that it was never intended to be a performance, and that it was not about me, the Ba’al T’kiah — the one who sounds the shofar — or my prowess. I eventually learned that the shofar service is truly a prayer, that properly done it is less by me and more through me. There is no commandment to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The only commandment is to hear it. In recent years I have started to hear the sound almost as any other member of the congregation does. I was definitely hearing it this morning, and these were tones that I had never heard before. Debbie mentioned it when we got back to our seats, and later the rabbi also said that he heard a difference.

These events reminded me of a Chassidic tale—
There once was a rebbe who gave his Ba’al T’kiah a long list of instructions on how to deliver the perfect shofar blasts. The chassid studied them diligently. He even put the sheet of instructions in his pocket in order to study up to the last minute. On Rosh Hashanah morning the rebbe surreptitiously picked the pocket of the chassid depriving him of his prized instructions. When the chassid discovered the sheets were missing he wept with great fear and grief. Moments later when it was time to sound the horn his notes reached the highest place in heaven. The rebbe had planned this from the start, knowing that by cracking open the chassid’s heart the sounds would pour out from this deep place within.

Without such a plan in place, the cry of the shofar on this Rosh Hashanah morning was lifted by my tears and those of my sweet grandson. May our hearts ever be open to receive those plaintive notes, mitigated, as well, by sweet sounds of laughter.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Baseball on the Seder Tray?

I’m in a quandary.

I love Passover. It combines so many elements — family gathering, feasting, drinking, the telling of the timeless story of our people, rejoicing in the miracle of freedom, contemplating the plight of oppressed people in all times and in all places, educating our children, passing on our heritage, singing, laughing. It provides echoes of my youth, of the seders at my grandmother's Brooklyn apartment, thoughts of family members, many of whom live on only in our memories. It's hard to believe, even though I've been leading seders for decades that the obligation of telling this story continues to fall on my shoulders. I've tried to walk a narrow line between fulfilling that solemn obligation and creating an environment of joy that I believe is essential to a learning environment.

Over the years I've used any number of "hooks" to draw the participants more deeply into the conversation. They haven't always been the most intellectually based themes — In-N-Out Burger (Q. What was the first fast food? A. Matzah.), Eco-seder  (with carbon offset credits, and potted, living karpas for everyone to take home and plant), March Madness (Nissan Insanity, with bracketology based on the Passover story), and last year's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles that provided ample opportunities for song parodies (Yesterday…Exodus may seem so far away, but we believe that we were there that day, oh, we believe in yesterday).

This year I got Spring Fever and decided to take two great spring phenomena and put them together — Passover and baseball! It turns out it wasn't a unique revelation. Putting those two words into Google provided me with a number of results — a few articles mostly using puns to compare the two. And I discovered that this very year marked the publication of The Baseball Haggadah. I bought it. It didn't really do much for me. I actually don't think that baseball and Pesach have enough in common to warrant basing an entire Haggadah and seder on the two.

Nonetheless, I sent out an Evite for our Baseball Passover Seder. The message read:
Spring is in the air — at least in some parts of the country. That means two things — baseball and Passover! As absurd as it might sound, why not combine them? Come dressed in your favorite team's regalia (think kippah with a visor). Prizes will be awarded for best answers to the question "Why is there a baseball on the seder tray?"
I have a few tricks up my sleeve as to how to integrate baseball into the seder  just to keep things interesting —  without losing the meaning of the evening.

Now, as for my quandary.

After receiving the invitation, my thoughtful son-in-law brought to my attention that I may have unwittingly caused a conflict. He and I have had many conversations over the years, and consequently he is very aware of how distasteful I find stereotypical ethnic names and images used as sports mascots. (The litmus test I have used is how would I have felt if someone had named a team the New York Jews or the Brooklyn Hebrews, with a Chassidic rebbe with a hooknose as a mascot?) The problem here is that my machatonim come from Ohio and they are fans of the Cleveland Indians, a team with a name and logo, in particular, that I find offensive in this regard. Granted, the name Indians is less objectionable than Redskins, but still, Stanford University replaced their team name, the Indians, with the Cardinal decades ago.

So what do I do? I would hope to honor my deeply held convictions, especially when we gather to commemorate our experience going forth from persecution and oppression based on our own tribal roots. At the same time, I not only want to be respectful of and hospitable to my mishbucha, I also want to be careful not to come down so heavily as to undermine the intention of creating a fun learning environment where our creative imaginations allow us to engage in ways we might not otherwise.

Maybe I could just divert their attention to some of the other baseball teams in their area. I notice that the Wooster, Ohio Little League teams go by the names of their sponsors. I suppose a cap with the letter "B" for the Boyer Firearms team would be an improvement. I know the Dairy Queen team “DQ” would bring a smile to most faces. Digging into the archives a bit, there were the minor league Wooster Trailers of 1905.  Also, just a short ride down the road brings you to the modern day Akron RubberDucks. Not even PETA would object to that, since no actual ducks have been harmed. And then there are always the Buckeyes. You can't go wrong naming a team after a nut!

Well, I posed my quandary to my mechutin by allowing him to preview this blog posting. He generously responded:

Yesh, I do not have a problem with the blog. I will not wear a Cleveland Indians hat with the Yahoo logo but do continue to wear a Cleveland Indians hat, as the local Native Americans have not seem to take offense to the name just the logo.

Quandary resolved. Play ball!