Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Seder Trivia Game - 2015/5775 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can find previous years' stories here, here, here and here.

The stories from our 2014/5774 seder are below.  Three unusual Pesach stories..... 2 are true, and one is fictional.  Can you figure out which story is not true?   (The answer is at the bottom.)

One of the most notorious Jewish gangsters was Meyer Lansky.  Born in Russia in 1903, Lansky immigrated to New York as a boy and had become a crime boss by the time he was a teenager - engaging in bootlegging, gambling, theft and extortion, and the occasional murder.  Lansky was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the 1991 film Bugsy, and he was the inspiration for the character of Hyman Roth in the film The Godfather Part II.

The biographer Robert Lacey interviewed Lansky’s cousin, Izzy Lansky, to gain some insights into Lansky’s Lower East Side childhood and when his criminal tendencies first surfaced.  Izzy said, “Actually, my first memory of my cousin was an incident of extortion, that happened at a Passover seder when I was about seven years old.  Meyer had found the afikoman, and everyone knew that the going rate for an afikoman in those days was about 25 cents.   But when my uncle went to hand him a quarter, Meyer threatened to smash the afikoman unless he got a full dollar - and a dollar he got.  I never saw anything like it before.”

That’s a nice afikoman you got there.  It would be a shame if anything ….happened to it.

Last March, a prominent Egyptian journalist and columnist wrote that Egypt should file suit against Israel - for damage suffered during the Ten Plagues.

Ahmad Al Gamal, writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al Masri Al Yawm, wrote: “We want compensation for the Ten Plagues that were inflicted upon us as a result of the curses that the Jews' ancient forefathers cast upon our ancient forefathers, who did not deserve to pay for the mistake that Egypt's ruler at the time, Pharaoh as the Torah calls him, committed.” was Pharaoh who oppressed the Children of Israel, rather than the Egyptian people,” Al Gamal stresses.

Al Gamal added, “We want compensation for the gold, silver, copper, precious stones, fabrics, hides and lumber, and for all animal meat, hair, hides and wool….All these are materials that the Jews used in their rituals. These are resources that cannot be found among desert wanderers unless they took them before their departure.”

Interestingly enough, Ahmad Al Gamal was not the first contemporary Egyptian to demand compensation from the Jewish people for Exodus-related expenses.   In 2003, the newspaper Al Ahram Al Arabi reported that Dr. Nabil Hilmi, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Al Zaqaziq, attempted to prepare a lawsuit against Israel and world Jewry for the jewels that the ancient Israelites took with them during their exodus out of Egypt.

What’s also amazing is that the Talmud includes a story remarkably similar to this.  The Jews’ response was to countersue the Egyptians for back wages for 600,000 people over the course of 400 years of slavery - plus accumulated interest.  I think the case will be dismissed.

Every year the number of products that you can find that are certified kosher for Passover keeps on increasing.  Wasabi.  Panko crumbs. Habanero pepper sauce.
But one of the newest kosher for passover items, spotted at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Paramus NJ, is - Kosher for Passover men’s suits.
The store has a rack that is labeled ‘Kosher for Passover’ - and on the rack are Italian and French suits that cost upwards of $1000, each one of which is marked “Kosher for Passover.”

Why? - theories abound, and people who work in the store didn’t necessarily know.  Cereal fibers in the lining?  Oatmeal rinses to keep the wool looking young and vibrant?
It appears that the real answer is that first of all, these suits do not violate the laws against mixtures of wool and linen; and second, the pockets have already been checked to ensure they have no hametz (leavened products) in them so the new buyer can buy the suit and wear it on Pesach without worrying about checking the pockets for Hametz.

Then again, even if the suits were edible, they probably would not taste much worse than Shmurah Matzah.  And pound for pound, they’re probably cheaper than Shmurah Matzah.


(ANSWER: B and C are true. (For B, see, though the original piece may have been intended as satire. RE C, I saw it myself.) A is false.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thoughts about Paris, violence, heroism, and peace

Many of us continue to be troubled and inspired by events in Paris this past week:  troubled by terrible acts of murder and violence, and inspired by great acts of kindness and self-sacrifice.

I wanted to share some of the thoughts that I shared with the community last shabbat, together with some more thoughts as the situation continues to unfold.

Paris may be far away from Hoboken, but this is an event that affects many people in our congregational family directly.This week I have spoken with many members of our community who are from Paris, or who have relatives in Paris, including many who have shopped at the Hyper Cacher supermarket and/or participated in the solidarity march on Sunday.  The terrible events in Paris this week could very easily have affected someone with close ties to our congregation.
The Charlie Hebdo murders were not random. The perpetrators were Muslim extremists who attacked those who were asserting their right to free speech, equal-opportunity lampooners who made fun of Christianity and Judaism and every other religion and ideology just as fiercely as they made fun of Islam.  And similarly, the kosher supermarket murders were also not random.  That same strain of Muslim extremism that cannot countenance anything they see as an attack on their religion is also viciously and murderously anti-Jewish. That anti-Jewish sentiment is not about Israel; it is about Jews.  This was one of numerous terrorist attacks against Jews in France this year; it has simply attracted more attention than the other incidents because of its connection to the murder of public figures.  We should be alarmed, but not at all surprised, that extremists make connections between Jews and everything they dislike about their society.  I am grateful that the French government is making it a special priority this week to step up its protection Jewish schools and communal institutions, as we pray for their safety and security.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus (Parashat Shemot), many Israelite slaves may have been inclined to assume the worst about every Egyptian, to regard each of them as an oppressor. So the Torah gives us the example of Pharaoh's daughter, and Shifra and Puah (according to those commentators who understand המילדות העבריות to mean 'midwives to the Hebrews' rather than 'Hebrew midwives'), to remind us that righteous people can be found in every people, every society and every culture, lest entire nations and peoples and groups be painted with the same brush. Were it not for 24-year-old Lassana Bathily, Muslim employee of Hypercacher market who helped more than a dozen hostages hide in the freezer on Friday, the carnage at the market would have been that much worse. He is a modern day analogue to Pharaoh's daughter and Shifra and Puah. (And because the police assumed the worst about him, he spent more than an hour in handcuffs on Friday until it was revealed that he was a life-saving hero.) I have faith that the world, and the Muslim world, have many many more Lassana Bathilys than murderous jihadists.  And it is terribly disheartening to read about random acts of violence against Muslims in France this week.  As we pray for comfort for the families of Yohan Cohen (age 22), Yoav Hattab (age 21), Philippe Braham (40s), and François-Michel Saada (age 55), who were buried yesterday in Israel, may we also pray for wisdom and discernment - to be vigilant, while also treating each person as an individual created in God's image.

This is one of those weeks when we are face to face with the world’s brokenness - seen in the murders in France, and also against the backdrop of horrific massacres of hundreds of civilians in Nigeria by Boko Haram; dozens murdered in terrorist bombings in Yemen, Pakistan, and Lebanon; ongoing violence in Syria; together with any number of tragedies in the United States and every country.  The Talmud teaches that each and every innocent life destroyed is equivalent to the destruction of the entire world (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). Building a world of peace has proven to be extraordinarily difficult in practice though it seems simple in theory.

But Jewish tradition recognizes that part of the key to peace is enabling disparate elements to coexist.  This is the meaning of the frequent refrain in our prayers:  “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.’  “May the One who establishes peace in the heavens, grant peace to us.”  But what peace exists “in the heavens”?  The eminent French Torah commentator Rashi remarks on these words in their original context in the Book of Job (25:2): The sky appears to us as if it were a pool of blue water, and the sun appears to us as if it were a ball of hot fire in the midst of that water.  What appear to be opposite substances do not neutralize each other or eliminate each other, but rather they co-exist.  Other religions may have visions of peace in which everyone is the same, or in which all blasphemers or enemies are neutralized.  But the Jewish vision of peace is different.  It’s a vision in which forces that appear to be opposed actually figure out how to live together.  This does NOT mean that we should capitulate to the demands of aggressors.  But it means that we should not be threatened by difference.  It means that we recognize that God’s plan for the world includes diversity within unity, and unity within diversity.  And whether we get closer to achieving such a world, or further away from it, is not only up to God:  it is up to every world leader, and it is up to every individual.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of....

Little known Hanukkah fact: In the original Yiddish version of the dreidel song, the dreidel is not made of clay, but of 'blai,' which is lead. Lead used to be the most popular material for making dreidels, before it was known how terribly toxic such dreidels would be. From an old guide to Hanukkah crafts, here are instructions for making a dreidel out of molten lead. But if you love your family, please make your dreidel out of clay or wood or plastic and not out of lead!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thousands of years of long-lasting oil

Everyone knows the Hanukkah story about a little bit of oil lasting for eight days.  But not everyone realizes that this was not actually the first story in Jewish tradition about miraculously long-lasting oil.

Earlier this fall, we and communities around the world read a passage from the book of Kings, the Haftarah for Parashat Vayera, which is about miracles performed by the Prophet Elisha, the protege of Elijah the Prophet.

One of these stories (2 Kings 4) describes a woman who approaches Elisha and tells him:  I am in dire financial straits; my husband is dead and we are in terrible debt; our creditors now want to seize my two children as slaves.

Elisha asks her: “What do you have at home?”  She responds:  “We have nothing at all at home, except for a jar of oil.”  Elisha tells her to borrow jugs and vessels from all her neighbors and then to pour oil out of this jar that she has, into the borrowed vessels.  Miraculously, this jar of oil keeps on pouring.  It fills up all the jars that anyone has in the entire neighborhood.  She then sells the oil, pays off her creditors and is able to live in more comfortable circumstances.

There are some scholars who believe that this story was an inspiration for the story of the Miracle of the Oil that we read about on Hanukkah.  (The Hanukkah miracle of the oil is not mentioned in the Books of Maccabees or other earlier sources for the Hanukkah story; it is first mentioned in the Talmud, from several hundred years later.)

Take a moment to recall the first time you heard about the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah. Technically speaking, how did it happen?  I had always imagined that they poured whatever oil they had into the cups of the menorah, and that the flames just continued to burn.  But interestingly, the passage in the Talmud that tells us about the miracle of the oil (Shabbat 21b) does not say this explicitly.  Rather, it says: The Greeks had defiled all the oil they could find in the Temple.  After the victory of the Hasmoeans (the Maccabees), “they found only one jar of oil with the seal of the High Priest [indicating that the oil was still pure and had not been defiled], and it had only enough oil to light for one day.  Na’asah bo nes ve-hidliku mimenu shmonah yamim.  A miracle happened with it, and they lit from it for 8 days.”   This sounds like this is not the miracle of long-burning oil, but the miracle of an apparently bottomless jar of oil, similar to what we read about in the book of Kings.  It sounds like every day they took the jar and poured oil from it into the cups of the menorah, and the oil burned at normal speed, but there was just much more of it because they were able to continually pour oil out from it.

This image of a bottomless jar of oil can be a poignant symbol for us today.  A few years ago, we invited Jewish environmental leader Nigel Savage, founder of the Jewish environmental organization Hazon (, to speak at our synagogue.  He noted that it is not surprising that Jews are at the forefront of the contemporary environmental movement, because so many Jewish symbols are connected to the notion of sustainability.  God appears to Moses in the book of Exodus as a ‘bush that was not consumed’ - the ever-renewable resource.  And the miracle of Hanukkah is a miracle of oil that lasts for eight times as long as expected.  Many of us, for most of our lifetimes, have lived as if the quantity of oil in our world is unlimited, and our capacity to burn is also essentially unlimited.  But more recently, we have come to truly understand that the quantity of fossil fuel is less than we had thought - and of more immediate concern, that the capacity of the environment to bear our use of it is also less than we had thought.

We sometimes think of environmental awareness as something that emerged in the modern era, something of which our ancestors were unaware.  But there are plenty of passages in the Talmud and other early Jewish literature about the importance of conserving our resources.  For example,  a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 67b) tells us that one who covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphta lamp -- in either case, causing the fuel to be burned up more quickly and being less energy-efficient - has violated the laws forbidding causeless destruction.

Sometimes scarcity is what causes us to be most creative in the use of the resources we have. It is no wonder that Israel, with relatively little fossil fuel, has become an international leader in the use of solar energy, the ultimate renewable resource.

This year, our congregation has demonstrated our commitment to environmental awareness and environmental responsibility by being part of the Greenfaith Certification Program, a program for congregations of diverse faiths that seek to express a commitment to the protection of our environment. Our congregation strives to incorporate environmental consciousness in all of our activities and decisions, from our decisions about school and office supplies, to our building maintenance and renovation decisions, to our use of energy and natural resources.  We look forward to being ever more thoughtful about our community’s environmental impact and the messages we transmit about the environment to children and adults.  And this Hanukkah, we hope to get in touch with the stories of our ancestors as we seek to get maximum use out of our every drop of precious oil.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Shammai and Hillel fight it out: How should we light the Hanukkah candles?

How was it decided that we should light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah? In this audio message, join me in going back in history to listen to the debate between the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai about how best to mark the Hanukkah miracle, and how best to face the challenges of the future.  Chag Urim Sameach - best wishes for a happy Hanukkah holiday!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Fruit That Remembers: What Botanists Say About the Etrog

The Etrog is undoubtedly one of the most unusual Jewish ceremonial objects.

If you have spent some time with an Etrog, you know that it smells wonderful, it
doesn't taste so great, and it looks like a mutant lemon, (usually) with a distinctive protrusion on one end.  It is one of the Arba Minim, the four kinds of plants that Jews use ceremonially during prayers on the holiday of Sukkot (beginning this year on October 8 in the evening).
As I learn more about the Etrog, both Judaically and botanically, I realize what a powerful symbol it is for the Jewish people.

In English, an etrog is called a 'citron,' and it's a very early member of the citrus family.  According to many botanical scholars, it’s the very first citrus fruit to be cultivated.  In fact, almost all of the citrus fruits that we know of today - grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes - are human creations, cultivated by crossing the four original citrus fruits (citron, mandarin, pomelo, and papeda) with each other.  This would indicate that not only is the etrog the relative of the lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit, but the etrog is actually their ancestor.

(And from a more somber perspective:  those who theorize what would happen to our planet in the absence of human beings suggest that various cultivated plants would quickly revert to their original states, reversing the process of thousands of years of cultivation. If so, then an earth without humans would again be full of etrog trees.)

Like botanical historians, the architects of rabbinic literature also describe the etrog as one of the very earliest fruits with which human beings had contact.  When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, and the snake tells them to eat from the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, what kind of fruit was it?  The torah doesn't say - it just refers to it as a ‘pri,’ a ‘fruit.’  Christian folklore says it was an apple.  But Midrash Rabbah says it was an etrog tree. Both science and rabbinic literature agree that the etrog belongs in our very deepest antiquity.  So don’t ever call an etrog a mutant lemon, because - literally, truthfully - it’s the other way around: from a historical and scientific point of view, a lemon is actually a mutant etrog.

Interacting with the etrog sends us back to deepest antiquity, to the earliest years of human civilization on this planet.  It is a powerful symbol of the beginning of the Jewish year, when we seek to rewind, to turn back the clock, to be what we used to be and what we know we can be again.

What is most distinctive about the etrog is its protrusion, which some refer to as a ‘stem’ though it is clearly not a stem.  The stem, or oketz, is on the other side.  This protrusion is analogous to the little dot or speck you sometimes find on the bottom of a peach or a nectarine or orange.  In Hebrew, it’s called a pitom - though if you look very closely, you see that it is made of two distinct parts.  Rabbinic literature calls them the pitom (which is the wooden-looking part) and the shoshana (the flower).  If you look closely at the tip of an etrog, you can see a little dried-up flower - and this is what makes the etrog truly unusual.  (Not every etrog grows with a pitom, but most do.)

Like most fruits, every etrog began its life inside a flower.  Usually, as a fruit grows, the flower dies, and it either separates from the fruit, or dries up and falls off.  What is distinctive about the etrog is that it keeps the dried remains of its flower with it - it keeps the flower with it.  This makes the etrog a palpable symbol of the Jewish people, which does not forget where it came from.  It keeps the memory of its origins present all the time.  It doesn't ever cut itself off from its past; its past influences its present.

But of course the pitom is the most fragile part of the etrog.  Just a little bit of rough handling  and the pitom will fall off, rendering the etrog unfit for use.  Truly, it doesn’t take a lot for us to be severed from our memories of where we came from -- our memories of ourselves as individuals, and, for the Jewish people, our collective memories of our experiences throughout Jewish history.

There is one more way that the etrog, together with the palm and willow and myrtle branches, send us back to the past and to our early communal memories.  There are some places in the world where etrogs are plentiful.  But for most of the last millennium, the largest Jewish communities were in places where etrog trees (and palm trees and myrtle trees) were rare.  

Picture a Jewish village in Poland 200 years ago.  Somehow, that Jewish community would figure out how to acquire these semi-tropical palm branches and Mediterranean etrogs and myrtles, and bring them to Poland and Russia.  Often, at great expense, entire villages would buy an etrog together that they would all share, taking turns using it, saying the blessings and marching with it.  (Jewish folklore is full of stories of mishaps involving the purchase, sharing and care of etrogs; the contemporary film Ushpizin pays homage to this folklore motif.)  The etrog and the other plants of the Four Species served as a reminder to these communities:  We may live here in Poland or Russia, but we are not from here.  We are from the place where these plants grow.  It served as yet another reminder to Jewish communities in the Diaspora of their ties to the land of Israel, and it is yet another way in which the etrog connects us to our deepest past.

When we hold the etrog on this Sukkot holiday, may it help us to contemplate and connect with our most distant past, and remind us to carry that past with us into the future.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Yom Kippur thought on the origin of a Jewish toast: "L'chaim" - "to life!"

I shared this reflection with my community a few years ago on a Yom Kippur evening.
Each Shabbat morning in our synagogue, before we say the Kiddush, the prayer over wine, it is traditional for the leader to say 'savri meranan,' or 'savri haverei,’ which basically means, “Your attention please!”.  This is traditionally followed by everyone saying, with great enthusiasm, “L’chaim!"  If you know Hebrew, or if you ever saw Fiddler on the Roof, you know that L’chaim! means "To Life!"  Then we say the blessing over wine.

You may have wondered where this peculiar Jewish toast comes from.  In fact, it is almost a thousand years old.  The Midrash Tanhuma, a collection of ancient midrashim, describes this practice, in a way that has a lot to teach us about wine, about community, and about each other. 

The Midrash says: When there's a death-penalty trial, and the verdict is about to be announced, one of the judges announces: savri meranan?  “Your attention - what is your verdict?”