Sunday, September 24, 2017

Jerusalem of Iron, Jerusalem of Gold (2nd day Rosh HaShanah 2017 / 5778)

Much of the first part of this sermon is adapted from the account in Yossi Klein Halevi’s masterful book about the Six Day War, Like Dreamers, which devotes significant attention to the life and work of Meir Ariel, and from a video interview with Israeli composer Gil Aldema, Many thanks to the United Synagogue of Hoboken Choir for singing so beautifully during this sermon!

Plenty of songwriters start out with the intention of writing a truly iconic song, but few actually succeed. And no songwriter can count on writing a true classic. But let me tell you the story of one of the most well-known Hebrew songs of all time, an instant classic, and how it came to be written.  

It was early 1967.  The state of Israel was 19 years old, and life in Israel felt as precarious as it ever had. Whatever hopes that the new State of Israel would be welcomed into the middle east had not been realized.  Both Syria and Egypt were using increasingly disturbing rhetoric to describe their goal of eliminating the state of Israel.  There were border skirmishes with increasing regularity.  The question was not if war would come, but when.

At that time, a very large percentage of Israel’s population were Holocaust survivors and their families. Another large segment of the population were Jewish refugees from Arab countries who had fled from the lands where they had been living for generations.  The memory of Israel’s War of Independence less than 20 years before was palpable, as was the tragedy of the catastrophic military losses of that conflict that ushered the Jewish state into being. Israel was a place of hopefulness, but also a place of significant challenge. And this was to be the setting for Israel’s National Song Contest, to take place on Israel’s Independence Day in early May in Jerusalem. The various songs that would be entered in this contest had been written and submitted, but the contest organizers were concerned that there needed to be additional music to be played while the results of the judges were tabulated.  (We could call this a “pre-computer-age problem.”)

Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek suggested to Israeli composer Gil Aldema, who was coordinating the concert: Maybe, considering that the concert is taking place in Jerusalem, maybe there can be a performance of songs of Jerusalem?  Aldema responded:  I don’t think there are enough songs of Jerusalem.  

(That took me aback when I first heard this story.  I know of  hundreds of Hebrew songs of Jerusalem.  But that is today.  More than 50 years ago,  Jerusalem was for Jews not quite the celebratory place it is today.  Jerusalem was a reminder of past glory, but of present difficulty and struggle.  Of course, there are beautiful words about Jerusalem in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible, including the remarkable words about the return to Jerusalem in the Haftarah from the book of Jeremiah that was read today, but there few contemporary songs about Jerusalem.)
Aldema was told: if we don’t have modern songs of Jerusalem, we’ll have to commission them.  And he decides to approach five prominent israeli songwriters to ask them to write a song about Jerusalem.
The first four songwriters turn him down.  He asks songwriter #5 -- Naomi Shemer - to compose a song about Jerusalem, for use in this festival.
She is not very enthusiastic.  In fact, the next week she calls back and says:  “I've been thinking about it and I don't think I can do it.”
He responds: “Please! We really need you!”
She says: “I can’t write a song when the topic is dictated to me. That’s not how songwriting works.”
He says:  “I'll tell you what: If it makes it easier for you, just write a song about anything.  It doesn’t have to be about Jerusalem.”  
Upon hanging up the phone, he said to himself, “Now I KNOW she will write about Jerusalem.”

And in fact, she says, that very night, a new song just flowed out of her.  With Naomi Shemer’s strong classical Jewish education, her song played on a Talmudic expression.  The Talmud refers to how in ancient times, a beautiful object of jewelry that a groom might present to his wife on their wedding day was a golden diadem with an image of the Jerusalem skyline -- a Jerusalem of Gold -- Yerushalayim shel Zahav.  (BT Ketubot 62b)  This detail reflected that to the Jewish people, Jerusalem was not merely a city.   It was a symbol of home, of the vitality of the Jewish people, and of hopefulness.  And then echoing the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi in his poem “Ode to Zion,” -  she wrote:  “Behold, I am like a lute for all of your songs.   הלא לכל שירייך אני כינור  

The verses of the song expressed both the physical and spiritual beauty of the city of Jerusalem, especially as evening approaches, while also alluding to the

"What if?" "Lulei" and Counterfactuals for the New Year (Rosh HaShanah eve 2017)

This Hebrew year 5777 that is now coming to an end - it could have been different.

You probably think I have some specifics in mind -- which I do, but actually I am making a comment that would apply equally to every year in the history of our world.  We can always imagine how things would have gone differently.  In fact, focusing on some of the ways that things could have gone differently is one of our tasks now, on the cusp of a new year.

There is a particular Hebrew word that refers to the contemplation of something that didn’t happen but could have happened.  The word is 'lulei' לולא, and it means 'we're it not for.'  It's a word that introduces a counterfactual, an alternative that did not come to be.   

Most kids in our educational programs first encounter the word Lulei in a Purim song about Haman’s 3-cornered hat.  According to the song, ‘lulei hayu lo shalosh pinot לולא היו לו שלש פינות- had it not had 3 corners - lo hayah zeh ha-kova sheli. לא היה זה הכובע שלי   It would not have been my hat.”  This is a fine example of counterfactual reasoning, even if it is not very sophisticated.

But throughout the Bible, there are various examples of the use of the word lulei לולא that are weightier and even agonizing.  For example: the word lulei is used in the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Without going into the entire story:  Joseph’s brothers need to travel to Egypt to purchase some more grain, but they have been told that they won’t be able to buy grain unless the youngest brother Benjamin is with them.   But the brothers, have a terrible time trying to convince their father Jacob to release Benjamin to travel to Egypt with them.  He is a classic overprotective father who thinks he has lost one son already.  And the weeks and the months pass, and Jacob still refuses to release Benjamin to travel with them.  In frustration and concern, Joseph’s brother Judah exclaims to their father Jacob: כִּי לוּלֵא הִתְמַהְמָהְנוּ כִּי-עַתָּה שַׁבְנוּ זֶה פַעֲמָיִם  “Had we not delayed, we would have been able to return to Egypt twice already.”  In other words:  If it weren't for our unwise decision, we would all have been better off today.  That is a more typical use of the world lulei:  if such and such a thing had been different, I would not today be in the sorry state that I am in.  In other words, this is the use of the word lulei to introduce a feeling of regret.

It’s fair to say that this has been an unusual Jewish year in the United States. Many of us have been engaging in a lot of lulei thinking, imagining small details that could have been just a little bit different, with the result that the course of the country or the world could have been transformed --
whether for better or for worse.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey - helping those who are affected

This is the note I sent to my synagogue community on August 28, 2017. 

The images of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, in Houston and other communities in Texas and Louisiana, is devastating. It is on pace to be one of the worst episodes of flooding in recent American history.

Many of us in Hoboken know what it is like to be evacuated, stranded, and/or to have flooded homes and cars or other property. For many of us, this prompts a desire to help others, just as others around the country came to the aid of our community at our time of need.

In addition to aid organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, there are a number of Jewish organizations that are providing non-sectarian disaster relief. The following are some of the organizations that are accepting donations -- together with some thoughts about how these same organizations assisted us after Sandy. The United Synagogue of Hoboken Rabbis Discretionary Fund is making donations to all of these organizations.

Jewish Federations of North America -- This is the umbrella organization of all the Jewish Federations across the country, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. You can donate to Harvey relief through our local Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey's dedicated page,, or to the Houston Federation's Harvey Relief Fund or to the national JFNA relief fund. Donations from Jewish Federations were helpful to our synagogue and many individuals in our area following Sandy. 100% of donations go to disaster relief in the affected area.

Nechama - a Jewish Response to Disaster is a Jewish disaster relief organization that mobilizes volunteers to assist with the hard work of gutting and rebuilding following storms, floods and other disasters. Nechama volunteers were instrumental in the early stages of our synagogue's recovery after Sandy, as well as in clearing many of Hoboken's municipal buildings so they could be used as polling stations (for the 2012 election shortly after Sandy), and in assisting many people in our area -- especially the elderly -- in cleaning out their homes after the storm. While most Nechama volunteers are Jewish, most beneficiaries of Nechama's work are not - they assist whoever needs the help most. Nechama is currently evaluating their plans for responding to Harvey and will be seeking funds as well as volunteers.

Hebrew Free Loan Society has a project to provide interest-free loans to people in Houston who will need help in rebuilding. see