Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Finding Humor in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict of Summer 2014

Regular readers of my blog will certainly notice that I've been silent since July 1 when I posted "There are no words for this tragedy" following the murder of three Israeli teens. With Israel in turmoil and its people under constant rocket attacks, it's a challenge to write about anything else. In the past two weeks I've been so consumed reading all of the thoughtful opinion pieces trying to make sense of the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that I haven't blogged about anything.

My Facebook news feed has been flooded with personal stories of my friends who live throughout Israel running for bomb shelters. And since this conflict is taking place in the summer -- the height of tourist season in Israel -- I'm reading the reflections of my friends from the United States who are visiting Israel this summer and finding their travel itinerary has been altered like they never expected. Rather than hiking in the South and touring Jerusalem's ancient sites, they are experiencing what it's like to have to grab the kids and make it to the shelter in 30 seconds as another errant bomb from Gaza descends overhead.

I'm also watching as the global Jewish community walks the tightrope between solidarity and security. Is now the time to travel to Israel to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters there? Is it time to bring Israeli children to Jewish summer camps in America to give them some respite from the daily conflict? At the same time as I'm being invited to travel to Israel for a three-day solidarity mission with the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbis' central association), I'm also discussing whether the local Jewish Federation in Detroit should bring the Teen Mission back home for safety (they're cutting the trip short by two weeks and returning to Michigan today).

Rather than attempting to make sense out of yet another senseless and violent escalation in the no-end-in-sight Middle East conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I've been intrigued by the way humor is helping Israelis cope with the current situation.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach: No Words

There are no words for this tragedy.

May the memories of the murdered Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, be for blessings and may peace triumph over evil.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Jewish Calendar for the Digital Age

Besides the often told joke that the definition of a Jewish holiday is “they tried to kill us, we prevailed, now let’s eat,” there are not many jokes about the Jewish calendar.  You might be surprised to know that the only one I can ever remember was actually told by a non-Jewish late-night talk show host. In his opening monologue on The Late Show several years ago, David Letterman turned to his Jewish bandleader Paul Shaffer and wished him a “Happy New Year” since it was Rosh Hashanah. Letterman then asked Shaffer what the Jewish year was, to which he explained that it was now 5759. Letterman quickly deadpanned “Well, I’m sure I’ll still be writing 5758 on all my checks for a few weeks.”

Google's Calendar now includes Hebrew dates
Google's Calendar now includes Hebrew dates

The joke struck a chord for so many Jews because we all know we don’t use the Jewish year or the Jewish calendar very much in our everyday lives. Even most Israelis write the secular year on their checks and on contracts and celebrate the Gregorian date for birthdays and anniversaries. The Jewish calendar, however, does play a significant role our lives. We need to know when to observe our departed relatives’ yahrzeits dates. We need to schedule our events and travel plans around the Jewish holidays. We need to schedule our children’s bar and bat mitzvahs according to their Jewish birthdays.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jewish Themes in Michael Jackson's Songs

Today is the fifth anniversary of Michael Jackson's sudden death. He died on June 25, 2009 and like the notable deaths of other big name celebrities, I remember exactly where I was at the time. As a child I was a big fan of Michael Jackson's music. I recall listening to the cassette tape of Thriller on the way to and from Hillel Day School in the Fall of 1982. When I discovered MJ's "Off the Wall" cassette in my parents' music collection I listened to it until it just broke. Today, my oldest son loves listening to Michael Jackson, which is certainly a good sign that his music will outlive him.

In Michael Jackson's memory I've gone through his entire song catalog to find the "Jewish themes" in his music. Thanks for reading and sharing... Enjoy!

Michael Jackson wearing a kippah (yarmulke)

ABC – Learning the alef-bet in cheder

A Brand New Day Havdallah

Another Part of Me  Neshama Yiterah (our second soul on Shabbat)

[I’m] Bad – The Vidui (Confessional)

Baby Be Mine – Pidyon Haben

Beat It – Hoshanah Rabbah theme

Beautiful Girl  – King Ahashverosh's serenade of Queen Esther

Ben – Hebrew for “son”

Black or White – How some describe Jewish law

Break of Dawn – Hashkama Minyan (early risers' prayer group)

Can't Get Outta the Rain – Mashiv haruach u'morid hageshem (prayer for rain)

Can't Let Her Get Away – Agunah (chained woman without a bill of divorce)

Cheater – Ryan Braun

Come Together – Minyan

Dancing Machine – There’s one at every Jewish wedding

Dirty Diana – The Princess of Wales in niddah (sorry!)

Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough – What you don’t say to a mohel

Earth Song – "Kol Ha-olam Kulo"

Fly Away  – Shiluah Haken (shooing away the mother bird)

Free  – Yovel (Jubilee year when all slaves and prisoners go free)

The Girl Is Mine – Kinyan at a Jewish wedding "Harei at mekudeshet lee b’taba’at zo…"

Got to Be There – That guilty inner monologue before holiday dinners with the family

Heal the World – Mi-Sheberach prayer for the Ill

I Want You Back – Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born)

I'll Be There – Elijah says this before every bris

In the Back – Where everyone sits in shul

Jam – Goes nice on a bagel

Keep the Faith – Ani Ma'amin (b'emunah shleyma)

Leave Me Alone – Lonely Man of Faith (Soloveitchik)

Man in the Mirror – Cheshbon Nefesh (personal accounting before High Holidays)

Night Time Lover – Mikvah Night

Off the Wall – What happens to your kvittel (note) if you don't stick it deep enough into the cracks of the Kotel (Western Wall)

Privacy – Yichud

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with Q)

Remember the Time – Kiddush (Remember the Sabbath day...)

Rock with You – Palestinians said this to Israelis during Intifada

Save Me – Hoshiah Na!

She’s out of My Life – Get (Bill of Divorce)

Somebody's Watching Me – God's omnipresence

Someone in the Dark – Pharaoh during the 9th plague

Speechless – Vayidom Aharon (Aaron was speechless - Lev. 9)

Take Me Back – Ba'al Teshuva

Unbreakable – The groom can't smash the glass at his wedding

Up Again – T'chiyat Hametim (resurrection of the dead)

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with V)

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ – Simchat Torah

We Are Here to Change the World – Tikkun Olam

We’ve Had Enough – Dayeinu!

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with X)

You Are Not Alone – Hashem is everywhere

You Can’t Win – Trying to convince Bubbie you're not hungry

(No Michael Jackson songs that start with Z)

Friday, June 20, 2014

12-Year-Old Howard Stern with a Yarmulke

Have you seen the 12-year-old stand-up comic who seems to have channeled his inner Howard Stern?  Josh Orlian is a pre-bar mitzvah modern Orthodox kid from New York who told some racy jokes on "America's Got Talent" the other night. His stage presence and delivery need some polishing, but he had Howie Mandel and Howard Stern -- two of the four judges -- in stitches.

The last time we saw a Jewish teen wearing a kippah (yarmulke) on "America's Got Talent," there was no controversy... just a lot of kvelling (pride) for the Jewish people. Edon Pinchot was the fourteen-year-old singing piano player who quickly became the big story in the Jewish media two summers ago during his performance on "America's Got Talent." Fast forward to this summer and Josh Orlian, another cute Jewish boy with a yarmulke, has advanced to the next round of the reality TV show. This time around, there is some question in the Jewish community as to the nature of the performance. Have a look:

Friday, June 06, 2014

Why Shep Gordon is the SuperMensch

A few months back I received a voicemail from a publicist in Los Angeles. She told me that she stumbled upon my blog on the web, read some of my posts, and thought I'd enjoy watching a movie she was promoting. I returned the call and we talked a little about Hollywood icon Shep Gordon and the film about him that Mike Myers directed.

I quickly agreed to screen an advance of the movie and within a week I received a copy of "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon". I put the film on one of my monitors and continued to do some work on the other. Well that lasted for about 30 seconds until my full attention was directed to the very Jewish looking guy on the screen who sounded a little like Larry David with a nasal infection.

Shep Gordon and Mike Myers
Shep Gordon and Mike Myers (

I was hooked. The film has interviews from some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities talking about why Shep Gordon is such a great guy (read: mensch). This biography documentary could easily have felt like a bar mitzvah tribute video, albeit to a seventy-year-old Hollywood agent, but Myers succeeded in making this a truly touching film that shows the best parts of Hollywood.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rabbi for a Decade, Macklemore and Jonah Pesner

Today marks my first decade of being a rabbi. Rather than wax nostalgic about the past ten years of my rabbinate in which I still had my rabbi training wheels on, I'd rather use that significant day in my life to comment on two events in the news this week.

First, Jonah Pesner, a Reform rabbi, traveled to London to be a guest of honor at the Liberal Judaism biennial there. What happened to him at the airport, however, is something that has happened to many non-Orthodox rabbis in the past. The Jewish Chronicle reported yesterday that after Rabbi Pesner told an immigration officer at the airport that he is a rabbi, she looked at Rabbi Pesner and remarked, "You don't look like a rabbi." Perhaps, this comment could just be written off as ignorance, but comments like that are too problematic to just ignore.

Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School Class of 2004 - Rabbi Jason Miller
Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School/Cantorial School Class of 2004

It would be highly offensive if I looked at a female police officer (or a female airport immigration officer for that matter) and said, "You don't look like a police officer" because she's not a man. The comment made to Rabbi Pesner was made because he is clean-shaven and doesn't wear a black hat. What's interesting is that there are thousands of clean-shaven, non-black-hat-wearing rabbis in this world. In fact, the majority of rabbis represented in movies and on television are non-Orthodox rabbis. Look above at the photo of my classmates at the Jewish Theological Seminary. These are rabbis and cantors who graduated on May 20, 2004. While these men and women don't look like the stereotypical rabbi, we are the leaders of the Jewish community today.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Before making her offensive comment to Rabbi Pesner, the female immigration officer at London's Heathrow Airport should have considered that she doesn't have the traditional look of a law enforcement officer. Rather than make a snide remark to Rabbi Pesner, she could have engaged him in a conversation by explaining that the image of a rabbi that she has in her mind is a different representation than how he looks.

And that brings me to Macklemore. I'm a fan of Ben Haggerty's rap music. Better known by his stage name "Macklemore," the 30-year-old has gained fame in the past couple of years for his chart topping songs. In the past, I've praised Macklemore for his gutsy song "Same Love" that advocates for gays and lesbians, and is the first prominent rap song to condemn homophobia in hip-hop and in pop culture in general. This past January I was a guest at a private concert in Las Vegas featuring Macklemore and Ryan Lewis where I was very impressed with Macklemore's performance, humor and stage presence (after his first song of the show, Macklemore looked out at all the cellphone cameras pointed at him and commented that he hadn't seen that many cellphone cameras at a concert since the bat mitzvah he performed at the week before).

Macklemore in anti-Semitic Jewish costume at concert in Seattle
Macklemore wearing an anti-Semitic Jewish costume at concert in Seattle

Friday, May 16, 2014

Synagogue Becomes Gift Shop in Minor League Baseball Stadium

I love Minor League baseball stadiums. And I love synagogue architecture. But never did I ever think those two passions would connect. My colleague and teacher Rabbi Hayim Herring told me about an old synagogue building that has been incorporated to a new Minor League baseball park.

Jonathan Eig reports in the New Yorker that the Sons of Israel synagogue, which was built in 1901, is now the gift shop at Coveleski Stadium, home to the South Bend Silver Hawks (the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Class A affiliate). The former Orthodox synagogue is located just beyond the left-field fence at the ballpark.

Apparently the gift shop's doing pretty well and most Silver Hawks fans don't even notice that they're in a former shul when they're shopping for their souvenirs. Berlin is beginning to promote the space in new ways, too. The team's owner even wants to book weddings and bar mitzvahs in the off-season.

Arizona Diamondback's Class A affiliate's ballpark was once an Orthodox synagogue
The gift shop at the Arizona Diamondback's Class A affiliate's ballpark was once an Orthodox synagogue

Andrew Berlin, who is Jewish, purchased the Silver Hawks in 2011 and didn't notice the old synagogue building. During renovations on Coveleski Stadium he wondered about the shul building which hadn't been used in years. That's when he decided to preserve it and incorporate it into the Minor League ballpark. When he bought the team, he held a meeting with members of the local Jewish community and proposed moving the perimeter of the stadium to enclose the synagogue. Berlin already pledged to spend $2.5 million of his own money on ballpark improvements so he decided he'd invest an additional million dollars on the synagogue building's restoration. The city of South Bend transferred ownership of the shul to Berlin.

According to the article, "on May 16th, the Silver Hawks will unveil a new plaque near the entrance to the gift shop, calling more attention to the synagogue's heritage, including its recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places. The team, which reached the league’s championship series last year, and has started strongly this season with twenty wins and seventeen losses, will be playing the Fort Wayne TinCaps that night. Berlin hopes that fans will come for the ceremony and stay for the baseball, the free Gallo wine tasting, and the post-game fireworks. That day also happens to be a Friday, which means that if Jewish fans would like to visit the gift shop at sundown to offer their private Sabbath prayers, they’re welcome to do so."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Ten Thoughts for the Week

It's been over a week since my last blog post, but it's not because there hasn't been anything to write about. I've just been busy lately and haven't had time to type out the various thoughts running through my mind. So, here are ten news items I've been thinking about. As always, feel free to weigh in on these topics in the comments section below.

1) Rolling Stones and Jay Leno to Visit Israel

As the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement continues to encourage musicians to boycott Israel by not playing concerts there, a fake quote attributed to Mick Jagger continues to circulate the Web. The quote, which is made to look like a tweet says that the Rolling Stones have "been slammed and smacked and twittered a lot by the anti-Israel side. All I can say is anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So we decided to add a concert on Tuesday." Well, the quote is from a Purim hoax published by The Jewish Press. The truth is that the Rolling Stones are actually going to perform in Tel Aviv in June for a reported $4.5 million, but there will not be a second concert just to spite the BDS supporters. Despite the fact that it was a Purim joke, the not-Mick Jagger pro-Israel quote will likely continue to make its way around the Internet as fact... at least until next Purim when something else replaces it. It really is a strong show of support that the Rolling Stones will perform in Israel and ignore the criticism from anti-Israel protesters.

Rolling Stones concert in Jerusalem Israel 2014

In addition to the Rolling Stones, Jay Leno has announced that he is pro-Israel and will be visiting there this summer for the first time. The former late-night talk show host agreed to emcee the inaugural awarding of the “Genesis Prize” to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In response to pressure on international artists and public figures to boycott Israel and to avoid performing there, Leno explained, “It’s a great honor. It’s a great country. It’s a great people.”

2) Detroit's the Ideal Place to Raise Jewish Children

I'm a proud Detroiter and I've long maintained that the Metro Detroit Jewish community is one of the best Jewish communities in the world. It might be a well kept secret, but Detroit's a nice combination of strong Jewish values and strong Midwest values. Well, I guess it's not such a well kept secret anymore since Matthew Casey Williams named Detroit as the most affordable place to raise Jewish children. Buffalo came in 3rd with Cleveland finishing at #2. Williams wrote of the #1 pick Detroit: "Not only was it the most affordable on the list, it was by nearly 100% less than the second place. Is the Motor City ripe for a Jewish revival or is it on its way out?" I can say with certainty that Detroit is ripe for a Jewish revival.

3) Jerry Schostak's Legacy of Philanthropy and Business Acumen

One of the main reasons that Detroit is such a great and affordable place to raise and educate Jewish children is because of Detroit's rich history of Jewish philanthropy. The list of Jewish philanthropists in Detroit who have invested millions of dollars in Jewish education reads like a Who's Who of 20th century business leaders. Max Fisher, David Hermelin, Bill Davidson and Sam Frankel, all of blessed memory, and Bill Berman, Gene Applebaum, Gary Shiffman, Bill Farber, Alan Kaufman and Al Taubman just to name a few have all made Jewish education -- both formal and informal -- affordable for Metro Detroit families. One of the pillars of Detroit's Jewish community who is part of that auspicious list was laid to rest yesterday. Jerry Schostak, the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi, had a strong ethic for philanthropic giving and many local Jewish schools and agencies benefited from his generosity.

Over the years I got to know Mr. Schostak (as I continued to call him despite him telling me to call him "Jerry") as both a long-time client of my computer company, Access Computer Technology, and as an active member of Adat Shalom Synagogue (where I taught his daughter and grandson... in the same class!). I looked up to him as a wise businessman, a patriarch who always put family first, a man who cared passionately about organization and details, and as someone who never compromised his values. His legacy will live on in perpetuity because of the way he lived his life, the way he built his family, the way he molded future business leaders, the way he competed (he was an accomplished sailor), and the way he supported the causes closest to his heart -- including Jewish education. May his memory be for blessings.

Monday, May 05, 2014

My Rabbi Myer Kripke Story

The first time I heard the name Rabbi Myer Kripke was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1998. I had only begun my studies in the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary three months prior and responded to an email message asking if any of the new students would be interested in guiding tours of the Seminary for visiting groups. My flight from New York City back to Detroit didn't leave until later that evening and I had nothing else to do before the Thanksgiving recess so I thought I'd check it out.

When I arrived to the Women's League Seminary Synagogue I met Rebecca Jacobs who at the time was in charge of arranging these tours for groups and donors visiting JTS. She gave the small group of us students a tour of the Seminary campus. Since I had done my fair share of research about the history of the Jewish Theological Seminary before applying to rabbinical school and since I had been living and studying there for the past few months, I figured there wasn't much I didn't know about it. Wow, was I wrong! Rebecca told some very interesting stories about the historical buildings that made up the Seminary campus -- the Schiff, Brush and Unterberg buildings as well as the Library building which was knows as the Boesky Library until Ivan Boesky was indicted for insider trading and the Seminary removed his name.

Rabbi Myer Kripke, of blessed memory
Rabbi Myer Kripke, of blessed memory

What really grabbed my attention was the way Rebecca told the story of the fire that ruined the Seminary's large brick tower that stood prominently on Broadway and had housed the Seminary's vast library collection. Rebecca spent a good twenty minutes talking about how the fire started, the NY Fire Department's response and the way the local Upper West community helped to save thousands of the books damaged in the fire. She explained that the fire had damaged many of the Judaica books that the Seminary had saved from Eastern Europe following the Holocaust. She concluded her story of the JTS Library fire by saying that the inside of the Seminary tower has sat vacant for the past thirty years with the charred remains of that fire inside.