Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Last night, I had a bizarre dream. I would ask a therapist to help me analyze it, but it’s August and there are none to be found.
In the dream, I was back in college, and Mick Jagger (!) was lecturing on the Middle East, and the lecture was totally biased towards the Palestinian narrative. When the three Jewish students complained, he told us that we would get our turn as well. In the dream, I said to “Professor” Jagger (and I am not kidding): “Do the Palestinians simply assume that time is on their side [an obvious reference to the Stones’ old hit]?"
A therapist would say that Jagger was actually a nocturnal representation of Roger Waters, the former Pink Floyd front man who has called for an international cultural boycott of Israel.
These are Waters’ words:
“Please join me and all our brothers and sisters in global civil society in proclaiming our rejection of apartheid in Israel and occupied Palestine, by pledging not to perform or exhibit in Israel or accept any award or funding from any institution linked to the government of Israel, until such time as Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.”
True, other rock stars have boycotted Israel. But this is the first time in my memory that someone has actually called for a boycott. And, let the record note, Israel is, now, the only country in the world that is boycott-able. I sometimes wonder how British rock stars would have felt if American rock musicians had boycotted Britain during the darkest days of the troubles in northern Ireland. Remember how China destroyed Tibet? No "Boycott China" campaign.
In 2006, Waters was photographed spraying the words “no thought control” on the West Bank separation barrier. (I never liked the song “The Wall.” It always seemed frighteningly fascist to me). Roger: anyone who has ever visited Israel, or anyone who regularly reads Israeli newspapers or listens to Israeli politicians or sees Israeli films or listens to Israeli rock music knows that there is absolutely no control of anyone’s thoughts or political actions.
On the other hand, Roger, you might want to go to Egypt, Syria, Iran, and a host of other Moslem countries – just so you know what thought control really is.
That would be a journey to “the dark side of the moon.”
Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli has basically said to Roger Waters: “Kiss off.” (I am researching the Hebrew equivalent). “Take my image out of your videos.” This is what I call, truly, bar mitzvah. (Sorry).
There were some who were willing to give Roger Waters a pass when he adorned a pig with a Star of David. Fine.
But when you mix that in with the anti-Israel obsession, you really have to wonder how Roger Waters feels about the Jews.
And if the Jews are the only minority group in the world that one can hate with absolute impunity -- then, yes, I have a problem with that.
Sure, there are rock stars who boycott Israel. But, the list of Israel-visitors is much longer: Paul McCartney, Alicia Keys, the Pet Shop Boys, Regina Spektor, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Elton John, The Scorpions, Rod Stewart, Rihanna, the Pixies, Barbara Streisand, Tom Jones (who is being pressured to call off his trip).
I understand why these artists are playing Israel. In some cases, it is out of a genuine respect and love for the State of Israel and its people. And in other cases, it is not that the artist is performing in Israel. It’s more like they are refusing to not play in Israel. A gig, after all, is a gig.
But who cares about motives?
Which brings me to the original Man in Black (and I am not talking about some guy in Meah Shearim): the late, iconic country singer, Johnny Cash, whose tenth yahrzeit will be in a few weeks.
There’s a new commemorative volume about Johnny Cash. It has rare photos and great biographical details. And, of course, there’s “Walk The Line,” the 2005 bio-pic about Cash.
But both the book and the film omit a crucial part of Cash's life.
And that was the State of Israel.
It might be that the popular artist who was most supportive of Israel was, yes, Johnny Cash.
Between 1966 and the mid-1990s, Johnny Cash, along with his wife June Carter Cash and their children, visited Israel five times. He recorded an album of inspirational hymns about the Land of Israel – “The Holy Land” in 1968 -- and made films about his journeys to Biblical sites.
Check out these lyrics to Cash's song “Land of Israel”:
From the top of Sinai to the Sea of Galilee
Every hill and plain is home every place is dear to me
There the breezes tell the stories oh what stories they do tell
Of the mighty things that happened in the land of Israel.
From the rolling plain of Sharon to Mount Tabor's lofty heights
To the deserts of Beersheba all is calm all is right
Green the trees are on the mountain sweet the water in the well
May there never more be sorrow in the land of Israel.
Check out the video -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1AzKrUTHVU
I am grateful to my friend Shalom Goldman for teaching me about this. (Check out his book about Christian Zionism -- Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews and the Idea of the Promised Land -- http://www.amazon.com/Zeal-Zion-Christians-Jews-Promised/dp/0807833444).
Johnny Cash’s brand of Christian Zionism was not about right-wing politics. Rather, it was based simply on his faith.
When Cash died, the State of Israel released a statement: “…Johnny Cash was loved by Israelis and his music will live on in the pubs, cafes and hearts of a grateful nation.”
So, how about naming a street in Jerusalem Rechov Johnny Cash?
We need more friends in the music world like Johnny Cash.
Because in far too many corners of the contemporary cultural world, support for Israel has become – well, a “ring of fire.”
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August 21, 2013 | 7:01 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Last week, you would have hardly known that there were peace talks happening in Jerusalem. That wasn’t the biggest Jewish news.
No, that prize goes to the viral Sam Horowitz bar mitzvah dance video.
I have spent the better part of my career thinking about bar/bat mitzvah. Ever since I wrote Putting God On The Guest List: How To Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights) http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-260-9 I have seen how the trends in bar/bat mitzvah have evolved.
The good news: As I travel around the country, talking about bar and bat mitzvah, people tell me that unfettered glitz has become passe. Tikkun olam is now hotter than Sam Horowitz -- who, let the record note, gave a nice piece of money to tzedakah. Check out The Mitzvah Project Book (Jewish Lights) to learn how to do it.http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-458-0
The not-so-good news: The American Jewish cult of the self has spawned the private bar/bat mitzvah industry. Rabbis and free-lance teachers hire themselves out to families. They’ll bring a Torah and do the ceremony….wherever. It could be a local restaurant, or an exotic locale, with no one there except the family and the scenery. Communal connection? Nope. Responsibility? Nope. Synagogue affiliation? Nope.
Approximately fifty per cent of our post-pubescent Jewish kids drop out after bar/bat mitzvah. And so do their families. You can practically hear the synagogue doors slamming right after Ein Keloheinu at the last child’s ceremony.
All of this leads to a heretical question: Is thirteen still the “right” age for Jewish maturity?
The Bible didn’t think so. There, the age of majority is twenty. That age doesn’t get reduced until the sages decide, as quoted in Pirkei Avot: “at thirteen, ready for mitzvot.” That age of thirteen becomes a legal category of Jewish ritual and moral responsibility.
The passage from Pirkei Avot continues: “At eighteen, ready for the huppah.” Actually, in America today, it’s “at eighteen, ready for the meal plan.” So, why cling to thirteen as the age of Jewish maturity -- especially when people are living longer and adolescence now actually lasts longer than ever before? (Watch re-runs of “Girls” on HBO and you will see what I mean).
My Reform ancestors got it. They invented the group ceremony of confirmation. It was more intellectual, academic and about what Jews believe. It wasn’t about biological age; it was about being in, say, tenth grade. It was also highly social. And we have come to understand that Jewish education is far beyond the formal stuff. It's the Jewish Holy Trinity: youth activities; camp; Israel trips.
So, my modest, even Swiftian, proposal. Move bar/bat mitzvah from thirteen to seventeen – that is, to the senior year in high school.
Introducing a new American Jewish ceremony: Ben/bat Torah, "old enough for Torah." Same basic arrangement as bar/bat mitzvah: Torah portion, haftarah, lead service, give devar Torah. Keep it as a solo ceremony. Kids need individual rites of passage -- a test, an ordeal, a moment of public wrestling.
Why move it to that age? Because, in American society today, thirteen just doesn't matter the way it once did. What's the real moment of passage? When you’re ready to leave home and go to college, work, the military. By then, our young people are more intellectually mature. It would be a way for the community to say: “We have educated you, nourished you, nurtured you with all the wisdom that we have at our disposal. Now, take this Torah and enter the world with it.” (You want a biblical source for seventeen? That's how old Joseph was when he left home. True -- it didn't start that well, but it all worked out in the end).
Look at what American Judaism invented in the last century alone: bat mitzvah, baby-namings for girls in synagogues, same sex wedding ceremonies. When certain ceremonies lose their historical rationale (i.e., pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the first born), we either re-interpret it or put it in the liturgical attic. We have ceremonies and blessings for everything -- and those that we don’t have, we invent.
At the very least, can we have a large communal conversation about the meaning of Jewish maturity? What Jewish hopes and expectations do we have for our children? What do we want them to experience? What do we want them to feel? (Note to self: mission statements for Jewish families. Help families create them. Think about it.)
What should they know? A Jewish way of looking at abortion, stem cell research, sexuality, torture, drones, the ethics of war, assisted suicide?
How about this: a huge number of Jewish kids are going to be having their first major conversation about Israel at around the same time they are unpacking their duffel bag in the dorm room. It’s going to come from their suite mates or from their professors. It's going to be about Israeli "apartheid" or something like that. It will not be pretty. By the time they leave home, shouldn’t our kids have learned how to have meaningful conversations about Israel?
And, with all due respect to our thirteen year olds, it will not have happened by then. No way. It can't.
Jewish parents of America: are we ready to articulate Jewish expectations for our children? Rabbis, cantors, educators, lay leaders: are we making sure that our programs are compelling? What kind of metrics are we prepared to use? How attentive are we to educational and societal trends? Jewish organizations like the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue: your professionals are asking all the right questions. Keep 'em coming.
You know all that time we spent discussing how a Jewish kid dances?
How about some time discussing what Jewish kids know?
Everything else is the sideshow.
August 14, 2013 | 6:29 am
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Exactly one year ago, a white supremacist attacked the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Six people were killed. And from that tragedy went forth a chant that even made it onto a T-shirt: “We are all Sikhs.”
A few days later, I attended an interfaith Ramadan break fast in Morristown, New Jersey. There, I met Gurparkash Singh, a practicing Sikh from Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Yes – rabbi meets Sikh at a Muslim event. That’s so New Jersey. Or, it’s so America.
To quote the last line of “Casablanca:” “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And it was. Gurparkash and I convened a small group of Jewish and Sikh leaders – to talk, to share stories, to dream together. And, of course, to eat -- an elegant Indian dinner at his gracious home; we Jews took the Sikhs out for deli.
There is a reason why the Torah tells us, 36 times, to love the stranger. Because the stranger is our mirror. We Jews encountered a culture, born in the Punjab region of India in the fifteenth century: a deeply spiritual, anti-ritualistic, meditative and egalitarian faith – the sixth largest religion in the world. They are brave warriors (hence, the miniature sword that they carry upon their person), and a fiercely proud, independent people. But they have been largely invisible to us, even though we all showed up in America around the same time, a century ago. There are 750,000 Sikhs in the United States; 200,000 are in California alone. It's not only "love the stranger;" it's, literally, "love your neighbor."
Yes – observant Sikh men all wear turbans and beards. One of them joked with me: “Don’t ever be embarrassed about not being able to tell us apart; we all tend to look alike.” (Yeah, right – have you been to Borough Park lately?) And to add to the potential confusion, all of the men and women use Singh and Kaur, respectively, either as a middle name or as a surname – symbolizing their rejection of a historically prevalent caste system.
And like many cultural minorities in the United States, Sikhs have paid the full price. When Sikh men show up at airport security, they are randomly searched -- one hundred percent of the time -- because of their turbans. Seventy per cent of Sikh boys have been bullied in schools because of their turbans.
Maybe they should consider modifying the turban requirement, and just make it optional? How American of me to think that. Sikh men simply know that they have to be at the airport that much earlier. That's the price they choose to pay for walking a religious road with one foot, and keeping the other foot grounded in Western society.
Thank you, my Sikh friends, for teaching me the lesson of religious integrity.
American Sikhs have some very “Jewish” mishigas. They want to be Americans; they want to maintain their culture. They believe that all people have the spark of God within them; they want their children to marry other Sikhs.
They have “Jewish” nightmares. “For us, history has been one long Kristallnacht,” one said. The “lesser Holocaust” of 1746, where an estimated 7000 people died within a few months. “The greater Holocaust” of 1762, in which half of the Sikh population was killed in one day. The attack on the Golden Temple – the Sikh “Temple Mount,” as it were -- in June, 1984, during one of the High Holidays, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The number of deaths on that day is estimated to be as high as 10,000 people.
And they have “Jewish” dreams. They want to educate their children about their language and heritage. They have experimented with something like day schools and “Sunday schools.” You know how our kids go to Jewish summer camp and learn Hebrew songs and live Jewishly? There are Sikh summer camps where Sikh children go to enjoy the great outdoors – and to learn the art of turban-tying. (There are twelve Sikh summer camps in the Northeast alone).
OK, three weeks to Rosh Ha Shanah – Yom ha-Zicharon, the day of remembering.
“You Jews have had so many tragedies, just like us Sikhs,” a Sikh leader said to us. “But you are good at remembering them; we are not. Can you teach us how to remember?”
Or: “We Sikhs admired how successful American Jews have been in teaching your children how to maintain their culture. Can you teach us how to do that with our own children? Can you teach us how to interpret our story to Americans in general?”
The Sikhs not only look to us for help; they look to us for inspiration. "Like the Jews, we Sikhs carry a message of hope and optimism in the face of tragedy," said Gurparkash. "We call it Chardi kala – the state of ever optimism. This, I believe, is the reason why Jews have triumphed over their adversaries. We hope that God graces us with the spirit of Chardi kala. And we shall also overcome our challenges and challengers.”
The Sikhs call it Chardi kala. And we Jews call it Ha-tikvah.
We are all Sikhs.
August 6, 2013 | 2:12 pm
Posted by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
My old friend (and one-time youth grouper) Rabbi Aaron Panken was recently chosen to be the new president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s flagship seminary. It is an excellent choice. Aaron is a scholar, blessed with great intelligence, vision, an engaging personality, and decades of service to the Reform movement. We should expect much greatness from him.
I was pleased to see that I was not the only one who noticed something interesting. Uriel Heilman, writing in JTA, http://www.jta.org/2013/08/01/life-religion/panken-a-commerical-pilot-who-will-head-reforms-rabbinical-school-eyes-horizon noticed that Rabbi Panken, like Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has a connection with Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. That was where Rabbi Panken served as the rabbinic intern, and he has family connections in that synagogue as well. Rabbi Jacobs also once served as its rabbinic intern, and then, some years later, became senior rabbi of the congregation before departing to lead the Reform movement.
But what of the Scarsdale connection? Rabbi Panken, quoted in JTA, thinks that it is “pretty much a coincidence” that both he and Rabbi Jacobs are, professionally, a product of the same synagogue.
Coincidence? I think not.
It’s not “who’s your daddy?” (or, in liberal movements, “who’s your mommy?”)
It’s: “who’s your teacher?”
Both Rabbi Panken and Rabbi Jacobs were influenced by the late Rabbi Jack Stern, who was the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple for almost forty years. Rabbi Stern was a rabbi’s rabbi, as well as the father of Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Dallas, and Elsie Stern, who is one of American Jewry’s most erudite scholars. (Their brother, Jonathan Stern, is a prominent attorney in Washington, DC, and hardly chopped liver. But we are just speaking about the rabbinate here).
The elder Rabbi Stern was himself the son-in-law and associate rabbi of the late Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, New York. Rabbi Rudin was the best friend of the late Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn of Temple Israel in Boston. Rabbi Gittelsohn was immortalized by the celebrated (and in its time, controversial, because he was a Jewish chaplain) sermon at the dedication of the military cemetery at Iwo Jima. His assistants and associates, including Rabbi Charles Kroloff, who was chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Harvey Fields, rabbi emeritus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, went on to become major leaders in American Judaism.
And then, you have one of Rabbi Gittelsohn’s contemporaries and neighbors -- the late Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is beyond impressive how many Reform Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Eric Yoffie , past president of the URJ, and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the URJ, grew up in that congregation. And then, add to the mix Rabbi Klein’s associate -- the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who was the indefatigable leader of the Reform movement and a world-class Jewish statesman.
You want to trace it back another generation, back to the 1940s and 1950s? Then go to Cleveland. How did the shores of Lake Erie produce so many rabbis? Easy. It was because of such Cleveland rabbis as the great Zionist leaders, the late Rabbi Barnett Brickner and the late Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
I apologize, in advance, to my many friends and colleagues (you know who you are) whose names I did not mention in this piece. I only have so many words. But don’t think for a minute (again, I am speaking to you) that I have forgotten you. Quite the contrary.
I am talking about the immortality of influence, as well as the sheer power of mentoring and relationships.
I once heard a few Orthodox kids bragging to each other about who their fathers’ teachers were. If you know that world, then you know the drill: Soloveitchik, Hutner, etc.
But one kid piped up: “You think you're so hot? Get this: my father taught Rabbi X [a particularly well-known Orthodox rabbi and scholar]."
The reaction: “Wow.”
Getting back to all these rabbis and teachers. I don't know if they knew what they were doing at the time. Maybe they were just being who they normally were, and their students just picked it up. Maybe it was all an accident of charisma.
No, there are no accidents. We make this stuff happen. And we should. The Jewish world depends upon it.
So, whom are you teaching? How are you making your own town a powerhouse of Jewish influence? It can happen, and it does happen, in small towns; Safed in the sixteenth century was only about a thousand households, and it changed the entire way that Jews imagined the world.
As we enter the month of Elul, it’s a great time to remember your own teachers and influencers, and to thank them, even in the great beyond, for helping you become the person you inevitably are.
Because it really is about: "Who's your teacher?"
And, let us remember: "Who's your student?" as well.