Tag Archive | "In My Mind’s I"


Ask the Rabbi

Posted on 30 September 2010 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I’ve often been bothered by something I have noticed on Simchat Torah in synagogue, that people who are not dancing are sitting. I know that when a Torah scroll is removed from the ark, say at a regular Shabbat service, everyone stands in honor of the Torah. It was once explained to me that whenever the Torah is moving from place to place, we stand in honor of the Torah. Why is it that on Simchat Torah, when the Torah is being moved from place to place as part of the celebration, people are sitting in its presence?

Marvin J.

Dear Marvin,

Many years ago I posed this exact question to my mentor, the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach of Jerusalem, the leading halachic decisor of the past generation in Israel. He smiled, indicating he, too, had bothered by this question in his youth. He said that he had observed rabbis far greater than anyone in our generation who also sat during the seven hakafot, when the Torah is being taken around the circle of dancing and celebration on Simchat Torah.

Rav Aurbach then replied, cryptically, that in his opinion the answer is the following: The need to stand for the honor of the Torah scroll is only when the Torah is taken from its stationary place and moved from place to place. On Simchat Torah, the entire synagogue is its place!

To me, this was a very profound analysis of what Simchat Torah is all about, as well as an important message for our lives as Jews. We often look at the Torah as something foreign to the world we live in, and in many ways it is foreign to our society. We try to add in a little bit of Torah and Judaism, here and there, deep down knowing it’s not the central theme of our lives. In a sense, we are taking the Torah out of the ark, out of its place, and moving it into our lives a bit until we return it back to its place.

On Simchat Torah, the real celebration is that everywhere is the Torah’s place. Torah is, for those who choose to make it so, central to our lives, and it permeates every area of our existence “…because they [the words of Torah] are our lives and the length of our days…” (Siddur/Prayerbook).

When the Tablets were given to us at Mt. Sinai, the Torah says that they could be read from either side (Shemot/Exodus 32:15). This was a great miracle, because letters cut all the way through stone should be readable only from the front; in the back they would be backwards. What was the point of this miracle, what lesson was G-d teaching by doing so? R’ Samson R. Hirsch explains with a penetrating message. Often Jews feel that Judaism is something “to do” in synagogue or on holidays, rendering it a religion. But Judaism is not only a religion; it is a way of life. There are mitzvot which apply to every area of business, domestic, family and community life. Whichever way you turn, there are mitzvot which show us how to live our lives Jewishly and infuse them with holiness. That is the message of the Tablets: Whichever way you turn them, they can still be read.

This is the joy and celebration of Simchat Torah.

I have often quoted one of America’s outreach leaders who tells audiences, if you’re going to take the family to synagogue twice a year, instead of it being on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, make it on Simchat Torah and Purim! Show the family the joy of being Jewish!

Wishing you and all the readers a joyous, meaningful Simchat Torah.

Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at yfried@sbcglobal.net.

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 16 September 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

At Yom Kippur we’ll be standing together before God, renewing the vows of better behavior that we make every year. But there’s another group of non-Jews who may be doing something very similar: the Noahides — Gentiles striving to serve God in a Jewish way.

I’d heard about them years ago, but learned much more during my recent time in Pittsburgh, where a couple of devoted Jews are assisting those interested in the Noahide way of life. Most are disaffected Christians who find that the idea of reaching God through someone else’s death doesn’t ring true, who’ve learned that Judaism offers another way — one that doesn’t require actually becoming Jewish. Their numbers are small, but growing.

Toby Tabachnick wrote about the Noahide connection in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle during the recent week I was there. He quoted a local Lubavitcher, Michael Schulman, a guide for this seeking-and-finding group: “There are two paths to serve God and have a reward in the world to come, the path of the Jew, and that of the non-Jew. The Noahide has seven commandments given as part of the Torah. If a Gentile accepts these seven commandments and recognizes that they come from God, that’s the second path.”

God gave those commandments to Noah and his family after the flood, and any Gentile who commits to following them is a Noahide. Six are prohibitions: no idolatry, blasphemy, homicide or robbery; certain sexual relations are forbidden, as is the eating of meat taken from a live animal (this last, in its extended interpretation, not only calls for humane slaughter of animals used for food, but for the humane treatment of all animals). Only one of the seven is positive: It requires the establishment of courts of justice.

Tabachnick also quotes Amy Boiles of Denver City, Texas, a small town near the New Mexico border, who was a practicing Christian until “I could no longer pretend that the New Testament is true. There’s a verse in Genesis where God tells Cain he’ll be forgiven if he improves himself, and this is contrary to Christianity,” she says. “In Christianity, you can only be forgiven through a blood sacrifice — through Jesus. I didn’t know there was another option. I didn’t know that under the umbrella of Judaism, there’s a place for non-Jews.” When a friend told her about the Noahide way, it was “liberating for me,” she said. “God doesn’t require man to go through Jesus. You can go straight to God.”

Schulman is a physicist who gave up research engineering about four years ago to run Ask Noah International (ANI), a Noahide outreach organization, full-time. ANI serves as a highly necessary connection between widely scattered Gentiles trying to follow this new path, which is daunting enough itself, even more difficult if their Christian families of origin are not accepting of this choice.

According to Boiles, “When you leave Christianity and the church, you lose community. But I had to do it.” So did Larry Telencio of Naples, Fla., who found ANI after rejecting his Christian background. “The Noahide path was basically all the things I believed in,” he said. “I believe in one God, and Hashem is the only God.”

Another Pittsburgh Lubavitcher, Chaim Reisner, founded ANI and its Web site, asknoah.org, to educate, provide study materials, answer questions and connect Noahides with each other, helping them build a new community to replace the ones they’ve lost.

Schulman says the Talmudic sages felt a duty to spread God’s words to Gentiles, but the need for self-preservation in so many times and places afterward made doing so impossible. It was only about 30 years ago that “The [Lubavitcher] Rebbe said the time has come,” Schulman said. “Societies are open enough. Jewish people have success in the world. There is a new obligation to pick this up again.” Lubavitch took up the cause to assure that Noahide obligations are conveyed to Gentiles in full accordance with Torah. Two books covering the principles of faith and the first six commandments have been compiled and published by Torah scholar Rabbi Moshe Weiner, who is now completing his third and final volume.

What about conversion? Maybe. Boiles says, “Part of me yearns for it. But I take this very seriously. Right now my path is to serve Hashem as a Righteous Gentile. My job is to align myself with Jews, [because] we have a collective mission.”

Let’s pray together this Yom Kippur that these righteous, seeking Gentiles are also favorably inscribed within God’s Great Book.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 19 August 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

It used to be that I’d have to go to the library, or pick up the phone, or at least consult my encyclopedia, to find out something I wanted to know. Today, I just sit at the keyboard and Google.

And when I’m not Googling myself, people are sending me things that they’ve found. Some are bits of trivia. Some are whole compilations. I enjoy reading them, uncoupling and recombining them, and passing on the good parts. Here’s a collection with Jewish connections. Some of these I already knew to be fact; others need to be checked out — perhaps with the help of Google. So, let’s play some true-or-false today. If you don’t know: your guesses are at least as good as mine.

Joseph Stalin’s original name was Joseph David Djugashvili, a last name translating to “son of a Jew.” All of his wives were Jewish (he had three of them).

Lillian Friedman’s husband was Cruz Rivera. Their son is Geraldo Miguel Rivera. (Back in Chicago a long time ago, we called him Gerry Rivers!)

More famous folk than you’re probably aware of are at least religiously, technically Jewish, since their mothers are at least supposed to have been Jewish themselves. Among them: Fiorello LaGuardia, Winston Churchill, Peter Sellers, Robert DeNiro, David Bowie, Shari Belafonte, Harrison Ford and Cary Grant. Quite an array, yes?

Let’s take a look at medicine. We all should know that Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed the first polio vaccines, and that Sigmund Freud is the father of psychiatry. But Dr. Abraham Waksman came up with the word “antibiotics”; another Dr. Abraham, this one surnamed Jacobi, is considered the founder of pediatrics as a medical specialty; Dr.Simon Baruch was the first to successfully remove an appendix; Dr. Paul Ehrlich won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for discovering a cure for syphilis; and biochemist Casimir Funk did pioneering research on vitamins. These last all check out as Jews. Also purported to be Jewish is one Dr. Sicarry, who debunked a once-pervasive myth by proving that the tomato is not poisonous. I’ve been unable to find his first name anywhere, but I say a thank-you to him anyway every time I have a Caprese salad.

How about the worlds of art and entertainment? It’s common knowledge that Emma Lazarus penned the poem gracing the base of the Statue of Liberty, that Irving Berlin contributed the ever-popular “White Christmas” to our country’s religious majority, that Florenz (“Flo”) Ziegfeld fathered American burlesque, and that the most successful filmmaker in filmmaking history is the Jew whose mother is quoted as saying, “You have a son. You do the best you can raising him. And then he turns out to be Steven Spielberg…”). But did you know that movie mogul Louis B. Mayer originated the Oscar?

A bit more obscure: In 1918 in Detroit, Max Goldberg opened the first commercial parking lot. Eight years earlier, Louis Blaustein and his son had opened the first gas station. I don’t know what happened to Goldberg, but the Blausteins went on to found Amoco and make a true fortune in motor fuel.

And here’s something fun to think about: Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the phonograph, but the Jewish Emile Berliner patented the gramophone — a recording device that uses a disc rather than Edison’s cylinder. That famous dog listening to “his master’s voice” as the trademark of Victor Talking Machine Company (now RCA) was actually looking at Berliner’s creation, not Edison’s.

What about business? The Altmans, Gimbels, Kaufmanns, Lazaruses, Magnins and Mays — to say nothing of the Neimans and the Marcuses — were department store giants and geniuses. The Strauses, Isidor and Nathan, built a retailing empire as Abraham and Straus, later becoming Macy’s; Isidor lost his life on the Titanic after deciding not to accompany his brother to Palestine following a European trip. Some say God was involved in that. Some joke that a poor Jewish needleworker went into partnership with God to form the top fashion firm known as Lord and Taylor. But this has yet to be proved.

And some also say that the early discount chain success, E.J. Korvette (or Korvetts), founded in New York in 1948, was actually named not for any single person, but for “Eight Jewish Korean (War) Veterans.” Google this one with a question about its truth, and you’ll get this definitive answer: “There is no answer.”

Isn’t it fun to be part of that slim one-quarter of 1 percent of the world’s population that’s Jewish?

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 08 July 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

We all know that Emma Lazarus, who wrote the famous poem that graces the Statue of Liberty, was Jewish. Don’t we? And that lots of the “huddled masses yearning to be free” who accepted her invitation to enter the United States’ “golden door” were Jewish, too? They may not have found the streets paved with gold, but many of them found gold in other places.

As a people, we probably count for no more than 1 percent of the world’s population, but we can be proud of our impact. Take a look at the trio of men who can easily be cited as the globe’s most influential in the past couple of centuries: Einstein. Freud. Lenin. Science, medicine and history would have been vastly different without them.

And so would the mercantile industry of our own country. Here’s something I learned a long time ago, that has much to do with what I mentioned last week: the inability of many Jews, in many parts of the world, for many years, to own property. Or to work in many trades, either. What can men and women do then to feed their families?

Shakespeare made much of Shylock the moneylender. Years and years ago, in much of Europe, Jews were encouraged to enter that business because the church forbade its members to make interest-bearing loans. Yet people sometimes needed to borrow. They would bring things as security for the currency they required, and so the pawnshop was born.

Then, what if those things were not redeemed? Ah — they became the possessions of the one holding them. Pawned clothing turned into a source of literal material for making items that could be sold; learn to reshape garments, and one was now a tailor, a dressmaker. The tools were minimal, and portable: a needle and thread, and a skill that could go anywhere, as necessary. It’s not a surprise that when those “huddled masses” arrived in America, they huddled again in sweatshops, and our country’s garment industry was born.

Selling could also take place on streets, from carts. And when those peddlers could, they stabilized themselves in shops. It’s no surprise, either, that so many great names in department stores, and of the clothing sold in them, are Jewish ones. Altman. Gimbel. Magnin. Kuppenheimer. Strauss. In a way, the church helped, or forced, this to happen.

Here’s another interesting connection: In the fourth century, a young priest in Turkey became legendary by helping out a poor family in a way the time and place required: by providing dowries for its three daughters, without which they would not be considered marriage material. In the dark of night, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold for each of them through a window of their house, and tradition says the bags landed in the shoes the girls had left on the floor. Of course he became famous, was revered and was eventually sainted. In America, “stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon will be there”; but in some other countries, children still find holiday gifts in their shoes on Christmas morning.

Guess what? That’s not all! Those three bags of gold moved from being the stuff of legend to solid reality: Three gold balls became the symbol of — pawnbrokers, who would display them outside their shops! And in the tradition of the church, Santa Claus — a quick verbal shorthand for “Saint Nicholas” — is the patron saint of pawnbrokers. And also of merchants.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” as Lewis Carroll had Alice in Wonderland say; the Jewish-Christian connection goes on. There was a time, not like our own, when many foods were strictly seasonal. Fruits, especially. An orange in winter was an expensive rarity. So oranges — precious gold balls that they were then — became treasured Christmas gifts, fillers of shoes and stockings. Another little factoid buried in history.

So why am I talking about all this now, in the heat of summer? Because of Israel’s famed Jaffa oranges. Isn’t it amazing that people once denied land of their own, when they finally secured some, were able to grow the most delicious balls of gold on earth and send them all over the earth to be enjoyed?

On my recent Israel visit, I enjoyed many wonderful oranges — even though the Jaffas are no longer such important exports as they once were. (But I also ate what I’m sure are the most delicious dates on earth!)

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 01 July 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Waves from the recent Helen Thomas affair keep washing over me. I remember once standing up in a speedboat and watching its foamy wake heal into smoothness again. But I look back on this and, although many may have already sailed on, forgetting the once-revered journalist’s poisoned remarks about Jews and Israel, I have not. I still see roiling waters. Let me share a few of them with you.

First: Ralph Nader. The long-esteemed consumer advocate who has, since his early triumphs, trilled off into other areas, came quickly to Ms. Thomas’ defense, characterizing her career termination as “swift and merciless.” He called the action an “evisceration” launched by, among others, Ari Fleischer. In her defense, he offers quotes from a couple of Jewish journalists: Fox’s Ellen Ratner (“We all have said things that we wouldn’t want to see in print or on video…. Anyone who denies it is a liar. Give Helen a break…”) and Michael Freedman, formerly of UPI (“Who among us has not said something we have come to regret? Let’s not destroy Ms. Thomas now…”). He concludes that she has been fired “ostensibly for a gaffe, but really for being too right, too early, too often.”

(Should I [not] mention that Nader, like Thomas, is of Lebanese origin, and “perhaps” shares similar sympathies?)

In contrast: an open letter to Helen from a rabbi in New York, David Algaze — also of Lebanese descent. He’s sarcastic to the max when he begins with a “thank-you for the important service you rendered through your words about the Jews and their place in the world….” Discounting the theory of some that one of journalism’s formerly finest is now too old to be practicing her craft, he goes on: “I do not believe your words were the result of some incipient symptoms of Alzheimer’s; your words revealed what is in your mind, and that is why I am grateful for your honesty…. Now the mean, unforgiving and biased Helen Thomas has been revealed to us in full. It certainly is not flattering to you, but it is the true self, and we appreciate your allowing us to see the true Helen Thomas at last.”

The meat of the rabbi’s message comes next: “This is not to deny your right to your opinions. You have every right to defend the Arab claims … but to do it in such an ignorant and hateful manner reveals that under the patina of courteous speech and elegant demeanor, there lies beneath the skin … a measure of hatred, a desire for revenge, and a meanness of spirit. Your position is not just anti-Semitic; it is anti-human…. Thank you, Ms. Thomas, for allowing the world to see what an Arab sympathizer really is about … I hope the world is grateful to you for the candid revelation of the mind of a ‘progressive’ Arab.”

In the wake of my previous Thomas column and my reminiscent speedboat ride, a reader has sent me the words of Canadian writer Mark Steyn (not a Jewish Stein, notes my correspondent), whose post-Thomas piece in Macleans magazine is headed “The lesson of a Jewish cemetery,” one he visited recently in Tangiers, which once had a thriving Jewish community, he says. But now all of Tangiers’ Jews “live” in that burial ground… as do the Jews of many former communities around the world.

“Wherever a Jew is, whatever a Jew is, he should be something else, somewhere else,” Steyn says. “And then he can be hated for that, too.”

For this thoughtful commentator, everything today still comes down to one of the world’s oldest prejudices: “…that in the modern world as much as in medieval Christendom, Jews can never be accorded full property rights,” he says. On a patch of the Holy Land, they are certainly the current leaseholders, but they will never have recognized legal title…. That’s the reason the Palestinian question is never settled. Because, as long as it’s unresolved, then Israel’s legitimacy is unsettled, too.”

So I’ve been pondering Nader’s hatred along with Thomas’; wondering if Rabbi Algaze’s sarcasm can hit home or do any good; and considering the truth of Steyn’s bottom line: “There are a lot of Jews in Israel right now. But then, there were a lot of them in Tangiers and Baghdad and Bukovina and Germany and Poland, for a while. Why shouldn’t Tel Aviv one day be just another city with some crumbling cemeteries and a few elderly Jews?”

My metaphoric speedboat sails on in still-troubled waters.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 25 June 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Déjà vu all over again — the recent Solidarity Rally for Israel that drew a crowd, probably numbering 1,000, to Anshai Torah in Plano, where Rabbi Stefan Weinberg quipped about this being a test of congregational parking facilities in advance of the High Holy Days before giving an impassioned, accurate, effective assessment of what’s going on today, what all Jews are facing.

”I wish we didn’t have to be here,” he said. “But Israel needs us. And we need each other.”

Greater Dallas’ Jewish Federation and its Jewish Community Relations Council sponsored this massive event, along with the local Rabbinic Association and the support and participation of many cooperating organizations. For those of us old enough to have attended them, its size evoked those unforgettable rallies that took place everywhere Jews could gather at the times of the Six-Day War (June 5–10, 1967) and the Yom Kippur War (Oct. 6, 1973). But this time, nobody asked for money. Spirit was being sought here.

JCRC Chair Stephanie Hirsh set the tone in her introduction, drawing applause when she stressed that we American Jews never waver in our support of what Israel is, even though we may not agree with everything it does. Chair-elect Jeff Rasansky continued in the same vein: We were uniting in a pledge for Israel’s security and survival.

Nobody has to be Jewish to support Israel. Alice Murray, president and CEO of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, reminded us that more than 90 percent of the thousands who come to learn are not Jews. “We are teaching for all humanity,” she said. “‘Upstanders’ stand up for the state of Israel.” Ana Cristina Reymundo of American Airlines said “When we go outside, the sun shines on all of us, so we must stand up for the rights of all people.”

Community Rabbi Howard Wolk led in prayer; Cantor Itzhak Zhrebker led us in song. Dr. Zev Shulkin led us forward with powerful words on what he terms “anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism”; he told of recent pro-Hamas rallies not only on college campuses across the country, but in downtown Dallas itself. Members of the rabid Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas will be coming to our city on July 9 to picket our Jewish institutions. “Do not dismiss these protests as extreme,” he warned us. “We are asking for help. We cannot win this war alone!”

The JCRC provided comprehensive handouts on how all of us can make meaningful contact with the media and our elected officials in high places. I’ve done so already. Have you? Will you? Please do! Let me know if you need the how-to information; I’ll be happy to send it on to you.

It was wonderful to look over that sea of attendees and see men and women; children of all ages; people in wheelchairs, canes and walkers; kippot and bare male heads together; women modestly hatted next to those wearing form-hugging jeans. At the door: Susie Avnery, chair of JCRC’s Israel/International Commission, handed out Israeli flags that were waved jauntily throughout. How could you miss Diane Benjamin, with her cowboy hat and huge, eye-catching sign proclaiming the special solidarity of Texas with Israel? Also spotted in the crowd: present and past Federation executives Gary Weinstein and Moe Stein; City Councilwoman Ann Margolin; Posy McMillen, a devout Christian and a devout supporter of Israel, who came from Fort Worth to add her welcome presence. The day’s message was loud and clear: We love Israel, and pledge our allegiance to it — as we did when we stood for both the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah.”

The day before this rally, I was in Plano for the North Texas Komen Race for the Cure. As if to affirm that life and life-giving efforts go on in Israel without a break, despite flotillas and fanatics, I’ve received word that the first such Israeli race is scheduled for Jerusalem on Oct. 28 of this year. It will be held just outside the Old City walls, culminating a full week of awareness-raising about the world’s breast cancer crisis.

Actually, Komen for the Cure has been active in Israel since 1994, already contributing $2 million toward vital research. Now, people from everywhere, of all nations, cultures and faiths, are being invited to race in this new venue. Wouldn’t 2010 be a good year, and a special time, to show double solidarity — by racing to, and in, Israel?

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 17 June 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

The usual question: “What in the name of God — or heaven — was she thinking?” But we don’t have to ask the usual question about Helen Thomas. If we were smart, we knew what she was thinking for a long time. Our question: Why in the world would she say it out loud?

A long time ago, I helped a new social service agency in Chicago set up its public education/information program before I moved to Dallas. Since this organization served seniors (which I was not yet, at the time), a man of “advanced years” was then hired in my place. When I returned to visit some months later, I learned he’d been fired. Why? Because while all of us harbor certain unpleasant thoughts about certain people and events, most of us have the good sense to keep them to ourselves. He did not.

And neither did Helen Thomas, the 89-year-old Wonder Woman of news gathering and reporting. She’s been at it for some 67 years, and at its highest levels since 1974, when she became the chief of UPI’s White House bureau. What an inspiration to female journalists everywhere!

But after all those decades, her own pin pricked that high-flying balloon. Thomas has shown the great bad sense to publicly unveil her personal anti-Semitic bigotry: Jews in Israel should “get the hell out of Palestine,” she said. Her solution to the Middle East crisis? Send them all back to Germany and Poland! Well, everyone who’s been following her career — most currently as a Hearst News Service columnist — already knew her pro-Arab leanings. But who would have guessed that she’d lean far enough over to fall flat on her face?

Both the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs stepped up quickly to condemn Thomas, and to call for Hearst’s suspension of her work. And, sure enough, Hearst quickly announced her retirement. Both of these — the request and the response — were (probably much too) kindly attempts to help Helen save her flattened face, a polite bow to her age and long service. But her unforgivable remarks were the polar opposite of “polite,” and I for one am certainly hoping that, in this context, both “suspension” and “retirement” equal “YOU’RE FIRED!”

Ari Fleischer, a former White House force, was blunt about it: If any other journalists or columnists “said the same thing about Blacks or Hispanics, they would already have lost their jobs,” was his comment after Thomas’ pro forma “apology,” but before her subsequent “retirement.”

Weighing in locally was Mike Ghouse, a Dallas Muslim who champions interfaith understanding. “Helen may resign and go,” he said, “but the spark of bigotry is in the air, latent somewhere with someone, ready to burst [into a fire] as it happened with her.” He was dreaming a dream beyond Thomas when he continued, “We should not become firemen … we need to extinguish the sparks that are waiting for oxygen….”

Here’s something more down-to-earth: an in-your-face op-ed piece by blogger Sara K. Eisen called “Get the Hell Out of … My Face.” A young Jew who uses words both well and wickedly, she’s a mistress of irony: “You know why we were in Europe to begin with?” she asks, rhetorically, in response to Helen’s “go back to Germany and Poland” bit. “Because we were told by the Greeks and the Romans to get the hell out of Palestine, where we had been living since the beginning of recorded history.” In just a few succinct paragraphs, Eisen encapsulates centuries of forced Jewish migration, then sticks it to Thomas with a litany of major Jewish accomplishments throughout time and across the world, followed by sarcasm: “But none of these things will absolve us of our real sin: existing and overcoming.” Then she winds up with a zinger: “So here’s the thing, Helen: We are not going anywhere this time. This time, getting the hell out is not in the cards. We’re just sick of moving….” (Find the whole story at http://the-word-well.com/.)

Helen Thomas is old, but not senile. Is she stupid, perhaps? Hardly, although her recent action was stupid in the extreme. So what can we say? Only that in a rare moment of unguarded honesty, she opened her mouth, and out came who and what she really is. Maybe, since we knew her roots and her proclivities before, we were the stupid ones. But now we must be smart enough to turn her lapse into our advantage.

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 10 June 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Two Shabbats in Israel!  So very different: from what I’m used to here at home, and from each other…

On the first, our tour group (123 of us, traveling tandem in three buses, with staggered arrivals at points of interest so everyone saw everything, just not in the same order) welcomed the Sabbath with a simple Kabbalat Shabbat service before a traditional dinner in our Haifa hotel.

Our three tour guides were equally knowledgeable and personable; Israel expects that of those formally entrusted with showing the country to visitors. But our guide was everyone’s service leader that evening. Not only a true historian, he also proved himself an effective lay rabbi. (I’d like to see him as a weekend scholar-in-residence for our entire community. What an interesting variation he’d provide on the more usual formats! If anyone has enough frequent flyer miles to bring him here, we’d all be in for a treat. Any possibilities?)

His introduction to Shabbat crossed the Judaic spectrum, as did our group; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, avowedly secular, even alienated—all felt included and at home. The meal that followed was the same, starting with a choice of three appetizers: gefilte fish, chopped liver, a spicy Israeli eggplant concoction. Delicious!

Prayerbooks were available in every denomination, and our guide knew just how to keep everyone “on the same page,” even with all the different page numbers!

The next day, I strolled Haifa’s almost deserted streets for an hour on my way to the small, Masorti, Moriah Synagogue. Its building, tucked back and up from the street behind an enclosed children’s play space, was a bit difficult to locate, but was well worth it! Inside the bright, glass-walled sanctuary were about 50 worshipers, but they represented every age, from the very old to the energetic young rabbi to the tiny baby named at the bima that  morning. Both siddur and chumash were familiar to me, as were the sung prayers—although some of their tunes were brand-new.

The second week: Jerusalem! We had a group Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall that disappointed many in our group; we had already visited the Kotel during the week, when the area was busy but not jammed, and some folks expected to see thousands on Sabbath evening, but they were the ones who hadn’t reckoned with Shavuot; if they’d gotten up early enough several  days earlier and walked to the Wall, they’d have been among the gigantic throng gathered after the holiday’s night-long study sessions. (Probably because of that, the Yeshiva bochers did not dance the Torah in at 6:54 p.m., the official start of our Israeli Sabbath; I felt sorry for the first-timers, who really missed the sight of a lifetime…)

The next morning, early, we walked to the Great Synagogue. I ask some of you to forgive me for this, but that experience reinforced my long-ago choice to move away from Orthodoxy toward a more egalitarian Conservative Judaism. After the three-flight climb up to the women’s balcony of that magnificent structure, I was dismayed to find there was no way, from that height, to view the entirety of the huge, incredibly beautiful stained-glass window backing the Ark. And when the Ark itself was opened, I had to strain for any view at all of the 25 or so silver-crowned Torahs within. The sanctuary is vast, and looking down on the proceedings gave the women worshipers a virtually top-of-their-heads view of the men doing all the “important” things while we struggled to see. It was also difficult first to find, then to follow the service with the scarce, mismatched prayer books available to us in our upstairs aerie. For me, this was like being in a beautiful but hands-off museum; I vastly preferred the hamish accessibility of the week before little Moriah, where the new mama cradled her baby girl while chanting an aliyah!

We had been amply warned in advance that if we wanted a fresh Shabbat lunch, we should stay away from the hotel’s dining room, since everything there had been prepared many hours before—including the coffee. All the strictly kosher restaurants were closed but many in our group took advantage of one not-so-strict bistro with a far more relaxed take on the Sabbath. I was told later, after I’d eaten my cold caprese salad, that the veal meatballs were delicious. But so was my mozzarella, paired with the tiniest of locally grown tomatoes!


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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 03 June 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

I’m writing this the morning after returning from two weeks in Israel—exhausted, and elated.

Someone who writes regularly about Jewish subjects should not wait as long as I did between such visits. The last time my husband and I were in Israel, it was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem’s day of unification following the 1967 Six-Day War. This time, we marked the occasion’s 43rd. You can do the math. I’m ashamed of myself!

Israel today is a very different country than we saw 23 years ago. Then, armed soldiers were everywhere, riding buses, accompanying tourist groups like ours—we were part of just a dozen then, tooling around in a comfortable mini-van. This time, we were part of a monster mob of some 150, all signed up for the same highly recommended commercial tour that lived up to promises and expectations, traveling in a three-bus caravan from Israel’s far northern to its farthest southern borders. The only soldiers who rode with us were the half-dozen hitchhikers from their military base near Beer Sheva; we picked them up as we drove from Eilat back to Tel Aviv, on our way to catch our El Al flight home.

When you go to Israel, do fly El Al! You not only support the country’s economy, you feel Israel’s determined spirit from the moment you arrive at its airport terminal and face the extensive questioning put to you and everyone else who will be on the flight with you. Maybe it’s annoying, maybe even a bit intrusive. But at the end, you relax. Israeli homeland security is above reproach. Our bus guide stressed this important point: “We are looking for the bomber, not the bomb. We profile without apology. We put political correctness toward one person beneath the safety of many…”

Our guide was a Brit who made aliyah as a young man, and has been in this business for two decades; he calls his unmistakably English accent “a birth defect.” He’s intense about his country, its importance to Judaism’s survival, and its needs, and high on his list is transmitting that personal intensity to everyone entrusted to his temporary care. “Bring your children and grandchildren to Israel,” he was constantly urging us.

The tone of this trip was quite different for me from our first one so long ago. Then, I was drinking in our Eternal Homeland for the first time, marveling wide-eyed at everything—as our guide expects our children and grandchildren will do. But this time, I knew more—although far from enough—and could not only see the differences in growth, but feel the differences in current politics. I missed entirely what turned out to be most important for me now:

At the airport, waiting after clearance to board our flight, I sat with a trio of young Israeli men, returning home after doing their own (for me, “reverse”) sightseeing and exploring in the U.S.  One of them asked me, “What do you think will be the most important part of your trip?” And I was surprised to hear myself respond, without hesitation, “The experience of being part of a majority!” Not the seeing of anything physical, not even the Kotel, but the feeling of being a Jew among Jews, all day, every day, without apology or explanation or discomfort of any kind.

So many kinds of Jews! The seculars of Tel Aviv, the Jerusalem Haredi, the teeny kippot and big black hats, the swinging tsitsis, the shtreimels and gabardine coats, the long skirts and miniscule bikinis, the men in white stockings and bare-legged women (some of them, by the way, being handed strikingly identifiable pink ponchos at the Western Wall to assure the modesty standard that we as tourists were warned in advance, early and often, to be sure to follow).

I don’t know if the guide’s urgent message got through to all in our group; many of the women were so busy buying jewelry everywhere, especially little Stars of David to take home to their young granddaughters—the very kids our English Israeli was hoping they would come again and bring with them—the price comparisons and place recommendations were major topics of conversation. But you never know. Virtually every one of them went home with a protective, good-luck hamsa that may be enough to turn them eastward again in the future.

For me, this was already the future. I spotted only one gun-toting soldier patrolling the Wall.  She was black…

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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In My Mind’s I

Posted on 27 May 2010 by admin

By Harriet P. Gross

Once upon a long time ago, I ate the best brownie ever at a friend’s home. I asked for the recipe; when she gave it, I was startled to see that its name was “Swear-on-a-Bible Brownies.” I immediately thought, “Hey! There’s a story here!” And there was:

When my friend asked for the brownie recipe, the baker refused, saying she never gave it to anyone. But my friend is the essence of persistence and has no shame. She said, “Give it to me, and I’ll swear on a Bible that I’ll never give it to anyone else.” She’s been handing it out, under her own title, ever since.

I remembered those Biblical brownies as our recent Women’s League for Conservative Judaism’s Dallas conference wound down. Many locals had graciously baked for our hospitality room: mandelbrot, lemon squares, brownies (but none as good as you-know-which). At the end, I thought our out-of-towners might want the few leftovers for their trips home, but they all asked for the lace cookies, which were long gone.

“I’ll find out who made them and get you the recipe,” I promised. Rashly, because a Shearith Israel woman spoke right up: “Those are Susan Ehrlich’s cookies. She brings them every time she’s asked to bake for something, and she won’t give the recipe to anyone.” “We’ll see,” I said, thinking about those brownies. But the speaker went on: “She’s giving the recipe to one good friend. One ingredient a year….” Well, I do recognize a story when I run into one!

When I contacted Susan, she thought it hilarious that her cookies could make a column. But she stressed that she would not divulge the much-sought-after recipe, although “I’ve considered putting it in Shearith Sisterhood’s upcoming cookbook,” she said. “But so far, I haven’t submitted it.” So don’t hold your breath.

Susan got the recipe from a friend many years ago, and now they’re her own special cookies, which “always seem to be a hit,” she says. She’s happy to make them for any occasion, from upbeat ones like our conference to shiva minyans. But she’s a realist: “I figured that if everyone had the recipe, they wouldn’t be special.”

Susan has announced that she’ll be leaving the recipe, in a sealed envelope, with the lawyer who has her will, and he can share it with anyone and everyone when she’s no longer around to bake herself. But then, Susan adds this bit of anticipatory caution: “He loves the cookies, too. So I haven’t yet given him the envelope….”

Before dear friend Gail Mizrahi’s very special birthday last fall, “I was trying to think of something meaningful to give her,” Susan recalls, “and I thought of the recipe, because she loves the cookies so much. And then I decided to make the gift go on until her next big birthday. So I prepared labels with a portion of the recipe for every year for the next nine years, too. I made a little board for her to place each sticker on. And by the time she gets the entire recipe, she will have to take over my baking responsibilities.” (Susan admits to being a decade older than Gail.)

At the time she puts the last lace cookie puzzle piece into place, Gail will probably be ready to stay home and bake, because she’s “on the ladder to be president of Shearith Israel,” Susan says, and will have completed her two years of top congregational leadership by then.

Susan has shared her precious recipe with just three other people, and that was a long time back — before she moved to Dallas 15 years ago. Many of her local friends know she’s giving Gail this special gift, and are getting a kick out of the idea, but Susan acknowledges that she’ll have to share the recipe with everyone once her friend’s is complete. So the lace cookie baker is already considering hedging her bet: “I may get cold feet and start giving the stickers every other year….” Don’t you love it?

You can contact me for the Swear-on-a-Bible brownie recipe if you like. I’ve never baked them. I don’t bake much of anything, so I’m not panting for Susan’s recipe myself. But I was very busy during the conference, and didn’t have a chance to taste her lace cookies before they were all gone. So she’s promised to save a few for me the next time she bakes them. And these — I promise NOT to share with you!

E-mail: harrietg@texasjewishpost.com

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