The Cantor's Blog

Tue, 06/14/2016 - 12:37pm -- AJ Blog


Cantor’s Blog

To boldly go where too few have gone before

From the Liberty Bell to a Carillon Concert

The adventure has begun!

For the many who asked for updates on my Sabbatical, I have agreed to try to write a bi-weekly update to be sent out to the congregation with our weekly AJ news blasts. Here’s the first.

My plan for this sabbatical is a course of formal study at the Conservative Center and Pardes in Jerusalem, surrounding a two week mission to Spain/Portugal with the Cantors Assembly, concertizing, hearing lectures and learning about the Judeo-Spanish experience.

Philadelphia was our first stop on our way to Israel and we spent the day at the National Museum of American Jewish Heritage where got to see my now-all-grown-up B’nei Mitzvah students Cobi Weissbach and Shira Goldstein in their place of employment, regaling us with stories of celebrities they have hosted like Jerry Seinfeld and Cory Booker, giving us the insider’s view of the museum. 

There were many exhibits that added to my knowledge of American Jewish history. 

For instance, I knew the first Jewish clergy in North America was Hazzan Gershom Seixas; I didn't know that George Washington lifted some of the most memorable lines of his address to the Newport, RI Congregation from Gershom's brother Moses’ letter in which he praised the emerging country as one "which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Further, there were manuscripts of two great Hebrew acrostic poems: One a prayer for the new country with an acrostic of Voshington and another a paean of praise for Lincoln.

Finally, I think Gershom's son David may have invented the sign language finger spelling I learned when I did theatre for the deaf. There was a card on display and I think the 27th letter was alef…

For those of you who gave me tzedakah money to give out, on our way to lunch with new-Philadelphian-to-be-near-grandchildren Sharon Weissbach, we walked by a sax player who was really good. He got the first dollar entrusted to me. Trust me, he deserved it!

Upward and onward to Eretz Yisrael via Heathrow. 

Our garden apartment, a rental which my wife found, is in a great part of town, Moshava Germanit. Since my course at the Conservative center doesn’t start for a week or so, I decided to begin my study of the tractate of Peah from the Jerusalem Talmud. This is primarily for 3 reasons: 1. I have the volume with the Hebrew translation by Steinsaltz. 2. It’s a fascinating topic (Tzedaka in the ancient world) and 3. It’s not a huge book…

Once I was done unpacking, I began reading the introduction that Steinsaltz provides, already learning, among other things, that the mitzvah of leaving a corner of one’s field for the poor is a combination of two commandments, positive and negative: 1. Leave a corner; 2. Don’t harvest the entire field. Also, even though there is no measure assigned in the Torah, the rabbis insist on a  minimum of 1/60th of the field, a common fraction also used in determining issues of Kashrut in another context. The rabbis also emphasize it must be an actual CORNER of a field left for the poor to glean, not simply any random 1/60th of the field. 

As far as the Tzedakah that many of you gave me (over $250!), most of the singles have been given away to Israeli street musicians and people who have asked for it on the street. One $20 has gone to Yad LaKashish and another $20 is on it’s way to the organization where my daughter is volunteering.

After doing some shopping, we decided to take in one of the three outdoor concerts available as the Israel Festival winds down. The YMCA of Jerusalem is located across the street from the King David Hotel. They had a carillon key-board player performing a series of Israeli popular favorites on the church bells. A Christian institution hosting a concert on an instrument with clearly Christian connotations projected onto the bell tower while Israelis sat on the grass singing Lu Yehi and Shir HaEmek. Wow. 


Mizrachiut: Israeli Music to Iranian Posters

Thursday morning I awoke at 8:30 thinking I must be over my jet lag. I fell asleep again until 11:45 a.m., waking again just in time to get my daughter Natania’s text that she had arrived on her much delayed flights and was in a shared taxi (Sheirut) on her way to our apartment. The garden of the building has plum, peach and even apple trees so I went a picked some for our lunch. We walked to an outdoor Mizrachi concert and bought provisions from a little market nearby. Getting towards the end of the Israel festival, the music was of Middle Eastern style (Erez Simon) and the electric guitarist made his instrument sound like an oud on steroids. The lead singer said what many Israelis were feeling in response to the terror attack in Tel Aviv. We console the families of the murdered and maimed while refusing to be broken; the music that followed was consistently energetic, improvisational, and joyous. This was all before the horrific attack in Orlando. Israelis feel America’s pain. Really, they do.

On Friday morning, as my better 2/3rds shopped in the shuk, I went to the Islamic Museum of Art across the street from the Jerusalem Theatre. The Museum is beautifully curated. I started in the beginner’s room, re-learning the basics, filling in those details I didn’t learn in High School in Israel where I began learning Arabic in 9th grade before returning to the U.S. 

Here are a few:

  1. Most Westerners know about the wonders awaiting a martyr in the Islamic conception of Heaven. What I didn’t know was that the 7th heaven is the penultimate level to Allah’s royal throne and it includes a garden with four rivers: water, milk, honey and wine (non-alcoholic, of course).
  2. Some chess pieces were ‘translated’ from Persian into European from Vizier to Queen; Chariot to Rook and Elephant to Bishop.
  3. Arabs not only introduced the Indian number system to Europe but also the decimal system and zero, not to mention hospitals. They also were the first to discover the idea of contamination, and diagnose small pox and measles.
  4. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters with 3 forms for most letters. Much of the differentiation is related to how letters connect to others before and after. There used to be far more forms which have been simplified over the centuries.
  5. The Suf from the word Sufi means rough wool which the mystics would wear, objecting to materialism. Dervish is a subset of Sufi mysticism which is derived from a word meaning ‘knocking at doors’ since they would live on alms and charity.
  6. I wondered whether the Fatimid dynasty which took over Egypt in the 10th century and created a Shia dynasty in a formerly Sunni area was at all related to the development of Karaism in Judaism. Like the Karaites, who rejected Rabbinic Judaism in general and the Talmud in particular, Shia rejected the Hadith (or stories outside the Koran itself).

The museum also included an incredible exhibit of Iranian posters. If you want to see them, I posted them on Facebook.



A Hard Day’s Night

Many years ago I spent New Year’s Eve (the one on the Gregorian calendar, not the Jewish one) participating in a Lakota Sweat Lodge in Minnesota. Normally, I wake up in the morning feeling that I need a shower. On the first morning of that secular year, I woke up feeling cleaner than I ever have.

Shavuot morning I came home from a full night of study in three different Jerusalem locations around 7 a.m. I wasn’t in the least bit tired. My wife and daughter who had recently woken up were happy to take a walk with me in the early morning sun.

Some might say it was the two or three cups of coffee I consumed during the evening. I’m sure that was part of it. But I think the energy of the teachings and gorgeous, cool summer night contributed far more.

My wife and I began our study marathon at the Hartman Institute on Saturday afternoon. The Shabbat afternoon pre-Tikkun-Shavuot sessions did not disappoint.  The best session was with Rabbis Mishael Tzion (whose father Noam’s Haggadah we often use at our Seder table) and Tamar Elad-Applebaum (who visited us a year or so ago to raise funds for Masorti in Israel), spoke about the purpose of a rabbi in the 21st Century. They both looked at the two teachings for the Sayings of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) which command us to Appoint ourselves a Rabbi.

Rabbi Tzion began by citing the following teaching: Rabbi Gamliel says Appoint for yourself a rabbi, and escape doubt and don’t use estimates too much for your tithes. The purpose of the rabbi here seems to be to give us the answers. On the other hand, Yehoshua ben Perachia says, Appoint yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend and give all people the benefit of the doubt. Although many read the rabbi and friend as different, there are those who suggest they are the same people. In this case, the Rabbi is more of a guide and peer than an authority. He brings an interpretation of the Meiri who says that even the most brilliant of rabbis needs a rabbi since no one sees himself as others see him. 

Rabbi Elad-Applebaum suggested these texts hinted at the three roles of a rabbi, past, present and future oriented. On the one hand she brings the treasure of knowledge and wisdom from the past to help students grapple with their issues using ancient wisdom. Secondly, she is present with her congregants in their joys and crises. Finally, a very few are able to divine aspects of what the future of their communities in particular and the Jewish people in general will need to confront. She went on to envision a world in which a rabbi brought a significant knowledge base to a congregation of learners all of whom, including the rabbi, had both the independence of thought to have informed opinions and the humility necessary to hear the independent thought of others with whom Torah could be reimagined communally.

Our overnight odyssey began at the Avi Chai Center where my wife went to hear Aviva Zornberg speak deeply about Ruth and I went to hear an Israeli novelist who had just written a book about what home means using the beginning of Genesis Chapter 12 as his foundation text. Of many significant insights, he suggests this opening verse tells us that no one has actually come home until they have created their own separate from their parents. Some might say they haven’t really found their home until they have children of their own who can leave home themselves to create their own in the place that God will show them.

I would have stayed but the next sessions were incredibly over-full and I needed to go to the back of the line to get in. As I left, I thought I might have wandered into a rock concert the crowd was so large. Everyone from ultra-Orthodox black hat to completely secular sat and learned together from incredible Israeli authors, academics and journalists.

I went to a synagogue tikes on the way and learned from one teacher that when Samuel went to Jesse to choose the next king, David’s father presented all his brothers but him. The King James version mistranslates as ‘Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel…’   The Hebrew is: Jesse had his seven sons pass before Samuel וַיַּעֲבֵר יִשַׁי שִׁבְעַת בָּנָיו. There was a long midrash about how Jesse suspected that David was illegitimate and did not consider him his son at all. 

Later, the head rabbi for medical ethics in Israel spoke about everything from abortion to the removal of life support to brain death to surrogacy in both Jewish and Israeli law. Perhaps most interesting was the fact that if an Israeli doctor believes a patient is making a bad medical decision which may cause his death unnecessarily, the ethics committee can overrule the patient and force him to get the life-saving treatment. The only two times they’ve had to enforce this prerogative, the patients have sent the committee flowers. 

After five hours of study interrupted only by three or four walks from one location to another and a couple of coffees and half a dozen rugalach, I stayed at the synagogue where I had been learning and davvened shacharit with them, watching the sun come up as we moved from one part of the service to the other. 

Although I don’t love crowds, I was amazed and proud to have to fight may out of the Avi Chai Center and into the Begin Center for the lectures I heard. 

This coming week is likely to be dangerous.

The Israel Book Festival.


P.S. The graffiti I took a photograph of on my way back to the museum reads: 



All Love