Many who were circumcised
And versed in Jewish lore.
Perhaps the Germans have forgotten
For they are there no more.
—Rabbi David Wolpe
This is the final stanza from the L.A.-based rabbi’s poem in the Washington Post in which he responds to Germany’s decision to ban circumcisions. Stinging words.
Counting the Omer in the Modern Day
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Photo by Kwan C./Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
"From the day after the day of rest — that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving — you are to count seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to Adonai." —Leviticus 23:15-16
The same evening that 40,000 Orthodox Jews gathered for a rally to consider the dangers of the Internet (and its responsible use), an email from a local conservative synagogue arrived in my inbox to remind me of a ritual for observant Jews to count the Omer. The email message notes which day of the Omer should be counted after sundown, and comes with a prayer written both in English and in Hebrew. You can also get an app for it, follow reminders from Twitter @CountTheHomer, or read the daily prayers via your RSS feed.
The counting of the Omer, also known as the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’Omer, is a period of spiritual renewal starting from the second night of Passover and ending with Shavuot — the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Israelites. For each night of these seven weeks, Jews are commanded to count from the day on which the Omer (a unit measure of barley) is offered at the Temple. The ritual begins after sundown by reciting a blessing and then saying the appropriate day of the count.
This tradition has been described as a mindfulness practice, and there is a philosophical debate about whether one should count down the days, or count up. A cancer patient proposes that counting toward the Omer can provide you with a hopeful future orientation.
The Relationship Between Happiness and Gratitude
by Susan Leem, associate producer
How we feel about where we are today affects how we remember and regret the past. The question illustrator Hanan Harchol is trying to understand: what is the relationship between happiness and gratitude? If you can feel gratitude for what you have, it can render those bad decisions unimportant, even not so bad.
And what does this do for regret? It can help you move on and stop ruminating about the “one that got away” or the job you should have taken, and make better decisions in the future.
In this animated video, Harchol shares a Jewish folktale in which a farmer complains about his home being too small. The cagy, local rabbi advises the farmer to bring goats into his small home for a while. Then, the farmer sees how small his home really could be.
Thankfully, we can replicate this advice as a thought experiment. This may sound like a grandma reminding us, “Oh, it could always be worse.” But it’s easier to realize how good life is once you imagine how hard it could be. Isn’t it easier to see a bronze medal as a gift rather than a failed attempt at a gold if you imagine that you might’ve come in 4th place? If the ability to feel gratitude is like building a muscle, maybe the workout starts here.
Thank goodness for Reuters:
A white rose is placed on barbed wire at the museum of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau marking the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops and to remember the victims of the Holocaust, in Auschwitz Birkenau January 27, 2012. [REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Are Arab Jews Extinct?
by Naava Mashiah, guest contributor
A man holds a misbaha in the old city of Jerusalem. (photo: Flavio Grynszpan/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The growing rift between Israel and the Arab world makes it hard to imagine that Jews and Arabs once coexisted across the Middle East. At one point these identities could be found not only in the same neighborhood, but even in the same person.
Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or one whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.
My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah,” a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.
Over the years I have accumulated stories about Baba Yona like pearls on a string and play with these beads, just as he played with the beads on his misbaha, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. My father recalled how he used to accompany my grandfather, who was also known by the Arabic name Abu Fuad, to meetings in cafés and the respect that people showed him.
Baba Yona was an integrated member of Baghdad society and its business world, yet he was a Jew.
In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.
Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.
At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time — Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.
So as they were airlifted out of Baghdad, did my nine year-old father know where he was headed? Was it en route to Cyprus and during the eventual landing in Israel that he stopped being an Arab Jew?
In Israel, the younger generations became embarrassed by their Arabic-speaking parents. My father, Sabah, was given a Hebrew name, Shaul, but his brother who had arrived in his late teens, too late for a name change, is called Jamil until this very day.
In fact, my father’s Arab identity was totally effaced in Israel. It was a combination of external pressures and self denial. Thus he became successfully integrated into the dominant culture in Israel of that period.
My interest in my Arab roots began about ten years ago when I established my business, which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many Israelis asked me why I had chosen to do so. The notion that Israel should forge economic ties with other countries in the MENA region is not self-evident within Israeli society.
Their questions led me to excavate my own identity and connect with my grandfather’s world. I am discovering more and more young Jews like myself who have been able to distance themselves from their parents traumatic experiences and proudly reclaim their Arab roots.
I recall one day when I brought home old records of Abdul Wahab, a famous Egyptian singer, and put them on the phonograph. My father Shaul transformed back to Sabah and sang all the words. He did not understand how I could be interested in this music. My curiosity for the poetry and music is deep-rooted to an extent that baffles him.
Today when I ask my father if my grandfather was an Arab Jew and he proclaims, “No way, there is no such thing,” I beg to differ.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, focused on the transfer of technology from Israel to the MENA region, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and the editor of MEDABIZ.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on January 17, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
This is storytelling at its finest and its darkest, but Auslander’s wry sense of humor and delivery give the heaviness of the situation a light touch. For those of you with delicate sensibility about the Holocaust or profane language, be forewarned. He does swear a few times and is brutally honest about his visit to a concentration camp in Germany. His ending is worth it and his point all the more salient because of this humorous approach.
Some people have a way of bringing laughter to deep, painful sorrow - but not in a way that ignores or diminishes the reality of that sorrow. It’s like some people have this ability to see the microscopic punchlines and jokes even in the darkest of places. Writer Shalom Auslander has this ability. Here, he tells a live story with The Moth in NYC about his reluctant trip to a WWII death camp. And if you like this, you can hear more stories from him on This American Life, read more stories in his (amazing) books & articles, or listen to him talk with Terry.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Mazzel” by Leo Fuld
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
I had a She & Him track from their new Christmas album all lined up for tonight. And then I realized that I’d be one culturally insensitive Tumblr jockey if I didn’t cue up something for the first night of Hanukkah. Thankfully, my colleague Nancy Rosenbaum is dialed in, recommending this celebratory song of “good luck” from The Idelsohn Society’s wonderful new album Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set.
We’ll be lighting our menorah tonight. Here’s wishing you all a Chag Urim Sameach!
Unlikely Sources of “Customs” for Leading a Modern Life and Marking Sacred Time
by Krista Tippett, host
Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an aficionado of early music. Like many postwar American Jews, he grew up “nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified,” surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe’s horrors. He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.
Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history, he chanced upon a handbook of illustrations and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he discovered was a “Customs Book” — a Minhogimbukh — helping ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life.
For three hundred years, versions of this book of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.
When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered a 1645 edition of the The Book of Customs in the late twentieth century, he did so neither as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate an updated book of customs in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise, he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility but participating in its power.
Here is a passage from the introduction to his updated version of The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:
"I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b’Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation with myself and with God, a sense of community for better or for worse, an appreciation of God’s greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.”
This week’s episode isn’t strictly a Hanukkah show, but we released it this year as the season of Hanukkah is about to begin. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this “minor” and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient, triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.
Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch and hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself if God was still in that desecrated Temple — and why would he leave his House in the first place? He concludes that, if all we celebrate in such rituals is the “memory of God,” it is still very important to keep that memory alive.
About the image: Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work in what he calls his sukkah. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)
Truth has to be given in riddles. People can’t take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed. You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it.
—Chaim Potok, from The Gift of Asher Lev
Thanks for reminding me of this mind-enlivening piece of art.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor