Monthly Archives: April 2012

What next?

The other day I was mindlessly thumbing through a catalog of a well known company which offers specialty fruit and candy baskets. It was interesting to me that some of the items being offered were labeled as kosher which certainly is important information for Jewish consumers. However, just when I was about to close the catalog and put it in the recycling, I noticed the small print next to one of the kosher symbols. It said: “check for tolaim”. I nearly hit the roof.

Let me explain tolaim is the Hebrew word for bugs or worms and the catalog was advising individuals, I assume at the insistence of the kashrut supervisors, to check for any small bugs or worms in the particular fruit which would render the product not kosher in the minds of those who are very scrupulous about kashrut.

These few words touched a very raw nerve, a nerve which is become more and more “raw” as the years go along. I am absolutely incensed by the increasingly common phenomenon of “raising the bar” when it comes to kashrut,. It seems that aspects of kashrut which were, at one time, what are called “humras”, strict interpretations, observed by the minority of kashrut observing Jews, are now becoming the expected norm and I, for one, find this terribly troubling.

Let me give a few examples. There is a tradition that is observed by some at Pesach called “gebrokts” which prohibits the subjecting of any matza product or matza meal- even after it has been baked- to any amount of liquid for fear that the leavening process might continue. People who observe “gebrokts” will not eat matza balls, matza brei (or fried matza as we called it when I was growing up), or cook with matza or matza meal in any way. This always struck me as a minority approach to kashrut, one which individuals are certainly entitled to practice of course. However, more and more products produced at Pesach by major kosher companies are identifed as non-gebrokts and the products are, quite frankly, not as tasty as products made with matza meal.

Of course, we can just not buy them and that solves the problem in one sense. But, the bigger problem is that there is an insinuation that one is not observing Pesach if one is eating products which do not fit this criterion and that just is not true for the majority of us.

On a flight to Israel a few years ago, I ordered a kosher meal and received a piece of paper with the meal which guaranteed to me that the meal was made in accordance with no less than 9 additional strictures of kashrut from the grain that was used in the bread to the material that was used in the preparation of the implements that came with the meal.None of these restrictions struck me as particularly important and while, again, I am willing to accept the fact that it does matter to some, the fact that it is now the norm is what concerns me.

And, finally, to give one more example, you might have noticed a few years back that one of the kashrut supervising agencies had a new symbol which included the letters “DE” which indicated dairy equipment. This meant that the product itself was pareve (neither meat nor dairy) but that it was prepared on equipment which produced dairy products. Some would consider therefore the product as still pareve. Others might think that it was pareve but could not be eaten at the same time as meat. Others might consider it dairy altogether. It was valuable information for those who observed more stritctly.

However, you won’t see the DE hescher anymore. Now, you find that products which would have had a DE have, in fact, a D for dairy. I recently called a company whose products I had always bought and used as pareve when I saw a D show up on the package with no apparent change in the ingredients. The person I spoke to told me that the product had not changed but the supervising agency had changed their standards and insisted on a D because the product was made on equipment which did produce dairy foods. Again, if someone wants to consider that product dairy, that is their choice. But, it is another example of raising the bar, asking everyone to observe the chosen strictures of a few.What was wrong with using DE and letting people decide?

And that brings me back to the worms. I don’t need to be told to check for bugs in romaine lettuce or broccoli or whatever. If that is a kashrut requirement that one wants to take on that is fine. But, I don’t want people told that if they don’t do this, they are not keeping kosher. And, unfortunately, I believe that is the message that is sent when the minimum bar for what constitutes a kosher product is raised.

We should be encouraging people to observe kashrut, not discouraging them by continually making it more and more restrictive. Sadly, this is the direction we are heading and it points to an attitude determined to make observance of Jewish law the province of those who “do it right” while leaving the rest of us who are more reasonable to consider ourselves as outside the group of observant Jews. That just is not right and it is not wise.


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Dick Clark: a Memorial

As I look back on what I have written in this blog over the last few months, I see a dominant theme: nostalgia. I find myself frequently writing about my childhood and adolescent years and remembering the places I have been, the songs I sang, the TV shows I watched and the people I knew. Some of that is a function of age and while some might say that, at age 56, it’s too early to be so nostalgic, I would argue that the speed with which the world is changing makes that natural tendency to look back more difficult to resist. I am glad to grab on to new things but I miss the simpler times I grew up in.

And that brings us to Dick Clark. I was sad to hear of his death yesterday. I wouldn’t call myself by any means a great Dick Clark fan but when I think about it, he was present in many of the significant times in my life.

I do remember when American Bandstand was on tv on weekday afternoons. I was in elementary school at the time and I remember my brother watching it and I couldn’t understand what the attraction was. I didn’t begin to listen to “top 40” music until I was about 12 so none of these singers meant anything to me and I certainly couldn’t identify with the teenagers who were dancing (I never have been able to that- I’m a terrible dancer). But, I remember the black and white images so clearly and would wait until they played the game “rate a record” or whatever it was called that led to the tag line: “It’s a great song but you can’t dance to it”.

Then, when I was in high school, as an avid fan of game shows, I discovered the $10,000 pyramid. I loved that show and,in fact, years later on a couple of occasions cut a class in Rabbinical School to go to see a taping of the show in the ABC theater near Times Square. I was always amazed at how effortless Dick Clark looked when he hosted that game. He never looked bored, never lost interest and was completely unflappable. We should all look at our jobs that way.

By that point, Dick Clark took over the role of hosting New Year’s Eve in Times Square. He had started to do that in 1972 and I don’t remember whether he followed the legendary Guy Lombardo directly or if he was competition on another network, but just when I was starting to really feel the pull of adolescent rebellion, not having to listen to the old time band music from a hotel ballroom while waiting for the ball to drop was a welcome change for me and a good source of conflict with my parents.

What amazed me and many others I’m sure though about Dick Clark was that while so many of us couldn’t relate to the music tastes of the 80’s and 90’s, he stayed right there plugging these singers I had never hear of and singing their praises while I was longing for the old time music from the 60’s and 70’s. Somehow, he had kept up with the times and, by the looks of things, had never aged.

It’s worth thinking about. How much should we allow ourselves to change? How do we hold on to who were were back then and still keep up with the times? When does nostalgia become escapism?

I will miss Dick Clark. He seemed always to be there. But nothing stays the same forever.

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Approaching the end of Pesach

In the famous Talmudic debate about whether we should increase or decrease the number of candles we light over the holiday of Hanukkah, the school of Hillel teaches that we should light one candle the first night,  two on the second and so on because of the principle: “ma’alin bikodesh v’ayn moridin”. We increase our levels of holiness and never decrease. The end of the holiday should have more light than the beginning.

Our goal as Jews is to bring more sanctity to our lives each day and the holidays should reflect that. But, too often, the end of our holidays is not as exciting, as meaningful, as memorable as the beginning. And, no holiday exemplifies that more than Pesach.

Think about how we began Pesach last Friday. The excitement of  cooking and cleaning had already gone on for several days in many homes. For many, the special seder dishes were taken out and those foods we eat only on two nights a year were prepared. Then, Monday came and we went back to work or to school grumbling about food limitations, trying to find something to satisfy cravings, finding too many crumbs around the house, trying not to be too obvious about longing for a cup of coffee at our favorite coffee place. Where is the extra light that Hillel spoke about relating to Hanukkah? Where is the “increase in holiness” and meaning? What happened to the glow we were left with after the Seders?

As we approach the last two days of the holiday and before the anticipation of the taste of pizza becomes too strong, it’s time to stop and think about how we can make these last two days more meaningful. Let me offer some suggestions.

First, Pesach is about more than food. We are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day of our lives but during this time of year, that obligation is particularly significant.  As we read the Song of the Sea at services on the 7th day, as we continue to say the Hallel psalms of praise for God’s salvation, we should take another look at the matza that we held up so high at the Seder and realize what we will miss in terms of meaning when we go back to eating bread Saturday evening. This intense connection with the Exodus is such a beautiful tradition and one which we feel at every meal. We will miss it even if we prefer the taste of bread.

Think also about the 8th day of Pesach and the recitation of Yizkor, the Memorial service. The saying of this service does bring a sadness and a sense of loss to the end of the festivals. But, Yizkor reminds us of the sanctity of memory. We think back to when a loved one whom we have lost was present at our Seder table. Their absence is felt so much more deeply during holiday season but, in a strange sense, feeling that sense of absence can make us embrace and cherish the power of memory even more deeply. We might sense their absence more deeply but because of the power of memory, especially at special times, we feel their presence in our minds and in our hearts even more deeply as well. The Yizkor service allows us to recognize what we have been feeling all week and through the release of tears or the relief of a smile make us cherish even more what this week has brought us.

And finally, we can commit ourselves to acting on the lessons we have learned this holiday about the meaning of slavery and the blessing of freedom. We can remember what we learned at the Seder table and seek ways to bring those lessons to light in our the days and months to come.

It’s no secret that for most of us, come Shabbat afternoon, we’ll be counting down the hours until that first taste of hametz. But, before it gets to that point, take the time to recognize the wonder that this holiday really brings- a wonder that goes far beyond the Seder. Cherish the last days of this festival and celebrate them with joy, with meaning and with memory.
Hag Sameach.


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A final Pesach thought

So, the matza “stuffing’ has been made and is in the refrigerator, the shank bone and egg are ready and we’re about to search for the hametz. But, before that happens- a quick thought.

I want to share with you a new text for your Seder which comes from a book called Hatzaah Liseder ” A Proposal for the Seder” published by Ydeiot Aharnot press in Israel some years ago. It is a fantastic book of commentary and suggestions and what I found most refreshing about it is that it was clearly intended for a secular audience, one which was looking for meaning in the rituals but were willing to look critically and seriously at the text of the Haggada.

Immediately after saying  “Ha Lachma Anya”, “this is the bread of affliction” which marks the beginning of the magid, the storytelling section of the Haggada, the book suggests saying a kavana, an “intentional prayer” to direct our thoughts.Using the traditional form for such a kavannah:

“Harayni muchan umzuman lisapayr biyitzeeat mitzrayim yachad im kol  Yisrael”

Behold I am ready to tell the story of the Exodus of Egypt together with all of the people of Israel.

What a beautiful thought. To think that as we sit at our table, Jews around the world will be telling the same story, each in their own way. Some will start earlier, some will start later as sundown dictates in their community but we all say it together.  As sacred as is our individual havurah, our group sitting around our individual table with whom we will share the intimate experience of the Seder, each havurah, each group sits together knowing that others across the street, across town and around the world are telling the same story.

Pausing for a moment and reflecting on that as this kavannah suggests makes us realize how truly “different” this night is. May we all tell the story in our own way. But, may we never forget that we sit not by ourselves but with our people around the world, all of us engaging in this sacred storytelling.

Best wishes for a meaningful, sacred Seder. Hag Sameach.


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Pesach and Baseball

The title is very serious but it shouldn’t be surprising.  I believe that everything in life can be compared to baseball in one way or another. But, the connection with Pesach is particularly noteworthy since most years, and this year is no exception, the holiday coincides with the opening of the baseball season.

In a book called Take Time for Paradise, Americans and Their Games,  Bartlett Giamatti wrote about the fact that baseball is all about seeking to come home. He spoke about a runner on the long journey around the basepaths searching for home after being so far away and how this is an experience which is so primal, so foundational for each human being.

It has often occurred to me that the Pesach seder is, in so many ways, a time for coming home.

First, there is the simple fact that so many people try so hard to “be home” for the Seder if at all possible. Of course it often is impossible to be “home” but that is why our Rabbis stressed the fact that a group that sits at the Seder is, in fact, a havurah, a community all its own. For that evening, if one can’t be home, home is  whatever seder table one happens to find herself at.

Secondly, the whole story of the Exodus is a story of coming home, taking the “long way around” as a runner does as he or she circles the bases. The entire story is meant to emphasize the need for human beings to reconnect with their past and make it part of their future.

And finally, it strikes me that sitting at the Seder for so many of us is a sense of “coming home” to Jewish ritual. For those who do not engage in significant Jewish ritual through the year (and even, quite frankly, for those of us who do), the Seder reminds us of the power that the ritual can have. The taste of the maror, the washing of the hands, the opening of the door, the first taste of Matza, all remind us of days past, of family members no longer with us and of family and community celebrations. But these rituals also remind us of the power that our Jewish rituals have in our own lives today and how deeply our lives  can be touched by the sounds and smells and tastes of our history. Sitting at the Seder feels like home in so many ways and reminds us of the unique place our rituals have in our hearts and our minds.

I wish you a meaningful Seder, one which d satisfies your hunger for freedom and one which reminds you that at any Seder table, you are home.



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A Pesach Story

This story is not quite ancient history but it seems that way at times. 30 years is  a long time and we live in a world much different than the world we lived in in 1982. A lot has changed for me in the past 30 years and I have sat at 60 seder tables over those years. But, my memory of Pesach 1982 is still fresh in my mind.

I spent Pesach 1982 in the city of Kishinev, in the former Soviet Union. I traveled there with a classmate of mine on a special journey. We were one of  many pairs of Rabbinical school students traveled to the USSR that year and in the years before and after to spend holidays attempting to meet with and encourage Jews who had been refused the basic human right to live where they wanted to live. Those who expressed a desire to emigrate to Israel were routinely persecuted: their jobs were taken away, their lives threatened and, in many cases, they were separated from their families.

I won’t go into the entire story of my 5 days in the USSR.  During those 5 days, I met courageous people, determined people whose dream of leaving the USSR for Israel gave their lives meaning and hope.

But, there is  one part of the story that I will share here. My friend and I arrived in Kishinev around noon on erev Pesach. We spent the better part of the day calling the numbers we had been given. These were people we were supposed to meet with but each call went unanswered and our one attempt to visit a family had to be aborted when we were realized we were being followed rather closely by some suspicious looking individuals. We decided instead to go to a market to purchase some bitter herbs for a hotel room Seder to go along with the matza and cans of tuna we had brought with us.

As we began to put the symbols of the Seder on the hotel room table, we decided that we should give it one more try and took a cab to the house which by its address we could tell was the closest to the hotel. We got out of the cab, walked quickly to the door and before we could even knock, the door opened and we were pulled in with one word: “Shalom”.

The family had seen us outside and knew immediately who we were. They motioned us downstairs to the basement where they would be holding their Seder. We were shown the seats for each member of the family and the two additonal seats that had been placed at the Seder table earlier that day. They were not for us, rather they were in honor of the two students who had joined the family at the Seder the year before and had brought such joy and support to the family. We were pleased to sit in their seats and join a Seder in which the talk of freedom came from the depths of the heart.

The story had a happy ending. Five years after we left Kishinev, the family was finally allowed to leave. Our phone calls, and letters to them kept their spirits up and our actions on their behalf made a difference as they ultimately left the USSR. We met and hugged in freedom.

I learned two lessons that Pesach. First, I learned how remarkable the Jewish spirit is. To continue to dream, to continue to hope, to continue to believe, to continue to identify even at such a cost is a hallmark of our people. One of the great sources of pride for me as a Jew is to realize how our ancestors and our  brothers and sisters faced difficulties most of us will never experience and still stood tall and proud as Jews. They are an inspiration for all of us.

And the second thing I learned was that it often  happens that when we think we are going to be the ones to do a mitzva for others, we end up being the beneficiary of a mitzva. We went to Russia thinking that we were going to save the day. We were Elijahs. But, in the end, we were the ones who were lonely, sad and hungry, and we were pulled through an open door of kindness and generosity. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment on our trip was giving this family an opportunity to welcome us in and make our Pesach festive.

I have never forgotten that Pesach and never forgotten the lesson that in times of great hardship, human beings still manage to reach out to others in kindness and generosity. What a Pesach it was.


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