We are ‘Jewish’ Stardust

By Avraham Rosenblum of the Diaspora Band

On January 4th, 1971, I disembarked from the EL AL Boeing 707 at Lod Airport, suitcase and guitar in hand, in need of a change of scene. What I didn’t expect was the total change of direction I would take from following my dreams as an up-and-coming teen-aged rocker on the Philadelphia (my home town) and New York music scenes. But I need to back-track a little, to mid-August, 1969.

I was driving up the New York Thruway in my little brown Austen-America, heading to Montreal to drop in on some friends. I was running away from two heartaches; breaking up with my high school sweetheart, and my band, Valentine, falling apart. It was a great band. Philadelphia loved us. My girlfriend didn’t ‘get’ me anymore and so we broke up. Missing her gave me some good songs, though.

Somewhere around Yonkers I picked up a hitch-hiker whom I almost immediately poured my heart out to because, well, he dressed like me, had long hair, and had the same goofy sense of humor. As we got ‘goofier’ he asked me if I might want to distract myself at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, starting the next day near Monticello, NY. I had heard about it but had not planned to go. “Hey, dynamite idea!” I said.

‘By the time we got to Woodstock’

It was still pretty early on that Thursday, the day before the concerts started, when I parked near the festival site, somewhere just below Happy Avenue, one of the roads leading to the sloping, expansive meadow of Max Yasgur’s Farm. Along the upper ridge were the campers, tents, artisans and vendors, where it felt like a medieval village populated mostly by jesters. At the bottom of the meadow stood the huge hand-built stage, and the speaker towers. You could hear a band jamming in a closed rehearsal area. My passenger soon drifted away never to be seen again, and as I waded into the growing sea of happy people who also dressed and talked a lot like me, I got an epiphany that this was going to be a life changing event. “Far out, man!”.. I thought.

I was elated to be part of this new social order. I belonged in it. I had worked hard to forget my origins as a First Generation Yiddish speaking Holocaust Survivors kid from Northeast Philadelphia. My music and this culture were my way out and into the melting pot of America. My band-mates and friends were mostly children or grandchildren of Italian, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. Few were Jews. We were all looking for the same thing. And, me being me, I interpreted my Woodstock experience as spiritual, in the sense that our generation was in search of peace, love, harmony, anti the Vietnam War, and I was very impressed by the well-known turban clad swami who gave the opening benediction. For those few days we all partied, heard some great musicians and bands, and sang, “Come on people now / smile on your brother!/ everybody get together / try to love one another right now!” Peace brother! The swirls of images of ‘Woodstock’ that remain in my mind are proof- to myself – that I was there. Years later I even caught a glimpse of me in an early scene of the movie. See – I really was there!

One thing led to another quickly; the crowd got larger (500,000!), the music more intense, the weather rainier, and my sense of direction- which normally was quite acute – limited to ‘up or down’ mode. On Saturday night, after some hours of searching, I found my car. Six very helpful hippies helped me roll it out of the mud. I clearly remember feeling grateful to ‘someone’ that my guitars and belongings were still there. I was wet, chilled, and hungry, and stupidly determined to continue northward to Quebec even though the hour was getting late. But a few miles up the road I realized that the snaking center line was not a good sign as my head began to hurt and I started to feel feverish. I turned around and ‘somehow’ found Monticello General Hospital where, after a cursory look by a staffer, I was very kindly shown to a chair in the waiting room, in which I fell asleep.

‘My Yiddish Kite’

I awoke as people began to enter the room at 9 AM. I noticed a number of them were “frum” (although in those days I had no clue about Chassidim vs Misnagdim or Sefardic vs Ashkenazic. But I knew my family was from Vilna and that that made me a Litvak). So there I was – my unwashed shoulder length hair, love beads, well-worn denims, and muddy shoes on display, when I caught the glance of one young ‘yeshiva bochur’ whom I instantly greeted:

“Shalom! Vos machts du?” (Peace! How are you?)
“Vos tust’DE doh?”, (What are YOU doing here?) he asked with surprise.
“Ich hob kekumen tzu Woodstock!” (I attended Woodstock!) I answered forthrightly, as if to impress him.
“Un vus host’du gezucht bei Woodstock?” (And what were you looking for at Woodstock?) he asked with some genuine interest.
Switching to English, I said something about finding G-d in the big experience of unity, and not being limited to a synagogue. Unfazed, but needing to fulfill his mission of visiting a sick friend, the yeshiva bochur apologized for not having the time to continue our conversation and wrote down a phone number and address on a piece of notepaper which he handed to me while recommending “If you’re really looking for G-d and spirituality check this out. Shalom. Zei Gezundt!” (Be well!)

I did continue looking for G-d for the next year – in a small Jewish-Buddhist-Christian cult and through the Timothy Leary – ‘Doors of Perception’ method, while writing and performing songs written in that vein. But by September of 1970, when my last American band, Freehand, was getting good reviews in New York at the most notable Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, I was a mess and felt lost. I quit the band and within a month I reluctantly went home to my family back in Northeast Philadelphia. They were actually quite glad to see me. But the family dog, Dolly, was not happy to meet my cat, Thumb, who disappeared soon after.

I had one last encounter with possible fame that December, when a show business contact personally introduced me to legendary songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway” and more) who took an interest in me for their new record label.

‘A Greener in a Green Land’

Well, I actually took that trip to Israel in 1971 with my mother, Edith, Aleha Ha’Shalom, and my Aunt Helene, Aleha Ha’Shalom. The family thought it would be good for me to get away from ‘everything’ and I decided that taking a break to see some of the world couldn’t hurt before I resumed my career. I called Barry and Cynthia to postpone my test sessions in New York for few weeks, which they were OK with.

When we landed all I could think was how green and fresh everything looked. It was in fact a brand new country – only 23 years old! I was 20. Something began to stir. I was excited to be there. Why? I wasn’t observant. I hadn’t gone to synagogue in years. What could it mean? I did try to volunteer to go to Israel in 1967, during the Six Day War. I was only 16 so the consulate rejected me. That was it. I also went to my Godmother’s funeral around that time too. That was Jewish, but.. Yes, I was feeling all kinds of feelings, seeing things I didn’t expect to see, asking all kinds of questions, and hearing the sounds of bubbles frequently bursting.

One afternoon as I walked along Rehov Allenby near our hotel, I noticed another guy carrying a guitar case. He looked American, the case looked like it might be carrying a quality instrument, and so I flagged him down. I was right on both counts, and soon Sam from Chicago and Allen (my English name) were jamming our way across Israel on buses, at Hebrew University Campus, and one cloudy but enlightening afternoon in the back of an Old City Arab smoke-shop, where we got “hookahed up” and played some good ole boy country music for the un-country-like, loose garbed patrons – and they loved it! From there, Sam led me to my first encounter with The Wailing Wall (which of course I now only know as The Kotel HaMaaravi) and a rabbi who had me put on Tefillin for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The sounds of Hebrew prayer all around me woke something up, and as the rabbi attempted to coach me in reading the blessings, my mouth had already formed the words – that flowed sweetly out across my tongue: “Shema Yisrael / Ado-Shem Elokeinu /Ado-Shem Echad…”

Just like that. What a long, strange trip it had been.

End of Part 1.

I, Rabbi (Part Three – Conclusion)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

Part Two is here.

It was a nice wedding. Not a heimishe wedding, despite my best efforts in that direction, but nice all the same, and kosher, too.

Well, the food wasn’t kosher. Oh, mine was, as was that of the other “special kosher” diners, but it was kind of the “airplane food” scene. I was a little disappointed. Not over the food, but over the clear (and accurate) appearance that we were eating “the kosher food” and everyone else was not. No, it was not lobsters or over-the-top treif, but I think my groom was in a bit of denial over what the contrast would look like.

But by then I was mostly done. The ceremony went off without a hitch, though I was glad to have my “real rabbi” backup and witness whispering in my ear when I got nervous (and I was nervous!) and stammered over the pronunciation of a word in one of the Sheva Brochos. (For all my glibness, I had stammered considerably at my own wedding over 20 years earlier!) The chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony conducted under the canopy] wasn’t conventional by orthodox wedding standards, but it was as kosher as what I put in my mouth later at the meal. Evidently my cantorial skills held up respectably as well (always a touchy topic with me!), but no one rushed up to me at dinner with a recording contract or a request to preside over Yom Kippur services on an ocean liner either.

I did decide that I’d have to wear my “Rabbi Suit” (dark suit, straight tie and fedora) and give them their money’s worth, so I lost the rare opportunity to wear black tie, in which I look so dashing, as the invitation indicated. It was more than compensated for, of course, including by the pleasant comments I got from attendees as the evening went on. Many were very grateful for how I had described the respective stages of the ceremony as we went through them, noting that they had been to many traditionally-structured weddings but never understood what was going on. I also answered questions that people had, which tended to be very basic. Also the staff at the hall and with the caterer called me “rabbi” all night, which was kind of fun and pretty harmless. No serious halachic inquiries were broached.

One very pleasant encounter was from a cousin of the groom’s father who had, along with her husband, flown all the way from England for this wedding. They were frum, in fact, and were steeling themselves for who-knows-what of a wedding ceremony. They were surprised and delighted that the wedding had been conducted, per the words used by the groom, k’das Moshe v’Yisroel [in the tradition of Moshe and the Jewish nation].

Another nice moment came from the groom’s father. He was a Sephardi, but like many families who had left the world of Oriental Jewry one or two generations ago the old ways were only a memory for him. They were, however, a vivid, warm memory, and he told me gratefully and emotionally how the wedding, as well as the Friday night Shabbos meal the couple had arranged the Shabbos before, had brought him back with bittersweet memories of his youth. He seemed to feel some regret for what he had left behind.

My work here was done. I am back in rabbinic retirement, and not seeking additional engagements (so to speak). Marrying twice — marrying my wife, and marrying this couple — is plenty of marrying for me! I’ll stick with the low-pressure environment of federal court, thank you.

My Brother’s Big Fat Secular Wedding

Blast from the past, first posted on Nov 8, 2006.

We had asked our rabbi if we were even allowed to attend, and he told us since there is an assumption that Jewish weddings on the whole are at least kosher style that we were permitted to go but that, of course, we shouldn’t eat anything. I was relieved since I knew that telling my family, my mother in particular, that we wouldn’t be able to make it would be the start of World War Three. Besides, I had already rented the tux.

I was asked to speak and, as you might imagine, I was quite nervous. Besides trying to put feelings into words, which is especially hard for me, it was to be in front of an audience of three hundred or so secular Jews and I hoped that I would be a Kiddush Hashem. When I told another rabbi that I would be speaking he
advised me to try to convey some kind of positive Jewish message.

I spent the good part of two days trying to find the right things to say. I managed to borow a good line or two from a couple of speeches I had heard and to recycle a poignant d’var torah that I planned to give over. However, because of an incident, both tragic and sadly ironic, that occurred shortly before the big speech, much of my plan changed.

We listened to the father of the bride k’vell over his daughter and make the typical jokes about how he’d be paying for the wedding for the next twenty years. Then the bride’s sister spoke about the time she stole her sister’s sticker book and paid the price for it. The best man was very heartfelt as he congratulated the bride and groom, and then I, the brother of the groom, was summoned to speak.

I briefly acknowledged the presence of some of the more senior family members in attendance and related that it was an honor to be asked to say a few words. I swallowed hard and decided for sure, at that moment, that I was actually going to say the words I had concocted in my head, only a half-hour earlier as a result of that tragic and sadly ironic “pre-speech” incident. I continued, “I had prepared to say something very deep and meaningful about G-d and torah…” At this point I felt the collective breath of the crowd drop as they clearly had no desire to be bored by some religious guy talking about the one thing that they absolutely didn’t feel like listening to at that time. I continued “…but after one of the waiters offered me a scallop wrapped in bacon at the cocktail hour, I decided that maybe speaking about G-d and Torah wasn’t the way to go at this event.”

Would you believe me if I told you that the roar emanating from that reception hall was so loud and filled with laughter that it could wake a dead man? Well, it was.

Now I knew that the line was funny and ironic before I said it, but I guess I didn’t really comprehend its genius until I heard the crowd’s reaction. After that I could have gotten away with saying just about anything! It’s true! Chazal wasn’t kidding when they said that a person should open his speech with a joke! Good advice!

In the end, I did manage to discuss a Jewish concept, albeit very briefly, and with the response of a good deal of laughter from the crowd. I focused on the concept of breaking the glass underneath the chuppah. I related that Chazal instructed us to break a glass under the chuppah because at the time of our greatest joy we are to remember the great loss we suffered with the destruction of our holy Temple in Jerusalem. I emphasized, however, what was implicit in the words of Chazal, that this day is the time of the couple’s greatest joy, that indeed today, their wedding day, is the happiest day of their lives and that from this day forward….it would be all down hill. I was joking of course…and did they ever laugh! Who knew I was so funny?

May we all soon merit a time when we Jews witness the rebuilding of our holy Temple in Jerusalem and a time when Jews no longer serve scallops wrapped in bacon at their simchas!

I, Rabbi (Part Two)

Part One of this three-post series is here.

I found another rabbi to speak to about this question. Two, in fact. The first, very engaged in outreach, told me how he had wrestled with the issue of conducting wedding ceremonies for non-observant Jews. He acknowledged the serious halachic challenges, and responsibilities, implicated by doing so. But his mentor and rebbe had, when asked this question by him, all but laughed at him for asking it: “Two Jews want to get married in our day and age — you shouldn’t do everything possible to make this happen?” Well, that is how I had seen it. He gave me some tips.

The kashrus, he said, isn’t likely to be under your control, but you can’t agree to do this if they’re going to be serving “conspicuously treif” food; that just debases your involvement and could eventually come back to haunt you, rabbi, as well. You can say that the bride must go to the mikveh first. You can make sure the kesuvah is halachically competent. And because you have a relationship with the couple, you can sort of at least hope to “own” the “get issue” if it comes to that, which is a chief concern of those who are reluctant to get involved in such marriages. His words encouraged me.

The second rabbi was helpful in a completely complimentary fashion. He was in fact almost never referred to as a rabbi, and though people know he is learned, not too many people know that he was ordained by a major yeshiva as a young man decades ago. But not only is he ordained: He told me, when I recounted all this to him, that he could help with two of the missing pieces: Being witness number two at the chupa [“canopy,” i.e., the ceremony] (an easy one), and being recognized as ordained by the clerk of the City of New York — thus the official “officiant” for purposes of the law. He had one question — well, two. The first one was, “They’re getting proper glatt meals for people who want them?” Yes, I said. The second one was, “So they’ll give me dinner for this?” I laughed — of course dinner! (“Only half price!”)

Rabbi #2 also was very familiar with the precise halachic issues we’d have to nail down, and helped guide me through them. One of them involved the kesuvah. Assuming, correctly, that the couple would want to have an “art” kesuvah, he explained to me what the halachic issues, and controversies, were, and what wording I had to look for and look out for. Let’s just say that at the end of the day I prevailed on the couple to use whatever they wanted for their living room wall, but to privately allow me to use a standard, halachically valid kesuvah that they could keep in their filing cabinet “so your kids will always know it was done according to all opinions.” That was a formulation the first rabbi had suggested to me, and, used sparingly, it came in quite handy.

So I had my rabbinical advice, across the board. I had, eventually, cooperation from the couple, who agreed to the form of kesuvah, the mikveh (huge, right?) and pretty much everything that mattered. I, in turn, had to agree to come early; to be called “rabbi” by the staff; and, I decided, to forego dusting off my tuxedo in order to achieve the proper clerical decorum on that night. And I had to commit, of course, to actually take a hard look at the seder kedushin [the wedding ceremony], learn it, and be prepared to execute it! At my age, I don’t do new things every day. This turned out to be a simple matter, but, even for me, a little scary.

The happy ending, along with the nerves, the detours and the airline food, I will tell you about in Part 3, IY”H.

Ron Coleman is married to his everyday blog about intellectual property law. It’s called LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

I, Rabbi (Part One)

I’m no rabbi. Except, in too many cases, compared to everyone else on the guest list.

So in addition to “fielding questions,” as we all do, I’ve “done” or “presided over” or “conducted” too many unveilings, burials — pedestrian stuff, of course, but you have to be willing to stick your neck out and be, well, rabbinic, when friends and family call and are counting on you for this stuff, or where it’s the only way to avoid having things done horribly wrong by a “rental.”

But a wedding?

A co-worker, a good friend, was engaged. Jewish guy to a Jewish girl. Both in their mid-30’s. A big simcha in this day and age! One a lawyer, one a doctor. Very nice, sincere people. And I suppose it’s no surprise that in what has been described as a “post-denominational era” in Jewish life that, as far as Danny (not his real name) was concerned, the only “rabbi” he could have “perform” the wedding was his boss. Me.

I tried to squirm out of it, but halfheartedly; I knew this was going to happen. You don’t have to be a rabbi to be mesader kidushin — get two kosher Jews eligible to wed married. You need two kosher witnesses and a some wine and a ring and … a few things. I realized that this could be an opportunity to influence the couple and perhaps elicit some halachic observances that might otherwise be lacking.

But I also knew I needed guidance. So I called my Local Orthodox Rabbi. Well, one of them.

I was surprised at his reaction. “Don’t do it,” he said, emphatically. “Today’s non-frum Jews are completely hefker [libertine]. You’ll make this girl an eishes ish [halachically married woman] and then who knows what? It’s no mitzvah.”

I explained that I thought this case was different — the couple’s age, professional status, my personal relationship.

He was unmoved. “You don’t need it,” he insisted. “Run in the other direction.”

Well, I explained, I felt some responsibility to help them out, however. I was his only orthodox Jewish friend — really, his only “Jewish Jewish” friend — and he’d turned to me for help here, and moreover for something personal, meaningful, and beautiful. What should I tell him?

“Use your imagination,” he said.

I thanked him.

Then I closed my eyes and imagined I’d never had that conversation.

To be continued.

Ron Coleman’s “outside world” blog about intellectual property law is LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

Sharing the Joy of Others

We’ve recently discussed some of the generalities of which Shuls are right for which people.

Perhaps a sometimes overlooked benefit is sharing in the joy of others and the positive character development that brings in its wake.

There’s a nice story about a “Shlishi to Remember”, on Shul Politics in which shul members experience spontaneous communal joy on a December Shabbos morning.

Upper West Side Story: My True Jewish Story

By Mr. Cohen

It was approximately 1985, and in the summertime, on a Saturday night, that I saw her. We were in Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood. She looked very lost. People of various races and ages passed her by, indifferent to her plight. I, as a native of New York City, wanted to help her.

Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, had just finished, and I had not yet returned to the apartment of my host. She looked so lost, that I just had to offer my assistance. She told me her story. She was a black woman from South Africa, visiting New York City, and the only clue that she possessed as to her required destination was on a piece of paper that she showed me. She was never in New York City before and probably was never outside South Africa before either.

I did my best to figure out what her paper meant, and listened to her problem at length. Finally, I figured out where she had to go and helped her find a car service. But I did not want to leave a young lady alone on the dark streets of post-Shabbat Manhattan, so I waited with her on the street until her car arrived.

When her car was already in sight, she said to me: You must be a Jew.

Perplexed, I took note of the facts that I did not have a beard, had not used Hebrew or Yiddish words in my conversation, was not wearing Jewish clothes, and certainly had not made any mention of my Jewishness.

Curiously, I asked her: How did you know that I am a Jew?

Her response to my question has never stopped echoing in my ears: Because you were so kind to me.

Bronx Boy Takes His Talents to the Holy Land

While most of his classmates in the graduating class of 1986 headed west, south and north to Ivy League universities throughout the USA, Rabbi Daniel Travis traveled East to the land of Israel to explore his heritage and eventually built his life and his family there.

After a number of years of graduate and postgraduate study, Rabbi Travis, who was an honors student and a member of the track team at Bronx High School of Science, received semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Shortly after the birth of his first child, Rabbi Travis had an experience that shook his life. He was crossing the street in Israel, and a young, newly licensed 17-year-old driver smashed into him. Rabbi Travis’ head went through the windshield of the car, he was thrown ten feet into the air and across the street landing headfirst on the concrete. A watermelon truck coming in the opposite direction came to within a fraction of an inch of running him over. The non-religious driver ripped the shirt off his back and used it to stop the rush of blood coming from his head.

To the amazement of the hospital’s medical staff, tests showed that Rabbi Travis had suffered no major physical or neurological damage. Aside from cuts, bruises and some broken bones, the doctors found nothing wrong. Everyone in the hospital agreed that the hand of G-d had definitely worked a miracle in his case.

Within a short time he had recovered completely and felt that such an experience was an indication that bigger things were expected of him. He decided to make use of the journalistic talents that he had cultivated in high school, where he had served as editor-in-chief of the school paper, Science Survey, and began to write inspiring articles on timely topics for newspapers in Israel and the US. These articles were latter published by Feldheim publishers under the title “Days of Majesty.” In addition, he has published six other books in Hebrew and English on a diverse range of topics.

Rabbi Travis’ articles have gained him popularity in the English-speaking community in Israel. In time, in another manifestation of the gratitude he felt for being alive and able to give to others, he opened his own institution of higher learning, which he called Toras Chaim, “The Teachings of Living.” The institution is growing quickly and has attracted a number of bright young Americans.

Until the age of 16 Rabbi Travis had almost no formal Jewish education and had to struggle to make up the lost years. With hard work he was able to catch up and make a name for himself in the Torah world. Although the learning in Toras Chaim is on a very high level, Rabbi Travis welcomes students who started with a weaker background, recognizing from his own experiences that a late start can give a person the momentum to achieve great heights. In fact many of the top students in Toras Chaim are themselves baalei teshuva.

Rabbi Travis will shortly be publishing his eighth work Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim, responsa on modern day issues, many of which have not been touched by current authorities. In many ways it is a milestone work, and has already received approbations from many of the leading rabbis in Israel and America.

Rabbi Travis is seeking dedications for this work. The money will be used towards publication and distribution of Shaylos U’Teshuvos Toras Chaim. All contributions are tax deductible, and all of the revenue will be used solely to support the yeshiva in the upcoming year.

For more information about contributing towards the publication of this work, his other books and his lecturing schedule, contact the Toras Chaim office at dytravis@actcom or in Israel at 972-57-316-3111. Their website is at www.toraschaim.org. Rabbi Travis also writes classes on Jewish Integrity and Prayer on the website of torah.org

The Hidden Hand – Day of Infamy

Beyond BT contributor, Yaakov Astor has just published his latest book, The Hidden Hand. Here is an excerpt.

1941, a week before Chanukah.

Hitler’s armies are only twenty miles from the Kremlin and German soldiers even joke about catching a bus to see Stalin. Stalin, no friend of the Jews, is nevertheless vital to the safety of Jewry, as well as the world. If the Soviet capital falls, then the two-front war the Germans feared becomes only a one-front war. If Germany has to fight on only one front… the implications are truly frightening to ponder.

Same date — almost dawn — thousands of miles to the east, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean: Six aircraft carriers have moved into position. On their decks and in their holds, some 350 modern fighter aircraft primed for action have received the go signal. Their target: Pearl Harbor.

7:40 A.M., Hawaii time. The Japanese achieve total surprise. In fact, surprise is so complete that even before the first bomb is dropped, Squadron Commander Mitsuo Fuchida radios back to the carriers the code words for victory: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) In less than three hours his pilots will wipe out much of the American Pacific Fleet. It will truly be a day of infamy.

However, even more infamous and insidious events are occurring this day. In German occupied territory, hundreds of miles behind the front lines, in the tiny town of Chelmno, a diabolical experiment is taking place. The hierarchies of Nazidom have already ordered the “final solution” to the Jewish question. But, practically speaking, can it be done? Can you get masses of people to walk into a death camp? Can you then exterminate them using a minimum amount of ammunition and soldiers?

In Chelmno on December 7, 1941 the Nazis find out the answer to both questions: Yes. They transport scores of Jews under the guise that they are merely being relocated east. Then they gas them in specially made vans. Historian Martin Gilbert marks Chelmno as the beginning of the Final Solution. To be sure, the Wannsee Conference in early 1942 would set the bureaucratic wheels in motion, and the wheels of the cattles cars transporting Jews to the death camps would not be rolling for several months. Nevertheless, December 7, 1941 is a particular day of infamy of the infamy known as the Holocaust, because on that day the Nazis knew their plans for making Europe Judenrein could become reality and were within their grasp.

Of Historical Moments
We are helpless, hapless creatures in the absence of divine perspective. Our helplessness is even more pronounced during momentous events. Most people are impotent to realize what is happening. And the few who do realize are at a loss to understand. And the rare individual, who perhaps understands the historic moment as it occurs, nevertheless is almost sure to lack detailed comprehension of all the implications.

Caught up in the myopia of life, historic moments cannot be fully appreciated. Time, though, is a kind of divinity in that it affords us that superhuman perspective. Even the layman armed with “time” can perceive patterns and forces the most learned, perceptive person trapped in the myopia of the moment does not have the slightest inkling of.

When divergent threads of historical movement, dancing and bobbing without seeming rhyme or reason, converge into a single moment such as December 7, 1941 even the ardent secularist is hard-pressed to call it coincidence. Coincidence has been described as a letter from God delivered anonymously. Judaism employs a specific term for such coincidence: hashgachah — “Divine Providence”: the acknowledgment that everything that happens happens because there is a Master Weaver expertly spinning a perfectly patterned tapestry. Sometimes the pattern is not immediately apparent. But we who know the Weaver have faith that the final design will be awe-inspiringly evident.

The truth is, however, though people invoke “Divine Providence” for every good occurrence, we often shy from invoking the term when events work against us. Is that fair? If God is all-powerful enough to manipulate events for our good does He lose His omnipotence when events work against us? Perceiving Divine Providence in good events is valuable; however it is relatively easy when all the parts fall into place. Knowing that Divine Providence is in full effect during bad events, though, is a higher level. It requires faith. It requires believing that there is much more happening than what meets the eyes. Therefore, Judaism teaches that Divine Providence — the Almighty’s absolute power of manipulation over every little and big detail of our lives — is every bit in operation to bring about events such as the rise of a Hitler as it is in bringing about his fall.

It should come as little surprise, then, that although December 7, 1941 looked to be the bleakest of times, in reality the reverse is true. Though President Roosevelt himself called it “a date which lives in infamy,” nevertheless in the perfect 20-20 hindsight of history we can say that the dark historical moment that was December 7, 1941 was not completely dark. In fact, like the tiny flask of uncontaminated oil discovered by the Kohanim on Chanukah it contained within it the most sublime luminescence.

There Are No Coincidences

I was reviewing the Parsha Friday morning and I realized that I hadn’t informed my Partners in Torah chavrusa that it was a double parsha. My chavrusa loves to learn and each week he reads *every* Art Scroll note and translation on the parsha.

I gave him a call around 10:15 to tell him. He said that he was just sitting down to learn and he noticed Behar was short and he wondered if perhaps it was a double parsha. At exactly that moment my call came in to tell him that it was a double. Pretty cool.

What’s in a Name?

When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.

Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.

It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.

I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”

“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”

And he did. But that’s a story for another day.

It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.

I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.

We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.

For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.

The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.

Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.

Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.

And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.

What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.

So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”

That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.

But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.

Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.

On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.

And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”

I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?

And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.

I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.

So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.

The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.

There is a lot in a name, it turns out.

Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.

Music Lessons

As I was putting our seven year old to bed the other night, we were trying to decide what CD he should listen to. He was pushing for something lively (a Piamenta Band disc), but I put on something a bit more mellow instead (Jonathan Rimberg’s Kumzitz CD).

When it started playing my son said, “Abba, is this the guy who wasn’t Jewish?”

Puzzled I asked him what he meant. My son said, “You know, the guy who didn’t keep Torah and Mitzvos when he was a little boy, like you?”

I explained to my son that the artist he was thinking of (Yitzchak Halevi) was born Jewish. He didn’t become Jewish like Tzipporah and Yisro did (he had just learned about them a few weeks ago).

I told him that some people like me, just didn’t grow up knowing about Hashem, his Torah, and never had a chance to go to a day school. To say that they were “not Jewish” isn’t the appropriate term.

I then said that The appropriate term is Baal Teshuvah, someone who returns to Hashem and a life of Torah and Mitzvos. The concept wasn’t new to him, as he remembered when my wife and I were NCSY chapter advisors.

My son then said, “Abba, you’re a Baal Teshuva, right?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He then said, “Cool. So it’s, like, Elul and Tishrei for you the whole year, huh? That’s awesome.”

Impressed and moved by his observation, I could only reply, “It should be,” and I gave him a hug and said, “Shluff Gazunt” (good night in yiddish).

The Man on the Street

Hungarians are not shy. At least during the year I spent teaching in their capital, Budapest, I never observed the slightest reticence among the city’s residents.

No doubt I stood out a bit, riding the local trolley with my untrimmed beard and black fedora — a combination that had blended naturally into the scenery of Jerusalem, from where I had come.

I soon became accustomed to the gazes I drew from other passengers. Unlike most westerners who look quickly away when caught staring, the Hungarians just kept right on staring, as if I were a curiosity on display in the Castle Museum or, perhaps, the Budapest zoo. I tried returning their stares with a pleasant smile, but that just seemed to make their gazes harden, like silent admonitions for daring to draw so much attention to myself and not having the courtesy to instantly make myself vanish.

It was 1992, only four years after the iron curtain had come down, and although traditional Judaism hadn’t disappeared entirely in Hungary, it wasn’t thriving either. The three orthodox synagogues counted barely ten Sabbath observant families among them. In the cavernous Kaszincky shul, founded in 1893, sunlight streamed though cracks in the ceiling on clear Sabbath mornings. On one occasion, my wife found her way up to the women’s balcony where the thick layer of dust she discovered convinced her that no woman had preceded her for at least a decade.

The state of Jewish life was hardly surprising. Although the Nazis had occupied Budapest for only six months before the end of the war, they succeeded in exterminating virtually all the Jews outside the capital. The years of Communist rule after the war brought even greater spiritual devastation, with most Jews forced into adopting gentile names and coerced into discarding the last vestiges of a Jewish identity already unraveling after three generations of widespread assimilation.

So any bearded, black-hatted Jew wearing his Judaism on his sleeve was bound to attract attention. One episode in particular stands out.

I was waiting at the trolley stop when a man passed in front of me. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if he hadn’t noticed me.

He might have been in his fifties, but the crevices etched into his face would have suited a man nearing a hundred. His flushed and ruddy complexion suggested an intimacy with alcohol; his clothing was soiled and threadbare. With downcast eyes and bleak expression, he shuffled along as if the strain of miserable year after miserable year had wrung every ounce of resilience from his body and every scrap of purpose from his soul.

He glanced in my direction, his gaze briefly met mine, and he stopped. His eyes grew wide as looked me up and down. He raised his hand tentatively and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

I smiled and shook my head, spreading my hands to show that I didn’t understand.

Slowly, almost fearfully, he reached out and touched my tzitzit, the fringes hanging from my waist, then brought his hand to his lips. He reached up and touched his fingers to the brim of my hat, then kissed his fingers once again. Again he spoke, and again I shook my head.

By then, a remarkable transformation had come over him. The beaten down expression had disappeared, replaced by a look of astonished exhilaration, as if he had just witnessed the resurrection of the dead.

He raised his hand above his head and shook it as he turned his eyes toward heaven and uttered what could only have been a benediction. He reached toward my face, stopped himself, tenderly touched his fingers to the lapel of my jacket, kissed his fingers one last time and, with a look of wonder and restored hope, shuffled on his way.

I can only imagine what prompted his reaction. Did he recall the days of his youth, before Communism cut him off from the faith of his people? Did he remember the trappings of a sainted grandfather or teacher?

His astonishment was born from his conviction that, at least in his homeland, people who looked like me were extinct. The discovery that some remnant of his past still survived lifted the weight of misery and hopelessness from his shoulders, if only for a moment.

One man on the street, one minute of nonverbal rapport, left a more poignant impression upon my memory than one whole year in the “Paris of the East.”

One man on the street reflected all the despair and all the hopeful triumph of the Jewish people in exile.

One man on the street, who had all but forgotten who he was, not only found his hope reawakened, but reawakened my own hope in return — that the countless Jews who do not remember, Jews who still don’t know who they are, Jews like I was once myself, may one day find their own way back home.

The Night Hashem Did the Rest

By Ruby Ginsberg

My son had a Rebbe in first grade who used to tell the boys “You do your best and Hashem will do the rest”. At no time has this credo been more meaningful to my family and me than on one summer night three years ago.

With the kids back from sleep away camp, we were getting set for a family vacation to Montreal. Aside from fun and family togetherness, a good family trip should have its chinuch aspect as well. Towards that, we took upon ourselves, as best as we could, the challenge to daven three times a day with a minyan while on the road. Together with finding accommodations and attractions along the way, our planning included mapping out the minyanim across our route.

And so, on day 1 we headed north, and after spending the afternoon at Howe Caverns, we made sure to arrive in Albany shortly before sunset to catch mincha and maariv. And on day 2 after shachris, we drove through the Adirondacks. After marveling at Hashem’s wonders at Ausable Chasm (“The Grand Canyon of the East”) we made sure to arrive in Montreal in time for mincha and maariv. Once in Montreal, with its vibrant Jewish community, davening with a minyan was not difficult.

For Shabbos, we found a chalet in Mont-Tremblant, an hour north of Montreal, in what was somewhat similar to the bungalow colonies of the Catskills. Yeshiva had already started for the children of Montreal, so we barely had a minyan, but a minyan nonetheless. The upside of that was that everyone packed out on Sunday morning, leaving our family with a private lake for swimming and boating. You don’t give up something as rare as that so easily, so we stayed well into the afternoon. We packed up and headed back into Montreal for an “early” 6:00 P.M. mincha. And then we were faced with a dilemma.

The first maariv in town was at 8:00 P.M. If we were to wait, then we would complete the 6.5-hour drive to Queens close to 3:00 A.M. One of our sons had his first day of Yeshiva the next day, and subjecting him to that was just too irresponsible, even for me. So we set out for home at 6:15.

I immediately started making maariv calculations. Albany? We get there close to 10:00 P.M.– too late. Queens? After 12:30 A.M. — too late. Not looking good. Somberly, I informed my wife that we were about to lose our perfect streak. Her response is the hallmark of the akeres habayis: “There is no way”, she replied “that you are going to miss the last tefilah b’tzibur after missing not a single one till now. Figure something out.” Whoa.

So I thought for a while until it occurred to me that Monroe/Kiryas Yoel was somewhere near Thruway exit 16, which we would pass around 11:30. I had never been there before, and I certainly don’t know their minyan schedule, but the Satmar community must have a minyan factory that operates well past midnight, right? A bit short on the details, but a plan was in formation.

10:30 P.M. New Baltimore rest area. Time for a rest stop. As we waited for the ladies to finish powdering their noses, I noticed a chassidishe fellow standing by himself. Great! A chance to flesh out The Plan.

“Sholom Aleichem. Are you from Monroe?”

“Yes”.

“Would I find a minyan there in about an hour or so?”

“Sure. Even later. You’re looking for a minyan? There’s a heimishe oilam here. We could probably pull one together now.”

HERE??? In Yennemsville, N.Y??? At 10:30 at night? How could that be??? But sure, enough, within minutes a minyan had gathered, and we davened tfillah b’tzibur in the corner of the parking lot in New Baltimore, N.Y.

The joy that I felt davening that maariv under the stars, completing our perfect streak, is indescribable, and something that I will remember for the rest of my life. Hashem had sent us a gift. He delivered us a minyan. We had tried our very best. And Hashem did the rest.

The Ratio of Cows to Grandchildren

I’ve recently picked up the book “The Kiruv Files” by Dovid Kaplan and Elimelich Meisels (Targum Press 2003). It’s quite a good read with chapters on many issues faced by newly minted BTs. It’s also pretty funny. Here is a particularly interesting excerpt:

You may have heard of Yitz Greenbaum, one of the early Israeli Zionist leaders and a man notorious for his antipathy toward Torah and religious Jews. He is famed for his statement “One cow in Palestine is worth more than a million religious Jews in Europe.”

Well, bearing that in mind, read the following story told to me by a Rebbe of mine.

One afternoon my Rebbe was busy with various tasks, overseeing the sundry details of running a large yeshivah, when someone came running up to him and said, “Rebbe, you’ve got to come to the conference room right now. We’re interviewing a potential student for the yeshiva.”

My Rebbe, not grasping the uniqueness of this particular interview, said “Look, I’m kind of busy right now. Maybe someone else can do the interview.”

“But, Rebbe, you don’t understand. This is not just any student. This is Yitz Greenbaum’s grandson!”

“Really?” He exclaimed. “This I’ve got to see. Yitz Greenbaum’s grandson on his way to becoming a religious Jew! To witness how Hashem has brought it all full circle, that is truly a miracle!”. He immediately dropped what he was doing and went to meet the young man.

Another descendant of a distinguished politician of Greenbaum’s era also came to learn in a famous yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. This boy’s grandfather was a brilliant Marxist theorist and revolutionary, one of the most powerful people in the world, a leader in a country devoted to eliminating religion completely. The country: Russia. The politician: Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, otherwise known as Leo Trotsky, confidant of Lenin and creator of the Russian Red Army.

Yitz Greenbaum and Leon Trotsky, two brilliant, rebellious Jews, each convinced he had discovered the real solution to the Jewish problem–the abandonment of Torah–in exchange for a utopian political system.

Now they and their movements have crumbled in the dust, while the Torah they tried to eradicate is not only relevant and flourishing, but has become the province of their very own [grand]children.

“Mah gadlu masecha Hashem –How great are Your works, Hashem.”

pp. 40-41

Confessions of a Bayou Jew

One of the great things about the internet (and this blog) is the ability to make friends with others that you probably would never have otherwise met. Through a comment here on the blog, I became friends with Amishav. Here, he shares the backstory of his “in progress” teshuvah path.
-David

Confessions of a Bayou Jew

Well, its about time I fessed up I suppose and came clean with the whole story.

I had previously mentioned on my blog that my family originally came from Germany and that they had settled in South Louisiana, particularly the Donaldsonville area- which at one time was the Capital of Louisiana. From there they moved a bit down the Bayou LaFouche to Napoleonville, where they had a store and a plantation that specialized in sugarcane production.

The matriarch of my family, Caroline Schrieber was extremely successful and had amassed a small fortune of 94,000 dollars by the time she passed away in 1904. But things were not going well for my family Jewishly. We don’t know why, or exactly when, but the sad truth is that my family converted to Catholicism and were baptizing their children by the nineteen teens.

Still though, as late as the 1950s according to my mother, aunts, and uncles, our family was not so affectionately referred to as, “those damn Jew bastards.” You would think that this would raise the eyebrows of my mother and in fact it did. I was told that my mother’s generation did ask my grandparents why they were being called Jews. It didn’t make sense to them to be called Jews because they were practicing Catholics. The answer that they got from my Grandparents was, “The people in the town are confused. They are calling us Jews because we are Germans and they don’t know any better.” This excuse was sufficient for my mother, and she lived her life as a practicing Catholic.

Read more Confessions of a Bayou Jew

Nothing Just Happens

Although there were 74 mitzvos in the parsha this Shabbos, I said a Dvar Torah about Amalek and I happened to learn the piece in Strive for Truth about Amalek with my son. Both pieces emphasize the usage of the word Karcha (happened) and stress that Amalek’s philosophy is that things just happen, as opposed to our philosophy that Hashem’s hand guides all.

Davening Sunday was nice, and after davening I read a page from the Chafetz Chaim’s lesson a day. We started learning different Shmiras HaLashon seferim after davening about 10 years ago and since I suggested the practice, I’ve been doing the reading. However recently I’ve been davening at a later 7:00 minyan, and last Sunday I was away, so I haven’t read in the morning for about 2 weeks. The piece I read this morning was about Past History (Day 8) which states:

Another area involving Loshon Hora is that of past history. It is forbidden to relate something about an individual’s past which either the speaker or the listener considers shameful, though in reality it is not shameful at all.

Our Sages teach that “at the place where baalei teshuvah stand, perfect tzaddikim cannot stand: (Berachos 34b). Thus there is nothing shameful about being a baal teshuvah. Nevertheless, it is forbidden to related that someone is a baal teshvah if either the speaker or listener looks down at such people.

Nothing just happens.
Read more Nothing Just Happens

A Picture of Pure Sacrifice

A friend once approached me in a professional capacity and asked me to represent him in some contract disputes. He was a very well renown photographer who had just become Shomer Shabbos. The problem was, he had 6-9 months worth of Shabbos affairs booked.

He walked away from all of them and, in my estimation, close to one hundred thousand dollars!!

He doesn’t know it but, in many ways, that guy’s my hero.

Bob Dylan and Me

A True Story

St. Paul Minnesota is not a popular tourist attraction in winter, but there I was in December 1984, wandering around the lobby of Bais Chana. Perched atop a hill, in a monastic looking building situated amongst large sprawling suburban homes, would be the place where I would confront myself as a Jewess for the first time.

The Lubavitcher shluchim at StonyBrook University where I had been a student hadn’t told me too much about the place except, that there was a certain Rabbi Manis Friedman there who specialized in answering questions for girls like me, whatever that meant.
Read more Bob Dylan and Me

The Spirit of Shabbat and My Car Alarm

In the community I was involved with in St. Louis in my pre-marriage days, a particular family hosted about 25 people each week for Shabbat dinner and I had the privilege to be their guest several times. It seemed to me that this family represented the epitome of the baal teshuvah experience: beautiful home filled with yiddishkeit everywhere, wonderful food that seemed without end, fascinating dvars, lively conversation. Both husband and wife came from very different backgrounds; she attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government while the husband lived a fun life in Brazil. Their adorable daughter symbolized the bright future that lay ahead for them, and quite possibly for all of klal Yisrael, so giving was their spirit and energy.
Read more The Spirit of Shabbat and My Car Alarm