22 December 2013

Fierce Friend: Edgar M. Bronfman 1929-2013

A warm rain is appropriate for this gray December day, as I sit down to write and mourn the loss of a friend.  Edgar Bronfman died last night, at the physical age of 84 but forever young, as they say, surrounded by his family.  Until he drew his last breath, he kept making jokes, the mind sharp, the soul strong.

He was a strong man.  Powerful.  Determined that his wealth and wit would make a difference in the world.  He commanded the attention of governments and business leaders; fought valiantly and successfully for Holocaust victims, Soviet Jewry, restitution from Swiss banks, exposed Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past and represented a proud Jewish power for a post-Holocaust generation that was still very much in the process of being regenerated.

Edgar's wading into the past was his way of taking the still damp clay of history and forming into a present condition of Jewish life that was predicated, as he like to say, "on hope, not fear."

His laughter and disarming, ribald humor; his joyful generosity; his steely realism and unparalleled support of youthful innovation in Jewish life; his constitutional inability to do anything other than tell the truth as he saw it; his love of learning--Torah, Talmud, philosophy, music, and art with his beloved Jan--which kept his mind open to the endless well of Jewish civilization's greatest ideas; his pride in family, his children, and grandchildren:  all these and more still don't adequately approximate the measure of the man.

From Seagrams to the World Jewish Congress; from the Bronfman Youth Fellowships to Hillel to Birthright and everything in between (including Brooklyn Jews and then our work at CBE), Edgar made the most brilliant and generous of calculations in the last chapters of his life--to stand at the front of world Jewish leadership and boldly insist that so soon after the destructions and dislocations of the first half of the twentieth century, Jews had the opportunity to be renew our tradition, to celebrate the plurality of Jewish belief and expression, to proudly assert our ethical and moral mandate to be a light unto the nations, and to live life with joy and meaning.

Whether he spoke to the most powerful heads of state or a 17 year old Bronfman Youth Fellow stammering in awe of a legend, his message was always the same and delivered with the confident smile of a man who knew he was right.  The Jewish people have an obligation to spread hope and justice throughout the world.  As he wrote in his autobiography, The Making of a Jew, "Let us get to work, for there is much to be done."

Since 1998, when I became the Executive Director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, Edgar and I became friends.  It was explained to me by my boss, Naomi Levine, that if Edgar and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg liked me, I would get to keep the job.  Weekly I'd show up at Arthur's office at NYU with a tuna sandwich and be tutored in his uniquely brilliant methodology of speaking truth to power (not infrequently tempered by the adage, "do as I say, not as I do!")

Edgar's sessions were more infrequent.  They were lunch at the Four Seasons, a New York power matrix, the dining room of the King of the Jews; and, especially in the last decade, Torah study, where teachers were asked to present texts and ideas to Edgar and the staff at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.  These were moments of Jewish animation, the likes of which I will never forget.  Ancient Jewish stories would regularly ignite in Edgar the raging fires for justice, memory, pride and joy in being Jewish.  Torah study would trigger remembrances of political encounters; battles won and lost; and deep, spontaneous reflections on the choices one makes over the course of nearly 9 decades on Earth.  Remarkably, each session would end on a high note, a lingering laugh, and then Edgar would excuse himself to get home for Chili Night.

"Give my love to Rachel," he'd say with a glimmer in his eye, pronouncing my wife's Hebrew name.

That spark was his animated Jewish being, a stubborn rationalist's knowledge that one word in Hebrew can signify a prideful claim to Patrimony.  This was his later-in-life discovery about the centrality of Jewishness to the story of who he was that he felt, in turn, obligated to help young people discover themselves to also become.

I had the privilege of getting to know Edgar during the last chapter of his life, loosening his tie, as it were, on a lifetime that was using power and philanthropy for Jewish renewal.  On one such occasion, his first visit to NYU in 1998, we had the Bronfman Center shining bright, food arrayed for a reception in his honor, and every last detail of protocol ready for the entrance of a king.  Suddenly word came through that Edgar hated the color yellow and that if we didn't want heads to roll, we better do one last look over the room.  Sure enough, there on the vegetable platter were sliced yellow peppers--gone; on the fruit platter, offending sliced pineapple--gone.

Staff breathed a sigh of relief as Edgar's car pulled up and he walked into the room wearing the brightest yellow tie I've ever seen in my life.  It was radiant, like the sun.

But nothing like the smile on his face being among young people, from every walk of Jewish life imaginable, fulfilling the promise he had made to himself, to live a joyful present with a commitment to a hopeful future.

In September, the last time we studied together, Edgar shared some thoughts about his grandfather Yehiel, whom he never met but for whom he was named in Hebrew.  A proud non-believer, Edgar wrestled with the notion that the very person whom he never knew, whose name means, "God lives," inspired him perhaps more than any other, prompted Edgar to say after that study session, "For me, being named after my brave grandfather was enough to influence me to love my Jewish heritage, and want to begin a renaissance of Jewish life."

Thank you Edgar for the strength, the generosity, and the laughter you gave us.

Your life and your soul will be forever a source of inspiration to our people.

And may your family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

17 December 2013

A Bad Trip

I guess if you regularly see pink pigs floating in the air over Prog Rock guitar licks and hazy weed clouds, it's not too hard to grasp seeing Nazis around every corner, too.

No, Roger, that Israeli soldier you see is not a Nazi and the Knesset, with democratically elected Arab members whose political parties call for the end of Israeli as a Jewish and democratic state, is not the Reichstag.

The Nazis were defeated, nearly 70 years ago, by Allied forces who believed deeply that genocidal fascism, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, needed to end.  It was a genocidal fascism that had Great Britain in its crosshairs as well--not just the Jews of Europe.  Hitler, whose dead, had his own delusions, far more sinister and dangerous than flying pork.

And while it's tempting to ignore your latest hate-filled art, you have influence on some of your followers because of your art, though one might say that while a pig flying through the air is concert history repeating as farce, accusing Jews of acting like Nazis is not a farce but a hate-filled diatribe that, only because it gets repeated ad nauseam, has lost its true force so as to be a true threat.

Instead you look like a raging lunatic.  Obviously powerless to effectuate change or exert your influence in a meaningful way, you are relegated to say the "outrageous" (if tired, rehearsed, platitudinous, and predictable) to get attention for your own failure to effectively care for your personal favorite underdog of contemporary political history.

The bone-crushing machinery of Syria's Assad regime doesn't offend you.  The willful destruction of democratic movements in Russia or China mean nothing to you.  I suppose, based on your own strange pleasure in Nazi get-up, the maniacal ragings of Iranian rhetoric over the last decade to obtain a nuclear weapon in order to rid the Middle East of Zionism, is oddly comforting to you.  Did you miss the part where Iranians demonstrated in the street for democracy a few years ago and were mowed down by bullets?

It may surprise you but I feel your pain.  I oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank, too.  I think the Palestinians deserve a state of their own.  It's a worthy cause, despite decades of failure and frustration to bring it about--failures and frustrations caused as much by Palestinian terror and refusal to accept a Jewish claim to the land and an historical narrative rooted in that very land as well as the intransigence of Israeli policy, guided by a settlement policy that has impeded progress for peace as well.

It's a mouthful, Roger, I know.  It requires subtle thinking, long, drawn out arguments.  Hard work.  Engagement.  Education.  Even political pressure and local organizing.

But your Pink Pig Trial Balloon of calling an Israeli a Nazi is just another bad trip from one of your shows.  A dime a dozen.  Maybe it will even sell you a few more records.  But ultimately, it's the sad, pathetic joke of someone who just can't control his worst impulses.

11 December 2013

Talking Israel on Campus

This appears at the Forward.

Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult.  The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims--all to rattle the unflappable teacher.  But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.

Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely.  And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath.  While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.

In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.

It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s, Hillel was an expansive place of expression for Jews on campus of every point of view--from secular to religious and from Zionist to non-Zionist.  This level of debate was fostered in order to mirror the general atmosphere of free inquiry and debate which took place in classrooms across campus.  As the home for Jewish students during the critically formative years of developing their own world-view, it was vitally important for Hillel to represent an unwavering pride in Judaism and Israel while also defending a free and open discourse on the Jewish past, present and future. Simply put, this openness would make us stronger, smarter, and more deeply connected to the narrative of our people.

I upheld this point of view as the Hillel director at NYU for seven years as well.  During a time which spanned the hope of the Oslo Accords to the disillusionment of the Second Intifada, 9-11 and the Global War on Terror, it was critically important that Hillel at NYU mirror the range and depth of debate on the broader NYU campus.

Ceding to the campus classrooms the most open debate on the most important issues facing us as Jews and Americans and not fostering them in the Hillels runs the risk of making Hillel simply irrelevant to the vast majority of young Jews today.  It sends the message that the real learning they’ll do on campus is in the classroom and that Hillel will be a Jewish choice for a select few who adhere to a wider directive from above.  Hardly the choice of most young people I know today.  This would be an enormous missed opportunity to engage young Jews in a substantive and meaningful way at a time in their lives when they are making some of their own most important decisions about Jewish identity and Israel.

Closer to home now, here in Brooklyn, our own synagogue community at CBE represents a range of expressions and views on Israel and even as we often must wade into the debate--most recently, for example, with the BDS movement and the Park Slope Food Coop--we have always done so not by censoring those whose views are offensive but rather by bringing open debate into the light of day and, with skill, intelligence, and a little sport, defeating it.  That’s the campus spirit as well.  

Just last night at CBE, we hosted Peter Beinart and David Suissa.  They debated Israel from the left and the right.  The sky didn’t fall.  Everyone left the richer for it.

My sense is that the dynamism of young Jews, Jewish identity and Israeli politics is shifting more quickly than any of us realize.  All indications point to a new reality in Jewish life where openness is the preeminent value, where horizontal leadership structures challenge national or international hierarchies, and where democracy and a fearlessness to ask difficult questions is privileged over policy guidelines that demand allegiance to Israel without reasonable, diverse, and even at times risky, debate.

On one level, I don’t like it.  It makes me worry about the future of the Jewish people.  We run the risk of “legitimizing” a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist point of view.  On the other hand, if we don’t wade into the water and debate on campus, we lose the bigger battle.  After all, is it not the most powerful expression of Jewish pride for Hillel to state loud and clear:  “We are an international Jewish student organization that is proudly Jewish and proudly Zionist--so proud that we are unafraid of any argument and feel confident that we will prevail in the public arena of debate on campus.”

As Hillel himself would have said back then:  “All the rest is commentary, go forth and learn.”  

I suppose if he were around today, he’d simply say, “Bring it.”

06 December 2013

Hanukah Day Eight: The Soul of Freedom Burns Forever

Nelson Mandela died on the 8th day of Hanukah.

That I'll never forget.

One of the brightest lights that burned in the darkness of prison and oppression during the second half of the twentieth century is gone.

There was warning of his death.  For days, news feeds would flash on phones and desktops, the digital countdown of a man who was a giant of flesh and blood.

Others more accomplished and knowledgable than I will laud and mourn and eulogize the man.

I just have a small story to tell.

I had first heard of Mandela through the Special A.K.A.'s "Free Nelson Mandela" song from 1984.  My friend Steve Dinkin was listening to it as he was winding up his studies in Madison and preparing to head off to the Peace Corps in Niger.  For Dinkin, as a Jew growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Mandela was the epitome of Moses from the Exodus story.  He was the world's most powerful and righteous symbol of the African struggle for freedom and we used to talk a lot about our diverging but complementary Jewish journeys:  mine, which would take me to Israel, the rabbinate and serving community; and his, which would take him to Africa, international development, and now, as President of the National Conflict Resolution Center.  Deep in Steve's heart burns the flame of freedom, lit by Mandela, Biko, and his own experiences as a young American serving his small town in Niger and now, slowly and painstakingly help resolve conflict in his corner of San Diego.

Yesterday, when walking through the Village for a morning meeting, a shopkeeper put up an iconic picture of Mandela.  I figured he must have just died and she read the news, on her phone, before I could read it on mine.

Mandela casting a vote in the 1994 elections in South Africa.  An extraordinary moment in the history of the struggle for human rights.
A basic expression of human dignity.  The ultimate victory in the struggle for freedom.  The sacrifice of millions of lives, all over the world, demanding to be heard.

On the 8th day of Hanukah, the light finally burned out.  But the Soul of Freedom burns forever.

04 December 2013

Hanukah Day Seven: Unique and Miraculous

Last night at our community-wide Hanukah celebration, four different versions of musical leadership sang Hanukah songs (our Cantor, Josh Breitzer; Mika Hary, who leads the Keshet/Shira b'Shishi ensemble; world music instructors from our After School program; and our congregational choir.)  Each iteration represented a different texture to the varied musical traditions that give lift to the festival of lights and it was gratifying to see them sing alone and then together, in various forms, as projected words scrolled past beside them.

Latkes spilled over onto tables, virtually indistinguishable from the dreidels and gelt; and local vendors--Miriam, International Taste, De Nonna Rosa and Pinkberry plied their trade.

The 8th graders were there, too, collecting donations to help fund their upcoming February trip to Israel.  8 years ago, when we decided to remake Hebrew school, one of the initiatives was to link 6th, 7th and 8th grade in a kind of inseparable, three year program that culminated in the Israel trip. It's been working great so far and leads to a greater sense of bonding among the kids.  If you want to support the 8th graders trip, by the way, you can donate HERE.
As we gathered to light the seventh candle, more light poured out of the kitchen; and in a moment of quiet reflection, I thought about the thousands and thousands of meals our community has made and delivered since Sandy last year.  I thought about Macabees fighting for freedom more than two thousand years ago so that millenia later, in a land and under conditions that would have been totally unimaginable to a Jewish community then, we live in freedom in America and as an expression of the very values we fought for then--that we believe in a God who commands to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give shelter to the homeless--we do those things today as a clear-eyed, full-throated, celebratory expression of who we are.

I told this last story to our Early Childhood Center kids today at the celebration.  We are here today in large part because of the good that we do in the name of what our Tradition demands of us.  I'm not sure they grasped it but I have a feeling it might seep in.  Like the Hanukah oil burned beyond it's expected, allotted time.  Miraculous that we are still here, isn't it.  Unique and miraculous.

03 December 2013

Hanukah Day Six: Troubles and Triumphs

I wish war was as funny as Duck Soup.  Seriously.

And it certainly isn't latkes, jelly donuts, and gorgeous dreamy candle lights, burning low, winter hymned to waxy oblivion.

War is painful.  Dreadfully so.

Here's Ivor Gurney (1890-1937):

Pain, pain continual; pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty...Not the wisest knows,
Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour's way meant.  Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruelest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in the shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun. --
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out to God.

There's a reason the rabbis of the Talmud downplayed Hanukah.  It's reality is too bellicose.  To celebrate the religiosity of revolution and death is fundamentally dangerous.  So rather than reveal and expose the "pitiful eyes of men foredone," the Sages decided that the Hanukah miracle was light--pure, refined oil, lost then found, rededicated and burned beyond its allotted time.  "It happened there."  You'd have to see it to believe it.

In his amazing literary history of the First World War, Geoff Dyer writes that much of the war's first writing was an act of remembrance, written before the war began, "a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining."

I have been thinking of this so much this Hanukah.  The Jewish spirit.  The inexorable rush to remembrance as an anticipatory forward gesture.  Looking forward to Hanukah to tell the stories of past triumphs, to gird our loins for future ones.  Looking forward to Passover to tell the stories of triumph over tyranny, to strengthen ourselves for future oppressions.  To live bound by a past, and in its memorial encoding, generating an ability to break the chains, victorious, at a known past but as yet unforeseen and certain future.

Dyer movingly writes, "I remember John Berger in a lecture suggesting that ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus--of disappearance.  'The century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.'"

The pogroms and dislocations of Eastern Europe.  The rise of Nazism, mass deportation, and Holocaust.  The painful threat of extinction and fight for survival in the reclaiming of a homeland.  What for Berger may very well be a 'century of departure,' has for the Jew been both departure and arrival.  Always both.  The very paradoxical definition of Jewishness.  Perfect in its contradiction.

I saw my friend Adam tonight at the Hanukah celebration at CBE.  He told me about the haftarah he chanted at his bar mitzvah, more than 30 years ago, in the spring; and how its words from Zechariah--"not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit saith the Lord of hosts" is also the haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukah.  His oldest daughter, now 9, was born during Hanukah.  And tonight they agreed that when she became Bat Mitzvah in a few years, she's chant the same words as her dad did, more than 30 years ago.

"That's so cool," he said, bursting with pride.

He smiled, took another bite of his latke, eyed a jelly donut.  Behind him the candles on the menorah burned bright.

War isn't funny, that's true.  But life, and how we remember our troubles and triumphs, is uncommonly beautiful.

Hanukah Day Five: Strong Gun Laws

We're coming up on the one year anniversary since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

Since then, a number of people in our community at CBE have come together to advocate and lobby for tougher gun laws in New York City and across the country.  We write letters, make phone calls, and show up at rallies.

It's never enough until the work is done, until fewer guns are out there, but we keep on pushing as hard as we can.

Yesterday, a number of us set up outside of PS 321 in Park Slope and gathered signatures asking Governor Cuomo to ensure that CAP Laws--Child Access Prevention--are added to legislation in New York State.  This legislation has been shown to serve as an important deterrent to gun owners in that it levies severe fines when children get access to these powerful weapons.
Here's what we asked people to sign:

Dear Governor Cuomo, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Schumer,
On January 15, 2013, The NY SAFE Act (New York Secure Ammunition and 
Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013) was passed by a bipartisan state legislature 
and signed into law by Governor Cuomo. The NY SAFE Act gives New Yorkers 
some of the strongest protections against gun violence in the nation. We are 
grateful for the concern and action taken by our legislature and are proud that 
New York was the first state to strengthen its gun safety laws in the aftermath of 
the Sandy Hook massacre.
Omitted from the new law, however, was a “Child Access Prevention” (CAP) 
law. CAP laws are intended to prevent firearm injuries to children by limiting their 
access to guns. CAP laws make gun owners criminally liable if they negligently 
leave guns accessible to children or otherwise allow children to obtain firearms. 
The strongest CAP laws set criminal penalties for owners who do not store 
firearms properly so that children cannot easily access them unsupervised. 
Other CAP laws simply prohibit someone from directly providing a gun to a 
minor. More than half the states in the nation have enacted CAP legislation, but 
there is currently no Child Access Prevention law in New York State. 
CAP laws are needed because too many children live in homes with access to 
guns. A Daily News story in July 2013 listed 40 children who had accidentally 
shot themselves or another child in the past 6 months. Studies show that poor 
gun storage is directly correlated to accidental gun-related death and injury. 
The more we do to keep guns from children, the more we can prevent such 
accidental violence.
I am a member of the Congregation Beth Elohim community in Brooklyn, New 
York. The synagogue has a history of leadership in social action and in curbing 
gun violence. I, the undersigned, urge you to take action and approve CAP 
legislation. New York State is a leader in gun safety legislation. Let us also 
be a leader in protecting our children from guns. New York Assembly bull A-
03941, the Children’s Weapon Accident Prevention Act, proposed last year, was 
designed to enact CAP laws in New York State. We urge you to support this or 
similar legislation. As stated in the Book of Psalms, "Our children are a gift from 

On December 12th I'll be at City Hall with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, led by my friend and fierce advocate, Leah Gunn Barrett.  I hope you can join us.

We will also be continuing to pressure Stephen Feinberg, CEO of Cerberus Capital, whose company owns more than $900 million worth of gun manufacturers in this country, to fulfill a promise he made after Sandy Hook to DIVEST from that ownership in Freedom Group.  Here are the remarks I made in September that will simply be updated for the one-year anniversary of this tragic and senseless event in Connecticut.  

I hope you'll join us in the weeks ahead for this important fight.

02 December 2013

Hanukah Day Four: Saul Leiter, z'l

I was sad to see that Saul Leiter died this past week, a diminishment of light in this festival of Hanukah.  Leiter's exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2006/7 was one of the great, small, unsung art shows of the last ten years.  

We walked through with Mom back then, just a small time after her triumphant scrum with radiation for a small node in one of her breasts.  In fact, we marked a fair bit of time over those seven years of cancer with semi-annual trips to the museum.  

An example of art's power to heal.  Especially for those who live unsung lives.  Leiter never achieved the stature his talent deserved, and that suited him just fine, as the Times obit described him saying in 2008, "One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it."

"Seeing is a neglected enterprise," he also famously said.  The power of simple observation, sharpened with practice.  The images that then settle into the mind can change things.
One imagines Mark Rothko painting this photograph.  His vision was extraordinary.

01 December 2013

Why A Duck?

In the latest iteration of communal thinkers parsing the meaning of how Jews mate and what it means for our numbers, the sociologist Steven Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky propose a new path to affiliation with the Jewish people in order to capture the ever elusive number of people who identify as Jews even though they have no Jewish parents.  That group was 7% in a recent study of New York Jews--5% who never converted but considered themselves part of the Jewish people and 2% who actually converted.

They even have a name for this process.  It's called Jewish Cultural Affirmation.  It's meant to provide a formal entryway to the Jewish community by actually creating a learning process, a group of people to oversee it, and then there'd be a ceremony and even a certificate.

Of course, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, you get the point.

But it's not conversion.  God forbid.

As someone who has been working in the community as a rabbi at the grassroots level my whole career, I have to say that this is one of the sillier ideas I've ever heard come from my friends Steven and Kerry.

At so many turns in the process of working with couples and individuals who are interested in affiliating with and living among the Jewish people, I have encountered virtually every degree of expression between faith and faithlessness and have never seen someone walk away from their connection to Jewish peoplehood by virtue of "having to believe in God" or being required to demonstrate anything other than a commitment to learning, observance of rituals they find meaningful, and fealty to the values and traditions of Judaism as well as the Jewish people.  And most, in fact, explicitly state that what they love about becoming Jewish is that there isn't one definition of Jewishness; that Jewish discourse requires critical thinking and dissent; and that one's faith (or lack thereof) are as much a source of self-examination and discourse as any other aspect of their identity.

I'll grant that "conversion" is not the right word.  It is borrowed from other religious traditions, which privilege the centrality of a 'conversionary' experience (think Paul on the road to Damascus) that Judaism is inherently skeptical of.  In fact, while many people are familiar with the relatively apocryphal notion of rabbis turning away would-be converts three times (to test their sincerity) one sees beneath the surface a healthy degree of doubt exhibited about those claiming to have experienced revelation.

On a certain level, then, it's not about what you believe but about what you do.

Which is not to say that anything goes with regard to faith.  Jews for Jesus, for instance, may think they're "doing Jewish" while obviously serving Jesus.  It's a free country, of course.  They're just not Jews by faith.  They're Christian.

But back to the point.  I've converted Chinese Buddhists who've said, "Sorry, Rabbi.  I just don't believe in God.  But I love Judaism and Jewish ritual and the Jewish people."  In.  "Rabbi, I certainly don't believe in Jesus, am not sure about God, but I love the way Judaism allows me to question, commands me to live a moral life, and fills my life with meaningful ritual, holidays, great food, humor and a strong sense of family."  In.  "Rabbi.  My husband doesn't believe in God.  Regrets having had a Bar Mitzvah.  I'm not sure what I think but I know that leading this family and raising these children as Jews will fall to me."  In.

So maybe it's not "Conversion" per se but Citizenship.  That's what I tell people, anyway.  You study for a period of time, you demonstrate knowledge and loyalty, you get to become a citizen.  That's how we do it in America and I would argue that this is what the Sages had in mind when they created the process.

Some were strict (Shammai) and others were lenient (Hillel.)  And without a doubt there were multiple choices of varying levels of commitment in between.  But the notion of separating faith and culture when dealing with Judaism, Jews and Jewish civilization, is like making a kugel without eggs.  Or drawing Woody Allen without glasses.  Or Larry David *with* hair.  It doesn't work.

What is Jewish culture anyway if not the aggregation of our experiences through multiple lenses of language and learning; land and faith; ritual observance, morality, ethics and values?  Whether or not you believe in the divine attributes of the Jewish god, he/she/it is certainly a character in the story.

You don't want to believe?  So don't believe.  Someone/Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Someone/Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation;  Someone/Something enraged the Prophets to speak of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and turning swords into plowshares; and, Someone/Something spoke our Ancestors and said, "Every seventh day, it would be a good idea for everyone involved to stop working and rest.  It will remind you about what really matters."

A non-Jew once came to Hillel the Elder and asked to be taught the essence of Torah.  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  All the rest is commentary.  Go forth and learn."

This is the point.  Not even as easy to do as say deciding whether or not you believe in God.

Hanukah Day Three: Living Wage

It never ceases to amaze me--the human capacity to do what is necessary to survive.  The quiet, dignified efforts of millions of people to provide the most basic material--food, shelter, health care, transportation--to their families.   We move so quickly these days you might fail to notice, in the rush to get by yourself, how someone always has it worse than you and despite that, makes the "oil burn" for that additional minute, hour or day.  Miraculous.

Alan Feuer's portrait of fast food worker Eduardo Shoy is one such example.  I urge you to read it.  Personally, it brings to mind my own mother's working ethic.  For years she supported her kids through a divorce and her need for independence.  And after a second divorce, near a time in her life when her friends where beginning to slow down and contemplate retirement, she stayed at work, just ahead of a living wage, and worked right up to the last year of her life when cancer struck her down at seventy-nine.

Her employers were incredibly compassionate.  They allowed for flexible hours to help accommodate her chemotherapy protocol; they kept her insured; and in staying in touch, gave her the dignity to claim that despite being on a kind of medical leave, she was employed.

One can think of a Macabee as a kind of scrappy rebel, teeming with revolutionary spirit, heroically heading down from the hills on horseback, bearing the standard of freedom.

Feuer describes, in contrast to this image, a man of quiet and humble dignity, logging miles on his grease stained Honda, delivering fast food to other workers throughout the city.  With barely a moment to rest between both wage jobs, he reaches the conclusion that his work may also entail showing up to organize, with other workers, for better wages and benefits.

The contrast between workers' wages and executive compensation is startling in any circumstance.  In the illuminated moments of a man's life--delivering KFC, a brief nap, driving forklift at JFK--ought to humble any executive and politician into doing what's right for working people.

Last year Bloomberg News covered the wage gap at McDonalds.  Take a few minutes to read it.  It will read faster than your Hanukah candles take to burn.  Noticing that IS the point of Hanukah.

Oil that burns for freedom.  That deep fries the fast food people eat.  That fuels the car and the lift which move us, and our things, from here to there.