Tuesday, November 15, 2016

One Year Since...

One year ago today, Susan and I embarked on a wonderful adventure--a 4-month sabbatical spent in Asia: 2 months in Vietnam, a month in India and a couple of weeks in Japan.





Aside from the inspiring experiences we had, and there were many, we took some pleasure in being far from the US during the odious Presidential primaries, particularly the seemingly inexplicable rise and dominance of Donald Trump in the Republican contest.

We were at some loss to explain the phenomenon to the people we got to know in Asia, and assumed it would be an ugliness that would recede somewhat after his eventual defeat.

Last week's events overturned most of those hopes. Still, he was elected President fair and square, albeit through a campaign in which he broke every rule of civility beyond even the greatest violators of civility in past elections while impugning the very core of the electoral process which, HAD it been fixed, would have barred him.

Now we see in his first steps toward actually assuming the office that he may not be quite the demagogue we feared -- based on some moderate statements and moves or non-moves, but he is choosing to bring into his government some of the worst people we could imagine.

He paid lip service on Election Night to being President For All Americans, but his choice of Steve Bannon to be a member of his inner circle is going to be a test of whether people are going to go along with anything and everything Trump, or whether those supporters who claim (reasonably in many cases) not to be racists and hateful of the most important American values will stand up for anything.

Poor choices to lead departments or have cabinet positions are in most cases a matter of opinion and wait-and-see. Giuliani as Secretary of State? A terrible choice (if that turns out to be his choice), but if that's who PE (President Elect) Trump wants to appoint, we'll probably need to allow him to prove himself worthy or unworthy.

But when an individual has engaged in systematic support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas, having used his website and news organization to happily gather KKK and NeoNazi individuals and leaders, we must say no.

One can understand Trump's willingness to bring him into the inner circle: his brand of Truth Makes No Difference I'm Just Interested In Stirring Up Hatred and Anger and Calling It Fun and Funny WAS a powerful tool in the recent election. And it is the bringing of Breitbart into the Oval Office that is the most dangerous element of how and where we go.

The Trumpists and their allies have falsely accused the mainstream media of a multitude of sins for a generation. Understand this: the serious mainstream media is constrained by ethics of facts and verifiability. Trump railed that the media was arrayed against him. And how could responsible media not appear to be against him? They reported what he said (and he denied it), they dutifully played along for months and years regarding the sins and shortcomings of the Clintons as if it were an equal concern on the other side. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the campaign and election was Trump's marriage to Bannon in the first place, leading to a sense that Breitbart is something to be considered in the same sentence as CBS, NBC, PBS and CNN. The rise of Fox and MSNBC in recent years paved the way--news media with a clear point of view before, during and after events. But even these viewpoint news organizations (with the exception of some of the individual voices at Fox) had some sense of journalistic standards, and not a reckless disregard for truth itself. This is where the emergence of Breitbart in the same breath is, basically, terrifying.

If Bannon DOES get through the current firestorm, he is not likely (hopefully) to last long. The longer he has the ear of PE Trump officially, and the longer we are subject to the fantasy news world he nurtures, the greater the danger to our Republic, and to the values that have made it great.
The FBI (which had an extremely awkward role in the election that raises a whole other set of concerns) reports a very significant increase in numerous kinds of hate crimes during the last year. Understandable given the rhetoric of the Trump Campaign. What happens next? Whether Bannon is IN or OUT will be a canary in the coal mine on this subject.

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Back to that amazing experience that started a year ago....My worry about the state and direction of our country is all the more poignant to me because of the amazing journey of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  (Since we started with 2 months there, I'll leave India and Japan out of the discussion for now.)

Americans, what kind of problems do we REALLY have? And what are the prospects and barriers to succeeding?

The Vietnamese people were "host" to a number of wars in the mid to late 20th century (before that, too, but I'll restrict attention to more modern times).

After the Americans left in the early 1970s, the country faced challenges of constituting a unified state. It was ugly, violent and involved casting out many citizens for a while. To this day, the scars of war and its aftermath can be seen and felt. The American military decimated the cities and countryside. And the use of Agent Orange created issues that still are part of the challenge to the Vietnamese today. The Vietnamese socialists who came to power punished many other Vietnamese cruelly. Many are long gone. Many have returned, reentering Vietnamese society while wrestling with their own particular form of PTSD. My experience meeting some of them (those who have returned from the punishing re-education camps, etc.) suggests to me that their renewed presence in Vietnamese society is one of its greatest strengths.

Is it a free country? No. Speaking out against the nominally socialist government is unpredictably dangerous. You could be imprisoned. You could face the death penalty. But if the government is repressive, the PEOPLE (in my opinion) aren't repressed.

There is a strong sense that being Vietnamese MEANS something, and that there is a shared interest-- and a possibility of rising in a rising economy. That education leads to opportunity.
This sense of hope and opportunity is very strongly felt (although not by all). Susan and I were volunteer teachers in a Hanoi secondary school. We weren't their English teachers: they had those classes before, after and during our 2-month visit. We expanded what they were learning. We gave them context for the use of English in (American) English-speaking culture. We taught them about some Jewish stuff too. (Chanukah came about 2 weeks into our visit). We taught them that when someone says O-H, you say I-O! And they LOVED that, which was also a way to refocus their attention in class.


I cannot overemphasize the sense of welcome, excitement and hope of these children--6th graders to 11th graders. It was so inspiring.  We worked with almost 1000 kids.


Walking the streets of Hanoi --and we walked MANY of the streets of Hanoi --it is clear that the situation is very complicated. Not everyone is advancing. But in the cacophony and chaos of the Vietnamese street is a relentless and often joyful pressing onward and upward.


The journey to prosperity for all is a very long one. Yet they have come a long way and are oriented forward.

If the government were less repressive, would the journey be swifter and smoother? Perhaps. But from what I can tell, most of the Vietnamese people aren't thinking primarily about politics or political freedom. They are VERY good at focusing on the economically possible. And that's a large part of the reason that the Vietnamese have been more and more successful in partnership with American and other international business. They deliver. Their work is reliable.

Contrast this, sadly, with what's  going on in the USA at this time (and I mean generationally, not in terms of an outcome of last week's election): Our one-time belief that hard work leads to prosperity, our expectation that things will get better, has steadily deteriorated. Yet instead of joining together to address our problems, we have balkanized into 2 or more groups, each blaming the other, and we refuse to work together toward even the simplest common goal.

The enemy of America's greatness? Not Islam. It's Americans. It's anger. It's a growing hopelessness. Susan and I have been fortunate to travel to many places at the world over our 34 years of marriage. The scariest thing that I have seen anywhere on the globe is hopelessness--whether in the streets and subways of Moscow in 1989, some of the streets of America in the last 10 to 20 years.  Young men who have no aspirations for their future are a threat to life and limb.  Such young men with guns? Multiply the threat exponentially.

Clearly, the lack of hope spreading around our nation, especially in the places we liberals don't see--in the towns and villages across our states, has a corrosive effect on their lives and on our country.  It was this hopelessness that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into "big league." I have few illusions that PE Trump will deliver solutions to those populations.  But it is something we must somehow come together as a country to do.

We need to build and rebuild America--put people to work, give them hope and reward hard work. It won't be easy and it cannot be accomplished by one party refusing to work with the other. 

At one point does it become too late? At one point is it no longer possible? I hope that we haven't passed that point. I have never had less confidence in the future.  

I hope to find the energy necessary to continue the struggle--not regarding elections (except when it's time for that)--but in the context of protecting the rights of those who are threatened, likely to especially include immigrants, Muslims, women, people of color, and perhaps Jews.  For a change, it's not the Jews who are at risk, except from the greatest extremists of both right and left.  

Next week is Thanksgiving. I can't recall ever feeling less Thankful.  I'm hoping to feel more thankful by this time next year--but it may be very, very difficult.  

I hope you'll join me in that journey.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thoughts after the Election of Donald Trump

As indicated below. . . I try not to get into shouting matches about political stuff on Facebook.  What appears below is what I wrote on Facebook on the day after the election.  It elicited a significant number of civil, and just a few uncivil comments.  I'm guessing that coming events will drive me to my blog repeatedly.  As always, I will hope and pray and work for the best.
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Well, America hates. And hate has become the #1 political commodity. It's early morning in Columbus. but it may just be midnight in what was America. I could no longer watch last night. I awoke and read Donald Trump's speech. Terrifying. Would be funny if not true. Sentences? Not necessary. Talk chopped phrases. Make sense? Don't need to. The congratulations and thanks? Dear God, the people surrounding him are such a cast. I have had a dread in the corner of my eye for a generation: how empires crumble. It is hard not to think that what was in the corner of my eye now stands before me. God help us. God help those who depend on a reliable USA for hope and balance in a world economy. People, you just gave your election into the hands of Vladimir Putin. He is laughing at you. The world was smirking at us but now doesn't know what's next. Nor do I. After all the sound and fury, I think it's China Time in the 21st century.
And a few words of praise for Hillary Clinton. She is a dedicated public servant. From the moment she appeared on the scene in the 1990s, she inspired fear and loathing in a misogynistic corner of right-wing society. Having been maligned for 25+ years for small and non-existent stuff, even people who would have naturally and easily supported her thought that there's just something about her they couldn't trust.
Kind of like you can never trust a Jew -- after 2000 years of untrue things said about my people.
She apparently COULD have run a more effective campaign -- and I wish that she had concentrated on the inspiring messages from the Democratic Convention and left the "Donald Trump is a very bad man" -- and he is -- to others.
But remember Michelle Obama's words -- "When they go low, we go high." Our country has gone low. Those of us who are dumbfounded this morning will continue to try to go high. We will see what lies ahead.
I believe that many of the people who were attracted to Trump because they have felt left out for a long time have had a lot to be frustrated about -- but they have made the wrong choice. When he fails to deliver, it will be our opportunity to deliver. Let's hope -- for their sake and ours -- that we succeed.
Beyond that, I try not to get into political fights on Facebook. I speak more freely in my blog.
It's quite possible that I'll move these musings to my blog in the next day or two.
In the meantime -- like Aaron, after the inexplicable death of his two sons who brought "strange fire" before the Lord -- I will mostly keep my silence for a while -- reflect on what has just happened -- listen to others -- maintain some dignity -- hope and pray and work for the better and the best.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Yom Kippur Thoughts

As I've noted before, I am blesseed with the opportunity to share some written thoughts, observations, inspirations -- and notes on tefillah (prayer) each year with the congregation.  Here's Yom Kippur 2016/5777

From Cantor Chomsky. . .

For Rosh Hashanah, I wrote to you about having stood out from others during our 4-month sojourn in Asia, and about seeing myself standing at my grandparents’ grave, looking to the past and wondering about the future.  And I invited you to share your crossroads experience – and to allow your heart to open wide to receive from others and share.

Little more than a week later, we have the opportunity to confront and acknowledge where we have failed—beginning by “absolving” ourselves of unfulfilled vows (whether in the year past or the year to come is a traditional philosophical and liturgical question), and then reciting litany after litany of alphabetical confessions—sometimes granular like the Ashamnu, and sometimes a little more poetic—like Al Cheit

Our Hebrew text names sins for each letter of the alphabet.  What are the shortcomings of your alphabet?

Our machzor often speaks of the huge chasm between us and the Perfect God and Creator.  And yet. . . once we have acknowledged where we have erred, when we conceive of a listening, hearing, caring God, we can reach. . . outward, forward, upward, inward.  What a gift is this ability to think, to hope, to care.  Yes, we feel pain for where we have failed—and for our suffering and the suffering of those who we care about.  But the ability to hope for more, to work for more, is something that no other creature (species) has. 

As Jews, we take that gift of the human spirit and add to it a sense of history—and a sense of two-way obligation.  We inherit this history, this Torah, this possibility of perfecting God’s world – tikun olam—and we demand that God redeem God’s promises when we fulfill ours. 

And what if we don’t believe?  I recall entering this conversation with a member of the congregation not long ago.  So I’m reminded to say something very clearly – Everyone in this room has doubt.  To think that you can’t have this conversation because you have doubt is to remove yourself from the most powerful aspect of Jewish living. 

I cannot promise you that if you live this year as if there is a God aware of your every thought and action that you will be cured of your doubt.  But I CAN promise that you will receive the gift of connection and salvation from the randomness of contemporary culture.  It is so easy to live life today as if it has no meaning.  But if you reach out, you will be connected.

Plan your day.  Pace yourself.  May you have a full Ya’aleh day (p. 223): This simple piyyut declares intentions for Evening, Dawn, and Dusk: From Voices to  Acts to Redemption; from Suffering to  Forgiveness to Purity.  Put another way – when you take a long, hot shower, you feel way better at the end than at the beginning.  Immerse yourself in our liturgy this Yom Kippur and feel the glow of your cleansed soul at the conclusion of the Holiday!

The Music and Liturgy of Yom Kippur


KOL NIDREI:  The paragraph of Kol Nidrei is a legal formula developed by the Rabbis which annuls only those vows which are made between humans and God.  Tradition suggests, for its three repetitions, 1st softly, like someone hesitating before entering the royal palace; the 2nd time, a bit more confidently; the 3rd time like someone who feels comfortable in the royal court and approaches the ruler like a friend.  This year, we’ll have the Choir begin.  Then I’ll recite alone.  Then it’s your turn with me!

After the Amidah comes the beautiful piyyut (poem) Yaaleh (223).  A reverse anacrostic, it describes poetically the emotional arc of the day (as mentioned in my intro above).  Prayers like Shomeia T’filah (224) and Han’shamah Lach (225) are based on special “Missinai” tunes – ancient melodies heard only with these texts at this special time.  Some may be 1000 years old.

SELIHOT AND VIDUI:  The penitential prayers (Selihot) along with the confessional (Vidui) are critical elements of our Yom Kippur davening.  The “high point” of these confessions are Ashamnu and Al Cheit, alphabetic acknowledgements of our individual or community sins for which it is customary to strike one’s heart.  When singing the catchy ay-ay-ay of Ashamnu, keep in mind that it’s not a happy tune:  In the tradition of Ashkenazic Jewish music, the major third (third note in the melody) is meant to imply our vulnerability, our rawness, and our emotional pain in the act of confession.  In contemporary American musical culture, it can convey exactly the opposite meaning and emotion.

YOM KIPPUR MORNING:
YIZKOR: The Yizkor service (290) begins with the Choir singing Enosh by Louis Lewandowski.  This familiar text, which is not present in our Machzor, is taken from Psalm 103:  The days of mortals are as grass.  We flourish like a flower in the field.  The wind passes over it and it is gone, and none can even recognize where it grew.  But God’s compassion is from forever to forever for those who fear God; so is God’s righteousness to their children’s children. 

YOM  KIPPUR MUSAPH: The Yom Kippur Musaph is lengthy in a different way from the Rosh Hashanah Musaph.  On Rosh Hashanah, we had Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofrot, pages and pages of Torah, Prophets and Writings verses on the themes of God’s Sovereignty, Remembrance, and Shofar Soundings.  On Yom Kippur, the Musaph includes (in addition to the aforementioned selichot and vidui portions) a Martyrology service and the Avodah Service recalling the majesty of the ancient Temple.
As on Rosh Hashanah, the Musaph begins with the haunting Hatzi Kaddish (298), followed by the Silent Amidah (300), and Hin’ni (312), the cantor’s prayer for success in expressing the heart and minds of the congregation.  A highly dramatic and beautiful moment of the “early Musaph” is Un’taneh Tokef

The gorgeous B’rosh Hashanah (315) by Meir Finkelstein is sung with Gabrielle Cohen, Halley Dunn, Marissa Madison, Allison MeyerAfter the Great Alenu (325) comes the Avodah service (326) recalling the annual purification ritual by the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. We can see from this ritual that our ancestors had very clear ideas regarding how to physically atone for our sins.  Without a Temple, without the sacrificial cult described in the Torah, how do we physically atone?  Few of us would seek to reinitiate animal sacrice – but the question remains, and “going through the motions” of the ancient rite helps us to pose, if not answer the question. The MiSinai tune which is chanted to V’hakohanim (330, 331, 332) is one of our oldest melodies, quite mysterious and kind of hypnotic. 

MINCHAH:  The highlight of the Minchah service (361) is most likely its mind-boggling Haftarah (367) – the Book of Jonah.  Maftir Yonah will be chanted by some of our high school students, now a tradition.  As the afternoon deepens, we approach. . .

N’ILAH: The N’ilah service (392) provides us with our last opportunity to plead our cause in the spiritual marathon which is Yom Kippur.  The Sephardic hymn El Nora Alilah (407) is sung prior to the repetition of the N’ilah Amidah.

The melodies unique to the N’ilah service create a special sound picture to bind us to the conclusion of Yom Kippur in years past, whether in our lives or in those of our people over many hundreds of years.  The nusach melody of N’ilah is evocative of walking carefully forward as we prepare to leave the divine presence—as, indeed, the gates close before us.  Among the special melodies unique to N’ilah:   Sh’ma Na (410), P’tach Lanu Sha’ar (414), Enkat M’saldecha (416), and Rachem Na (419).  Passages on 421 and 422 are quite distinct from the “boilerplate” of the rest of Yom Kippur amidahs.  Who among us would not be moved by these two pages of liturgy, this last crying out for forgiveness?  We hope, of course, that God is also moved!

We conclude the day’s observances with the Ma’ariv weekday prayer (445), followed by Havdalah (459) and the affirmations (429) of Sh’ma (1x), Baruch Shem (3x), and Adonai Hu HaElohim (7x).  Followed of course by a t’kiah g’dolah and the chanting of Lashanah Haba-ah biY’rushalayim—next year in Jerusalem – and our break-fast, either here at Tifereth Israel, or in your home or that of friends.

G’mar chatimah tovah—may you have a good seal in the Book of Life for the coming year.

Cantor Jack Chomsky



2016 HIGH HOLIDAY CHOIR:  Allan Finkelstein, Conductor; Ted Borkan, Bob Borman, Gabrielle Cohen, Lori Cohen, Jeff Covel,  Bradley Goldman, Shelly Kitain, Alice Levitin, Jan Lyddon,  Rebecca Mentser, Sandy Mentser, Amy Nathans, Diane Peters, Mike Price, Katya Rouzina, Scott Spira, Martha Tepper (also accompanist), and Randy Zacks.   



Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Rosh Hashanah Comments to the Congregation

Each year, I share some thoughts -- and explanations of some of the prayers and music -- with the congregation.  Printed and placed in their prayer books (machzorim) along with announcements about synagogue activities.  Here's what's in their for Rosh Hashanah 5777

Rosh Hashanah Thoughts from Cantor Chomsky. . .

We gather again.

Thank you, Tifereth Israel, for the amazing opportunity you provided Susan and me for growth and exploration this last year -- as we took a 4-month sojourn in Asia.

On our two previous sabbaticals, we spent the time in Israel.  We still love Israel, of course, and visit as often as possible, especially with our daughter and son-in-law now living there.  But it seemed like the challenge of going somewhere very different was a good idea.

We experienced the life of outsiders--people very obviously different from most of the people in our adopted neighborhood. First, two months headquartered in Hanoi.  Then, a month in India, and finally a trip to parts of Japan.  We stuck out. Big time.  From a Jewish perspective, we either made Jewish life by ourselves or, occasionally, joined with the few Jews in our "chosen" outpost, whether it was Hanoi, Delhi, Tokyo or elsewhere.

So many people in the Jewish world say they feel like outsiders when they come to synagogue on the High Holidays.  So our experience as outsiders had special meaning that I hope is relevant this fall.  I hope that the writings below, about the music and liturgy, and our inviting machzor, will help you feel like insiders!

As I wrote these words, I was on my way back to Columbus from attending the funeral of Uncle Joe Chomsky--my father's brother--closing a chapter in my pre-Columbus life, having stood today at the graves of my grandparents, and of quite a few of the mysterious old people of my youth, those folks with the “heksents.”

I know that many of you must have stood at these crossroads, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about that.  Please share these with me and others during the Days of Awe.  Talk to me in person, but feel free also to write me at CantorJC@aol.com.  I’m also thinking about when my children will have the feeling that I did today – and when my grandchildren will stand at such a crossroads.

As we gather together this Rosh Hashanah, are we moving toward creating a rich Jewish future for our children and grandchildren?  Does Jewish matter?  How alienated do we feel from our own religious tradition and culture?

We’ll be spending some hours together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We’ll be using a book that is filled with generations’ heartfelt expression about the meaning of life and relation to God.  But the book is largely in code.  And the music is in code.  We can easily find contemporary expressions about life’s meaning – but someday these will be a hard-to-decipher code for future generations, so investing time, thought and energy in deciphering our own ancient code seems like a good choice.

Open your heart.  Take a little more time when you greet your friends to really hear what they’re telling you about their lives.  Let your heart break open to acknowledge where you struggle and to empathize with the struggle of your neighbor.  Listen for how this is exemplified in the words and melodies of our prayers. 

The Music and Liturgy of Rosh Hashanah [page references are in Mahzor Lev Shalem.]

Evening Service:   The formal beginning of the evening service (Maa’riv), Barchu (p. 5), introduces the majestic and elegant nusach melody that will be heard up to the Amidah and in the Kiddush—and on Kol Nidrei as well.  (Nusach refers to the melodies and musical modes customary to our liturgy.  Its roots go back over a millennium, though many traditional melodies are “merely” a few hundred years old.)

The words and prayers of this service are much like any daily evening service.  The main differences are found in the Kedushat Hashem (Sanctification of God’s name – an extended form of Atah Kadosh, p. 13)  and Kedushat Hayom (Sanctification of the Day, pp.14-15).  These paragraphs, from Uv’chein Tein Pachd’cha through M’loch al kol ha’olam (p. 42), will be recited each Amidah on Rosh Hashanah.  Our machzur will guide you– giving explanations of the prayers in the right margins – and inspiration in the left margins.  When you find something that inspires, be sure to share it.

Morning Service
The sh’liach tzibbur (service leader, literally “messenger of the community”) begins at different times on different occasions – Yishtabach on weekdays, Shochein Ad on Shabbat, Ha-el on Festivals, and Hamelech (p. 69) on the High Holidays.  Hamelech means “the King” – and this is the aspect of God (who we describe in many ways with many names) that is central to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). 

The Shacharit prayers are similar to those of weekdays and Shabbat – but some of the melodies are of quite different character. 

On  page 81, Misod embodies what might be the central musical motif of high holiday davening.  L’el oreich din (p. 85) particularly brings home the judgment theme and in a sense serves as a Shacharit pre-echo of the awesome Un’taneh Tokef prayer of the Musaph service.

Following the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah, the Shacharit service reaches a new height with the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu

The music for the Torah Service (p. 96) includes many familiar melodies in their original form: choral works.  These works became so popular throughout Europe (having been introduced in the magnificent synagogues in Berlin and Vienna) that their melodies achieved MiSinai status among Ashkenazic congregations, though they date “only” to the 19th century.  (MiSinai means, literally, “from Sinai” – but figuratively, ancient melodies.  Many of our high holiday MiSinai melodies date to Ashkenazic Jewish practice in Germany as far back as the 11th century!)

When we return the Torah to the Ark, the words are the same as the rest of the year, but we should try to create and experience a special sense of holiness, awe and glory together because this day has added holiness.

The Musaph (Additional) Service begins with the plaintive Hatzi Kaddish followed by the recitation of the Silent Amidah.  The Musaph service is at heart just a big (really, really big) Amidah.  The first pass through – the silent Amidah—includes three lengthy compendia of biblical references to Malchuyot (sovereignty), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot (shofar soundings). 

Un’taneh Tokef, which includes B’rosh Hashanah (pp. 282-284), is the dramatic high point of the Musaph liturgy.  Its stirring imagery of God sitting in judgment before us contrasts the loud, clarion call of the shofar with the hearing of a “still small voice.”  It paints a pastoral picture of sheep passing before their Shepherd Who determines who shall live and who shall die (and how).  Along with this comes the statement that God waits for us to repent until the final moment, that we are like dust, that we pass away like a dream. 

The gorgeous B’rosh Hashanah (315) by Meir Finkelstein will be sung again with Gabrielle Cohen, Halley Dunn, Marissa Madison, Allison Meyer.

Close your eyes a bit during Musaph, during the shofar sounding and at other times, and picture yourself among hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered, in a spiritual sense, in Jerusalem.  Picture also Jews all around the world having such similar experiences today – thousands of years after this conversation began.  Make a promise to connect to this unique and glorious partnership—day by day, phrase by phrase, act of kindness by act of kindness, and act of righteousness by act of righteousness—from generation to generation.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year—
Cantor Jack Chomsky

2015 HIGH HOLIDAY CHOIR:  Allan Finkelstein, Conductor; Ted Borkan, Bob Borman, Gabrielle Cohen, Lori Cohen, Jeff Covel,  Bradley Goldman, Shelly Kitain, Michelle Levin, Alice Levitin, Jan Lyddon,  Sandy Mentser, Amy Nathans, Diane Peters, Mike Price, Katya Rouzina, Scott Spira, Martha Tepper (also accompanist), and Randy Zacks.   



Monday, August 1, 2016

Sermon After Spain Trip

Sermon regarding Trip to Spain
July 30, 2016
Cantor Jack Chomsky

To paraphrase Eric Idle
In any great adventure,
if you don't want to lose,
victory depends upon the people that you choose.
So, listen, Europeans, very closely to this news:
You won't succeed in History,
If you don't have any Jews.

On July 4, Susan and I joined with Larry and Rosa Stolz of our congregation – and about 50 cantors – and about 375 people from the U.S. and Canada on a historic Cantors Assembly Mission to Spain.

This is the 3rd Mission of the Cantors Assembly conceived and led by our unique colleague Nate Lam of the Stephen S Wise Synagogue of Los Angeles.
Our first Mission was our trip to Poland in 2009.  This trip culminated, in a sense, with the production of a motion picture documentary 100 Voices.  Our second trip was to Germany in 2012.

What’s the difference, you might ask, between a trip and a Mission?  What makes our Cantors Assembly tours worth the time and money that people spend to travel with us? 

I would say that the unifying idea is to deepen the experience – to celebrate the culture that coursed through these places before the Jews were driven out.  In the first two cases, it also became an opportunity to overcome our anger about what happened to our people—not to forget (God forbid), yet to reach out to those who have been reaching out to us.  In Poland, which once was one-quarter Jewish, many people have come to realize that you cannot tell the history of Poland without incorporating the history of its Jewish community.  When we were in Warsaw, ground was broken for the first Polish Museum of the History of the Jews – not the extermination of the Jews, not another Holocaust commemoration. 

Also, traveling in the company of 50 or 100 hazzanim means that you get to see and hear the music that came from these places.  And to share that music with the people who live there now – non-Jews and a tiny fledgling, slightly growing Jewish community.  And you get to move past “I wouldn’t spend a dime of my money in that country where they did this to my people” – an understandable feeling, but one that looks only backward. 

As then-President of the Cantors Assembly, I was a chair of the Germany Mission.  One of the challenges to us was that our target shifted somewhat: Instead of going to a place to see only the ashes of our ancestors and traditions, it turned out that, by the time we made the trip, there wasn’t a fledgling Jewish community, but rather a burgeoning one.  I don’t think anybody saw that coming.  So many of us felt that we would never go to even SEE Germany – and then it turned out that thousands of our people – from ISRAEL no less, and from the U.S. – and especially – for different reasons – from Russia and the former Soviet Union --had chosen to do more than visit Germany – had actually established a new Jewish life there!  Our musical mission was largely a celebration of Lewandowski and the great German Jewish musical masters of the 19th century.  Performing this gorgeous and excellent music in some magnificent venues was unforgettable.  Mission-wise, it was probably more important to the non-Jewish German population, as the new Jewish German population have mostly moved forward, or away from traditional synagogue practices.
Going to Spain, the heart of what became Sephardic Jewish tradition, was our natural next destination, even though we of the Cantors Assembly are overwhelmingly Ashkenazic in lineage.  Our President two times after me is Alberto Mizrahi, whose family came from that part of the world.  Alberto’s family wasn’t from Spain, but rather from Salonica.  Yet that means they were once from Spain.
And that phrase – “once from Spain” – is at the heart of more Jewish life than we tend to realize. 

Many of you have probably visited Spain, and if so, you have likely visited the quote-unquote “Jewish sites” of Spain.  I say “quote-unquote” because there often isn’t much to see—and often isn’t much to feel.  The Jews left Spain by 1492 – many earlier than that.  It’s not the same thing as having left in the 1930s.  Not by a long, long shot. 
I felt that one of the main benefits of the Cantors’ mission would be to overcome a problem that you other Jewish Spain-visitors may have experienced.  That you SEE it, but you don’t feel it in the kishkes.  (That shows the problem right there, doesn’t it?  There are no kishkes in Spain.  If I’m not mistaken, in Spain, they are tripas.)
As I mentioned, one of the leaders of our group was Alberto Mizrahi, whose heritage was Sephardi but whose training is Ashkenazi.  Yet he is certainly among the most sophisticated interpreters of Ladino traditions in the world.  And we had Aaron Bensoussan.  Born in Morocco, he is a 3rd-generation Sephardic hazzan who also chose to study Ashkenazic hazzanut.  His original melodies have a ta’am – a taste – that brings you to Morocco for sure – and perhaps back to its Spanish roots.  And we have something like a minyan – maybe even twice that—of native Spanish-speakers – an influx of hazzanim who have joined our organization after having emigrated to the U.S. and Canada from Argentina, Ecuador and other Latin American countries. 

Larry and Rosa can tell you whether or not that helped.

I won’t take you stop by stop through our trip.  That’s available on my blog, which you can access after Shabbat by googling my name and “blog.”  [jackchomskythinks.blogspot.com]

So what DO I want you to know from this experience? And what are the unique takeaways of having traveled with this particular group?
Jewish life in Spain was rich and deep.  It originated probably in the 2nd century CE.  It was during Moorish – Islamic – rule in Spain that Jewish life flourished.  The Jews – and the Christians – were tolerated by the ruling Emirates – and those who had valuable skills could rise in the society and economy even though they weren’t considered the equals of the Muslim ruling class.

A Golden Age came about beginning at the end of the 9th century.  But by the early 11th century, unified rule was breaking down – so some places were very good and some places were pretty bad.  Things really deteriorated after that –
The disaster of the Inquisition of 1492 really begins with mass conversions and massacres 100 years earlier in 1391. 

A new takeaway is to think of the Inquisition not as Christians vs. Jews, but rather as the Catholic Church convulsing itself through the blood of those who had BEEN Jews.  The question of the Inquisition is an impossible one: How can you be a true Christian when you haven’t been one in perpetuity (though you may try to prove otherwise)?  [Conversos often did create elaborate “family histories” trying to demonstrate their “yichus” – again a Yiddish term completely out of cultural context – in Christianity.]
What drove the Inquisition?  From the point of the masses, jealousy against those who did better than them.  Conversos were likely more successful prior to the Inquisition because, as Jews, they had been a literate community.  This distinguished them from the Spanish masses and made them a threat to the Church hierarchy also, as the church really wasn’t prepared to have a literate population questioning its priests, challenging its teachings the way Jews were bound to do (culturally speaking)– even if they didn’t think they were Jews anymore!

From 1492, there simply isn’t anything Jewish to see in Spain—yet those who left Spain took with them a vibrant Jewish and Spanish culture that they nurtured in many of the places they went; a culture that continued to flower in a specifically Spanish way in some places for centuries, and a culture that affected “normative” Jewry – that which is shared by both Sephardim and Ashkenazim in ways that we typically haven’t recognized, appreciated or acknowledged.

Some of the greatest things I saw in Spain weren’t in Spain.  That from Spain comes the work and  teaching of Rambam and Ramban (Maimonides and Nachmanides) and Joseph Caro (author of the Shulchan Aruch that tells us so much about how we live according to Jewish law), of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.  How is it possible that our people were thrown out and turned out to build so much in the other places they went?!

That’s an old story, and a familiar story; a very Jewish story.

Another new takeaway:  The Expulsion from Spain is also a Muslim phenomenon.  One of our scholars said that Jews chose from among 4 possible paths—going down a road to what would later become political Zionism, Lurianic Kabbalah, Messianism, or genuinely becoming Christians.  And that Muslims essentially had their own versions of these paths to respond to their similar crisis.  [So – although it’s somewhat obsessive to look at everything in the world through a Jewish lens, it’s something that we are likely to do, but can me moderated somewhat by recognizing that Muslims were also victims of the rise of Catholic hegemony in Spain.]

So when you see Spain today, you can see vestiges of Muslim times, and very little of Jewish times.  In Madrid, you can visit the Royal Palace – built in the 1700s in the image of Versailles.  In Barcelona, you can see the amazing work of Gaudi.  You can appreciate it, but if you want to think Jewish (and you don’t have to), you have no access point – because he had no access point.  This is less of an issue when you see the Park Guell that he designed, but for me was harder in visiting the amazing basilica Sagrada Familia.  The place is gorgeous – but in a way that I can’t relate to at all emotionally.  Once you have intuited the idea that God is right there in front of you—or inside you--my Jewish understanding—it can be hard to relate to a God—or his son—who is so big and imposing—so high up and seemingly far away.  It’s important to see the place—but they can keep it.

In Seville, we heard from Moses Hassan, a local Jew, born there to parents from Morocco.  He took us again through much of the history. He’s doing well.  He grew up Jewish in Seville and has a Jewish son.  He had help building his Jewish life from visits to and time spent in Israel and the U.S.  There are a few hundred Jews in Seville—if that many.

There were once 700,000 Jews in Spain.  Now there are 30,000 in a population of 47 million.  That’s one Jew for every 1500 Spaniards.

Moses Hassan says “I don’t see why I should leave.  But I don’t see why I should stay.”

I started with the words of Eric Idle, but I’ll conclude more seriously with the words of Don Isaac Abravanel – statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, financier – born in Lisbon in 1437, fled to Toledo in 1483, wrote his greatest works there and also tried to bribe the Spanish monarchy to save the Jewish community.  Ultimately he fled along with his community, days after the Expulsion Edict of 1492.  

Abravanel wrote “From the rising of the sun to its setting, from north to south, there never was such a chosen people (as the Jews of Spain) in beauty and pleasantness, and afterwards, there will never be another such people.  God was with them, the children of Judea and Jerusalem, many and strong. . . a quiet and trusting people, a people filled with the blessing of God with no end to its treasure.”

We went to Spain in search of a trace of this remarkable people.  We found little evidence remaining.  Yet the evidence is with us every day.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Spain 11C -- Closing Program

Tonight, Wednesday July 13
We closed our joyful journey with an evening of Flamenco (by guest artists!!!!)

Followed by an Am Yisrael Chai celebration featuring

Mimi Haselkorn, Itzhak Zherebker, Matt Klein, Fredda Mendelson, Zach Mondrow, Eliot Vogel, Table Ben-Yehudah, Ofer Barnoy, David Lipp and Aaron Bensoussan....most of them accompanied by Alan Mason. Also Luis Cattan and Jonathan Schultz, percussion and Phil Barron, guitar.

And finally a Shirah B'tzibur program led by concert participants.

Photos! and Videos! at

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B3icryBtLHRPa0lkWFJKaFlFc2c

Jack Chomsky
CantorJC@aol.com

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jews and Spain -- A Final Preliminary View

Now that I am on the plane back toward the U.S. and have reviewed my blogposts, getting ready for publication those that haven't yet been offered up, and had a little sleep, I begin to try to make sense of this experience.  

Speaking with someone else who was on the tour, I heard that some people "really liked it and some people didn't" -- and among those who were disappointed, the feeling was that the trip "wasn't Jewish enough."

There are some Jewish people (presumably not too many who aren't) who only travel to see Jewish things in the world, and who might be disinclined to visit places where there isn't a Jewish narrative.  I know that I myself have more interest in the Jewish sites and perspectives than some of the people I sometimes travel with.  It's a fine balance -- to look deeper for the unique Jewish corners around the world and its culture and history -- and not to miss the fact that the world isn't ONLY about Jews and our history.

Yet of course the raison de voyage of this Cantors Assembly Mission was JEWISH Spain.  

Personally, I think I'm probably a little -- or a lot -- more open to the lacunae in this story than many others -- or than I might have previously been -- having spent 4 months in Asia during my recent sabbatical.  Many of us Jews obsess over "what do they think of us?" and "what do they think of Israel?" It was a bit mind-bending to spend time in places (Vietnam and India mostly, and also Japan) where they simply DON'T think about us.  This was something I feel like I have almost never imagined -- at least not during the last 30 years. Being the only Jews that people had ever met or are likely to meet within the next 10 or 20 years gave us an opportunity to consider "what would we LIKE them to know about us or Israel?  What's necessary?  What doesn't matter?" etc.

So a trip to "Jewish Vietnam" or "Jewish India" or "Jewish Japan" would be a fool's errand, a con, except for places where there really IS Jewish history.  There ARE places in India and Japan especially that have significant stories in times ancient (India) or modern (Japan).

Spain, though, gives us a different kind of challenge.  There is a profound, rich, joyful Jewish history in most of the places that we visited, but it's a history that is long gone, and has, until recently, had no one to preserve or collect it -- and, except by finding remnants of it elsewhere -- no one to recall it.  

When we visit Germany or Russia or other Eastern European countries, or even Turkey, Salonica, Morocco, Italy and others, the fragrance remains one way or another.  Ironically, of course, the story of the Jews of Turkey, Salonica, Morocco, Yemen and others is largely the continuation of the Spain story -- but with different host cultures -- and usually an outcome of a later re-expulsion to Israel or elsewhere.  

For most of the people in my corner of the Jewish world, the stories of Germany and Eastern Europe are familiar and deeply personal.  Their music and literature and language are much closer to my music and literature and language.  

I felt that, traveling with my cantorial colleagues -- especially a cadre of Spanish-speaking hazzanim, most of whom are from Ashkenazic tradition (which isn't as on point as people actually "dripping" in Sephardic tradition) would help us connect emotionally to what we would see in Spain.  I would love to have attracted more people to our trip -- but so many people have already been to Spain and "seen the Jewish thing" in Spain.  I really believed that they would be moved more deeply to travel in the company of my talented colleagues.

And I think that we really delivered beautifully.  High points were the joyful concerts that included a large number of songs in Ladino, pieces that sprang from the culture that was here -- or the culture that developed when it was expelled and grew elsewhere.  And it seemed like Aaron Bensoussan, a member of the Cantors Assembly who DOES exemplify the Moroccan tradition that emerged after Spanish expulsion, served as the sun that shone on multiple events.  Aaron is an amazing force of joy and commitment to this tradition, though his fascination with Ashkenazic hazzanut (despite having come from a distinguished tradition of Sephardic Moroccan hazzanut) provides a complicated composite kind of singing that doesn't necessarily exemplify anything about what was here -- but does say huge things about how culture develops and moves forward, sideways, upward and more.

It was nice to have two lecturers -- an increase of 100% -- over previous missions (though there are times some might seem to have preferred zero lecturers -- a 100% DECREASE! Still, the learning and background are among the key elements distinguishing our missions).  Professor Stephen Berk always has cogent and understandable and straightforward takes on what happened here and how we got here.  Professor Eliezer Papo was a little harder to fathom.  I suspect that he's much clearer in Hebrew.  I found that I often didn't know whether he had said A or the OPPOSITE of A...And as he sought to speak about Sephardic culture (as opposed to history), it might have been easier to connect with more direct demonstrations of what he was talking about -- perhaps with some of the "talent" on our trip.

But the challenge remained: there's a huge gap here.  We Jews haven't been here -- almost at all -- for 500 years.  And as Moses Hassan, our guest lecturer in Seville, someone who really does have a successful Jewish life history (his father was prominent in Seville's "Jewish community" and so is he -- he speaks Hebrew and is raising a Jewish child) put it:  "Do I think that there is a future here? Do I want to make a future here?"  There isn't -- at least not yet -- a population to build a future.  And Spain's future (unlike, for example, Germany's) isn't at all tied to the idea that it will matter if Jews are welcomed back and choose to come back.  And yet the Spanish government has been making efforts to identify descendants of those expelled so many years ago.  Do they really want them to come back? Do they want them to build a Jewish life here?  Or is it just something that looks good in the international framework of nations?  Too early to say.  Nobody, I think, thought that Jews were going to return to Germany by the thousands -- tens of thousands -- it was unimaginable. 

If Jews do end up starting to return here, will they rebuild any element of Sephardic Golden Age culture?  It seems unlikely -- and remember that today's Jews in Germany have an almost complete disconnect to what happened before the Holocaust.  It's a new population that has found a remarkable place to live in tremendous freedom -- and Europe's best economy -- attracting Jews from Israel, the U.S. and everywhere and also serving as a welcome basket to Russia's Jews, who knew nothing about being Jews anymore but certainly have taken advantage of moving to a new place that teems with freedom and opportunity.

So in terms of the future of Jewish Spain. . . If the economy improves, anything could happen.  Whether that will make it easier to explore the Jewish culture of 500+ years ago is another matter.

Traveling in a group of over 350 presents significant logistical challenges (nightmares?). In my view, the Ayelet folks did great, great work: The people on this trip were likely to be, on the average, somewhat wealthy and spoiled, impatient with having to wait for OTHERS but completely intolerant of not having events held up for their own particular needs or tardiness. At the same time, they had signed up for something extraordinary and kind of pricy, and could certainly be forgiven high expectations.

Could we have delved more deeply into the real Jewish history that has evaporated here...meeting Ramban/Nachmanides in Gerona, etc.? There's the challenge--hard to do for such a big group, but difficult to deliver special things for a small group. I can't quite get out of my mind the possibility of Simon Spiro dressed as Nachmanides, telling us his life story in prose, poetry, song and dance. And perhaps that lays out the difficulty--that almost everything that happened here morphed into other things and places. That what STARTED here either disappeared or was built into something else somewhere else at a different time.

Which brings me to another conclusion I made on a previous visit to lost Jewish worlds: After our Germany Mission, I went on a Rhine River Cruise with my family. It was on those visits to onetime medieval Jewish addresses (as opposed to 18th to 20th century and Holocaust sites) that it occurred to me that although the Jews suffered terribly in being abused, murdered and driven out, it was really the "host culture" that deprived itself of things that would have made it better.

What if the Jews hadn't been expelled from Spain? How much better off would Spain be today?! True, our culture is always enhanced by exposure to and distillation of host cultures when given the opportunity and when we take the opportunity, and the influences of the European and North African nations to which the Jews of Sefarad were exiled are an important part of what Sephardic culture is today. But time after time, when given the opportunity, Jews are a tremendously positive influence on host cultures.

Perhaps the world will figure that out, and some day we'll be able to organize "Jewish Heritage Tours" celebrating the history  and culture of the Jews of the Arab World....how they were exiled from Spain but continued to develop their culture in these new countries, but were expelled again from 1948 (or earlier) forward, but were eventually welcomed back, etc. etc. IMPOSSIBLE to imagine. But...who could have imagined what would ultimately become of the Jews after the destruction of the Temples, and after the expulsion from Spain?!

We are still here to tell the story. We are still here to sing the songs. We are still here to live Jewish life according to the understanding of Joseph Caro, of Rambam, of Ramban.

For those of you who came with us to Poland and/or to Germany and/or to Spain, I hope that you were half as inspired as me by our ability to move forward beyond heartbreaking life and death historical challenges.

And I hope next time we say "we've got a mission" coming, you'll sign up and pack your bags!

God bless the visionary Nate Lam. And the tireless chairs Jetemy Lipton, Steve Stein and Alberto Mizrahi. And thanks to the dozens of colleagues who participated, organized, prepared and inspired, and to the hundreds who braved the hot Spanish summer to MAKE SOME HISTORY!