Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blog Post from Vietnam – 11/26/15 – Happy Thanksgiving-ish

I just read what I wrote in my initial sabbatical blog-post from a week ago – and realize that it was all about journeys and arrival – and, although I’ve posted a bunch of photos and even videos from the last week on Facebook, I haven’t blogged that stuff in yet.

So. . .

It’s now Thursday afternoon – It’s been “Thanksgiving” here “all day” – even as at home it’s the WEE hours of the morning and nobody’s UP for Thanksgiving yet.  This business of being 12 hours ahead takes some getting used to.  It seems like more than 12 hours ahead – because I live most of every day before “you” even start it!  To wish people a “live” Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll have to wait until like 9 o’clock tonight – at which point my day is pretty much cooked.  (Especially since our schedule has us getting up at 5:30 a.m. on “working days.”)

As previously noted, we volunteered through Greenheart International – and they have placed us locally with CSDS – a Vietnamese NGO.  Their website says  CSDS is addressing development issues in Vietnam with particular focuses on climate change for environment protection, women empowerment through sustainable livelihood support, children support through social inclusion, youth development through international exchange and non-formal education. Geographically, CSDS is now active in different regions in Vietnam: Ha Noi and surrounding provinces in north Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City in south.

On a simpler level, CSDS is an organization run by our hosts, Don Tuan Phuong and his wife, Nguyen Thi Kim Que – or Phuong and Que (pronounced Kway).  We are staying in their home along with 7 others at the moment.  A larger group of volunteers (and contract employees) is staying at the office – about a 5 minute walk away.  All the others are young people – ages 18 to 29.  Which is a lot younger than us, isn’t it?!  And almost all of them are from places other than the U.S. – Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Spain, Holland to name a few. 

Our placement is teaching English in a nearby (20-minute walk) high school – Nguyen Tat Thanh High School.  As it turns out, Nguyen Tat Thanh is the name given to Ho Chi Minh by his father when he was 10 years old (a Confucian custom).  It means Nguyen the Accomplished.  The high school is part of a university – and is a selective school.  It has students from grade 6 through 12.  Each class seems to be about 45 students.  It doesn’t FEEL like it’s that many students – but when you add it up – well, that’s probably what it is. 

Each class we’ve visited basically breaks into 4 sections – with 3 students per desk.   The photo below shows about half of a classroom.  I took it before a class was taking place – on the day we first visited the school prior to beginning our teaching.

The students are SO enthusiastic and excited to see (people like) us – in part because English is a relief from the pressure of other competitive academic subjects – a time for them to blow off some steam – but also because they really seem to relish the exposure to outsiders.

We are stepping into an interesting seam in Vietnamese culture and learning – not unique to Vietnam, but typical of many non-English speaking countries:  Because of the internet and television and so much pop culture available around the world, the students really are exposed to more English than their teachers have been.  This can also account in part for their enthusiasm – as they place great value (I think) in building their facility in English and becoming successful in the modern world.

Most classes have been studying about Celebrations in their recent English classes – so we used the opportunity to teach about Thanksgiving.  Actually, it was really an on-the-fly situation: We had been told that we were going to be observing classes the first 2 days – and that we wouldn’t be seeing quite a few of the classes because of exams.  Imagine our surprise when, on the 2nd day, when we walked into the first class, the teacher said “I have a meeting to attend” – or was it some papers to grade? – and left us there on our own.  To compound the situation, we hadn’t known what time we were starting that day until 4 a.m.  The m’nahelet (as we call her – principal in Hebrew) had promised us to send us a schedule that night.  She DID actually send it around 12:30 or 1 a.m. – but it didn’t come to our attention (Susan saved the day) until 4 a.m.

We had been PLANNING a lesson about the Jewish Festival of Chanukah (very timely, and something about which they certainly know nothing) – but that was some days away from readiness.  In my sleepishness between 4 and 6 a.m. that morning (not expecting us to actually have to teach yet), I came up with an idea to teach the kids the old Thanksgiving song “Over the River and Through the Woods” (a lame enough song, admitted) with the bonus of having the kids (not realizing it) do a Madlib so that they would write a way more fun version of the song.  So when the teacher disappeared, we were (tenks God) ready for action. 

So thanks to that quick thinking, the students that morning got to sing:
Over the sea and through Thailand
To uncle's house we punch.
The pig knows the way to kick the bus
Through red and crazy snow.

Over the sea and through Thailand
Oh, how the chair does run
It jumps the brain and eats the hand
As over the underpants we shoot.

And as we went from class to class to class to class, we were able to share with them not only their own creation, but what some of the others had “crafted.”

I’m not really sure how we got through that first class or two.  After that, we turned the game into a bit of a more coherent lesson plan.

We introduced ourselves in each class explaining that we’re from Ohio – and teaching them to respond I-O to our O-H – and this will (theoretically in any case) serve as an attention-getting and quiet-inducing (after shouting the I-O) device during our tenure here.  I am certain that, by the middle of next week, students will see us anywhere in the school and give us a hearty “O-H.”  (By the way, GO BUCKS!)

We included pictures of people (including our daughter) forming O-H-I-O’s around the world, and concluded most of the later classroom visits (as we hadn’t initially developed this) with a video of TBDBITL (if you don’t know what that is, Google it) doing script Ohio (though that does give it away,  doesn’t it)?  We also showed 2 or 3 times Steve Martin doing his Grandmother’s Song – which is kind of a spin on having fun with a simple childlike song – a little mad-lib-ish in its own way.  This was pretty unsuccessful the first time when I wasn’t able to hook it in to the sound system in the classroom.  But when I WAS able to do so in subsequent classrooms, they got the jokes and enjoyed it.

To give you an idea of how sweet these kids are, here’s a photo of a drawing one of the girls did in one of our first classes – and of her presenting it to us.

So we’re settling in to a routine – Monday through Thursday morning classes (up to 3 of them) and Monday through Wednesday afternoon classes (up to 3 of them) – teaching a wide range of grades and levels of English.

It’s up at 5:30 a.m., out at 7:30 a.m., first class at 8:10 a.m.  Before and between classes, we’re very likely to spend a few minutes in the Teachers’ Lounges at the school.  The school comprises 4 floors, and there’s a lounge on the 2nd floor and on the 3rd floor – just a modest size room (about half the size of a classroom) with chairs around the table, hot tea almost always available and presented, after various teachers motion to us to sit.  A few teachers speak English – or some English.  One older gentleman teacher tries to speak French with me each day.

The classes are 45 minutes – with a 5 or 10 minute break in between.  The beginning and end of class is signaled by someone banging on a large drum – perhaps Susan’s favorite part of the school.

After our morning classes, we walk across the street to a different world – the Indochina Shopping Plaza Hanoi -- -- where Susan was already known by name the 2nd day we visited.  We usually spend an hour to 90 minutes in the Starbucks, working on materials and tweaking lesson plans, using the free and good wiFi (the school’s wiFi, we’re told, isn’t effective).

The first day, we had a bite to eat at one of the small restaurants on the street alongside the university/high school.  The two days after that, we ate at a couple of the fancier restaurants in the mall.  Truthfully, the tiny restaurant was excellent and so inexpensive – and we’ll probably eat there more often, negotiating things we can eat based on a tiny but growing food vocabulary.  But the second two days, weather and scheduling had us in the “fancy places” where it cost us something along the lines of $10 for our combined lunch (as opposed to under $2 the first day). 

Technology that is transforming the way people get around the world and live in the world:
1)      Google Translate.  Using Google Translate we are able to say “this is what I eat.  This is what I don’t eat” in Vietnamese (usually by typing it in English).  They can type in the answer in Vietnamese and then we can auto-translate it.  Sometimes we can speak these things in – and in another 2 or 3 years, I’m guessing that will all happen seamlessly.  But STILL – what a HUUUUGE advance in understanding and being understood. 
2)      Similarly, when we’re looking for household goods – take a picture and show it to the person in the local “shuk” (again, our own Hebrew word for something here in Vietnam), and they’ll find it or tell us where to find it.  This worked like magic for a little coffee maker – a covered soap dish etc.
3)      Uber – This is our big tip to all you world travelers.  We struggled with it a bit back this summer when we were in Europe but didn’t have data on our phones.  Once you’ve made the switch to using a local SIM card (as we have done in Israel and are now doing here and will do in India), you don’t have to fret about using up the tiny amount of data you have in your contract.  AND, with Uber, you don’t need to speak the language of the driver or negotiate with them.  Your credit card info is already safely in the system, you dial up your desired destination, you know exactly who your driver is and vice versa, you get picked up, off you go, and when you arrive, you really HAVE arrived.

I have wondered in recent years how many marriages might have been saved by GPS.  Where we once argued with our spouses, fuming over their seeming inability to read a map, recognize a turn, etc., we can now proceed without a care in the world: If you miss your turn, your GPS lady (unless you’ve used a man’s voice option) patiently redirects you.

These 3 examples above are the next steps of technology hugely benefiting our peace of mind halfway around the globe. 

And of course Viber, Skype, Google+. . . these are huge additions beyond e-mail.  How fortunate we are to live in such times, and who knows what’s around the corner?!

Well that’s pretty much it for now. . . Here are some photos and captions. . .

Before we even started teaching at the school, it was Teacher Appreciation Day!  We received gifts and a catered dinner with wine -- entertainment, too!

Our visit to the Ethnographic Museum involved our first bus ride.

We thought WE stuck out in this town.  Check out the group of German tourists!

Entrance to the Ethnographic Museum.  Vietnam is extremely diverse -- once you get past the 86% who are Kinh (Viet).

Water Puppet Theatre -- A Special Unique Vietnamese Entertainment.
This was sort of a road show presentation at the Ethnographic Museum (see below).

A burial tomb of one of the indigenous tribes (bodies not present).
Unusual images of what these folks do and look like in the afterlife.

Well, I couldn't resist this juxtaposition -- 2 additional memorial places -- one tribal (on the left) -- one local and recent (I think) on the right.  Below. . . very nearby. . . NOT a sacred memorial.


This and next two photos -- One of Hanoi's most famous sites -- The Temple of Learning 

This and next photo -- Hoan Kiem Lake

Picking up from Day Care.  There are SOOOOOO many motorbikes in use in Hanoi -- and bikes and cars and more all sharing the same roads.  Almost nobody gets over 30 km/hr.  Nobody wears seat belts -- and driving your kid around like this is normal and common.

The entryway to the home in which we're living.

A farewell/Thanksgiving dinner tonight with most of the other volunteers/interns. The hands raised indicate who's leaving this week.  Numbers will be way down until about January 6.  And you can see how well we fit in -- age, hair color, nation of origin.  (There was one other American there -- Thanksgiving-wise.)

Que -- our Hanoi "mom" (standing)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sabbatical Post 1 – Arriving in Hanoi

We left Columbus Monday evening November 16.

As I write this blog, it’s Wednesday night, November 18 in Hanoi – a good exercise to try to stay up past 9 p.m.

We arrived in Hanoi about 11:30 a.m. this morning – which of course was 11:30 p.m. back in Columbus – after a Columbus to Chicago flight. . . and a Chicago to Seoul flight. . . and a Seoul to Hanoi flight.

Landing in Chicago:

Landing in Chicago

It was an endless night:  we left Chicago at midnight central time and flew for something like 14 hours – and it was still nighttime when we arrived in Seoul – 4 a.m. local time.  But it was now Wednesday morning.  What happened to Tuesday?  The sun never rose on Tuesday.  Our north to west route took us backwards in time and forwards in time (over the International Date Line) simultaneously.  Or something.

The plane was the same type that I recently took to and from Israel.  It seemed roomier.  Was it just because it wasn’t full. . . and we actually had THREE seats for the two of us?

The 3 of us? No trip would be complete without a rubber chicken.
A story I'll tell you later.  Maybe.

Or was it laid out a little bigger?  It seemed like even without the extra seat that my “personal space” was bigger.  I’m good at sleeping sitting up – in part because I’m SUPPOSED to sleep that way with my “wedge pillow” to ward off reflux.  When I sleep on flights like this, I don’t even recline my seat: I’m more comfortable just sitting straight up.  My wife prefers to lie down – and with the 2 people in 3 seats layout, it worked out nicely for both of us.  Truth is, that nighttime flight back from Israel is typically one of my “best nights of sleep” of the year – so this was “even better” because it was a longer flight.

Endless night.  As we arrive in Asia, daytime has spread across the U.S.
But we haven't seen ANY daytime throughout our trip.
As transit passengers in Seoul, we enjoyed the excellent facilities of Incheon Airport—places to lie down, get a free shower, reconnect with the world on WiFi etc.

Incheon Airport in Seoul -- A pretty fabulour place!

Transzzzzzzzzzit Lounge

Susan even managed to participate in an “authentic Korean Culture” program – painting a key ring that we’ll use for the key to the home we’re staying in in Hanoi.

Susan Gellman -- in South Korea for less than 5 hours --

Our flight to Hanoi arrived shortly before 11:30 a.m., but it took well over an hour to clear customs and immigration, completing the confusing Visa process.  We came with photos for our Vietnam visa and letters indicating what we were going to be doing here.  I’m not sure why this couldn’t be done in advance, but we went through this process with dozens of other travelers, finally getting the opportunity to pay $45 cash American each and getting a pretty Vietnam Visa page added to our passports.

I remembered to hit the ATM before leaving the airport.  A longstanding family tradition calls local currency Sigourbeys.  I’m not sure of the spelling on that – but it goes back to Gellman Family Vacations of a full generation.  The first such vacation was when Susan was pregnant with Ben – who will be 30 next March.  We took a family trip to Brazil – Ed and Rosalie Gellman (Susan’s parents) and David (Susan’s brother) and Susan and me.  Permanent snapshot recollections from that first family journey: 1) Susan floating on her back, 7 months pregnant with Ben(jy), observed from our 17th story (or so) hotel room in her ladybug pattern swimsuit. . . 2) a dinner with Gellman family cousins in Sao Paolo where we expected exotic Brazilian cuisine, only to find that these elderly Jews overcooked Eastern European Jewish food just like Ed’s family. . . . 3) “Nobody told me it was the RAINY season” – a quote by a stranger named Morty, the quintessential irritating American tourist. . . and 4) “Que Pasa” – what another hotel patron said to David when he opened his hotel room at 4 in the morning because the drunk guy was trying to get in the wrong room. . . and oh yes, there was the video I secretly made of the “South American Bowl” – examining whether water really drained in the other direction in the Southern Hemisphere.  This was back in the day of big, shoulder-held video cameras, and my little production (filmed on January 1) was a surprise to everyone when we viewed the video after our return.

Anyway. . . Sigourbeys here are called Dong.  So of course Susan calls them Ding Dongs.  And the way it shakes out, we were instant millionaires.  I had read that 21,000 dong equal one dollar.  Adjusting that to 20,000 dong, that means that 1000 dong equals a nickel.  So you can understand why I simply withdrew THREE MILLION DONG at the airport ATM – and was able to hand my wife A MILLION DING DONGS before we even left in the taxi for where we’ll be in Hanoi.  As it turns out, the exchange right is even slightly stronger, dollar wise – at the moment 22,465 dong to a dollar.  Or a dong equals 0.000045 dollars.

The taxi they arranged for us took about 30 minutes to arrive in the neighborhood of Mai Dich—about 9 km from Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter – to our east.  The airport (I can see now) is 25 km to our north.  Google Maps says 42 minutes – but we did it in more like 30 minutes – not going very fast, and maneuvering around typical Hanoi traffic.  It seemed like our driver short-honked at every vehicle we passed – and that many drivers like driving between lanes.  And as you get near the city you get into the coexistence of cars and motorbikes.  Quite a lively scene.

The program in which we’ll be involved (through the Greenheart organization) is administered locally by CSDS – Center for Sustainable Development Studies – a Vietnamese NGO.  We’re staying in the home of the Nguyens, who work in two different parts of the program.  We seem to have expelled their children, Kid and Nim (13-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl) from their room – at least temporarily.  There are 7 young people staying upstairs, and others nearby at the building where the office is located. 

Our first errands were to get SIM cards for our phones so that we can function easily here in terms of phone and internet, and buy some towels.  What an incredible revolution that is—going to a country halfway around the world, opening your smartphone, inserting a different SIM card, and connecting to local telephone and worldwide internet (and for a fraction here of the cost in the U.S. and (probably) Europe).  It was an easy transaction – except for the fact that, had we not been accompanied by another employee of CSDS, we wouldn’t possibly have been able to work out our needs and the variations in what we were purchasing with the merchant who spoke no English. 

In the nearby market (but it seems like all of urban Vietnam is a market), we looked at, haggled slightly, and purchased 4 very colorful towels.  Hung showed us the office where we’ll be reporting tomorrow – and we stopped for a cup of Vietnamese coffee – before returning to our new home, having dinner around 6 p.m. and then trying to stay up so that we won’t be waking in the middle of the night.

Seen where we bought the towels.  A taste of home?
So I may be boring YOU. . . but I’m keeping myself awake!

I’ve spent much of the last 6 weeks preparing to LEAVE Columbus – trying to put things in order so that Tifereth Israel will function pretty well in my absence.  Pretty well – we wouldn’t want it to function TOO well now, right?! 

I really did almost no preparation until the trip over – reading a small book at Vietnamese culture and habits, looking over the pertinent sections of Fodor’s.

So here we are. . . having said a lot but having done nothing.

Good Night (from) Vietnam

Jack Chomsky

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Traveling to Israel at a Hard Time

Here I am (hineini) in Newark Airport, awaiting my flight to Israel later this afternoon.

It could hardly be a worse time to visit Israel, or at least one might think so.

The last week or more have been highlighted by attacks each day in Jerusalem and around the country—mostly individual Arabs wielding knives against individual Israelis.

Naturally, Facebook has lit up with testimonies about “now you see what we’re up against”, replete with videos of some horrible attacks, as well as some of the rhetoric that encourages them.

My trip is in conjunction with the upcoming World Zionist Congress, being held next week at Binyanei Haumah – the main convention center in the heart of Jerusalem.  I am an alternate in the Mercaz delegation.  (Mercaz is the Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement.)

Since I’m merely an alternate, I didn’t work too hard to prepare for the trip, although I suspect I may have worked as hard as other average participants – especially having sat on my flight from Columbus looking through the entire slate of proposals to be considered at the Congress.

I know a fair amount about what to expect:  I attended the previous World Zionist Congress about 5 years ago – also as an alternate.  In that case, I was going to be the NEXT President of the Cantors Assembly – which is why I was included.  In this case, I’m one past being Immediate Past President.  Last time, my colleague David Propis got to be the voting member (he was the incumbent President).  This time, it’s Alberto Mizrahi (the current President).

Last time was the first time that SHAS was included in the Congress – and it’s not such a clear thing how that worked out, how it WILL work out.

It was fascinating – sometimes inspiring, sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening – to read the resolutions that are to be presented by various factions from left to right.

Since I’m not at the heart of the Mercaz faction, I don’t know what are the prospects for the resolutions – and maybe they don’t either.  We will meet on Sunday evening and begin our preparations for the meetings, and I’ll know much more based on Sunday evening and Monday.  The Congress convenes for the full delegation on Tuesday.

Here’s the thing I want YOU to think about – to recognize – to remember – to celebrate – to share.  Zionism is a fantastic thing.  This has gotten lost in the reality of trying to deal with a complicated world, a  world which still contains way too much anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Here’s what we all should keep in mind:  “The Declaration of Independence [of Israel] states that the State will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the Prophets of Israel; will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture, and will safeguard the Holy Places of all religion.” [from the Resolutions to be presented to the Congress].
How much the State of Israel has succeeded in accomplishing those goals is stunning, miraculous, and worth celebrating.  How far it has fallen short requires us to redouble our efforts to bring this model of saving our people while lifting up our neighbors “up to spec.”

Unfortunately, the loudest voices proclaiming Israel’s righteousness do so with little regard for the imperfections and challenges it faces, and try to shout out the many nasty things said to and about Israel, losing credibility in terms of what Israel does and can stand for.

Simultaneously, there are huge splits within the Jewish communities in Israel and around the world, and many who seek to deny rights to others in their own community.

The breadth of the Jewish world might be summarized in two consecutive resolutions: 

In the Resolutions regarding “A Free People In Our Land” (which is a line from “Hatikvah,” Israel’s anthem), there are, side by side, resolutions from Arzenu, the International Federation of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists) regarding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and from Members of the Ohavei Zion Faction, World Sephardic Zionist Organization, regarding The Settlement Enterprise.

The Reform/Progressive resolution notes that “the conflict can be traced back to events long before the establishment of the Jewish State,” that the conflict “has been marked by competing and conflicting interpretations of nhistorical facts,” and that “there are outstanding examples as to how some nations have successfully dealt with such internal conflicts.”  It calls for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made up of equal numbers of Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations, appointed by the President of Israel.  Its tasks will include “listening to each other’s narratives,” “recommending measres to the Government that would include means to facilitate the public admission of past injustices that both communities have visited upon the other,” and recommending a process for each side “to accept painful compromises necessary for the sake of living together in peace.”

I think this is a beautiful idea, and we certainly need to foster more conversations – not waiting for the “perfect day” to resolve issues between Israelis and Palestinians.  That perfect day will never arrive – but we can bend justice toward it – and challenge our adversaries to do the same.

The very next resolution decries the government having declared “a construction freeze in Jerusalem, a decision which has been detrimental to the awareness of our right to the Land of Israel.” 
The Resolution calls for the government to “annul the construction freeze immediately and increase construction in all parts of Eretz Yisrael, to continue building in all Jerusalem neighborhoods. . . and to increase the Settlement Division’s budget.”

People like me believe that the government’s acquiescence or insistence (is Netanyahu pushed to do this? Or is it something that he just APPEARS to be pushed to do?) is making a peaceful resolution to this ancient and modern conflict more and more difficult – perhaps impossible.

But I will not allow the bullying of those who think that it “all belongs to us” – just as the Palestinians are justifiably criticized for their maps showing no Israel – to kill the dream – to build a just, Jewish democratic nation and maintain and nurture the rights of others.

Experience has suggested that I’m in the left edge of my Mercaz faction.  The crucial thing is to continue this conversation, to continue this battle.  But it is imperative that we recognize how far short we are of living out the vision of the Declaration of Independence – and how we will fall further and further from it if we don’t engage in this mental, spiritual, emotional – and sometimes physical – battle every day.

As to what’s happening in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and elsewhere – it’s quite a nightmare.  How will these events affect the Congress?  Do the Resolutions I’ve read today have any bearing on the present and future?  Or are we just walking around planning our own lives while ignoring the lives, being in denial about the lives around us and intertwined with us?

I will write more about that later.

For now, I want to invite you to hope, to pray, to work toward the reality envisioned by Herzl and those who founded the State of Israel in 1948.  Im tirtzu, ein zu aggadah.  If you WILL IT/WANT IT it’s not just a dream, just a story.  But WILL, we have seen, isn’t enough.  It comes with hard work, and a demand for almost infinite patience. 

You may want to defend the government of the State of Israel.  You may not.  But I call on you to engage in not giving up on the dream – and being the biggest part you can be of the Dream Team.

Monday, July 20, 2015

After my recent experience as a "rookie" at the Hartman Institute, I had a chance to give a sermon about some aspects of it. .  . Here's the sermon I gave last Shabbat:

Sermon—July 18, 2015
Tzedek Umishpat
Justice and Righteousness
Cantor Jack Chomsky

From June 30 to July 9, I was privileged to be part of the Hartman Institute Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar – Justice and Righteousness—Personal Ethics and National Aspirations – held in Jerusalem.

I had heard about the annual rabbinic study seminar at the Hartman Institute from many rabbinic and a few cantorial colleagues—always in glowing complimentary fashion.  So I was pleased when the schedule for this year provided an opportunity for me to dive in.

For most of 10 days, I spent over 12 hours a day in study and fellowship with about 175 colleagues from across the U.S., plus a few from Canada, New Zealand and South America.  It was a reunion of sorts for many of them – and for me, too.  I reconnected with people I remember from my days in cantorial school when they were studying to be rabbis, and with prominent rabbis of the Conservative and Reform Movements.  And I met and studied with people active in new corners of Orthodoxy—including the first woman to be recognized as a Rabbah in the Orthodox world. 

What a treat to roll up our sleeves in chevrusa study—sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups of 3 to 6, to encounter a stunning variety of texts meticulously prepared for us—to hear from a wide variety of scholars—movers and shakers in Israeli and American society—and to challenge ourselves with the question of how to turn learning into doing—for ourselves and for those we serve.

It will take me a long time to unpack the texts and ideas I encountered over those 10 days.  This morning, I’d like to explore one corner with you—a corner that turns out to be extremely timely.

Melila Hellsner-Eshed’s presentation was entitled “Saving the World from the Flames of Justice.”  Dr. Hellsner-Eshed is a professor of Jewish mysticism and Zohar at the Hebrew University, and for two decades has been a central figure in the Israeli renaissance of Jewish textual study, not just in the religious world, but also the secular.

The key question we must face is – what is the proper balance between righteousness and judgement?

Although it’s often impossible to confine one ancient Hebrew word to one modern English word definition, we can mostly be fairly safe in saying that
Tzedek can be understood as Righteousness
And Mishpat can be understood to be judgement

Tzedek uMishpat m’chon kisecha – Righteousness and judgement are the foundation of God’s throne—and therefore the foundation of the world that we want to perfect in God’s image.

What images do you associate with these words
Scales? . . A fist?. . . A blindfolded lady?

Mishpat – Judgement
A judge?  A courtroom?

Sometimes these values can seem opposed.

A classic example from the Talmud:
Mishna Gittin 5:5 says. . .
Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgodah testified. . . in the case of a beam that has been stolen and the thief went and built it into a large building or palace, its owner can only claim its value in money. 

On this same issue, the Gemara tells us that Shammai ruled that the thief must demolish the whole building and restore the beam to its owner.  Hillel, though, said that the owner can claim only the money value of the beam, so as not to place obstacles in the way of penitents.

Shammai – “I want my beam back.  Until I get it back, there will be no justice.  I don’t care what you have to knock down to do it.”
Hillel --  “If we want a world where people will come to justice, we need to have money damages.  We need to have a way to move FORWARD and not just keep knocking things down.”

As Dr. Hellner-Eshed put it – the whole world that we know is based on stolen beams.

This isn’t a denunciation of the government here or in Israel—or anywhere.  It’s the basic human condition.  We understand that NOTHING really belongs to us.  It belonged to someone else first—or didn’t.  It all belongs to God. 

There are two passages from the world of the Zohar that may be particularly helpful in getting us past the kind of oppositional justice that is too much a part of today’s world.

First --  Two Rungs: Mishpat and Tzedek – from Zohar Vol. III 85b (Parashat K’doshim)
Rabbi Yose said “You shall not do wrong b’mishpat – in judging.
You shall not favor the poor and you shall not defer to the rich:
B’tzedek tishpot – In righteousness you shall judge your fellow.
“Come and see: there are two rungs here: mishpat (justice) and tzedek (righteousness).  What is the difference between them? Well, one is Compassion and one is Judgment, turning each other fragrantly firm.  When righteousness is aroused, it renders judgment to all equally, for it contains no compassion or leniency.  And when justice is aroused, it contains compassion.  You might think that there is justice entirely—but Scripture comes and says b’tzedek tishpot—in righteousness shall you judge.  Why?  Because righteousness does not punish one and forgive the other; rather all of them equally, evenly balanced.”
If Compassion conducted the world alone, evil would go unpunished; while if strict Judgment operated alone, humanity would not survive.

So where does that leave us?  This is a very complex passage, worthy of an hour of study that we’re not going to do this morning.  But there was one concept that came up in this discussion that is completely innovative.  Did you hear it? 
What is the difference between them?  The qualities of compassion and judgment – when properly balanced, turn each other FRAGRANTLY FIRM.

Seeking the FRAGRANCE of justice.  If it’s on fire, it might not be the long-term solution!

The other passage from the world of Zohar is not from the Zohar itself, but another writing by its probable author Rabbi Moshe Di Leon.

This passage quite literally brings light to the subject.

In his Sha’arei Tzedek (Gates of Righteousness), he wrote, regarding Proverbs 20:27 which says “The human soul is the candle of God.”…

“The essence of faith and the root of the holy intention for a human in this world is to serve the Creator, to repair one’s soul (l’taken et nafsho), to be enlightened with the light of the living.”

Instead of tinkering with things, which is probably the way we usually think of tikun olam, he writes, “The secret of faith and the root of intention is that a person in this world be a foundation and seat upon which may rest the Throne on high.  The person is the WICK, and the mitzvot and good deeds are the OIL to prepare the wick . . . so that the radiant light will shine on us so that we will be illumined before the Creator.  The essence of the mitzvot and good deeds that a person does in this world is to prepare the soul and to repair great and good matters above and draw forth upon us the abundant light from above. “

What beautiful imagery!  Leaning upward toward justice.  Instead of beating down on someone to create justice.

I’m sure that justice is very much on your mind.  You’re a Jew.  We obsess about it.  Thank God.  What is justice in South Carolina?  What is justice in who can marry whom?  What is justice in dealing with Iran and nuclear weapons?  I know that you’re hearing a lot of noise and some wisdom about these things.

Let’s try to lean upward, too—and to be sensitive to the FRAGRANCE of justice.

We Jews have sought to make a more just world—from the time of the Torah, to the times of the Rabbis of the Talmud, through 2000 years of exile from our promised land, and in most of the “justice” revolutions of the modern world.

In our own lifetime, we know well the words “If I had hammer. . . If I had a bell. . . If I had a song to sing.”  Too often today, people try to hammer each OTHER with that hammer of justice.

Dr. Hellner-Eshed really raises a crucial point with the title of her presentation. . . Saving the World from the Flames of Justice.  We are in danger of burning things down with the heat we use to pursue justice.

Or as put magnificently by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

Hamakom Bo Anu Tzodkim—The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right (shebo anu tzodkim)
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves (sfakot v’-ahavot)
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

This tells us that we must seek to create the fragrance of justice in places where everything has been swept away – and where nothing is YET growing.

This is the story of our people—whether in the aftermath of the Holocaust—whether in the aftermath of the destruction that we are preparing to remember as Tisha B’Av comes next weekend—or in the swept away places in our own lives.

May we find the strength, the patience, and the wisdom, to lean upward and help to create the fragrance of that kind of balanced justice in our lives, in our community, in our world, in our time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

             Some Thoughts the Day after Shavuot

   One of the nice things I’ve heard in recent years is when a young adult or their parent tells me about their going to synagogue somewhere else, enjoying it okay, but really missing me—because my voice is such an important part of their sense of what synagogue and Jewish life are and should be—or at least have been.  A lovely thing for a cantor to contemplate, and something I understand in terms of hearing the voices of my cantors—Leo Roitman, cantor of my youth at Little Neck Jewish Center, and Ivan Perlman, cantor of my discovery of Jewish life, music and the cantorate at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island.

                I thought of that sentiment on Monday morning this week as I led services for the 2nd Day of Shavuot.  I recently passed my 60th birthday, and I’m a great deal more aware now of the idea that my voice won’t be ringing in the Sanctuary of Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio forever—that in 10 years I will hopefully still be healthy and happy – but by that time the Cantor Emeritus, a voice still heard, but perhaps only occasionally.

                The bittersweet moment leaned toward the bitter when I thought about how, at that moment, I thought I was making great, worthwhile and even memorable sounds, but that so few were on hand to share them.  I’ve been doing this for over 30 years.  I’m thrilled to find that I’m very strong physically and vocally—more than I might have expected.  When I studied voice in college, my standard for an “old voice” was Dr. David Laurent, head of the music department at Brown.  I remember that Jon Mills, who was the only person I had ever met from Columbus, Ohio, referred to him as “the belly.”  This sounds disrespectful and mean-spirited now, but seemed affectionate then.  Laurent was a distinguished bass-baritone, and I remember how his voice seemed a deep grey-green to me.  (Living in the Google age, I can pause for a moment’s research and learn that Laurent was a member of the class of 1949 at Brown.  His last full-length recital was conducted in 1987, some ten years after my graduation.  He was a past president of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.  He WON A GRAND PRIX DU DISQUE for a recording of the St. John Passion (albeit in the 1950s).)  Doing the math, it seems that Laurent was probably 49 years old when we gave him the nickname.  The idea that I am still singing strong at age 60 is a surprise to the 27-year-old I was when I arrived in Columbus—not so much to the 50+ year-old I became later. 

                In any case, I felt, this past Monday morning, that it was more worthwhile for someone to daven with me than perhaps at any previous time in my career—the combination of increased knowledge and intimacy with the texts and nusach, along with essentially undiminished vocal capacity.  And I was kind of sad that there were so few present to share in it.

                On Festival mornings, the hazzan (cantor) begins at Ha-el—a paragraph sooner than Shochein Ad, where he/she begins on Shabbat.  And that moment the text has a special melody unique to the Shalosh Regalim—the Three Festivals (if one can say that it’s unique when it appears in each of the ten Festival Days on the liturgical calendar).  On this particular morning, it seemed like more than just singing the right notes.  It seemed like someone who would ordinarily hear me on a Shabbat morning would really experience a sense of the altered holiness of the Festival Day.  But of course, that’s part of the problem right there: most of the hundred or so (we like to think it’s 150, and sometimes it is and sometimes it’s more) who come on Shabbat aren’t present for Shochein Ad. 

                The whole flow of liturgy from where the hazzan begins is a liturgical, musical and linguistic procession that benefits from familiarity. 

                A friend once observed that she was having difficulty connecting spiritually with services despite her fairly regular attendance.  My response was that she ought to come earlier—that the whole experience really fits together better if you’re there from the beginning –or near the beginning. 

                I don’t think that I’ve ever been forgiven for that response—but the response wasn’t YOU should come earlier (or shouldn’t have been), but rather that the experience is deepened and makes much more sense if it begins earlier.

                In explaining to people what we do in services—daily and on Shabbat—I have reduced the experience to “four words that are three words”: ME YOU US US.  ME refers to Birkot Hashachar.  YOU refers to P’sukei D’zimrah.  These sections actually occur prior to when the cantor begins, but they are critical to the depth of the spiritual experience.  Birkot Hashachar expresses 1st-person thankfulness for starting our day with the amazing faculties we have as humans and as Jews.  This sense of elation is only increased with P’sukei D’zimrah, the series of poetry—especially many psalms and the Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea) that remind us, coursing through our mind and body as we recite them—of God’s greatness. 

                Equipped with excitement and energy about our personal thankfulness and God’s greatness, we then arrive at the main business of our prayers: Sh’ma and Amidah.  Sh’ma is the first US—that you and I, God, have a relationship.  I proclaim Your oneness and my loyalty to You.  And I express my hope or belief that there will be reward for the good that I bring to the world.  The Amidah is the second US—the one that says that I have such a deep relationship with the Creator that I step into God’s office for a conversation about what’s on my mind.  On weekdays, this involves 19 blessings about every corner of my daily concern.  On Shabbat (and Festivals), we keep it to 7 blessings—as the middle 13 blessings fold down into one that declare the holiness of the day—recognizing that God’s office is closed for business on Shabbat and Yom Tov except for the joyful business of celebrating Shabbat and Yom Tov.

                All of this ME YOU US US happens by about 9:55 a.m. on a typical Shabbat.  Which means that someone arriving at 10:15 a.m. is party to a completely different experience.  Not a bad experience, but one lacking a foundation of deep spiritual joy. 

                So there I was, davening Shacharit on the 2nd Day of Shavuot, experiencing and sharing the sameness of the procession through the liturgy alongside its differentness.  Same because the words are so consistent.  Different because of the tension between Yom Tov and Shabbat.  Or between this time, last time and next time.  Each time is different.  I think that those who are with us at 9 a.m. or 9:15 a.m. can tell you that.  I could stop and explain it to you, but that’s not how we roll.

                On the two days of Shavuot, we did Full Hallel—as contrasted with the “Half Hallel” we do most of the time.  Each of these days had a strong musical personality distinct from the other.   On the 1st Day, we prayed in the Chapel.  This meant that anything that the congregation did in consonance or in harmony with me was felt with way above average immediacy.  I chose tunes and tempos that were appropriate to that situation—and it was a super-charged Hallel.  (Thanks, Aaron Rosenfeld, for noticing that.  And Rosa Stolz, for enabling it—being a full partner in it.)  On the 2nd Day, we were in the Sanctuary—and on the road toward Yizkor (Memorial Service)—as well as the inclusion of a chapter from the Book of Ruth.  These things affect the choices that I make.  I don’t need to stop and explain.  But I hope that you understand the thought and feeling that’s going into this.

                So, as I start to recognize that my voice will be but a memory sooner than later—or at least soner than used to be the case—I start to think about who will remember?  What will they remember?  Will they remember hearing me? What my voice sounded like?  How I helped them find their way into the liturgy through my singing as well as by my teaching?  Or will they just remember that they know that I sang, even though they weren’t there?  Or even though they weren’t there yet?

                Looking back, I remember that Cantor Roitman, my childhood cantor, loved leading our services.  He always seemed to have a beatific smile when he led our prayers, one which drew us (or me, at least) toward him, and perhaps heavenward.  I had no idea what lay at the foundation of what he was doing.  That word, nusach, that refers to the traditions of prayers, modes and melodies, which I have devoted my life to nurturing, preserving and teaching?  I never heard that word until my work in college or afterward with Cantor Perlman.  And I’m upset to know that many people in our congregation don’t know or understand it either.  That although I can be tiresome about preserving and nurturing our musical and liturgical traditions, I’m apparently nowhere near tiresome enough!  I had one irreverent class of 6th graders who used to sing “Tropes Man, Tropes Man, Trope! Trope!” every time I walked in to teach them the tropes for chanting haftarah.  I think (Googling again) this referred to a 1981 hit called “The Stroke.”  In any case, I don’t think that enough people comment as I come or go “there’s Nusach Man”.

                The point of all of this is not “listen to me.”  The point is that I want to remind you again and again and again that there is a benefit to investing the time and effort to learn and recite the prayers.  To grow intimate with the words and melodies.  But it’s not a simple thing.  You’re not likely to get it by experiencing it two or three times.  Like all deep things, it requires a real investment.  I want to invite you to make that investment.  I feel that I can promise you an almost limitless return on your investment.  We live in a world in which 2% annually is considered pretty fantastic, although we also expect immediate gratification in almost every corner of our life. 

                I can pretty much promise you that you won’t get immediate gratification.  But I think that 500% might be a low estimate for the eventual outcome.

                Thanks for listening.  Please consider listening some more.  And singing along at every opportunity.

                To “amplify,” I’ll be adding some words soon about the prayer recited just before I begin each Shabbat or Festival day – Nishmat Kol Chai.  But I’ll let you come at that text fresh!