Sunday, December 31, 2006

Into the New Year

When I commemorate the Jewish New Year I'm usually in a place of looking inward, seeing how I have conducted my life in this world, working on aspects of my person and how I affect others. Celebrating the secular New Year brings me to a place of looking outward, seeing how what happens in this world affects my life--in my past, present, and wondering about the future.

So many aspects of the world around me are in a holding pattern right now. There is so much unrest on the planet--Iraq, Somalia, much of the Middle East--with seemingly no end to the violence. In the US we are waiting to see what the shift in political power will bring while preparing for the big change in the presidency coming in two years. With the housing market what it is, I don't know what San Francisco will look like a couple of years from now. And as I mentioned when I restarted this blog in August, Beth Sholom--a community that is a center of my spiritual practice--is rebuilding its facility, so we are a community without a home for this coming year.

I am also in a holding pattern in my life. I have career decisions to make this year--not necessarily final decisions, but choices of paths to follow. This coming year also represents a certain aspect of survival for me. It is 5 years since my experience with cancer treatment--a good milestone to reach. But I can no longer wear the cloak of immortality that is part of youth. At 52 I am beginning to feel the effects of the aging process, and need to come to peace with that. Rabbi Irwin Wiener, a friend of my parents, sent me a piece he wrote on aging. In it he said, "The maturing years seem to contain the entire past but with a new understanding of our fallibility." In the years ahead, I hope to find a good relationship with that understanding.

To all who come by to read this, I wish you a Happy New Year filled with whatever understanding you need to continue on your path in life. And a hearty Yasher Koach* for making it this far!

*a Hebrew congratulatory phrase meaning, almost literally, May the force be with you.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Take me out to the Israel??

I'm somewhat uncomfortable with this story about of the scouting of players for the newly formed Israeli Baseball League. The new league "is welcoming Jews and gentiles alike in hopes of exporting America's pastime to Israel and turning the violence-torn Jewish state - a country with only one full-size diamond - into the next great baseball power."

Why? The operations director, Martin Berger-a Miami lawyer-has an answer "Baseball, to us, is the great American game and there's so many Americans in Israel and there's so many great supporters of Israel in America. It's just a logical thing to do."

Logical to Mr. Berger and who else? This just seems nonsensical to me. Let's break down his reasoning. Baseball is a great American game. There are Americans in Israel. There are Americans who support Israel. How does that add up to starting a professional baseball league in Israel?

I'm a huge baseball fan. The existence and survival of Israel is very important to me. But in no way do the two connect. And then there's the bit about their hopes to compete in the 2009 World Baseball Classic using Jewish major and minor league players. Now, if those players are Israeli or their parents are Israeli or they choose to be Israeli, that's fine. But just to allow the players on the team because they are Jewish does not sit well with me. Should the Vatican field a team made up of Catholic players?

I just don't get it. If someone reading this can bring a different perspective, please comment. If you're interested in following the league, the season will open June 24 with six teams--the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, Netanya Tigers, Petach Tikva Pioneers, Jerusalem/Gezer Lions, Haifa/Nahariva Stingrays, and Tel Aviv Lightening.

I'm wondering how they are going to share that one field.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Lost in the Shuffle

There are three stories out of the barrage of holiday "news" the media assulted us with this past week that I think deserve our attention. All three are sports related with ties to life in our times.

The first illuminates the horror of the war in Iraq. The Iraqi Olympic cycling coach was kidnapped from his home and killed. I read about this in a small blurb in my local paper, you can read the AP dispatch on There you will find a list of other victims from the Iraqi sports community. "We lost another one," says Hussain al-Amidi, "He is not a politician and has no link with any party. It looks like no one is excluded from the violence."

I heard the next story on NPR last Wednesday, December 20. It was then that I first learned of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. This Hall of Fame, located on the campus of Boise State University in Idaho, inducts "individuals who are world-class in athletic ability, role models in their community, and have a strong record of humanitarian efforts." We need more stories about athletes "who represent all that is good in sport." I've written before about how players can suffer detrimental effects of their sport to both body and soul (see "The Hard Reality of Sports" and "It's not just steroids. . ."). But how can we teach kids the positive attributes of sports when players like San Diego Chargers' Shawne Merriman get caught using steroids and still get rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl?

Then there is the full spectrum of fan behavior. You might remember the 2002 disputes over ownership of two Barry Bonds' record-setting home run balls--one his 73rd homer of the year, the other the 600th of his career. Both cases were all about greed. But on Monday--Christmas Day--my friend Peter sent me a link to an LA Times story that renewed my faith in sports' fans.

Jim Governale found a recording of Vince Scully's on-air call of the final inning of the Dodger's 5-0 victory over the Mets on June 30, 1962--the only known surviving account of the first Sandy Koufax's four no-hitters. The recording was made by Governale's uncle Dave Fantz when he was 14 years old. So what did Jim Governale do with his precious find? He cleaned up the audio as much as he could, burned it to CD, and, ignoring the advice of his friends, gave it to the Dodger organization. "I just wanted to do what was right by the Dodgers and Vin Scully and Sandy Koufax," he said. "It would mean more to me to honor the two of them by just doing the right thing, rather than just to sell out. To me, it seemed like a way of cheapening the recording and cheapening the find if I were to sell it." Now that's a lesson for our time. Thank you, Mr. Governale.

Monday, December 25, 2006

It's a Holy Day . . .

. . . it's just not my holy day.

There is something different in the air on Christmas eve into Christmas morning. The hustle and bustle of the universe comes to a stop. It's the one time of the year when the majority of the world experiences Shabbat.

We complain-and rightly so-about the commercialization of the season, yet we also have to recognize that in these hours of night into morning alot of people are gathering to pray for peace.

I will not treat this day as if it was nothing special. Although it is not in my tradition, this is a sacred day to so many in the world. Homage is paid not just to one person or one religion, but to the promise of a world of peace.

כן יהי רצון Ken y'hi ratzon - May it be so.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Final Lighting

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah. We've followed the ancient tradition of bringing light into the darkest time. The Solstice is behind us and we will now have more light in our days.

For many years I've seen this commemoration as a celebration of liberation. There's the joke about Jewish holidays that sums them all up as "they tried to destroy us, we're still here, let's eat." But this year it was the "light into darkness" theme that resonated with me. I felt the light in the visual sense both through my own eyes and the wide eyes of children as they lit their candles with great care. I felt the light in the spiritual sense, bringing comfort to a soul in grief. I felt the light in a traditional sense, knowing that the ritual of the candles linked me with all those of my tribe--past, present, and future.

As the light of all the candles burn brightly for the last time this Hanukkah 5767, I send you a greeting that is more associated with another practice--yoga--but is appropriate for this moment.

NAMASTE - I honor the light within you

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Winter arrives

In the Jewish calendar, a solilunar calendar, Chanukah always begins on the 25th of Kislev. The celebration stays in the fall/winter season but it travels around the days a bit. Last year, Chanukah started the night of Christmas and ran into January. Some years Chanukah starts during Thanksgiving weekend. Contained in the 8 days this year is the Winter Solstice.

Chanukah this year also marked the start of winter weather in San Francisco. While today's rain wasn't the first of the season, it was the first in conjunction with the colder temperatures which arrived on the weekend. Yes, twenty years in San Francisco has made me a "weather wimp." Snow is no longer the harbinger of winter--having to wear socks all the time now marks the season. I guess you could say our climate here is more in keeping with the holiday--of all the things the Maccabees had to deal with, snow and sleet was not among them.

But for many of you it is that time when the chill is in the air, so warm yourself with the laughter that I know will accompany your viewing of this video. Yes, it's silly, but you've got to give them credit, it is fun to watch. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reading the Text

As I mentioned on the first night, I decided to read the Books of the Maccabees this year. I'm someone who likes text study, and was curious to really see the basis for the story of Hannukkah.

At this point, I've made it through 12 of the 16 chapters of Book One and I'm about done. The part of the story that pertains to the holiday is told in the first 4 chapters. The rest is just bloody warfare. I think I'll skip to Book Two, which is a second retelling of the story. The introduction to the book in my translation calls the second version "more emotional, more rhetorical, more stilted, and more obviously propagandistic." I'll see.....

There are a couple of things I read in Book One that caught my mind. Mattathias, patriarch of the Maccabee clan, slaughtered a Jew who was offering false sacrifice as well as an official who was forcing his people to make the sacrifices. "Thus he showed his zeal for the Law, just as Phineas did to Zimri." (Book One 2:36) The Phineas (which I transliterate as Pinchas) story of bloodletting in the Torah is one of those I struggle with each year.

When Judah Maccabeus was gathering his troops, "he ordered those who were building houses or planting vineyards or betrothed to women or were afraid, every one of them to return home, as the Law provided." (3:56) That put a smile on my face because I knew what he was doing and why. (See Deut 20:5-9)

When the Temple was reclaimed, the altar was so desecrated that Judah and his clan didn't just clean it up they rebuilt it and all the utensils involved with that area. I've always had this image of the inner sections of the Temple being cleaned up, scrubbed--not totally rebuilt. For some reason, this makes a difference to me. It gives the story different symbolism, different meaning. It makes room for a different message. It's good drash material.

For all the stuff that's there that I didn't care to read, at least there is something I expected to find. There was an eight day celebration of the rededication of the altar. "And Judah and his brothers and all the congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the rededication of the altar should be observed at their season, every year, for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth of the moth of Chislev, with gladness and joy."(4:59) No candles, no light, but a yearly celebration was in place. There's the celebration that was merged with the ancient rituals to create Hannukkah.

The dreidel game was a European addition to the Hannukkah rituals--a popular 16th century Christmas game that infultrated into Jewish culture. But no matter, it's here to stay, so today's offering is a virtual dreidel game. Enjoy!!

Get your own Dreidel at ChaiSpace!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Light in a Time of Darkness

I won't say that the whole "Miracle of Lights" story of Chanukkah is a total myth, but it's origins are dubious. The First Book of the Maccabees mentions an eight day celebration, but no mention of one day's worth of oil lasting for eight days. It's the Rabbis of the Talmud who give us the candle lighting ritual. Many believe, as I do, that the roots of the ritual lay in the ancient times of our tribe--our light festival in the darkest time of the year.

This week I've experienced not just the visual light reaching out into the dark night, but how a community can shine a light of caring, breaking through darkness that envelopes a soul in grief.

Last Thursday I got a message from Jen'sList, a Yahoo! Group serving the Mission Minyan community, with a subject line "Minyan Needed." It was sent by a UCSF Medical Center chaplain who wrote, "one of my Jewish hospice patients died late last week. It was his wish and that of his family that there be a minyan present to say kaddish at his burial." I responded, saying that I would be able to attend.

The graveside service for Frank Isaac Strick took place yesterday-Monday, Dec 18-at 1:30 p.m. His sister Liz Eisenberg and her husband Roger--a cantor who performed the service--traveled from Baltimore, MD to be there. We just made 10, the minimum number needed in order for Liz to say Kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead. She spoke movingly about her older brother, both with love and with pain. There were long periods of estrangement from each other. She described a brilliant but troubled soul, always seeking, questioning.

Our presence supported Liz in her grief. There were three of us there from Beth Sholom-each of us getting there through different paths of outreach. None of us had ever met the Eisenbergs before, yet they are a part of our greater Jewish community. There was more support for her at our morning minyan today. A couple of us stayed afterwards sharing some time with them over cups of coffee. Although they came to San Francisco knowing no one, they were not alone.

We also received a gift. Roger led the davening this morning, which included Hallel and a Torah service all in celebration of Chanukkah. He not only has a rich, full voice but you can tell the prayers come from his soul. More light coming from within.

This time of Chanukkah is a commemoration of the rededication of the Great Temple, a rekindling of the light in our sacred center. Our community is the vessel that holds the light. As long as we can hold each other, that light is secure.

For more tales of light, click here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Wiki Hanukkah

One advantage of writing this Hanukkah series of posts is taking the time to search the web for all things Hannukah. And as I see what's there I need to decide which ones I would like to share and, in essence, promote.

For the most easily accessed and thorough information on Hanukkah with no frills, go to this Wikipedia page. Yes, you always have to realize that it's Wikipedia so you shouldn't take for granted that everything is correct. I didn't read it all, but what I saw looked good. There's something for everyone--history, ritual, customs, culture. In the great transliterated spelling debate they fall in the Hanukkah camp, but any spelling you put in the Wikipedia search engine will get you to the right page.

The last category in the table of contents is "External Links." Clicking on the "Hanukkah videos" link brought me to the Chanukah videos page of, what else, the Chabad site I wrote about on the second night.

For this fourth night's offering, I give you a link to "An Astronaut's Chanukah Adventure," one of the videos you will find on that page. (I don't have the technological knowledge to embed that on the blog so you'll have to follow the link.) When you watch the video, note the fancy "" opening graphic. Not surprisingly they have some of the best looking video I've seen on the web.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lots of Light

It's fitting that on the third night of Hannukah I was part of three candle lighting ceremonies.

First, I was there as we lit Hannukiahs at the Beth Sholom Hannukah celebration. We also had latkes and sofgoniyot. The Beth Sholom All Star Band played, there were games and crafts for the kids, and lots of dancing. A good time was had by all.

I then traveled downtown to the San Francisco Comedy College where my friend Kenny Altman was holding his birthday celebration. By day Kenny is an administrator at Parents Place, a support organization for parents run by the San Francisco Jewish Family and Children's Services. By night you can find him at various open mikes around the area, honing his skills as a stand-up comedian. For his birthday he MC'd an evening of comedy by some of his fellow students and, of course, treated us to his routines as well. The perfomances were bookended by candle lightings--first the Hannukah candles, then birthday candles on a wonderful pineapple upsidedown cake. Another happy event.

I then came home and lit my candles--a much more quiet ceremony that the preceding two, but no less meaningful. The more light we can bring in this dark time of year, the better.

For those of you who don't have a hannukiah handy, I offer this virtual one, courtesy of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. I know, it's not really the same as lighting the candles, but with the right intention it could work.

Tonight's main offering is this comic by Ben Baruch. You can find more of his work on his website, Shabot 6000. (If the print is too small to read, click here) Enjoy!!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Chabad Chanukah

There are just those times you've got to love Chabad. Anyone reading this who is at all interested in Chanukah needs to head over to That link will take you the Chabad Chanukah website. (For this post I'm using the הנוכה transliteration that is used by Chabad). It's got it all--history, ritual, teachings, games, recipes, video--anything you could want. Looking for a Chanukah event in your city? Go here. Did you know that there's a Chabad of Vietnam?

Here is one of the videos you will find there. I found it on Google Video, where it is described as "A documentary featuring puppets sharing their feelings about chanukah" It's smile-on-your-face, deep chuckle kind of funny. Enjoy.....

Friday, December 15, 2006

Happy Hanukkah, Chanukkah - however you spell it!

Tonight starts the holiday of Hanukkah--or Channukah or Hannukah or Chanuka--it's spelled so many different ways and everyone is convinced their spelling is the correct one. Of course, it's all a transliteration of the Hebrew הנוכה . For more of the hows and whys of the different spellings, go here to the post in the Balashon-Hebrew Language Detective blog or here to Andy Carvin's blogpost "Chanukah vs. Hanukkah Death Match: The Great Spelling Shift"

Because of it's proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah now occupies a more important place on the Jewish calendar than is really warranted. The ancient writings that tell the story of Hanukkah are not included in the final version Jewish bible. The First and Second Books of the Maccabees are part of the Apocrypha, the books that are found in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish Bible. I have never read the books of the Maccabees, but I plan to read them as part of my Hanukkah ritual this year.

Another part of my Hanukkah ritual this year involves this blog. Each night I will share with you some Hanukkah related item I find on the web. I am going to try to get something visual for each post--a video or cartoon--but at the least there will be some interesting and hopefully fun offering.

For the first night I've selected an animated piece, "My Menorah." For authenticity sake, I wish it was "My Hanukkiah" but then the song wouldn't work.

Enjoy, and Happy Hanukkah!!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Searching for a Rabbi

The process to find a new rabbi for my congregation, Beth Sholom, has just begun. Two years ago Rabbi Alan Lew, who had been there for 15 years, retired. (He is still a part of our community, serving as Rabbi Emeritus.) We did hire another rabbi, but the fit was not right so we are on the hunt again. I was on the sidelines during the last search but will be in the thick of it this time as a member of the search committee.

I will not be blogging much about the search, although I will be keeping a private journal. While we will be keeping our members as informed as we can, keeping many details of the search confidential is part of the role of it's members. It is a diverse group representing the different parts of our community--young families, long-time members, singles, the inter-married, the empty-nesters, young adults, gays, etc. I know most of the committee members and like them all.

This is a crucial time for Beth Sholom. The Jewish scene in San Francisco is in flux, with unaffiliated Jews as the majority of the demographic and many families leaving the city due to the high cost of housing. It is a hard time for the Conservative movement of Judaism, once a majority of Jews in America now struggling to hold it's own (for some obvious reasons, one of which I hit on here). And in the midst of all of this, we're homeless at the moment, with the construction of our new building underway but not due to be finished for another year.

I need to have faith in the Beth Sholom community, a group I consider my family. We will survive all of this but not without change. We're in transition right now and it's hard and at times, painful. Which makes the work of the committee all the more important. We need a strong spiritual leader who will help us keep our community vibrant. I hope we can find that person.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Missing my Makom Kavuah

Beth Sholom has been "in the wilderness" for almost six months. (Those of you who don't know what that means can click here). I don't want to get into the particulars of how it's going--it's not pretty--but I do want to note a realization I came to this past Shabbat.

I have not found a makom kavuoh at either Shabbat services at Ner Tamid or at daily minyan at the JCCSF. I am someone who embraces the concept of makom kavuoh, having a fixed place for prayer. In June 2005 I wrote about trial and tribulation of losing my minyan makom kavuah and staking out a new one. In that post, I acknowledge the realization that I will have to find a new makom kavuah when we are in the new building. I didn't take into account having to be in temporary spaces during the transition from old building to new.

I don't want to find a fixed space in a temporary place. Because it's not my home, I think it's good to remain flexible. But I need to be aware that not having that fixed space, even for a limited time, may be contributing to the difficulty I'm having adjusting to this time in synagogue limbo.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Golden Moment

This morning was like most other mornings--up early, got dressed and drove to the JCC for minyan. But when I got out of my car, the world was bathed in gold--it was truly amazing. The sky, the buildings, the ground--it was like a brush washed color over everything. Walking down the street, turning my head around in wonder, I saw a man in front of me in the same state--head circling, eyes wide, gazing at the scene around him. I walked past him, smiling, "Amazing, isn't it" He smiled back, "Yes, isn't it wonderful."

A blast of golden light in the sunrise of this dark time of year. The layer above that reflects the light towards the earth are the clouds of the coming storm. Reminders that there are blessings to be found in the shadows and the rain.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Big Tent????? Please, it's insulting......

So the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly has finally passed down their decision on the ordination of gays and lesbians in the Conservative movement. Going with the "two Jews, three opinions" theory, they adopted three different views. Quoting from the AP story on
"One upholds the prohibition against gay rabbis. Another, billed as a compromise, permits gay ordination while continuing to ban male sodomy. The third upholds the ban on gay sexual relationships in Jewish law and mentions the option for gays to undergo therapy aimed at changing their sexual orientation."
None of these work for me. The first, in my opinion, is just wrong. The second is fine up until "continuing to ban male sodomy." So, is male/female sodomy no longer banned? If male/female sodomy is also still banned, are you going to question heterosexual rabbinical candidates on their sex lives to insure this? And anyone who thinks that the third is an option should definitely read this letter from last week's Jewish Press.

Once again, the Conservative movement wimps out. I'm working on a post "My love/hate relationship with the Conservative movement" but right now, it's hard to feel the "love" part. The AP article on the decision mentions the Conservative movement's leaders mantra, the big tent theory, "allowing diverse practices by the movement's more than 1,000 rabbis and 750 North American synagogues." I have had that same theory thrown in my face during discussions on egalitarianism in the Conservative movement. There are still Conservative affiliated synagogues in this country that would not count me--a minyan going, tefillin wearing, Torah reading woman--as one of the 10 needed for a minyan, where they would count a Jewish man who took on none of those practices.

The big tent theory only works for the men who are making the decisions in the Conservative movement--they can go everywhere in the tent. But it is insulting to the gay, lesbian, and female members of the movement.

I belong to a Conservative affiliated synagogue that is completely egalitarian and supports the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. I will remain with my synagogue. But as of today, I no longer identify as a member of the Conservative movement. I need no labels or approvals from anyone to continue my strong Jewish practice--and think I'm better off without them.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Prayer for Rain

One of the things I love about Jewish practice is how it attunes us to the seasons and through that, the flow of life. Of course you have to realize that the seasons of record are those of the Middle East, but that works well for us Californians.....

Sukkot is the fall harvest festival and one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals--the other two being Pesach and Shavuot. At these times, all who could traveled to Jerusalem for the celebrations. On the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret--the last day of the festival, the service includes the Prayer for Rain, T'fillat Geshem. From that time until Pesach we add the line "Mashiv Haruah Umorid HaGashem" in the Amidah. It's a time we acknowledge that Adonai, the Transcendent, is the one who "causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall." It is, after all, the rainy season and if there is no rain then there will likely be no rain that year and the crops will be lost.

However, we don't add the request for rain that appears in the Amidah within the blessing for abundance until December 4th (December 5th in a Hebrew year divisible by four--for reasons too complicated for me to explain, you can read about it here).

After Shemini Azteret, it was time for the pilgrims to travel home. Although the rain is needed to start the growing cycle once again, it would be nice if it held off until most travelers were off the road. In the Mishna, it was Rabbi Gamliel's opinion that you wait "fifteen days after the festival [of Sukkot] so that the last Jew [returning home from the festival] could reach the River Euphrates". Outside of Israel, the request for rain is added to the Amidah 60 days after the fall holiday season, not 15. This is from the Talmud, where Rabbi Chananiah said, "In the Diaspora [we do not begin to pray] until the sixtieth day after the [Tishrei] cycle." His reason was that the need for rain is not yet urgent enough to officially request it. (I got the Mishna and Talmud info here at - open for your questions 24/6 :)

Whether it's to symbolize the safe return of the pilgrims or the waiting for urgent need, the time separation between the addition of the two very similar prayers reminds me that seasons are about process, not quick change. Our lives are a series of seasons. We don't change from one day to the next. But as we walk on a path, as we arrive at different points where needs are greater than before, we need to make the room to add the blessings that will give us the strengths that we need.

Friday, December 01, 2006

There's a reason for Google's success

We now take a brief blog time out to present this testimonial......

Little things in life make me happy. In this computer age, systems that work well--give me what I need and more--put a smile on my face.

I wanted to confirm the name of a specific type of beet for a recipe I'm sending out. I had no idea how the name was spelled, I only knew what I remembered of the name. I entered "chigia beets," my best transliteration of what I remembered, into Google search. The page I get asks, "Did you mean Chioggia Beets." And of course that's exactly what I meant. But I never would have gotten to that spelling without the help.

That's the kind of thing that was promised by the computer age and I have to say, those Google guys know how to deliver it.

We now return to our irregularly scheduled blog........