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Year of the Earth Pig

Today marks the beginning of the twelfth of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar. In the continuous sexagenary cycle of sixty years, this is the start of the year of the Earth Pig. In the Chinese Mythology these 12 animals correspond to the 12 animals that won the Great Race. See this video:

The pig came in dead last due to its sloth. It seems that pigs get a bad rap from many cultures.

In Judaism the pig is the symbol of hypocrisy. As the midrash goes, the pig pretends to be a kosher animal. The pig sticks out its split hooves when it is resting, as if to advertise its being kosher, while internally it does not chew its cud (Bereishit Rabbah 65:1).

In a Jewish context it is also interesting to reflect that the pig is the end of the Chinese Zodiac cycle. In Hassidut we learn, “Why is the pig called [in Hebrew] chazir? Because in the future, God will return [le-hachazir] it to Israel” ( Likkutei Sichot 29:128). In the end in the messianic era the internal physiology of the pig will change so that indeed it chews its cud. ( Ohr ha-Chaim on Leviticus 11:7)  In so doing the pig will have the have both kosher signs.

To me it makes sense to take a pause on today the Chinese New Years to think about how each of us might work on being less hypocritical in our lives. What can each of us do to ensure that our insides match our outsides? In so doing I have no doubt that we will be starting a new beginning and hastening the messianic era. Happy New Year.

Bonus Question: If Jews flock to Chinese restaurants on the Gregorian New Year, do Americans head to Jewish delicatessens on the Chinese New Year?

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“PAINTING OVER” BARRIERS TO JEWISH CAMP

As a person committed to social justice and accessibility, I often think about the ways in which we can be more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal professional my work tends to focus on what we can do as a Jewish community to live up to these ideals. I recently had a profound and unexpected moment of reflection, however, in a seemingly unlikely place: the parking lot of a Target. I came across the following image, and was so struck by it that I had to stop and take a picture.

This image shows a new icon signifying that the parking spot is reserved for people with disabilities, painted over an older version of the same icon. Though there are only slight differences between the two images, I found the changes – and what they signify about people with disabilities – worthy of reflection.

The older image is the current International Symbol of Access, depicting a stick figure sitting passively in a wheel chair. The new image – from the *Accessible Icon Project – also portrays a stick figure in a wheel chair, but so much more as well. We see that the figure’s head is forward, to indicate the forward motion of the person through space. The arm angle is pointing backward to suggest the dynamic mobility of a chair user. Depicting the body in motion indicates that the figure is navigating the world. Even the wheels look like they are moving.

Quite simply: the first image shows us a person sitting in a wheelchair. The second image shows us someone living their life, while using the wheelchair as a tool. The person in the second image has places to go and people to see. The wheelchair (signifying disability) is an important part of the image, but it doesn’t define it – or the human figure in it. The fact that the new image is painted over the old makes it even more powerful – it almost looks as if the figure is actively breaking free from the old image of passivity, refusing to be bound by the preconceived notions of others.

Judaism teaches us that we are all equal regardless of background, faith, gender identity, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, or level of ability. Each of us needs to play an active role in treating each other with dignity, compassion, and love. We know this. It is a cornerstone of our Jewish identity. And yet, when it comes to Jewish people with disabilities, are we doing enough to provide equal access to Jewish communal life? Despite our best intentions, are we sometimes guilty of viewing Jewish people with disabilities as passively adjacent to – but not active members of – our communities? If so, how can we “paint over” this older way of thinking to create more accessible communities in which we can meaningfully engage more Jewish people with disabilities?

In reflecting on these questions, I came to the following question which seems to contain them all: What is my responsibility to my fellow Jew? The Gemara in Sanhedrin has an answer, claiming “Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b) To prove this the Gemara cites Leviticus:

They will stumble, each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

I cannot read this without thinking of all of the times that we “stumble” as a community because we are not being “guarantors” of one another by ensuring that Jewish people with disabilities are active participants in Jewish communal life. It is only when we recognize that we all are active divine agents in our community that we can move forward without stumbling, strengthened by everyone’s innate value.

At Foundation for Jewish Camp, we take accessibility and inclusion seriously. The experience of attending Jewish camp is an important milestone for so many young Jewish people, and I’m proud of our consistent efforts to increase accessibility for Jewish campers and staff with disabilities. So many Jewish camps are doing incredible work around inclusivity. And with the recent creation of the Yashar Initiative (generously funded by a $12 million grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation), we’ll be able to partner with day and overnight camps to further increase accessibility for campers and staff with disabilities, as well as provide essential trainings for staff. We hope this support will significantly increase the number of campers and staff with disabilities who are able to participate in Jewish camp.

We know there’s still much work to be done regarding inclusion at Jewish camp, and we refuse to be passive. We will not stumble. We are committed to actively moving forward, breaking free from the status quo, and doing our part to create a more welcoming and accessible Jewish camp experience. I invite all Jewish communal professionals and institutions to join us in “painting over” any barriers to Jewish communal life. Let’s actively work together to create a more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant Jewish world, Zeh B’Zeh.

*Check out the 99% Invisible Podcast for more information on this topic.

-cross posted with FJC’s Blog

The Hard Work and Luck of Our Expedition: Today in History

Norwegian Roald Amundsen, born in Borge, near Oslo, in 1872, was one of the great figures in polar exploration. In 1897, he was first mate on a Belgian expedition that was the first ever to winter in the Antarctic. In 1903, he guided the 47-ton sloop Gjöa through the Northwest Passage and around the Canadian coast, the first navigator to accomplish the treacherous journey. Amundsen planned to be the first man to the North Pole, and he was about to embark in 1909 when he learned that the American Robert Peary had achieved the feat.

Image result for roald amundsen

Amundsen completed his preparations and in June 1910 sailed instead for Antarctica, where the English explorer Robert F. Scott was also headed with the aim of reaching the South Pole. In early 1911, Amundsen sailed his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off–Amundsen using sleigh dogs, and Scott employing Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, 107 years ago today, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the Pole and returned safely to base camp in late January.

Scott’s expedition was less fortunate. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back as Scott and four companions continued on foot. On January 18, 1912, they reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by over a month. Weather on the return journey was exceptionally bad–two members perished–and a storm later trapped Scott and the other two survivors in their tent only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott’s frozen body was found later that year.

What made Amundsen succeed and Scott fail has been the subject of much analysis. I learned about them in Jim Collins’ Great By Choice. Collins points out the importance of the 20 Mile March. No matter what happened Amundsen and his team would always aim to do 20 miles every day, no more and no less. In comparison Scott and his team would not go certain days if the conditions were too tough and go too far if the conditions were good. Amundsen’s rigor and discipline ensured his success.

I think a lot about the Amundsen’s rigor and discipline when I think about our collective resilience throughout Jewish history. What has helped this small tribe of people survive let alone thrive against the harsh terrain of hardship, conquest and plagues of history?

There are surly many answers but for me one of them comes this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Yosef confront his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Yosef, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.
It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling.
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” ( Genesis 45:4-7)

Yosef could have been stuck being in isolation or in anger of his brothers who sold him into slavery. Instead he decided to see it as God’s plan for him. He was “supposed to be in Egypt” in order to save them. That is a nice explanation for their behavior, but not his. Yosef worked really hard every day in Egypt to get to his position. My parents used to tell me all the time when I was young, ” The Harder you work, the luckier you get.” The Jewish people, like Amundsen, have had to work pretty hard throughout our expedition through history and we are pretty lucky.

-borrowed from Today in History 

 

From Lavan to Kristallnacht to Pittsburgh: A History of White Supremacy

Today is Kristallnacht which commemorates a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed. On one hand it is crazy to realize that is has been 80 years since this happened. In the larger context it is strange to realize that it has only been 80 years and it seems that this day finds it natural home in our collective Jewish calendar already riddled with antisemitism. It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to Antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative?

For me the most interesting example of this happens during Passover. Every year on the Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  Long before Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan who wanted to kill us all.

Given that today is Kristallnacht and the events in Pittsburgh two weeks ago where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue I have grown curious at the long history of Antisemitism. That search brought me back to Chaye Sara, last week’s Torah portion. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ranWhy did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance Lavan is Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface this does not seem so horrible. This is not remotely at the level of many of the other Antisemites from our history.

And than I got to thinking about the meaning of his name.  Lavan means white. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

Image result for Jews will not replace us

Recently my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are white just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi these Whites Supremacists and Lavan are both in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and the Rabbis’ reading of Lavan might argue that their hatred and violence is legitimate or even virtuous. We see from it origins White Supremacy is just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

Looking for a Place to Rest: A Meditation in Response to the Pittsburgh Shooting

As a Rabbi, a Jewish professional, and a father, this past week has been difficult both personally and professionally.  After a long and intense week, I am ready for a peaceful Shabbat at home. Or at least I thought I was, until a colleague asked me how I was going to talk about the events of  last Shabbat with my children. Shabbat has always been a meaningful practice for connecting as a family and with the Jewish people. Last Shabbat, however, during what should have been a peaceful celebration of the creation of the world, 11 members of the larger Jewish family were taken from us, and their worlds violently destroyed. My colleague’s inquiry raised questions in me: Will Shabbat ever feel the same for our family, and for the larger Jewish community? In the wake of what has happened, how do we find comfort in Shabbat this week and in the future? I suspect other people share the same concerns.

I realized that I needed to go back to the foundation and think about all of the aspects of what has made Shabbat meaningful to me. One idea that has comforted me this week has been singing the chorus to Yom Shabbaton, which is one of my favorite Shabbat Zemirot– songs. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075 – 1141), this poem describes the complete rest and peace of Shabbat. As we sing in the chorus:

Yonah matz’ah vo manoach v’sham yanuchu y’giei choach.

The dove does find her rest, and there rest those whose strength is spent

On one level, the dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove. Seven days after the dove was first sent from the ark to check if the flood was gone, it found rest on the dry land (Genesis 8:12). Hidden in the chaos of a world that is destructive and painful far too often, the Shabbat is a small island poking out from the vast sea of chaos. While the world still needs to be rebuilt, this small perch for the dove is the first glimmer of hope. In seeing how many Americans of every creed and color have shown up to support the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, I find hope – a safe place to land and rest before we begin the work to rebuild our broken world.  

We can also interpret the  chorus as a reference to the Jewish people, who are often symbolized by the dove. Throughout time, we have been forced to move from place to place due to cruelty, oppression,and violence at the hands of others. Like the dove, we desperately seek a place to rest. While America has always been a relatively safe haven for the Jewish people, the events of Pittsburgh this past Shabbat force us to recognize that the long history of anti-Semitism – and its existence in contemporary America – is far from over.

Throughout history, gathering to observe Shabbat has been a revolutionary act, a public affirmation of our ideals of peace, life, and community in the face of oppressors who’d deny us all three. It may seem contradictory, but in creating a weekly space to find rest despite the events in the world around us, we actively reject anti-Semitism and bigotry. By gathering together to observe Shabbat, we connect to the shared cultural history in which Jews have observed Shabbat throughout challenging and difficult times, and physically reaffirm our commitment to Jewish values.    

“Birds in Flight”, photo of stone cut from my parents’ home

In both interpretations of the chorus, Shabbat manifests not only as a weekly time, but as a sacred space as well. Shabbat is not just an aspiration, but a destination. All I can do – and all any of us can do – is fill the space of Shabbat with love, peace, and hope for my nuclear family, my larger Jewish family, and the world. My plan for this Shabbat is to hug my children a little tighter, invite others to join us in this holy space, and share this song of hope with the world.

-cross-posted FJC blog

Siyum Mishna for James Joseph Orlow z”l

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  While Shloshim technically came to an end on Rosh HaShannah, over Sukkot we will mark 30 days since his passing. I wanted to thank all of the people around the world who joined in this noble cause of lifting up his neshama, soul, during this period of time. A full list of the people who joined in this learning project can be found here. Thank you, this effort means the world to me and my family.

During Shiva many people in their community remarked how they really got to know my parents at their Shabbat and Holiday table. While my mother gets all of the credit for inviting the people and cooking the food, my father sure enjoyed himself. While my father was a genius in his field of study, he never let his lack of knowledge hold him back from getting into a rich argument.  As part of this siyum of Mishna in his memory  I got to learn Perkei Avot with Yishama. There we learned:

 יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם

Yose ben Yoezer says, “May your house be a meeting-house for Sages, become dirty in the dust of their feet and drink their words thirstily.” (Avot 1:4)

In many regards this captured my father at his best at the head of the table filled with sages. Like his namesake Yaakov who wrestled with the angel, my father enjoyed getting dirty in the dust of their feet ( Genesis 32:25). While he was always thirsty to learn more, like Yaakov he never this these guest get away so easily. At these salons everyone had a voice and everyone needed to defend their point of view. My father always taught us to be curious and confident. We should learn from everyone and know that each of us had a seat and a voice at the table.

Orlow Family Passover Seder mid 1980’s

Thank you again to all those who joined in this Siyum Mishna in the memory of Yaakov Yosef ben Avraham v’Leah.

May the memory of James Joseph Orlow z”l be for a blessing.

Sukkot Gets Real

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case. My father did not especially connect with these holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way. He did not grow up with much Jewish ritual in his life. At the same time, he was a deeply spiritual person. He spent close to 60  years of his life immersed in the study and practice of law, but I do not think he connected to the idea of a court on high in which we would be judged. Almost his entire career and life was committed to immigrants to this country, but in many ways in the place of the synagogue he himself was an alien.

While my dad was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands. When it comes to my mourning process, there is a big part of me that is expecting the shoe to drop on Sukkot. Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva regarding the nature of a Sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the Sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The Sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that when they entered into a Sukkah in their own era that they were actually sitting in the imagined reference point? Either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. Does this symbol represent a metaphor to the Divine presence or does it represent something akin to what we were using in the desert?

Clearly these two Rabbis would eat in each other’s Sukkot, so what are they disagreeing about? At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality (real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)? The Sukkah is a tangible and real structure formed by human hands. And at the same time it is it a spiritual space that connects us to God. The Sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in a physical and historic way, while simultaneously offering  a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.

While at first glance I think that my father might agree with Rabbi Akiva, I truly believe that he connected to Rabbi Eliezer as well. He found  deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. While, the Sukkah is immersive metaphor we get to really enter our national and religious memories, it is also the place we build to hold family memories. 

I’m reminded of the many ways in which camp is like a Sukkah, an  immersive metaphor we get to really enter. Camp is a community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located. Like a Sukkah, camp is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness all year-long. Additionally, while a Sukkah is an enclosed dwelling made up of four walls to keep us safe, we are supposed to cover it with branches to ensure that we can still see the stars above. Camp also functions this way: while it takes place in a specific space and time and is safe and secure, the lessons we learn and the friends we make transcend these limitations, providing a light that shines through the year – and for the rest of our lives. For many of us camp friends are really like family. 

For me I expect that my mourning will get real during Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is all at once a metaphor for the tangible, mystical, and familial. 

James Joseph Orlow z’l and Libi Frydman Orlow his 14th grandchild

 


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