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entries tagged with: Yom Kippur


New Conservative machzor tries for accessibility, inspiration

This page of the new Lev Shalem machzor displays the traditional Al Chet list of sins juxtaposed with an alternative meditation on sins against the earth penned by Jewish Theological Seminary Dean Daniel Nevins.

This Rosh HaShanah, worshippers in Conservative congregations across North America will find themselves using a new machzor.

More than 150,000 copies of the High Holidays prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, have been pre-sold, representing orders from nearly 130 of some 650 affiliated congregations.

The strong interest might stem from “dissatisfaction with all previous machzors,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the committee that produced the prayer book.

Lev Shalem in one sense is a response to two oft-heard criticisms of the Conservative movement: that it is too elitist and too intellectual.

For starters, the entire Hebrew text is translated into English, and parts that might be said aloud are transliterated to allow those without Hebrew knowledge to participate in group call and response.

“It’s a great expression of the tremendous desire of the Conservative rabbinate to share the tradition we are so steeped in with people wherever they are, and not to wait for them to become scholars to appreciate it,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative body that produced the book.

For experienced worshippers who want a Hebrew text unencumbered by directions indicating where one should stand and sit, subtle signals like the icon of a bowing man offer what Conservative leaders hope will be a rich, free-flowing davening experience.

Commentary and exposition fills the right side of each double-page spread. The left side is for poems, meditations, and alternative readings.

Ten rabbis and cantors spent 12 years putting together the machzor, meeting twice a month for more than a decade.

Each of 10 regular contributors took one or two assignments, and the entire group read and commented on one another’s work. Kelman wrote the commentaries for the evening and morning Sh’ma and its blessings, for example, while Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre outside Philadelphia wrote the commentary for Kol Nidrei and the Torah and Haftarah readings.

The groups also translated the Hebrew text into English and read it aloud to make sure it flowed, so those who cannot “feel” the meaning of the Hebrew can use the English for prayer.

Some who saw early versions of the machzor, which was tested in six congregations, say it answers a need articulated by Conservative laypeople as well as clergy.

“There is a cadre of congregants that is really looking for spiritual connection,” said one Conservative rabbi, Geoffrey Haber of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in a YouTube video that is being used in an unusual PR campaign to promote the prayer book. “Oftentimes our movement can be focused on the intellectual rather than the spiritual, and people are really thirsting for that. I think this machzor speaks to that.”

Along with the content modifications, Lev Shalem is aesthetically pleasing. It weighs less than two pounds, is printed on fine paper, and uses a typeface that has been specially designed and copyrighted.

Like the new daily and Shabbat prayer book released concurrently by the Israeli Masorti movement (see, Lev Shalem is being presented as a prayer book for all Jews rather than as a Conservative text.

“We’ve got everyone from [the late Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai to the Lubavitcher rebbe,” said committee chair Rabbi Edward Feld of Northampton, Mass., senior editor of the project. “It does not represent any single theological perspective.”

Feld spent weeks poring through the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, mining more than 60 old prayer books for long-forgotten piyyutim, or liturgical poems, to include along with modern meditations.

On one page is an 11th-century poem on the new year by Joseph Ibn Abitur of Spain. On another is “For the Sin of Destroying God’s Creation,” JTS Dean Daniel Nevins’ environmentally sensitive version of the Al-Chet, the traditional confessional list of sins recited during Yom Kippur services.

The way the texts are put together is in keeping with Conservative values, Feld said.

“We include myriad Jewish voices, allowing them to be in conversation with each other,” Feld said. “In that sense it’s a deeply Conservative text because the movement at its best is about the conversations that can take place between tradition and a 21st-century sensibility.”

The entire traditional text is included, with a few modifications. The matriarchs are included as an option on the same page as the traditional Amidah prayer that refers only to the patriarchs. Kelman says that’s progress from the most recent Conservative prayer book, which relegates the matriarchs to a separate page.

The Conservative leadership hopes the new machzor will help worshippers deepen their synagogue experience. Those who produced it, however, have less lofty expectations of their first encounter with the book from the other side of the pulpit.

“In all likelihood,” Kelman said, “I’ll be looking for mistakes.”



A fasting guide for the perplexed

The Yom Kippur fast is not intended to be a picnic. But fasters pleading for repentance don’t have to make themselves sick over it either, say health and nutrition experts.

There is a plethora of advice out there for those who want to have an easier time of it come Kol Nidrei, says Shannon Gononsky, a Teaneck-based dietician who observes the Yom Kippur fast religiously.

Fasting doesn’t have to be hard on your body if you prepare properly, she says.

Indeed, as Yom Kippur approaches, thoughts turn to repentance, charity, and, the intimidating mission of abstaining from food and drink for 25 hours.

The Jewish Day of Atonement begins this year on Friday, Sept. 17, before sundown, and ends the following night after nightfall with the Neilah prayer service.

The larger issues surrounding Yom Kippur deal with the questions of forgiveness and repentance. But then there are the smaller ones — like will we survive the fast without a migraine and nausea? Will the hunger pains be manageable? Gononsky and other experts say it can be done.

But first, they have a few caveats for would-be fasters. The restrictions on eating and drinking apply only to those in good health who are over bar and bat mitzvah age. Most rabbis agree that anyone whose health could be seriously threatened by fasting should not fast. If a person has a medical condition, is pregnant, or needs to take medication, it’s best to consult a doctor and/or rabbi, medical experts advise.

Preparation for the fast should begin in the days or weeks before it starts, according to experts.

For example, if you consume several cups of coffee a day (or any other caffeinated drinks), prepare yourself for the fast by tapering off your caffeine consumption at least a week before Yom Kippur, says L’via Weisinger, a Teaneck nurse. “Don’t try to go cold turkey or else you may end up with a terrible headache.”

Also, drinking a lot of coffee before Kol Nidre is not a great idea because it will cause you to lose a lot of water before the fast, she says.

It is also important to begin hydrating yourself several days before the fast. “Don’t wait until the fast is about to start to drink a lot of water,” said Weisinger. “Drink extra water for several days before.”

A pre-fast meal should ideally consist of complex carbohydrates, such as breads and pastas, said Gononsky.

She cites the finding of a study published in the September issue of the Israel Medical Association Journal that “a protein-rich meal creates the most discomfort and side effects during a fast.”

Water is better conserved when one eats a meal high in complex carbohydrates, such as rice, pasta, beans, and other pulses. When protein breaks down, however, more water is excreted from the body, she says.

For her pre-fast meal, Gononsky cooks up a starchy potato soup, light grilled fish, couscous, and steamed squash. “The key to a good fast for us is that potato soup,” she says. “It really builds up your glycogen stores which are the way that you store up fuel as carbohydrates.”

Experts share pre-fast tips

• The pre-fast meal menu should be selected carefully: Emphasize carbohydrates. Stay away from high protein and fat-filled foods. Best choices are breads, pasta, potatoes, cereal, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and rice.

• Eat small meals throughout the day before the fast but do not gorge yourself – it will only make you feel hungrier later.

• Include soup in your pre-Yom Kippur meal. It helps keep you hydrated and makes you feel full.

• Avoid caffeine. Heavy coffee drinks can avoid the dreaded “withdrawal” headache by slowly tapering off coffee consumption over the week leading up to the fast day. One trick caffeine addicts can try is to brew mixtures of regular and decaffeinated coffee, increasing the proportion of decaf as you progress.

• Avoid eating chocolate or drinking alcohol (these cause you to lose too much water) and try to minimize salty or spicy foods that will increase your thirst.

• In addition to drinking plenty of water, Gononsky advises incorporating fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content, into your pre-fast meal.

Tips for during the fast

• Spend your day in the synagogue; the refrigerator won’t tempt you, everyone else there will be fasting so they won’t distract you with thoughts of food, and you can reflect on repentance, which is the essence of the day anyway.

• Try to stay in cool areas and avoid direct sunlight so you remain hydrated and don’t perspire.

• Many people have a tradition of wearing white on Yom Kippur. The added benefit is that light-colored clothing helps keep you cooler.

• Avoid strenuous calorie-burning exercise. While walking to synagogue, take it slow.

Post-fast tips

• Do not eat too much or too quickly when you break your fast. Your stomach will not need much to feel full. And if you eat too much, you will feel sick.

• The best foods to break your fast on are simple foods such as: crackers, juice or milk, and dairy foods. Drink a lot of water and avoid salty foods, since you will need to replace your fluids.


Days of awe

Before the Yom Kippur fast, cholent offers comfort

Linda MorelCover Story
Published: 08 September 2010

At a surprise 40th birthday party for a friend, her mother stood at their stove stirring a huge cauldron of simmering stew.

The chicken, flanken, potatoes, carrots, dried peas and barley in the pot emitted an aroma that made the offerings prepared by the caterer brought in by my friend’s husband pale in comparison.

“This is Lynda’s favorite food,” her mother said, dipping a ladle into the depth of the pot and asking me to take a taste.

I wasn’t expecting to swoon.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Cholent, a Sabbath stew,” she said. “But in our family, we eat it all the time.”

This party 22 years ago was the first time I had even heard the word.

I immediately asked for her recipe, which I have been making ever since.

With Yom Kippur beginning this year on a Friday (Sept. 17), it occurred to me that the best thing to eat before the fast begins would be chicken cholent. Many Jews customarily consume chicken and rice on erev Yom Kippur.

A one-pot meal brimming with nutritious foods, cholent is a traditional Sabbath dish. However, it is usually served for lunch on Saturdays or as a hot meal immediately after the Havdalah service that brings Shabbat to an end.

Cholent is an ideal hot meal for Sabbath-observers, who do not cook or perform any work from Friday at sundown until Shabbat ends 24 hours later.

My friend’s mother, who was born in Germany in the 1920s, told me that every Friday before dusk the Jewish women in their neighborhood brought pots full of raw stew ingredients to the Jewish bakery. With sundown approaching, the women would place their stew pots in the oven, just minutes before the baker turned off his oven to observe Shabbat.

Over the next 24 hours, the meat, potatoes, and barley, which started out swimming in water, turned into a chunky, mouth-watering cholent to be served steaming hot immediately after the Sabbath.

A signature dish of Ashkenazim, cholent can be made from almost anything. One reason is that in the Old Country, Jews were poor and threw any scrap of food they could find into their stews. However, a traditional cholent is made with meat and meat bones, potatoes, beans, and barley. More modern recipes for vegetarian cholents dotted with tofu now abound.

Not to be outdone, Sephardim for centuries have prepared spectacular Sabbath stews infused with the most marvelous seasoning. These aromatic recipes are often called hamim, or hot Hebrew.

In Morocco, this style of stew is called a tagine, named for the conical pots in which the dish is prepared. Sabbath stews hail from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and any country where Jews have settled.

Jewish women in Morocco traditionally have paid a non-Jew to set up a pile of hot coals. Before sundown on the Sabbath, they carried their tagines full of stew ingredients and sunk them into the coals. Guarding against thieves, the non-Jew watched over their food, which barely bubbled on red hot coals that gradually cooled over the course of a full day.

The key to a good cholent, hamim, or tagine is to gently simmer the medley of ingredients for many hours. Original recipes entailed 24 hours of low-heat cooking. However, many people new to this lengthy preparation are hesitant to keep food on a fire overnight while they are sleeping. Most recipes turn out well after six to eight hours with the right amount of water. Cholent is a flexible and forgiving dish that can be made in slow cookers, inside the oven, or on a stovetop.

Detractors of cholent, and there are a few, complain that the stews are brown and unappetizing, with ingredients blurring together until they lose their characteristics. Yet I find the blend of flavors irresistible and have learned that by adding some ingredients with perky colors, such as tomatoes and carrots, you can overcome the potential of ending up with a khaki-colored meal.

With erev Yom Kippur falling as the Sabbath begins, this one-pot meal is ideal to serve before the fast. A hearty dish that is filling but not fancy, cholent is in line with Yom Kippur’s solemn theme. As it can be prepared hours in advance, cholent is a practical dish for home cooks who want to avoid the last-minute rush that often precedes arriving at Kol Nidre services on time.

I suggest serving rice with your stew of choice. It’s easy to digest, and rice is a balanced accompaniment to a one-pot meal brimming with vegetables and chicken.

Whether it’s cholent, hamim, or tagine, a hearty hot stew on this special night carries the warmth and tradition that our ancestors bestowed on our parents and grandparents as they lit Sabbath candles every Friday evening and once a year atoned for their sins.

A word about water

Most stew recipes do not indicate how much water is needed, which many cooks find maddening. However, it’s almost impossible to gauge quantities of water because so many factors influence the result, such as temperature and consistency of the heat and the thickness of the pot.

However, if you add too much water to the pot, you’ll end up with soup, which is not a terrible fate. Should this happen, it can be remedied by leaving the pot uncovered and raising the flame to cook off some of the excess water.

If you put too little water into the pot, the ingredients are in danger of drying out or even burning. You can always add more water and stir it to combine evenly.

Keep an eye on the pot to check for water levels. Stir at least once every half hour. Ideally the ingredients in your cholent should yield a thickened gravy. However, it doesn’t matter how a cholent turns out because thick or thin, this foolproof dish is always delicious and sustaining.

Chicken Cholent (Ashkenazi Style) (Meat)


No-stick vegetable spray, optional

8 skinless chicken thighs

4 sweet potatoes

8 carrots

1 parsnip

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. string beans, cut in half horizontally

1 tbsp. dill, minced

Salt to taste

8 tbsp. parsley, minced, optional garnish

Equipment: Use a large stockpot, preferably of the stick-resistant variety.

Preparation: If not using a stick-resistant pot, spray its interior generously with no-stick vegetable spray.

Rinse chicken under cold water and place in the pot.

Scrape skin from sweet potatoes and cut each into 8 chunks. Scrape carrots and parsnip and cut into 1-inch chunks. To the pot, add the sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnip, onion, garlic, string beans, and dill.

Add enough cold water to just cover the ingredients. They shouldn’t slog around in excess water. Gently stir ingredients. Cover the pot and place it on a medium-high flame until the water simmers. Reduce to the lowest possible flame. Let cholent simmer for 6 to 8 hours, or longer if you’ve got the time, until the gravy thickens. For safety’s sake, do not leave cholent pot unattended.

Add salt to taste. However, for the erev Yom Kippur meal, use salt sparingly so as not to cause thirst and undue comfort during the fast.

Serve over rice in large soup bowls. Garnish with parsley, if using.

Yield: 8 servings

Chicken Tagine (Moroccan Style) (Meat)


No-stick vegetable spray, optional

8 skinless chicken thighs

4 white potatoes

1 large onion, chopped

1/2 tsp. fresh ginger root, skinned and chopped

1 (28-oz.) can chopped tomatoes

1 (15.5 oz.) can chickpeas

2 or 3 zucchini, diced large

4 tomatoes, chopped

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Salt to taste

8 tbsp. cilantro, minced, optional garnish

Equipment: Use a large stockpot, preferably of the stick-resistant variety.


If not using a stick-resistant pot, spray its interior generously with no-stick vegetable spray.

Rinse chicken under cold water and place in the pot.

Scrape skin from potatoes and cut each into 8 chunks. To the pot, add chicken, potatoes, onion, ginger, canned tomatoes, chickpeas, zucchini, chopped tomatoes, cumin, and cinnamon.

Add enough cold water to the pot to just cover the ingredients. They shouldn’t slog around in excess water. Gently stir ingredients. Cover the pot and place it on a medium-high flame until the water simmers. Reduce to the lowest possible flame.

Let tagine simmer for 6 to 8 hours, or longer if you’ve got the time, until the gravy thickens. For safety sake, do not leave cholent pot unattended.

When ready, add salt to taste. However, for the erev Yom Kippur meal, use salt sparingly so as not to cause thirst and undue discomfort during the fast.

Serve over rice in large soup bowls. Garnish with cilantro, if using.

Yield: 8 servings

Fool-Proof Rice (Pareve)


3 tbsp. olive oil

2 cups of uncooked rice

4 1/4 cups water

Salt to taste


Rice may quadruple in size while cooking, so select a large, deep pot. Heat oil inside the pot on a medium flame for 1-2 minutes. Pour the rice into the pot and stir until each grain of rice is lightly coated with oil.

Add salt and stir to combine. However, for the erev Yom Kippur meal, use salt sparingly so as not to cause thirst and undue discomfort during the fast.

Continue stirring until rice appears translucent, about 2 more minutes. Pour in water and stir again. Cover pot and drop heat to a low flame.

Check rice’s progress after 10 minutes. If it appears to be soaking up most of the water, add more water 1/4 cup at a time. Stir to combine and cover pot again.

In another 10 to 15 minutes, rice should have absorbed all the water and be ready to eat. Take it off the flame and let it rest for 1-2 minutes in a covered pot. Move immediately into a serving bowl. At the table, spoon rice into individual soup bowls and ladle cholent or tagine on top of it.

Yield: 8 servings



Days of awe

All vows

_JStandardCover Story
Published: 08 September 2010

Even as I contemplate the seriousness of Yom Kippur each year, I am always struck by its incredible beauty. For me, the Kol Nidre service, with its powerful repetition and haunting melodies, is both a spiritual awakening and an opportunity to enjoy the richness of our millennia-old liturgical tradition.

There’s no question that Kol Nidre is an awe-inspiring experience. And yet, it also seems slightly perplexing. In English, the name translates to “All Vows,” referencing the core message of one of the central prayers: As we repent for past sins and look forward to a fresh start, we declare null and void any vows we might make in the coming year.

On the one hand, I find the idea comforting: We are all flawed beings, and it’s reassuring to think we can get off the hook if something doesn’t go quite as planned. But as a social justice advocate, I am concerned by the implication that our commitments are somehow meaningless. On the frontlines of hunger relief (or nonviolence, or child welfare, or any cause worth fighting for), those commitments — whether of time, intention, or financial support — are our bread and butter; they help us focus, inspiring us to keep going even when our energy begins to wane. Indeed, in some sense vows are all we have, a pledge made by fellow members of our community that they will join us to right the wrongs of an imperfect society. If we nullify those, how can we ever hope to make progress in our quest for tikkun olam, or repair of the world?

I believe there is another way to look at this, particularly as it relates to social justice. Making progress on difficult social issues is challenging in the best of times — and this is not the best of times. Widespread economic uncertainty continues to threaten global prosperity, and people around the world face increasingly bleak prospects for the future. In my own hometown of Detroit, a city long beset by serious financial woes, growing numbers of families lack the basic resources they need to survive. It’s enough to cause even the most dedicated social justice crusader to throw up her hands in frustration and say, simply, “I give up.”

It is in this context that Kol Nidre begins to make sense to me. The liturgy undoes our vows, but it doesn’t tell us not to make them. In fact, we can pledge to our heart’s content. And I wonder: Wouldn’t it have been easier for the rabbis of old, the sages who crafted the Yom Kippur service, just to discourage us from committing ourselves in the first place?

The answer, as I see it, is this: To do so would have been to contradict the Torah itself. After all, it commands us to help the stranger, and then repeats it 36 times to make sure we get the message. Making vows — to do good; to strive for harmony; to do right by our fellow man — is an obligation, not an option; we are compelled to do our part to make a difference.

Kol Nidre does not take away this responsibility, but it does tell us not to lose hope if our efforts fall short. In the year ahead, some of our endeavors will not succeed. Hunger will persist. War and disease will continue to rear their ugly heads. The Yom Kippur liturgy reassures us that our past vows to accomplish these things will not be held over our heads, even as the rest of our text and tradition reminds us that our failure to achieve our goals does not free us of our obligation to pursue them.


Days of awe

Is our fate determined on Yom Kippur?

High on the list of Jewish martyr stories still retold, or at least alluded to, every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the terrible medieval tale of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. For refusing to appear before the bishop of Regensburg, who had requested that Amnon become a Christian, he had his limbs hacked off. What was left of him was arrayed alongside his severed parts and returned home in time for Rosh HaShanah.

As the chazan reached the climax of services that day, Amnon interrupted with a beautiful liturgical poem, and was promptly transported to his heavenly abode. Three days later he appeared to the saintly Rabbi Kalonymos to teach him the poem and instruct him to spread it everywhere.

That poem, the Un’taneh Tokef, now is a centerpiece of the High Holy Days liturgy.

So goes the story, which is still told annually in many a synagogue before Un’taneh Tokef and its two-fold message: First, that “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water ... who by earthquake, who by plague” and so forth; but second, that “penitence, prayer, and charity” can somehow alleviate the hardship of the decree.

“Who by Fire, Who by Water” explores the origins and meaning of the High Holidays prayer Un’taneh Tokef. Jewish Lights Publishing

It is hard to know which is more troubling: the prayer or the story of its authorship. “Who by Fire, Who by Water” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), the first volume in the “Prayers of Awe” series, chronicles the fascinating controversy that surrounds them both.

The problem with the prayer is that it seems patently scandalous. Was the fate of the 9/11 victims predetermined on the prior Yom Kippur? Did they die because they were insufficiently penitent, prayerful, or charitable?

The problem with the story is that it is hardly a message that inaugurates a new year with spiritual promise. Besides, it is pure fiction — there never was a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. “aMNoN” is a rearrangement of the letters in the Hebrew Ne’eMaN, “faithful.” This is a morality tale of a putative “Rabbi Faithful” who stood fast in the face of adversity. The poem probably was composed as early as the fifth or sixth century by a Byzantine Jewish genius named Yannai, who symbolized anything but Jewish martyrdom in the face of inhuman persecution. Yannai personified a Jewish literary efflorescence rarely matched in the following millennium and a half.

Perhaps the story we should be telling every Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish potential for artistic brilliance, Judaism as a well of creative potential, not Judaism as the religion of the persecuted masses. Un’taneh Tokef illustrates classic liturgical poetry at its best, an abundance of biblical and rabbinic allusions wed to clever Hebrew wordplay and alliterative excellence.

But what about the poem’s troubling message? While the first half of “Who by Fire, Who by Water” provides the truly stunning story behind the myth and the poem (alongside an annotated translation of both), the second half elicits commentaries from some 40 thoughtful contributors who tell us how they handle the poem’s message.

Here, arguing over the poem’s merits, are rabbis and laypeople; men and women from all denominations of Jewish life (some of them artists, writers, scholars, teachers, and musicians); from around the world and spanning generations. Prayer book editors from Europe and North America wrangle over whether to include it, fudge its message, or trash it. Modern feminist and professor Wendy Zierler surveys Un’taneh Tokef as a theme in modern literature.

Israeli professor Dalia Marx recalls how the poem emerged anew as a symbol of Israelis dying in the Yom Kippur War of her youth. Bible professor Marc Brettler provides the biblical backdrop for the poem, and several writers subject it to literary analysis, exposing its very many poetic virtues.

Author and scholar Erica Brown plays with the image of God as writer of our fate: What kind of writing would God prefer? Fiction? Journalism? Scholarship? “Who shall live and who shall die? The answer is ‘Me!’” concludes Rabbi Edward Feinstein, in his insistence that Un’taneh Tokef speaks directly to our most cherished illusion — that we are in charge of our fate, when in fact we are painfully out of control.

Isn’t that the whole point of the High Holy Days, delivered, in Rabbi David Stern’s judgment, “with the poetic force of a two-by-four”?

But still, does God really work that way? Does the God of Judaism write real-life obituaries in advance, not just fiction, journalism, or whatever?

No, says Rabbi Delphine Horveilleur of Paris, the very idea is unpalatable. The poem’s theology is “infantilizing.” But it is a poem, with all the complexities of Shakespeare, Keats, or Cummings, and requiring all the interpretation they do. It may not even be about God at all, so much as it is about us.

Perhaps the poem’s real climactic claim is that even though “our origin is dust and our end is dust,” we yet carry God’s name in our very being.

“We are part of something everlasting,” says Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig concurs: “We may write books, create foundations, generate ideas, found or revitalize synagogues that will nurture generations long after we have died.”

Both the poem’s authorship and its message matter profoundly. Which Jewish type we emphasize, Amnon the martyr or Yannai the poet, will determine what Judaism we hand to the next generation.

The dizzying panoply of commentaries gathered here ask and answer the core religious questions of our time: Who is God? What is fate? How do humans matter? What spiritual truths can carry us forward when mortality’s harsh reality becomes finally unavoidable?



The sermon that spurred the Soviet Jewry movement

A poster from 1969 by the Israeli graphic designer Dan Reisinger. Courtesy of Dan Reisinger

On a fall day in 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel unburdened his soul.

Speaking the truth without regard for whether it scandalized or hurt was something he would do fairly often in that decade of social upheaval. Already branded as an eccentric and an outsider, that year he had met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time, beginning a close friendship that would deepen his involvement in the civil rights movement. The two eventually would offer the most endearing and enduring image of the now long dead black-Jewish alliance when they walked arm and arm to Selma, Ala., in protest, garlands of flowers around their necks.

Gal Beckerman Nina Subin

But in September 1963, Heschel’s audience was Jewish — a gathering of rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His speech would be read aloud that Yom Kippur at hundreds of congregations across the country. It was a sermon that set in motion one of the great engines of what would soon be known as the Soviet Jewry movement: guilt.

Heschel was angry and ashamed that American Jews were not more engaged in helping their brethren in the Soviet Union. There was mounting evidence that these Jews were stuck in an increasingly untenable situation. Every element of their Jewish identity, from religious life to cultural expression, had been brutally squashed. At the same time, the avenues to assimilation were blocked — if nothing else, their internal passports singled them out for discrimination by identifying them as Jews. The option of abandoning the Soviet Union for good was not even a possibility.

Heschel looked at the Jews of America — most of them only two generations removed from the Pale of Settlement — and could not believe that they were responding with little more than sadness and resignation.

“What is called for is not a silent sigh but a voice of moral compassion and indignation, the sublime and inspired screaming of a prophet uttered by a whole community,” Heschel lectured the assembled rabbis.

Then he made his most searing argument. This was not the first time that American Jews had been impotent when it came to helping other Jews, Heschel told them.

“We have been guilty more than once of failure to be concerned, of a failure to cry out, and failure may have become our habit,” he told them.

Heschel was referring, of course, to the Holocaust. And the reference was effective. Whether or not American Jews deserved to bear this historical burden — whether there was anything more they could have done — is irrelevant. In the early 1960s, just as consciousness of the extent of the genocide was bubbling up, so too was a painful recognition that as millions of their brethren were murdered in Europe, this increasingly stable and prosperous community could hardly organize themselves to put on a single rally.

This guilt would blossom into what for some time now has been an obsessive concentration on the Holocaust, one that many have rightly come to see as an extremely corrosive development — the constant memorializing eclipsing so much else about Jewish identity. But what has been forgotten is that before every Jewish community had its own memorial and museum, there was the guilt and the need to do something about it.

I’ve been exploring the Soviet Jewry movement over the past five years for a forthcoming book. Throughout its 25-year history, the need to cast away this heavy burden was present at nearly every moment. But I also came to see it as a positive element. American Jews mobilized, went up against an American administration, and became a more assertive community partly as a way of clearing their collective conscience.

Guilt was present when a group of NASA scientists in Cleveland, Ohio, decided in 1963, after reading the then slim literature of the Holocaust, that they had to do something for those Soviet Jews now suffering “spiritual genocide” and started the first grass-roots Soviet Jewry group. It was also present in New York the following year at the inaugural mass meeting of what would soon be known as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. One of the students offered to sing a ditty he had come up with for their first protest. Its refrain was “History shall not repeat.”

Guilt, leavened with anger, also was present in Rabbi Meir Kahane’s slogan “Never again,” when he hijacked the movement in the early 1970s. In 1971 he rallied a thousand young people to be arrested in Washington, D.C., near the Soviet Embassy, with the words, “I’m asking you to do today what Jews didn’t do while the gas chambers were burning. Sit down in the streets of Washington.”

And in 1987 when a quarter-million people marched in Washington for Soviet Jewry, greeting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on his first visit to the United States, guilt was distilled from Elie Wiesel’s words: “Too many of us were silent then. We are not silent today.”

But this guilt was not about wallowing. It was directed, focused. I heard the same line from the many activists I interviewed for the book: They did not want their children to ask the same question of them that they had asked their parents: What had they done to help Jews during the war?

As a result, the movement acted as a sort of catalyst. By cleansing the conscience, it allowed these Jews to be assertive. It emboldened them to act with a confidence they had never before exhibited on American soil.

Never was this truer than during the fight for the Jackson-Vanik amendment from 1972 to 1975. The Jewish community went up against the president — and won. They wanted Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to temper their pursuit of detente and make any improved trade relationship with the Soviets contingent on freer emigration.

Here, too, the Holocaust was not far away. The amendment was inspired by a new tax the Soviets wanted to levy on departing emigrants: They would have to pay back the state for their education.

An editorial cartoon in the Los Angeles Times captured the feeling this tax inspired by showing a caricature of two almost identical prisoners: The first held out an arm tattooed with a number from a concentration camp and was captioned “Germany, 1936”; the second had the same tattooed arm and was captioned “Russia, 1972.” The difference was the numbers on the second arm had a dollar sign in front of it.

American Jews made this guilt productive. The Soviet Jewry movement became as much about saving themselves as it was about saving this far-off community of Jews.

When I started working on the book, I was drawn by a need to understand the world after the war. My grandparents all survived death camps and lost much of their families. And yet, by the time I knew them, they had raised families and were happy, well-adjusted people.

As curious as I was about what happened to them in those camps, I also wanted to understand what went into this transformation. The same was true on a much larger scale. How did American Jews scrub out that terrible stain?

The answer, it seems, was contained in the Soviet Jewry movement. Here Jews were able to work out those feelings and answer Heschel’s lament.

A few months before his speech in 1963, a reporter from the Yiddish newspaper the Day-Morning Journal asked Heschel where he had been in 1943. He answered mournfully that he had just arrived in America, did not speak English well, and commanded no attention from the Jewish leadership.

Still, he said, “This does not mean that I consider myself innocent. I am very guilty. I have no rest.”

If not for him, then for the next generation, Soviet Jewry offered that rest.



As brave as God: Are we capable?

Published: 17 September 2010

There are many kinds of bravery. Physical bravery allows firefighters to run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out, or empowers young soldiers to put themselves in harm’s way even when they can avoid doing so.

Moral bravery is the kind that people find within themselves when they must speak truth to power, or otherwise stand up for that in which they believe even when it will be unpopular. Sacred bravery fuels our ability to both seek and grant forgiveness.

At Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I ask myself and others whether or not we are brave enough to be forgiving. Are we willing to take chances on ourselves and on the people in our lives? Seeking and granting forgiveness will make us feel vulnerable, but if we are serious about what we are doing, making ourselves vulnerable in a way takes courage.

Yom Kippur reminds us that we have what it takes, and that if we take those chances and feel that vulnerability, we can find greater fulfillment and peace than we often imagine is possible. In fact, the fundamental promise of Yom Kippur is that we will be fine — fully forgiven for anything we have done wrong in the past year.

According to Leviticus 16:30, atonement will be made and we will be purified on Yom Kippur. The verse has no qualification or limitations. It reassures us that no transgression is so big that it cannot be redressed, at least as far as God is concerned. The day will do its job, the Bible promises. But will we do ours?

The prophet Isaiah said that God forgives people because God wants to forgive, and therefore all transgressions against God will be forgiven. Do we actually long to forgive them? Are we willing to be as brave as God when it comes to forgiveness?

There are no limits to that which can be forgiven, but there are limits as to who can forgive any given thing. We cannot demand that others forgive what has been done to them, and we cannot forgive people for the hurt they have caused others.

The issue is our relationship to the person or act that needs to be forgiven, not the severity of the act, which some people might deem unforgivable had it happened to them. We are free to forgive anything, but we can only forgive that which has been done to us.

Sacred bravery is about forgiving others, and about doing so because we want to — because to do so will help us be who we most want to be. And then, sacred bravery, when we really feel it, invites us to go one step further.

Sacred bravery is not only about granting forgiveness, but also about finding the courage to seek it. It’s about trusting that nothing is truly unforgivable as long as we are willing to work it out with the ones we have wronged. It may take time, even a great deal of time, but all can be forgiven. That is the promise of Yom Kippur.

So this year, I am working on being brave and encouraging others to follow suit. However and wherever one spends the holiday, we should all take the time to think about at least one person from whom we have not sought forgiveness but really must. We should be asking ourselves not whether it will work, but what one concrete step — even a small one — we can take to move in that direction.

We also should consider how we can forgive one person who still needs forgiveness from us. And if that is too much to ask of ourselves, at least think about what it is that keeps us from forgiving and how we might move beyond that barrier.

The day will do its job; the real question is whether or not we will do ours.



The sins of journalists:  A Yom Kippur meditation


Meeting an urgent need this Yom Kippur


True confessions

Published: 17 September 2010
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