About Me

I'm the Rabbi of B'nai Israel Synagogue in West Bloomfield, MI, a highly-participatory, traditional, egalitarian synagogue.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


From the founder of jewishlifestory.com (me :)) (please visit, use my service, and refer your friends....)

Simchat Torah.

We finish the Torah in an instant. The saga of Moses concludes. We stand ready to embrace our future, as a Jewish people, on the edge of the Promised Land.

Just as quickly, we start the Torah again. We are thrust backwards to prehistory (let alone pre-Jewish history) and the story of creation.

This ritual transition is sudden and breathtaking. There’s no time for reflection. No time for retelling.

The narrative, its lessons, its legacy – there’s no time for us, at the end, to preserve them for the generations to come. Not at the end of the Torah-reading cycle, nor at the end of our life cycle -- unless we seize the opportunity beforehand.

There is time along the way of life to preserve our stories, and it’s our responsibility to use it.

Moses paves our way in this regard, and Jews have followed suit ever since. Moses also demonstrates how gratifying the process of telling our stories is, if we take the time.

Consider Moses at the end of the Torah, standing high on Mt. Nebo, on the eastern side of the Jordan. Fated to die in exile. Steps away from his destination, his life’s job unfinished. It is unspeakably painful, tragic. Or so we think.

There’s a sense of loss, no question. Moses pleads with God to allow him into the land, to no avail. “’Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon…. ‘ But God was angry with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!’”

Moses wants more. To go forward, to see more fruits of his labor. And so do we.
But Moses cannot. Nor can we.

As it says in Pirkei Avot, Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor. We don’t finish the work – of the world, of our lives. But what do we do with it?

Again, Moses. What does he do? For the rest of the book of Deuteronomy, he tells his story within the narrative of the people and prepares them for the tasks ahead in the land of Israel. It’s his legacy statement, and leads to the greatest reward of his life -- seeing the people go off, ready to embrace the future.

Moses implores the people to follow suit with their storytelling, in gratitude, when they arrive in the Israel -- in the presence of the kohanim, the priests. “Then you shall say the following before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt and lived there with very few….’”

Moses provides both a model and a mitzvah for us – of a part of the Jewish life cycle we too often miss. To capture our past, for the future, with anava, humility.

Tell your story, record it, write it. Preserve it, as Moses did, for your kids and grandkids, before the time is up.

It’s a message worth considering this Simchat Torah – as we move (back) from one story to the next.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Milestone and the End of the Beginning

We’re coming to the end of the beginning of the journey, and I’m ready for it.

Later today, the kids finish the last day of their first year of school in Israel. Unbelievable, that a year has gone by so fast. Unbelievable, that my kids have done a full year of school, in Hebrew, in Israel. I am amazed by them, and have accessed yet an deeper level of respect for them.

And what we, their parents, have put them through, by placing them in this foreign-speaking, foreign-cultured environment – oy! But we’re thankful we did it….

The kids are now vatikim, veterans, of the school system. They talk excitedly about the chofesh hagadol, “big vacation,” as do all kids right now. They chatter about the Israeli-style kaytanot, camps, that they’ll be going to in July. And they talk about the ones they want to go to next summer, particularly an insane camp called Al Hagalgalim, “On the Wheels,” which takes kids to a different amusement park/pool/field trip every other day of the camp – and leaves the kids grumpy and dead tired at the end of half a day… But it’s the rage, and they want it.

Thankfully, in the past couple of days, I’ve accessed my own memories of finishing the school year when I was little, and can identify with our kids’ excitement. I can get past the newness of this first year to realize that this would be new to the kids wherever they were. Things are getting normal. Baruch hashem. Blessed be you-know-who.

I’m also coming around in my own life – seeing the light of normalcy appear at the end of a year of upend, downend, and every end. I’ve been a rookie at everything – aliyah, full-time fatherhood, working out of the house – and I’m ready to be done with the hazing. Things are beginning to move with my service recording and writing people’s life stories – please look at jewishlifestory.com -- and I also see the possibilities for a patchwork career that is the norm for so many Israelis.

I crave normalcy. Crave a slowdown in the breakneck pace of the first year of aliyah. Crave the opportunity to raise a cold beer and make a toast to making it through this first step. August 4th was the day of our arrival. But maybe we’ll toast early – at the bbq we will be going to, at the home of other olim, on July 4th, that day of days. How ironic.


I’ll be winding down virtual aliyah and taking it into a different gear – still blogging about Israel but changing the focus a bit. After all, now I live here. I want to focus on the comfortable for a change.

I’m hoping to take these blog posts, some accompanying pictures, and create a literary memento to peruse on our coffee table. Writing about aliyah has helped me immensely, and I hope it’s been meaningful for you too.

If you have appreciated the blog posts, let me know, and let me know “what you want” as I continue to post from Israel. Will you miss the posts? How have they impacted you and your relationship with Israel? Are you that much closer to at least getting on the plane for a vacation here? Or even a step closer – you can still be far – to getting on the plane for good? What topics did you like the most on the blog?

I’m excited to hear your thoughts.

Reporting from Modi’in, as we conclude our first year.

Unusally unedited and straight from the heart.

-- Mark

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Flotilla Sails Away

Every once in a while, on our American Jewish journeys, we regard a teetering calm abroad as if it lives here at home. Invariably, it falls and breaks. Bad news from Israel.

We stop at the edge of the debris. Our hearts are pierced. We cringe, cry, whimper. We are angry, flabbergasted, befuddled.

The emotions dull as the news fades, as we remove to a safer place along our narratives. We hear and see little more. Until the next time.

We are witnessing such an episode now, the Mavi Marmara, and debris is everywhere. A decidedly non-humanitarian humanitarian boat. People ready for battle. Israel, to our shock, not. The stench of bloodshed. The larger context – the blockade of Gaza, Israel’s security needs, relations between Israel and Turkey, Israel’s dangerously diminishing standing in the world, the occupation of the West Bank, our relationship with the Palestinians – trembling in the foreground.

This episode may not recede as quickly as the others, and maybe that’s appropriate. In the eyes of the world, and many Jews too (this one included), Israel crossed a line – of brazenness, incompetence, sheer stupidity, depending on one’s perspective. As did the IHH, with its bare-faced abuse of the humanitarian flag.

Still, it will recede, ever so surely, to the “back pages” of the American media. Our attention, our concern – as well.

In contrast, the attention of Israelis began to shift from the minute we woke up that morning of May 31. Daily life in Israel – all the way down to its incessant car honking – is a reality check that reminds us that the sky is not falling. It quells the existential angst. It stabilizes the queasy ride into the moral realm. It gives flesh to Israel’s existence and diversity.

Consciousness of our country, it goes without saying, is not dependent on the news or the media. That’s a refreshing change for me as an oleh chadash, new immigrant, to Israel – one year removed from America.

Each day, I take my kids to a school where they speak Hebrew. We spend Shabbat on a kibbutz with a breathtaking view of the Jezreel Valley. With imagination, I can see King Ahab chasing Elijah through it. I watch quizzically as a whole nation gears up for a soccer tournament where they’ll celebrate a 0-0 tie.

True, I cannot get far from the debris of the Mavi Marmara. I hear it churn every time I turn on the radio. The din is audible in most conversations that I have, as if it’s inappropriate not to be with the nation at all moments.

And I can’t escape the moral challenge of the larger context, particularly our distorted relationship with the Palestinians. Every day, I see the corrosive power imbalance at work. Palestinian construction workers build and beautify my city, not their own. The ubiquitous walls, fences and checkpoints along the road from here to Jerusalem keep us safe but imprison Palestinians in their own local nightmares. Construction in the settlements digs us even deeper into places we can’t be if we are going to survive as a Jewish state.

But, yes, we Israelis live on, with the undercurrent of conflict, almost immediately. In a way that’s so difficult for American Jews – in their brief acute moments of paralytic shock -- to understand.

The flotilla is here. At the same time, it sails away. Depending on your perspective.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Celtic "Truth," at 3:30 am

(published in the Providence Journal (Rhode Island, USA) on June 3) -- (http://www.projo.com/opinion/contributors/content/CT_celtics3_06-03-10_5VINAN5_v16.1d64776.html)

3:30 in the morning.

That’s when I prove my mettle this Celtic playoff run.

I moved to Israel last year and brought my Boston sports triad with me (Sorry, Bruins. You lost me sometime between Terry O’Reilly’s last lumber off the ice and your perpetual playoff oblivion.)

This, of course, has been the case ever since I left New England 21 years ago. The nation, the legion, the fighting minutemen of Boston sports – we continue to spill our guts for our hometown teams wherever we are.

I established my personal record in 1986, in the NBA Finals. I hitchhiked 4 hours 3 separate times over land, bears, and ever other possible natural and man-made obstacle in TV-less Yellowstone National Park, to watch the first “Big 3” (and DJ and Danny) defeat Houston and slinking “center” Ralph Sampson in 6 games. Ah, youth.

I’m a lot older now, but still foolish.

I’s the graveyard shift for me now. Do or die. I’m a medical resident in my own personal insane asylum. One night on, one night off. 36-hour no-sleep stretches. Awakened when I don’t want to be – lest I miss an “emergency” when Doc Rivers needs me.

It’s not like watching the endless Red Sox-Yankees thrillers of ’04. At least I could get five hours of sleep in before work. But 3:30 am, start time? I can’t say I’m getting up early in the morning to watch the game, because it’s the middle of the night. So the pressure builds at 10 pm to go to sleep, but I’m a night bird. I haven’t gone to sleep before 10 pm since Hill Street Blues took to the air. So, what’s the point?? Let’s just stay up till game time, and let the next day be damned….

I can still appreciate Rajon Rondo’s dive-scoop-and layup at 3:30 am, but a Paul Pierce isolation, when Ray Allen and everyone else are wide open on the wing? I’m more agitated than I’d be in reasonable time and am reminded of the dark Antoine Walker days. My cereal gets soggy as I silently scream at “the Truth.” “Pass the ball!” And, Kendrick, don’t waste my waning energy complaining about another foul call….

With overtime comes the sunrise, a reminder of where I am and that soccer is truly king. If the incessant non-commercial World Cup commercials fed to us by ESPN International haven’t already drained that reality down my hoop. Oh well.

From this side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, it’s even worse when the Celtics lose, as they did in game 4 against Orlando. I was the 13th man, played well more than the full 48 minutes, in the middle of the night, and had children wanting to know what clothes to put on a half-hour later. And I had no one to commiserate with over my morning Coke Zero. A game “last night”? Maccabi Tel Aviv?

So, Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots (the 8 pm, Israel-time starts are delicious…), thank you very much for all that you make me – make us -- do for you.

Just beat the Lakers, please. We’ve got to stay at least 2 championships ahead.

I’ll be watching you.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Blessing, In Hand

Limbs felled by age and infirmity, his right arm maintains its vigor, to convey His blessing.

I’m struck each time I experience it -- the strong, willful blessing of Asher Shemesh -- an old 81 in every other respect.

His arms, his hands lie dull on the chair rests. Long past their dutiful years – serving, saluting, blessing, pushing the papers of the people of B’nei Brak. Now, sadly, seemingly, serving only the needs of the self.

Ma nishma, Asher? (How are you, Asher?)

Asher’s eyes circle around the pleasant but confined study, stacked as it is by books not opened for years and photos from an old camera. The faint glimmer of desire disappears from his face.

Yet, suddenly, Asher’s arm responds, rising in a careful, stepped trajectory toward his face. It is a servant, the carrier of precious jewels. As it approaches its destination, his fingers come together as one, stretching towards his lips.

Asher kisses his fingers with the passion of relationship long-lived but still kindling. He then spreads his fingers north to the heavens, to the Source of blessing. To the source of Asher’s blessings – still appreciated, still magnified, even as his own fruit withers.

The gesture is imbibed with the faith, and the gratitude, of his ancestors, generations back into Iraq. Its expression needs no words.

Blessing falls back on me, like a soothing coat of warm mist. It is the blessing of a man, the kavana of a faith culture – from a land not my own. A blessing to which I am privileged – as a Jew living kibbutz galuyot, the gathering of the exiles, in the land of Israel.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Back Home

Our first return to the United States -- a joyous whirwind. The wonders of family smachot (simchas). The glow of two outstanding, young Jewish teens – my nephew and cousin – demonstrating their readiness to be part of the community. American Jewish light bursting through its cloud cover. Resting in the toasty warm cradle of parents, grandparents, other loved and friends.

And then to leave it, them, behind. Again. A heartbreak. As painful as the first time, last summer.

We come back to Israel. I cry on the couch. Who I miss. Whose hugs I long for. Whose hugs my kids need, even beyond.

Skype is great, but we can’t touch.

I grieve the loss -- present and future.

Until I remember where I am, and re-experience the splendidly familiar moments which make this place – Israel – the place my heart wants to be. Where I need to be.

I do a 360o (a 240, to be truthful) and gaze at the homey neighborhood of mirpasot, porches, gathered close together. Where locals live a good portion of their lives in the mostly temperate weather of Modi’in.

One mirpeset catches my eye. A bouquet of flowers in the corner, in bright display. The romantic dance of a couple surveying its growth. A man with a kipa. A woman, long-haired, in pants. Real Israeli life, in all its typical, private moderation.

I walk back inside. Time for an early dinner on our cockeyed, post-flight biological clocks. The kids are watching TV, getting back to Hop, their Hebrew-language-dubbed cartoon network. With a few originals spliced in. Like right now. Shavuot is approaching, and on the air is a cartoon of Moses, Pharoah, and his magicians, dueling it out over snakes, blood and frogs. I can only smile. We have our soup and bourekas on the coffee table, taking in Moses at Mt. Sinai.

Shavuot as a liberal Jew in America was lonely. It’s barely on the map of liberal Jews in America, beyond the revitalized tikkunim, night-time study sessions, which dot the map of the more observant in our movements. Back in Modiin, there are no such concerns. My first check of email reveals a shul-wide pot-luck for the eve of Shavuot, with learning for all ages following. The phone rings with an invitation to Shavuot lunch. Problems solved.

I feel warmly in another cradle, that of Clal Yisrael, the community of Israel. We’ve returned to a cozy place that reflects our expressions, our schedule, even our needs from the boob tube.

I gaze above the trees of loss, absorbing the clearer vista of missing. It’s chronic. It never goes away, as fellow olim tell me. But there are soothants – the phone, Skype, and the visits, please G-d, that will continue to happen.

We’re back home. And it’s worth the missing.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Don’t get me wrong. I miss America. In a big way. My family, my friends, the familiar culture and folkways, watching my teams on TV in their time. All those things were on display for me as we visited the States for 10 days earlier this month, our first time “back” since aliyah last summer. I’ll get to these things, some time after I finish watching my Boston Celtics play the Orlando Magic this morning – at 3:30 am Israel time…..

For the moment, however, another big thing. Very big, and very illustrative of the country I left and the country to which I came.

America -- and China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- make and America takes. More, bigger, by far, than anyone. I never realized it so.

From touch down on the tarmac in the USA so much was too big. Often excessively, wastefully and grossly big.

Obesity. People driven there by big cars. Stuffed to the gills by big food.

IHOP has added to its caloric record-setting menu with a stack of pancakes sandwiching cheesecake. Simultaneously leading the herd up mountains of home fries, sausage and bacon.

In Israel, people stuff themselves on fresh vegetables….

Big cars. I dunno, but my compact Honda Jazz has more interior room for 4 than the compact we rented in the States, an engine 2/3 the size, ½ the gas usage, and plenty of get-up to get us up the 2000 feet between here and Jerusalem.

Excess begets excess, as a cause and response. And in ways often much deeper than the frightening but shallow surface of food, cars, and American consumer culture.

Consider synagogue sanctuaries, of which we visited two during our stay. Broadly-speaking, American synagogue sanctuaries are majestic and colorful, focused on an overdone aron kodesh (ark) and a bevy of ornately dressed sifrei torah (torah scrolls) within. I believe in hiddur, the beautification of our religious items. Still, such sanctuaries are excessive.

Why are they made so?

It hit me during our trip, as Jewish life competed with life for Jewish attention. The Shabbat bride sung about in L’cha Dodi did not come walking down the street outside a Boston hotel -- as she does in Modi’in, whether you are observant or not. She was hidden, as a matter of fact, behind the rush of weekend traffic in and out of the city. The inspiring landscape of the prophets, which we view from our balcony, was likewise absent.

I understand it, I know it, I experienced it most of my life. In their synagogues, American Jews have to create kedusha , a separated sanctity, all themselves. At the flick of the switch when they walk in the sanctuary, to disappear into the recesses of their pockets the minute they leave the building. Therein the big, fancy synagogues – temples in the desert. Excess as a response to famine, to spiritual starvation, to the domination of chol -- the decidedly un-sacred – on the outside.

Kedusha permeates the environment in Israel. An aura of the divine blankets this land and envelops its time, no matter the desecration of the Holy One that too often characterizes Israel’s social and political life. Our Shabbat minyan meets in a hastily-transformed but pleasant two room senior center, with a paper-mache portable ark that rests otherwise in a storage pod and contains, at its max, two scrolls. But it doesn’t matter. Shul lives together with its environs, not separated from it.

Big is quintessentially American, at the surface level and below. But it not always better – far from it -- reflecting as much absence as presence.

For an American Jew, it’s a big thing to realize that small is good. It might be the first step over here, to a lifestyle not consumed by big, to a society where it is much easier, blessedly, for Jews to bring kodesh and chol together.