About Me

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

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.