Klezmer, Yiddish, and How I Became a Cultural Ambassador for the Jews


Growing up Jewish in central Maine, I had few opportunities to connect with my religion and culture. While I had Jewish friends from music camp, few of my public-school classmates had any sense of what being Jewish meant, beyond knowing that it somehow made me different from them.

And I lacked the tools to be a cultural ambassador.

That changed when my grandmother, who lived in San Diego, sent me a cassette tape of the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble. Suddenly, our minivan was filled with wailing clarinets, the startling sound of the ahava raba scale (the almost minor scale used in most klezmer music), and the beautiful voice of a woman singing in Yiddish.

I yearned to sing in that language and thought it might be a way to introduce something of my Jewishness to my peers.

I had read works by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem in translation, but longed to read their writings in the original Yiddish. I wanted to understand the colloquialisms, read in the cadence of Yiddish, incorporate the language into my life beyond “oy gevalt” and “tuchus.”

I began by learning to play and sing some of the songs from the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble album. Another resource was a Dover collection of Yiddish songs, with piano music, guitar chords, and Yiddish lyrics transliterated into English characters. My favorite song was Abi Gezunt (If You Have Your Health). I played some of these songs for the fiddle ensemble and in concert at my school.

This was my cultural ambassador moment, my way of sharing a Jewish cultural aspect with my broader community.

I didn’t know at the time that I had Aaron Lansky to thank for the ease of access I had to the Yiddish language and music. He was 24 and a grad student of Yiddish literature when he founded the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, in 1980.

Lansky says he realized that untold numbers of irreplaceable Yiddish books – the legacy of a thousand years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe – were being discarded by American-born Jews unable to read the language of their Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. So, he organized a nationwide network of zamlers (volunteer book collectors) and launched a concerted campaign to save the world’s remaining Yiddish books before it was too late.

In only six months, they recovered more than a million volumes, many of them donated lovingly by the books’ owners, others rescued from demolition sites and dumpsters.

Lansky’s memoir, Outwitting History: The Amazing Story of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, reads at times like an adventure novel, as the rescuers encounter all kinds of weather as they race to save these cultural treasures. In his search for funding and logistical support, Lansky describes how he appealed to Jews in Catskill resorts, reminding me of how, as a teen, I became hooked on an Allan Sherman comedy album sprinkled with Yiddishisms that embodied to me the social aspects of Judaism that were missing in my life. I made my parents play it again and again when taking long car rides.

Lansky says he never envisioned the Center as a “static storehouse for old books,” but rather “to place old volumes into the hands of new readers.” Since 1997, its 12,000 digitalized books have been downloaded 1.6 million times.

Singing in Yiddish, even appreciating Yiddish makes me feel like I’m a member of a wonderful club, with its expressive speech, soulful music, deeply philosophical literature, and living connection to a faraway place and long-ago time.

The Center for Yiddish Books has done a valuable service in preserving a language about which it could be quipped, “reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.”

Outwitting History is an inspiring account of Lansky’s ambitious vision and the network he created to save millions of books and keep alive a precious language and culture of the Jewish people.

Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. She is a columnist for Working Waterfront, and writes about rural Jewish parenting for Kveller.com.

Judge a Society by Its Hospitality

A couple is served dinner

To live in a period when public officials and private citizens demonize “the other” — immigrants, foreigners, strangers, women, individuals of different sexual orientation, and the poor — is to live in a tragic times. Whereas welcoming the outsider is the biblical underpinnning of so many Genesis narratives, this sacred principle is not always preeminent because the Bible is a human book that not only promotes ideals, but also notes the failure to live up to them. Vayeira provides such a contrast between depravity and disregard for outsiders on one hand, and kindness, generosity, and hospitality to strangers on the other.

In the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah comments: “The outcry of [za’akat] Sodom and Gomorrah — how great it is, and their crime [chatatam] — how grave it is!” (Genesis 18:20). However, this text offers no further elucidation of sins committed by the citizens of these doomed cities. In contrast, the Torah is clear that a previous society of evildoers, the generation of the flood, was destroyed because “the earth was filled withlawlessness [chamas]” (Genesis 6:11).

The remembrance of the merciless and cruel behavior of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah who were hardened to kindness and compassion is echoed in the words of the Prophet Ezekiel:

Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me … (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

With no detailed information about the sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Torah, Sages and scholars visualized sins of lust and sexual depravity because this opportunistic and inhospitable people treated strangers as fair game, subject to any imaginable violation, abuse, or whim. This interpretation is based on an incident in which Lot extended hospitality to two strangers, whereupon the townspeople demanded that Lot turn them over in order that “we may be intimate with them” (Genesis 19:5). However, mindful of the ancient hospitality code that demands that a guest in an individual’s home has the absolute protection of the host, Lot tried to shield the men from harm’s way by offering the Sodomites his young virgin daughters instead of his guests:

He said, “Please, brothers, do no evil! Look — I have two daughters who have never been intimate with a man: let me bring them out for you, and do to them as you please. But do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof. (Genesis 19:7-8)

Thus Lot was portrayed as both a solid citizen and a flawed human being. He not only offered his virgin daughters to the rabble-rousers in order to protect his two guests, but also two further accounts document father-daughter incest, unholy unions with his daughters that resulted in the birth of Moab (meaning “from father”) — “he is the father of the Moabites of today” and Ben-ammi (meaning, “son of my kin”) — “he is the father of the Ammonites of today” (Genesis 19:33-38). It is no wonder that the name of the ancient city of Sodom becomes synonynous with sexual perversion. Nevertheless, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah must have been appreciably more heinous than Lot’s contemptable behavior, because he and his family were exempted from the punishment that befell all the other denizens of those wicked cities.

A further moral failure read into the limited available textual information was the refusal to extend a helping hand to those in need. The Talmud imagined that the citizens of Sodom decreed death to anyone who fed the poor:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. On the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, (in Genesis 18:20), “The “outrage” [za-akah] of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b)

The Talmud further tells how the people of Sodom offered the appearance, but not the actuality, of hospitality to strangers:

Whenever a pauper happened to come to them, each and every Sodomite would give him a dinar, and before doing so would write his name on [the coin] And, as per a prior agreement, [the Sodomites] would not offer [the pauper] bread. When [the pauper] eventually died of hunger, each and every Sodomite came and took back his coin. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b)

A second text in Vayeira (Genesis 18:1ff) offers a distinct contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites. It describes God’s appearance before Abraham as Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent when three men seemed to appear out of nowhere. Abraham terminated communication with God in order to offer hospitality to these strangers. He prepared a feast and offered them an opportunity to refresh themselves. So important was hospitality to Abraham that he allowed this moment of religious ecstasy to be interrupted. He affirmed the important lesson that social responsibility must supercede religious belief and practice, later articulated in the Talmud: hachnasat orchim — “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a).

Vayeira contrasts the the treatment of people at the margins of society — they can be ignored or welcomed, abused or protected. Everyone benefits when hospitality for outsiders is woven into the fabric of society, an important lesson that needs reinforcement in every age, especially during this modern age when the political climate demonizes “the other,” rather than honoring and uplifting the stranger in our midst.

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.

PURSUING SOCIAL JUSTICE: In Hope of a Better Tomorrow: How to Help Ensure Justice for Immigrants

BY ELIZABETH LEFF , 10/24/2017

Lech L’cha, Genesis chapters 12:1-17:2, reveals the ancient promise from God of a new and greater land. In this Torah portion, we read, “The Eternal One said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will glorify your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.’” (Genesis 12:1-3).

As an American Jew, I am familiar with this language. These words are the foundation of the American dream; they are how Lady Liberty welcomes newcomers to the American shore. These are the words of the promised land and the land of milk and honey. They live true in Micah and “Hamilton” alike, when we read “And they shall dwell each person under their vine and under their fig tree, and no one shall make them move, for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4). They represent the bliss that comes from the certainty of tomorrow.

For me, the promise and certainty of tomorrow is often as simple as the confidence and excitement with which I approach my future, a privilege I may never fully appreciate. For 11 million undocumented people in the United States, this certainty is illusive – it hangs in the balance of a deeply complicated and intoxicatingly bureaucratic governmental system that is neither nimble nor quick.

On September 5, 2017, the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA has allowed nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrant youth, brought to the United States as children, to obtain work permits, attend school, and contribute openly to our economy without fear of deportation. In many cases, these young people grew up in the United States and want to give back to society and raise their own families in the only nation they know as home. By ending DACA and its protections, the administration again made these DACA recipients, known as DREAMers, vulnerable to detention or deportation. It took away their certainty about tomorrow.

The first step on a long road of immigrant justice reform is the passage of a clean Dream Act of 2017 (“clean” means the legislation includes no additional funding for enforcement or a border wall). Passage of the bipartisan Dream Act (S.1615/H.R.3440) would permit conditional permanent residents to obtain lawful permanent residence status (known as “getting a green card”), and then provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers who attend college, work in the U.S., or serve in the military.

The message of Lech L’cha promotes a better land in a better place. For hundreds of thousands of immigrant youth living in fear and in danger of deportation, the United States is, nonetheless, still their better place. We have a responsibility as Jews to leverage the full power of our community and urge our representatives to pass the clean Dream Act, giving back to these people the certainty of their tomorrow.

Here are four ways to do so:

Attend an Immigrant Justice Shabbat Observance on November 3-4, 2017. Find a congregation near you and inquire if the community is participating in this initiative.

Sign up to participate in a call-in day on Monday, November 6. 2017, to push the Dream Act in Congress.

Urge your Congressional representatives to pass the clean Dream Act.
Amplify this effort on social media by following the RAC on Twitter, like the RAC on Facebook, and using the hashtag #Faith4Dream.

Elizabeth Leff is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where her portfolio includes immigration, among other issues. She grew up at Lake Placid Synagogue in Lake Placid, NY, and is a graduate of New York University.

In Memoriam of Marian Unger

Dear Members,

I am saddened to inform you of the passing of Marian Unger, mother of Lisa Schoer, Sandy Gordin, and Carol Unger. Our condolences go out to the entire family. Tomorrow evening, Tuesday, October 24 at 6:00 pm, a memorial service will be held at the synagogue followed by a mourners’ meal. We urge you to extend your sympathy to Sandy Gordin at 7250 New Cut Road, Inman, SC 29349 and to her sisters, Lisa Schoer at 1950 Buford Dam Road #203, Cumming, GA 30041 and Carol Unger at caryunger@gmail.com or 10015 Haynes Bridge Road, Unit 37, John’s Creek, GA 30022.

I lieu of flowers, the family asked that you make a donation to Temple B’nai Israel in honor of Marian Unger.

I hope that you can come for this memorial service and show support for the family.

Sincerely yours,
Yossi J. Liebowitz, Rabbi

Special Friday Night Service!


Dr. Robert McCormick, chair of the Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy and American Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate, recently published a book through I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd. titled “Croatia Under Ante Pavelić: America, the Ustaše and Croatian Genocide.”

Ante Pavelić was the leader of a paramilitary and terrorist force, the Ustaše, who, on Adolf Hitler’s instruction, became the leader of Croatia after the Nazi invasion of 1941. “Ante Pavelić was one of the most significant war criminals from World War II to never answer for his crimes,” McCormick said. “With Allied and Vatican assistance, he successfully escaped to Argentina and ultimately died in 1959 in Spain.”

McCormick’s book, examines the relationship between the United States and Ante Pavelić from when he masterminded the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934 to his death in 1959. For much of the 1930s, extremist Croatian-Americans were important supporters of Pavelić and the Ustaše, helping to keep his Croatian nationalist message alive in America and Europe. After gaining power in wartime Croatia, Pavelić’s regime killed about 330,000 Serbs, Jews, and Roma, while operating a series of concentration camps.

After the war, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Vatican conspired to help Pavelić and many of his allies avoid arrest and escape from Europe to the safety of Argentina. Tracing Pavelić’s escape to Argentina, McCormick argues that American authorities protected Pavelić, because he was devout Catholic and anti-Communist, who held the potential to be useful in the emerging Cold War. McCormick also examines the consequences of American decisions by studying Pavelić’s place in contemporary Croatian society.

“Pavelić’s legacy was influential in the Balkan Wars of the early 1990s and continues to be a factor in Croatian politics and society,” McCormick said.

McCormick is chair of the Department of History, Political Science, Philosophy and American Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate and is an associate professor of history. A native of North Carolina, he received a B.A. in history from Wake Forest University. He holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of South Carolina. He has published articles ranging from reform in Macedonia in the early twentieth century to genocide in World War II Croatia to an evolution controversy in 1884 Greenville, S.C.

Want to be Happy? Take a Lesson From Jewish Tradition


Two people in total shadow jumping on the beach with sunlight behind them
Before my dad ever put our Buick station wagon into gear – whether we were heading off on vacation, to take the SATs, or have wisdom teeth extracted – he would turn to face whomever was in the back seat. In a voice reminiscent of Ted Lewis, the 1920s jazz band leader (born Theodore Friedman in 1892), he would ask Lewis’ famous question: “Is everybody happy?” He wouldn’t budge until we had dutifully responded that we were.

A recent New York Times article about happiness and the immune system reminded me of my dad’s signature question, and confirmed that he was on to something. It appears that being in a positive state of mind when receiving a flu vaccine significantly boosts immune response. Happiness, then, not only offers pleasurable sensations to individuals and those around them, but also can be good for health.

Much writing and discussion in Jewish texts focuses on happiness and professionals in this field (yes, happiness experts do exist) might agree that we make our lives better (and ourselves happier) by striving to be good people, by helping others, and by creating and maintaining meaningful relationships. The Hebrew language – which is notoriously economical – boasts numerous, albeit subtly different, words for joy: simchah, gila, sasson, and rina. And finally, the Jewish calendar, too, offers us the recently-ended harvest festival of Sukkot, that not only ushers in Israel’s much needed rainy season, but also is known as z’man simchateinu – the season of our joy.

What follows this season of joy is the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, which begins this evening and sometimes is referred to as mar Cheshvan (bitter Cheshvan) because of its dearth of Jewish holidays other than Shabbat. With a harvest safely tucked in and our Torah scrolls returned to their everyday garb, it’s back to business as usual in the synagogue and in our lives. Today, that often means we worry about friends and family affected by hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires. We mourn for victims of senseless gun violence. We’re anxious about healthcare – for ourselves, the people we love, and those who lack it entirely. The list goes on.

Just as Ted Lewis, seeking to encourage positivity in audiences mired in the unemployment, poverty, uncertainty, and fear of the Great Depression asked if everyone was happy, so, too, has our Jewish tradition – winking, smiling, and prodding – just asked us the very same question. Even as my brother, sisters, and I sometimes rolled our eyes at the question, we always answered, “Yes, Dad, everybody’s happy,” forgetting, just for a moment, our worries and trepidations. “Yes, we’re happy, Dad. Let’s go.”

This Cheshvan – and throughout the year – we can learn a lot from the optimism of Ted Lewis, my dad, and our Jewish tradition. Doing so just might boost our immune systems, help us appreciate the joy of simple pleasures in our lives, and give us strength to oppose the ills that plague our world.

For Source, Click Here.

Reform Movement Responds to President Trump’s Announced Decision to Not Certify Iran Nuclear Deal

October 13, 2017

WASHINGTON – In response to President Trump’s announcement that he will not certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the wider Reform Movement.

“President Trump’s decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is a poor and destabilizing choice that makes our world less, rather than more, secure. There is no question that when the Iran deal was initially presented, our Movement had serious concerns about the agreement’s ability to positively impact deterrence, Iran’s support of terror, inspections, human rights and religious freedom, and the United States’ standing in the world. However, at this point in the deal’s implementation, our shared global task is to ensure the JCPOA’s success. Unfortunately, President Trump’s decision undermines that effort.

“As an array of U.S. and Israeli national security experts, from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, have attested, to unravel or destabilize the deal and the verification that accompanies it is to make the world less safe. Such a step is confusing – something no nuclear agreement should ever be. At the same time, real concerns about Iran’s activities, from human rights violations to conventional weapons proliferation and beyond, should be addressed through other means, rather than opening up the delicate JCPOA.

“We urge Congress to act to promote the strength of the JCPOA and ensure the United States’, Israel’s, and the world’s safety from Iran’s nuclear program.”

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 2,000 Reform rabbis. Visit www.rac.org for more.

Media Contact:
Sarah Garfinkel, West End Strategy Team
sarah@westendstrategy.com; Office: 202-776-7700; Cell: 202-765-4290

A Post Sukkot Creation Review: Taking Care of God’s Creation with Linda Ott Sunday, October 22

Breakfast at 9:00
Speaker at 10:00

Join us for our first of the fall Sunday Speaker Series as we welcome Linda Ott from Sustaining Way. Linda comes to the SCIPL (South Carolina Interfaith Power & Light) Director role most recently as a graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary with a Masters of Theology in Creation Care. Linda’s vocation life journey included the military, social work, business, and law. Her passion for creation care stems from her time at Drew Theological School, where she completed a Masters of Divinity and discovered her passion for understanding the intersection of faith and the care of creation.

Eden Defines the Truth About Responsibility (D’var Torah)


What could have possibly have been so bad about taking just one bite from a piece of fruit? But in Parashat B’reishit, the fruit Eve served to Adam was not just any fruit; it was fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad. Adam ate and did not ask any questions about where that delectable morsel came from. Consequently, that feast turned out to be Adam and Eve’s last supper, their last free meal, because they were expelled from the Garden of Eden immediately following dessert.

Not being just any plain garden variety of fruit, the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad resulted in the loss of innocence in much the way a teenager leaves the innocence of childhood behind when acquiring adult interests in money, sex, and power. But was eating the forbidden fruit the sin that earned them God’s scorn and a lifetime of sweat and toil, a punishment also passed onto succeeding generations?

Adam and Eve could not plead ignorance of the law; clearly, they had been warned, “You may eat all you like of every tree in the garden — but of the Tree of All Knowledge you may not eat, for the moment you eat of it you shall be doomed to die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Were they testing God’s warning? Did boredom lead them to seek a cheap thrill by disobeying God or was it something else?

The beguiling snake mocked God by planting doubt in Eve’s mind: “Did God really say, ‘You may not eat of any tree in the Garden?’…You most certainly will not die! … (for) God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like the gods, knowing all things” (Genesis 3:1, 4-5). Loss of innocence, failure to heed God’s word, and mistrust of God’s edict all should have been cause enough to have earned Adam and Eve a one-way ticket from Eden, but according to Rabbinic tradition, the sin that led to expulsion was different.

The paramount sin of the Garden of Eden was lack of accountability. When Adam was questioned by God about eating the fruit, he passed the responsibility to Eve: “The woman whom You gave me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, so I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Eve did not own up to her deed as well: “The serpent tricked me into eating it” (Genesis 3:13). Neither was willing to take responsibility for the misdeed, and so they were cast out of the Garden forever.

Jewish tradition is resolute in insisting that individuals take responsibility for their actions as the Mishnah instructs: “An individual is always responsible, whether the act is intentional or inadvertent, whether awake or asleep” (Mishnah, Bava Kama 2.6).

More than ever, this age, like so many others, is one in which people shrink from personal responsibility for action or inaction; all too many in the public and private sectors look for something or someone else to blame for their own objectionable behavior. Thus, the loss of personal accountability defines our age. This malaise fills our government and our courtrooms: “Don’t blame me. I’m not responsible. I’m a victim.” Some people successfully exploit loopholes in the law or launch false ad hominem attacks against others to deflect from their own misdeeds. The more this kind of behavior persists, the more it becomes accepted as “normal.”

Blame, elaborating grievances, and refining excuses are so much more convenient than is taking personal responsibility for one’s action. We’ve become a nation of whiners, always accusing someone else or some circumstance to explain away unsuitable behavior. Looking around makes one wonder if humankind has made any real progress since Eden. The fact that it hasn’t is the reason no one has ever been able to return to Eden, because only when people stand tall and take responsibility for their actions can there ever be a return to the tree of life at the center of the garden.

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, PhD is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.

For more readings and information, Click Here: