At her bat mitzvah last month at Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Pa., my daughter Hannah spoke about the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the aesthetic enhancement of Jewish customs. Bathed in the light of the synagogue’s new stained-glass windows depicting Jewish holidays and allegorical representations of biblical figures, Hannah eloquently linked the Torah portion, which dealt with the ancient Israelites’ building of the tabernacle in the desert, with the creation of Jewish art and artifacts in our own day.
I’ve never been known to recall details with great precision, something which, at 45, has become increasingly apparent as my kids have to remind me where we parked, or what time to pick them up from school, or even, on some days, that they have school.
Gratitude, scientists tell us, is one of the healthiest of emotions. Jewish liturgy is replete with prayers of thankfulness; the reason why many observant Jews attend morning minyan, they say, is to start each day with an “attitude of gratitude.” The Torah suggests that God created humanity, in part, because He needed applause for his sublime authorship. And not just people — the Rabbis believed that every living thing acclaimed God with the song of its own species; these lyrics are contained in the ancient text, “Perek Shirah” (“Chapter of Song”).
What is it about “Fiddler on the Roof” that has such a hold on us, half a century on?
The adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his family for the Great White Way not only broke all Broadway records in 1964, but created a frame of reference for American Jews to discuss who they were, where they were going, and what Judaism meant. Attending the play, watching the movie, putting on school productions or singing the songs at home became part of an elaborate communal ritual for over half a century.
My middle daughter, Sarah, who is 8, loves to make announcements. Whether intoning the day’s kosher lunch menu into the loudspeaker in her day school, or calling her sisters to the dinner table, she enjoys basking in the spotlight that comes from having information to impart.
At the recent Covenant Foundation symposium in Chicago, educators from around North America gathered to discuss the topic, “Assessing Jewish Wisdom in the 21st Century.” The keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, from Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Southern California, who offered a new metaphor for Jewish identity today: The iPhone.
They might as well have called us the People of the Couch.
No, I’m not talking about living room furniture. I mean the couch used by psychoanalysts in treating their patients. Ever since an atheist Jewish doctor in Vienna helped to reinvent Western civilization with his psychological theories more than a century ago, Jews have been disproportionately associated, both as practitioners and as patients, with Sigmund Freud’s science of the mind.
I was moved to tears the other day when we visited a family with young children for Sukkot only to find that their sukkah had blown down in high winds. In their pristine back yard, on a putting green of healthy grass, a metal frame lay ominously on its side, like a giant spider carcass, or a sculpture by Louise Nevelson.
Sweating gold, the sun had risen on the last morning of a long, hot summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where my wife serves on staff and our children go to camp. The campers were in the Hadar Ochel (Dining Room), preparing to say an impossible, unimaginable good-bye to friends. The staff guarded the doors, to keep the campers from fleeing. As the bus to Maryland pulled up in the drive, the show tune “Good Morning, Baltimore” blasted from the PA system. The cheeky anthem from “Hairspray” instantly reduced everyone to tears. Just a month after Tisha b’Av, when the campers had mourned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, now regret and lamentation were surging like a river.
Art lovers were horrified to read that a treasure trove of stolen masterpieces from the Dutch Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam last October were likely burned to ashes by the mother of one of the alleged thieves.