Thoughts On Rosh Hashanah 2022

It’s amazing how busy the day gets. Work, writing, errands, etc. Before I know it, it is time to go to bed.

Rosh Hashanah starts this coming Sunday evening. For two days, Jews around the world will temporarily put their daily schedule on hold and ask our creator to forgive our sins and mistakes from the previous year.

For my part, I am looking forward to the holiday. It will be the break I have been looking for. This time of year is the busy season for my industry. For the last six weeks or so, I have been putting in long hours that have thoroughly put me through my paces. This time away from work and the very long to-do list is just what the doctor ordered.

To everyone celebrating, have a sweet and happy new year.

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Mrs. Houdini: A Novel Book Review

There is an old saying about men and women:

‘Behind every great man there’s a great woman’

In 2017, Mrs. Houdini: A Novel, by Victoria Kelly hit bookstores. The novel is the story of Bess Houdini, who is best remembered as the wife of legendary magician Harry Houdini. The story moves between two time periods: after Harry’s death and during their many decades of marriage. After he dies, Bess does her best to reach him in the other world.

Though they were of different faiths and different temperaments (Bess was Catholic and easygoing and Harry was Jewish and passionate), they made it work. Bess, in addition to being part of her husband’s act, took care of the behind-the-scenes duties that were not seen by the public. When she meets a young photographer who wants to help to reconnect with Harry, she learns that his magic may have been more than a fantasy.

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I really enjoyed this book. It reminded me of The Other Einstein. Bess is not just the pretty assistant in barely there clothing or the wife stuck in the domestic sphere. She is an integral part of her husband’s career and life. Without her, he would not become the legend whose life and work still inspire magicians today.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Mrs. Houdini: A Novel is available wherever books are sold.

It’s Been 100 Years Since the First Bat Mitzvah

Every culture and society has its own ceremony or experience to mark the point in life in which a young person starts on the road to adulthood.

In Judaism, this commemoration is called Bar Mitzvah (for a boy) or Bat Mizvah (for a girl). Usually held around the child’s 13th birthday, it is both a religious experience and a time for family and friends to celebrate the new phase in this person’s life. While Bar Mitzvahs have been held for centuries, a Bat Mitzvah is a relatively new addition to the Jewish life cycle.

Last Friday was the 100th birthday of the first Bat Mitzvah. On March 18th of 1922, Judith Kaplan (daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism) became the first girl to officially celebrate her entrance into the world as a Jewish adult.

Coming only two years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it was just reading from the Torah. It was a revolutionary act, opening the door for future generations of Jewish women to move beyond the traditional spheres of marriage, housework, and motherhood. Since then, it has become standard practice within most streams of Judaism that both girls and boys will have their turn on the bimah.

In honor of this anniversary, an Instagram account has been created to tell Kaplan’s story in a way to speaks to this generation of kids. It’s cute, charming, and reminds me of my own excitement of becoming a Bat Mitzvah almost 30 years ago.

If I am reminded of one thing, is that feminism, like all social movements, cannot exist in a bubble. Without allies, it is nearly impossible to turn slogans and ideas into reality. Rabbi Kaplan, in our modern vernacular, was a feminist ally. It is through him and his daughter, we would still be stuck in the dark ages and the outdated idea of what women can and cannot do.

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Thoughts on the 3rd Anniversary of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

There is a joke about Jewish history: “they tried to kill us, we survived. Let’s eat”. But like any joke, there is a truth behind the laughter. Though we are still here, the collective emotional scar of the losses is still with us, even if it is generations after a specific event.

Today is the 3rd anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. To even type those words hurts. It could have happened in any synagogue in America. But this person chose to walk into Tree of Life and started shooting. What I remember about that day is the fear as I watched the news. I have not attended services reguarlarly in decades, but I have family who does. My initial fear was that this heinous act had reached my relatives. Thankfully, it didn’t.

The message that was sent did not need to be spoken. According to the gunman and those who think like him, we do not belong in this country. Our “differences” (which are merely on the surface) mark us for at best being questionable outsiders and at worst, put a target on our backs. I would love to say that in the three years since 11 innocent people were murdered, that this was the turning point away from hate and prejudice. Unfortunately, as we all know, it wasn’t.

May the memories of those killed that day be a blessing. Z”L.

For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World Book Review

When we think of rituals, we often think of them attached to a specific religion or religious experience. But rituals can be more than that. They give us structure and allow us to deal with challenges and occurances that life can throw our way.

For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, by Sasha Sagan, was published earlier this month. Sagan is the daughter of the late scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/producer Ann Druyan, was raised as a secular Jew. A secular Jew is one who is part of the faith by virtue of being born to Jewish parents. They identify as Jewish, but limit how, when, and where they practice. As a child, she was taught nature, science, and space can tell us more about life and it’s various stages more than any tale created by humans.

When Sagan’s daughter was born, she started to examine how the concepts she learned as a youngster influence how we approach life events. Her goal was to create new rituals that emphasize the moment without relying on a specific religious perspective.

This book is very interesting. Her approach is to study multiple religions and cultures to compare and contrast how each views and approaches life and its various changes. Talking about life, death, and everything in between, Sagan is both respectful and curious, introducing the reader to people and beliefs they may or may not have heard of.

If nothing else, we learn that for all of our outward differences, human beings are all the same. The names, procedures, and details differ. But once we get past that, the similarities are remarkable.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present Book Review

Anyone with an inkling of knowledge of Jewish history knows that it comes down to one phrase: they tried to kill us, we survived, now lets eat”. Though its a joke, the truth behind it is far from funny. Over the millennia, we have been accused of lies, forced to convert and assimilate to survive, persecuted, and murdered.

Dara Horn‘s new book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, was published last month. A respected novelist and writer whose work has often focused on anything and everything related to Judaism, Horn examines how we look at deceased Jews are looked with starry eyed nostalgia. But yet, when it comes to living members of the faith, antisemitism is still an all too dangerous part of our lives. Using examples such as Anne Frank, Shylock, and the Auschwitz. Not Long Ago, Not Far Away, Horn looks at how modern Jews are experiencing the same bullshit that our ancestors went through.

I loved this book. Pulling no punches, the author knocks the rose colored glasses off the reader’s face. She forces us to take a long and difficult look at the past and how its time to get real. As I see it, we have an opportunity to put to rest the deception that has caused too many generations to suffer for no reason. The question is, are we willing to do so? Or is it easier to just repeat the actions of our predecessors?

Do I recommend it? Yes.

P.S. There is an adjoining podcast, Adventures With Dead Jews that is the perfect complement to the book.

The Convert Book Review

These days, depending on who you speak to, religious intermarriage is either just part of normal life or has a hand in breaking down the various faiths. But for as many opinions on this subject that exist, there is one thing that cannot be disputed: it is not a new idea.

The Convert, written by Stefan Hertmans and translated by David McKay, was published last year. In eleventh century France, an unlikely couple has fallen in love. He is David Todros, the son of a prominent Jewish Rabbi and a yeshiva student. She is Vigdis Adelaïs, the daughter of a high ranking Christian family. In spite of the obstacles of faith, family and everything around them that is telling them to back off, they decide to get married. Vigdis converts to Judaism, giving up the life she had before she met David.

She expects that she her father will do everything in his power to bring her home. What she does not expect is an anti-Semitic pogrom and a journey that will take her halfway around the world before she returns to Europe.

Based on the Cairo Genizah, a group of documents and scrolls dating back more than a thousand years, this book is part fact and part fiction. What I liked was that the format is different than other novels in this genre. As we follow the characters on their respect journey, we travel with the author as he goes on a similar journey to put the pieces of the puzzle together. He is able to walk the fine line of using the information that is known while adding historical details that make the period come alive.

What I appreciate is that Vigdis is not the helpless damsel in distress type. She has experiences that could easily kill her. But she survives and is able to make it through a world that others her as both a woman and a Jew.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World Book Review

One of the major tenets of Judaism is “tikkun olam“. In English, it means “repair the world” and in our modern lingo, it is social justice.

Hasia R. Diner‘s 2017 biography of the late businessman and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald is entitled Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World. Born in 1862 to Jewish immigrants, his early years were modest. As an adult, he took over the helm of Sears, Roebuck & Company and made it the retail giant of it’s day. He also ahead of his time in the manner that he treated his staff and his approach to those who were not as fortunate as he was. Instead of putting his names on buildings and using his wealth for conspicuous consumption, he was passionate about giving back. In addition to supporting his co-religionists, he supported the African-American community in a way that many Caucasians did not in that early 20th century.

Before reading this book, I had no idea who Rosenwald was. He is one of those figures in Jewish history who is not as well known as others of his day. This is a quick read (in a good way) and a story that I think is inspiring for us all, regardless of faith or family origin. It shows that it is possible to be a mensch and not give into the preconceived notions of other people.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury Review

In the Jewish faith, Psalm 137 has the following lines:

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [her cunning]/ If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

The new six part CNN miniseries, Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury premiered last night. Over the course of the six episodes Sundays, the program tells the story of the city of Jerusalem via six key battles that changed the fate of the city and the region. Combining re-enactments with interviews with historians and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars, the viewer is given a 360 degree picture of it’s past, it’s present, and perhaps, a glimpse of its future.

The first episode focused on the glory days of King Saul, King David, and the downfall of ancient Israel after the death of King Solomon. I enjoyed the first episode. If nothing else, it proved that humanity has not changed one bit. Externally, the world may look different, but inside, it is the same as it ever was. It is also, I think a pathway to understanding what has come before us so we can create a better world for future generations.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury airs on CNN on Sunday night at 10PM.

My Unorthodox Life Review

Walking away from the family we were raised in and the world that we have known our entire lives is not easy. In the world of Orthodox Judaism, the term is called “off the derech“.

The new Netflix reality show, My Unorthodox Life, follows the life of former Orthodox Jew and businesswoman Julia Haart. Living in New York City with her second husband and three of her four children, the viewer is introduced to the tug of war between Haart’s previous life in Monsey and her current day to day life.

After watching a few episodes, I can understand why some Orthodox Jewish women are annoyed by how their community is portrayed, I think the viewer has to take into account that this is Haart’s perspective. I like the mental health aspect of the series, addressing how many women in conservative or fundamentalist may feel trapped by the constraints of their gender and the rules of their gender. I also liked how positively Judaism is portrayed. Though Haart is no longer Orthodox, she is still Jewish and not afraid to be open about it. It is educational without hitting the audience over the head.

It has the gloss of a Bravo reality show, but it is slightly less trashy and not as much of a brain drain as other programs in the genre.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

My Unorthodox Life is available for streaming on Netflix.

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