Happy Memorial Day

May we fly the flag proudly, for a change, next year.


Sholem Aleichem Down Under

Check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4eQPyIv5fY
It's a YouTube clip of our Sholem Aleichem Bobblehead Doll in action in Australia, sent to me by Rokhl Kafrissen, our Rootless Cosmopolitan blogger and organizer, who provides transliteration and translation below —

Nu, if you want a Sholem Aleichem Bobblehead of your own, visit www.jewishcurrents.org!

We love Yiddish because it is THE language
Here we come, it's the weekend and we're speaking Yiddish non-stop
It rings in our ears and warms the heart
Because Yiddish is... the new black!

Here we come, here we come

From Czernowitz to Melbourne isn't too far
Even though it takes a long time on an airplane
So you say you have Yiddish in your blood
Then sing with us our refrain!

Here we come...

We're bringing from Australia to the rest of the world
this rap which has been a hit everywhere
Mameloshn blooms here from generation to generation
Together we sing it with one voice, high and clear!

Mir hobn lib yiddish vayl es iz di shprakh
mir kumen on di sof vokh redn yiddish a sakh
es klingt undz in di oyrn varemt undz di hartz
vayl yiddish iz...di nayer shvartz!

mir kumen on etc

fun czernowitz keyn melbourne iz nisht zeyer vayt
khotsh af an aeroplan doyert es a langer tsayt

yo ir hot gezogt az ir hot yidish in di tseynto lomir itster zingn undzer refrayn

mir kumen on

Mir brengen fun oystralye tsu der gantser velt
undzer rap vos hot umetum gefelt
mameloshn blit bay undz fun dor tsu dor
tsuzmen in eyn kol zing men hoykh un klor


Tales to Tell of Rabbi Akiva

I've never pushed my springtime Jewish observance past Passover to mess around with counting the omer during the forty-nine days that lead from peysakh to shvues (Shavuot). I have friends who do so and get all involved with kabbalistic associations with each day of the omer, associations involving the sefirot (mystical aspects of God), colors, personality traits, foods, and so on. But for me, the post-seder clean-up begins when the guests leave and doesn’t end until I head for Cape Cod in August. Like most faithless Jews, I tend to view Jewish holidays not as opportunities but as impositions — alas! — and so my personal Jewish calendar becomes a large, blissfully empty block between Nisan and Elul . . .

In other words, I won't be observing Lag B'Omer next week — how about you?

Judging from what I've read (If you really want to walk on the wild side, there's an interesting 'Jewish Messianic' take on the holiday at http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/parashah.html), Lag B'Omer is actually an emotionally powerful observance, as it centers around the figure of Rabbi Akiva, one of the most compelling figures in Jewish history and lore. Lag B'Omer focuses on the end-days of his life — but for me, Akiva, it's his earlier days that have amazing appeal, as exemplified in three stories:

The first tells of his being forty years old and entirely untutored — until one day when he is standing by a stone well and wonders, Who cut a hole in this rock? Someone quotes to him a passage from the book of Job about water wearing away even stones, and Akiva thinks: If something so soft can cut something so hard, then surely the words of Jewish knowledge can engrave themselves on my heart. So he takes himself and his son to a teacher of little children and says, "My teacher, teach me Torah!" And he goes on from that humble state to devour knowledge, so that, as Avot DeRabbai Natan (a fabulous midrashic text) puts it, “Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah at age forty, and thirteen years later he was teaching Torah to crowds of people." And he was featured in People magazine, etcetera. Is this a cinematic story, or what?

Another of my favorite Akiva stories has him sleeping on straw with his new wife, who is the daughter of the richest man in town but has been disowned by him for marrying this ignoramus, Akiva, his former shepherd. "They were married in the winter," says the Talmud (Nedarim 50a), "and they used to sleep on straw."

Picking straw out of his hair, he said to her, "If only I had the money, I would buy you a Jerusalem of gold" (a tiara wrought in the shape of the city walls).

At that moment, Elijah the prophet came outside their gate, calling for straw. "My wife is about to give birth, and I have nothing for her to lie on."

Says Rabbi Akiva to his bride: "See — there is someone who doesn't even have straw."

Oh, my goodness . . .

In a third of my favorite Akiva stories, he approaches Rabbi Tarfon, who is wealthy but does not sufficiently give tsedoke. (This is the Rabbi Tarfon who famously said of social responsibility, "It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it." Hypocrite!) Akiva says: "My teacher, would you like me to purchase a city or two for you?"

Tarfon is enthusiastic and gives him 4,000 gold dinars — which Akiva goes and distributes tok the poor.

"A while later,” says the Talmudic tractate (Massechet Kallah), “Rabbi Tarfon found him and said: Where are the cities you purchased for me?"

Akiva brings him to the study house and opens the book of Psalms. They study together until they come to the verse, "If a person gives freely to the poor, his tsedoke will stand him in good stead forever." "This is the city I bought for you!" Akiva declares.

But Tarfon does not call his lawyers. Instead, he kisses Akiva on the head and says: "My teacher, my hero! My teacher in wisdom! My hero in the essences of Life!" And he gives Akiva more dinars to distribute.

(These passages are translated by Danny Siegel in his wonderful compendium, Where Heaven and Earth Touch. Nu, are you telling me that these stories wouldn't work just as well as the "Three Little Pigs" or "Cinderella" as beddy-bye or campfire tales? Jews, you have a wonderful folklore tradition!!)

It's too bad that as a relatively new blogger, I didn't think of counting the omer until today, twenty-five or thirty days in. Counting the omer by chattering my head off for 49 straight days would have been an interesting approach. Sitting down to write blogs, after all, is a kind of Jewish observance, for me, involving time and concentration and study and self-reflection and anxiety and at least some shards of inspiration — plus the prayer that there'll actually be readers!

So — if I hear from any of you, I'll tell more Akiva stories before Lag B'Omer...



The May/June issue of Jewish Currents includes a new feature, "Concealed/ Revealed," in which readers are invited to share their personal experiences pertaining to a wide variety of subjects. Essays should be limited to 300 words and focus on a specific experience that was transformative, provocative or just plain unforgettable. The first topic was "Jews and Shoes." The next topic is "Doctors," with a deadline of May 21st. After that, "Rabbis," with a deadline of July 21st. Essays should be sent to the magazine at jewishcurrents@circle.org.


What Obama's Up Against (Besides Hillary)

In the January-February issue of Jewish Currents, our editorial offered the following statistics:

“In the wake of the ongoing noose case in Jena, Louisiana . . . a CNN poll showed that only 47 percent of white respondents think that the criminal justice system discriminates against Blacks, a view held by 79 percent of African Americans. Similarly, a 2001 survey showed that 40 to 60 percent of whites (depending on how the question was framed) considered the average African American to be doing as well as, or even better than, the average white. A 2006 survey reported in Harvard’s Du Bois Review (www.fas.harvard.edu/~mrbworks/articles/2006_ DUBOIS.pdf) showed a preponderance of whites of different ages and geographic regions saying they’d be willing to spend the rest of their lives as an African-American for ‘compensation’ of only $10,000 — while requiring $1 million to spend the rest of their lives without television!”

Racism is so deeply ingrained in the U.S. that as soon as a black man (even a mixed-race man raised by a white mother!) shows himself to be cognizant of racism, or in any way devoted to the black community, he becomes a “race man.” Hell, America doesn't want “change,” America wants absolution — without repentance or reparations. Thus the race-transcending Barack Obama has now become the black candidate.

I remain optimistic about his prospects of winning only because of his overwhelming support among young people. Here are the stats, from Pew Research Center: 58 percent of voters under 30 lean towards the Democrats, compared with 33 percent who identify as Republican — a 14-point jump for the Democrats since 2004. Most important, voters under 30 have doubled and trebled their turnout in primaries across the country, and they are very much for Obama: in Georgia, 77%; Virginia, 76%; Mississippi, 73%; Wisconsin, 70%; Illinois, 69%; South Carolina, 67%; Louisiana, 66%; Missouri, 65%; Pennsylvania, 60%; Maryland, 64%.

These are the people who are going to bear the burdens of George Bush’s disastrous presidency for the rest of their lives. These are the people who can restore the Democratic party to majority status. These are the people who will either take on the responsibilities of citizenship — or not — in the decades to come. These are the people whose worldview has most truly been affected by the gains of the civil rights movement and the multicultural reality of America. And these are people for whom a Clinton victory will be most deeply alienating.

Go, youth, go! Don't trust anyone over 46.

Never Say Never Again

Today's intersection of May Day and Yom HaShoah has me feeling ashamed. Ashamed because the clenched fist of May Day, attached to my arm, becomes a hand covering my eyes at the spectacle of Jews being herded into gas chambers 65 years ago, and at the spectacle of other mass slaughters in the decades since.

Last night I watched the National Geographic Channel piece called "Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell," which dwelled for an hour on two sets of photographs: one showing the Nazi officers of Auschwitz (including Mengele) at their leisure, singing, smoking, flirting, playing around; the other showing some of the nearly half a million Hungarian Jews who were transported to the Auschwitz compound over the course of 54 days in 1944. The commentators, mostly staff at the National Holocaust Museum, kept telling me how to feel: stunned and outraged and disturbed. But mostly I felt shame.

Shame even for watching the show — with its slow, tear-jerking pans of those sad photographs of worn-out Jews, men, women and children, who were fresh off the cattle cars and about to be sent to the gas chambers. I've seen their faces before; I've spent time with those photographs; I recognize these people! What was I gaining by looking at them again, besides indulging my grief as I sat there on my comfortable couch?

I felt ashamed for having to explain to myself several times how it was possible that six million people could be done to death in five or six years by handsful of killing squads: how the Nazis staged the process and broke us down, and how I would have been right there on line with them all, taking off my clothes rather than biting the throat of an SS guard ...

I thought about The Partisan Hymn, Zog Nit Keyn Mol, 22-year-old Hirsh Glik's anthem, which we stood to sing, as always, at our first-night seder this year — on the very night of the start of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, 65 years ago. "Never say that there is only death for you," says the opening line. But maybe acknowledging that "there is only death for you" is the critical realization that enables you to fight back. So it went in the Warsaw Ghetto: It was not until there were only some 50,000 left, with no real chance for survival, that the Uprising was finally sparked. (Even then, I would have probably headed for the sewers instead of the bunkers.)

Oh, I am so attached, not only to life, but to my comfort, my habits, my egotism, my self-interest. On a daily basis, I get a lot more disturbed about my Internet connection misfunctioning, or about my book not getting reviewed somewhere, or about the temperature outside being a few degrees colder than I want on May 1st, than I get about the fact that 250,000+ people have been murdered in Darfur ... or that people are starving in Haiti ...

And you, are you much better? By what degree?

Killing and apathy have their own force of inertia. Things in motion remain in motion; things at rest remain at rest. The National Geographic Channel will be slow-panning that camera until kingdom come.

That, at least, is how May Day/Yom HaShoah is making me feel this year: that "Never again" is bullshit.

Nevertheless, I'm headed this weekend to a Jewish activism conference in Boston — and already I'm muttering about the four-hour drive . . .