Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Kapporos and storytelling: A reply to Shmarya Rosenberg's critical review of my book

Kapporos Then and Now:  Toward a More Compassionate Tradition
Shmarya Rosenberg, creator and webmaster of the Failed Messiah website, completely missed the point of my new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a more compassionate tradition, in his September 22, 2015 review on his blog. (Read the full review here.)  Although admitting that, quote: "the actual halakhic and theological information on kapparot and the information on animal handling and welfare issues Gershom included in Kapporos Then and Now is quite good," he ridicules me for telling midrashic and Hasidic stories, which he writes off as "fairy tales" and calls me "childish" for citing them.

Rosenberg would much rather have me drag in things like cases of pedophelia and other criminal behaviors that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.  (Then again, his whole website is about muckraking the Orthodox world, so I suppose he had to find something about me to nitpick.) Such omissions were not, as Rosenberg accuses me, due to "cognitive dissonance" or "making excuses" for Hasidism.  I am perfectly aware that the Orthodox world, like all communities everywhere, has its share of bad apples.  I failed to discuss pedophiles and other such criminals because this was not the topic of the book.  That's called good writing.  You don't throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

Normally I don't bother to reply to such reviews, but he so completely misread me that I feel a reply is in order.  I am not, as Rosenberg states, living in a Fiddler on the Roof fantasy (his words.)  I am perfectly aware of the difference between history and folklore, as anyone who has read my other works would know.  However, I am also aware that Hasidim live in a basically non-historical universe, where these stories carry a lot of weight.  As I said at the beginning of the book, I was going to look at both sides of the issue from within the viewpoints of each side.  For the Hasidic side, that includes storytelling. 

Whether or not the stories are literally true is beside the point.  Even outright parables carry weight when discussing religion.  When Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was asked if the stories he told were true, he replied, "Not all of the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." Religious teaching stories are not documentaries, but they do contain truths.

Hasidic stories and other midrashim are the examples held up as ideals by Hasidic rabbis and others.  My purpose in citing them was to compare the tales we tell about the sages of old with the realities of the meat industry today.  No, things were not perfect in "the good old days," but neither were there any factory farms back then, either.  So I was asking the basic question, "How would the early sages and Rebbes react to today's conditions?"

I said at the very beginning of the book that I was going to approach it as a combination theologian and anthropologist.  And, as any anthropologist knows, storytelling is central to any culture.  Whether written or oral, stories are how the values of a culture are passed down. The Torah itself is basically one long story of the Jewish people -- a story that we minutely dissect and discuss over and over in a perpetual yearly cycle.  Stories are the heart of a culture, as is the way we tell them.  As someone once said, "Change the story and you change the world."

Rosenberg states that the rural Jewish world I describe never existed, and that, in his words,  "most 'shtetls' were really commercial towns, some of significant size and importance, where Jews were overwhelmingly urbanized. Some families clearly kept their own chickens, but by the end of the first half of the 19th Century, many others did not." 

I have no argument with that. I never said everyone had chickens in their backyard.  But even in the urban centers, chickens came from nearby farms, for the simple reason that there was no refrigeration back then.  It's pretty hard to transport live chickens hundreds of miles by horse and wagon.  Most people were, by necessity, basically locavores.  I am old enough to remember ice boxes, home deliveries by the milkman, and our first family refrigerator -- and that was right here in the good ol' USA during the 20th century.  So even in the big city (I'm talking about Philadelphia in the 1950s) it has not been that long since food got industrialized.

There were indeed many small villages in Eastern Europe as well as larger "commercial towns."  I have actually been to rural Ukraine where Rebbe Nachman of Breslov lived, and the area around it is still mostly farmland.  People there still do have chickens in their backyards, as well as goats, sheep, and other animals.  In addition, I have personally talked with Holocaust survivors who described exactly what I say in the book.  Plus there are plenty of published firsthand accounts -- many of which I have on my own bookshelves -- about pre-Holocaust Jewish life in small villages.  So it is not out of line for me to make references to such.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidim, lived in the first half of the 18th century, and spent his early years wandering in the Carpathian mountains, not the big cities like Warsaw and Brody.  In fact, the urban rabbis were at first opposed to Hasidism, with the Vilna Gaon actually excommunicating the Baal Shem Tov and his followers.  Only in later generations did Hasidism spread to the bigger cities. 

And therein lies a possible reason that Rosenberg, as an ex-Chabadnik, might not be familiar with the more rural, nature-oriented themes of the early stories.   It has been my experience that the Chabadniks of today pretty much stick with studying sources by their own line of Rebbes.  And, as I said in the book, the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, was not very much interested in animals or nature -- an attitude that has carried down through the Chabad line.

In fact (as I also say in the book), more than once I have been told by Chabad rabbis that the Baal Shem Tov wasn't really "that guy out in the woods."  They prefer to portray him as a scholar.  Which he may well have been, but he was also in tune with animals and nature.  I would argue that much of our sensitivity toward God's creation was lost when Hasidism went from rural to urban in later generations. Much was also lost within Chabad when Schenur Zalman intellectualized an ecstatic revivalist movement into the intellectualism of Tanya, the "bible" of Chabad.

Which brings us to another area where Rosenberg misread me.  He seems to think I'm calling for everyone to move to the country and live off the grid.  That is not my intent.  Yes, I do live in the country myself and yes, I do have my own chickens and other animals. This has given me firsthand experience that most urban Jews lack.  That experience has enriched my narratives and made them more authentic.  But I am not expecting everyone to live as I do.

What I am calling for is an emotional and spiritual re-connection with animals as living, breathing, sentient beings and not Cartesian machines.  It is perfectly possible to do this in the city, and many people do.  But you have to make the effort.  When you have people who never leave the confines of the few blocks they call home -- not even to go to a museum or a park -- then there is a serious disconnect from the natural world.  And that, I do believe, is at the heart of many animal welfare problems in the  Orthodox Jewish community.  Especially Chabad, where their last Rebbe forbade children from looking at pictures or playing with toys in the shape of non-kosher species of animals.  (Read more on that...)

Rosenberg states, regarding the abominable conditions of the kosher meat industry: "The problem is not lack of technology, added cost, or some gross inconvenience to humans. The problem is a near-complete lack of rabbinic will to do better."

Rosenberg is living in his own fantasy world if he thinks that all it would take to "fix" the kosher meat industry would be for rabbis to have more "rabbinic will" to do better.  As I explained in the book, animals used for kosher meat come from the same commercial sources as non-kosher.  Whch means factory farms. And it is not very likely that Jews are going to begin raising their own animals on humane farms.  Even in Israel, where some Jews do raise animals, the factory farm system has become the norm.

He is also wrong to think that it would not cost any more to produce humane kosher meat.  Technology is indeed the problem, and it does add cost to raising animals more humanely.  The Chipotle restaurant chain recently found that out.  They pledged not to use pork from pigs raised in tiny crates -- and soon discovered that pig farmers in the USA were not willing to make the more costly changes necessary to raise them humanely.  Chipotle is currently importing their pork from England. (See  As for chickens, in my local grocery store the free-range, humane-raised eggs cost twice as much as eggs from "battery hen" cages.  So much for cost not being a factor.

Rosenberg also felt I was unfairly biased toward Karen Davis and her anti-kapporos campaign, and not critical enough of Rabbi Hecht, who promotes the ritual.  So I did a search of the whole book by names.  Yes, I did mention Davis more often, for the simple reason that she is pretty much a one-woman show.  The vast majority of protest articles are by or about her, and she has made it very clear that she is in charge.  Her opinions have pretty much defined the movement.  So naturally most of the quotes I refuted were coming from her.

Rabbi Hecht, on the other hand, is part of a vast organization called Chabad, which in turn is part of Orthodox Judaism, which in turn runs the kosher meat industry.  So there were far more sources I could cite besides Hecht -- and I did.  If you add those references, the criticisms are about equal on both sides.  There are whole sections where I describe in detail the horrors seen at kapporos centers, the way chickens are raised and transported there, etc.  And while it is true, as Rosenberg complains, that I did not specifically name the Agriprocessors plant and the scandals there, I was very critical of the whole industry in general, as well as taking Hecht specifically to task for some of his statements.

What comes through in Rosenberg's review is his own personal bias against Chabad.  He is himself an ex-Chabadnik, and there is no greater critic of any philosophy than a disillusioned former disciple. If you read his online About Me page, it is clear that he had a bad experience which caused a crisis of faith that he never really recovered from, (To be fair, his criticism of the Rebbe is well-deserved in his case.)  So it is understandable that, having been completely turned off by Chabad Hasidism, he would resent any attempt to show it in a positive light.  

True, there were places where I defended Hecht's point of view and theology, even though he is a villian in the controversy.  But I also defended Davis and the animal rights people in several places, too.  Ironically, I have received emails from Orthodox Jews who thought I was too easy on Davis because I defended her against accusations of antisemitism.  I suppose this is bound to happen with any book that tries to look at both sides of a problem.  One often ends up writing a book that pleases neither side.  But at least the book has gotten some discussions going, and that was really my goal.  People may not be willing to completely cross the bridge to the other side, but some, at least, are meeting in the middle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

In memory of Sapphire, a wonderful companion cat

My cat, Sapphire, named for his beautiful blue eyes, passed away peacefully in my arms early Saturday morning.  He was, we estimate, about 16 years old.   We don't know exactly, because he was a stray who showed up in our yard in January 2000.  He was an adult and not kittenish when we found him, so we assumed  he was about 2 years old then.

It was actually my sheepdog, Grett (now deceased) who found him.  When I went out to do chores one morning, Grett kept trying to lead me to the old garage we use as a shed.  He would look back at me, take a few steps, then look back again.  I followed the dog and there was Sapphire, sitting up on a shelf.  He was lost and afraid, also cold, hungry, and thirsty.  I began putting food and water out for him, and soon he came down to greet me each day.  He began letting me pet him, but it was a long time before  I could hold him.

"Brotherly Love Cats"
A favorite photo I took of Sapphire (left)
and his friend Patches (right)
Eventually he did get to where he would come up to the house, then later inside.  From then on, he was a loving cuddle kitty who liked to sleep on the bed.  He was also a "nurse cat" in that he sensed when another cat or a human was sick.  He especially liked to lick and groom the other cats, and was often the first to welcome new cats when the arrived on our little hobby farm.  (We have taken in a lot of strays over the years.).

You may have heard of dogs that can smell tumors and such?  Well, Sapphire kept insisting on putting his head on my wife Caryl's abdomen where she has a hernia.  After surgery to correct this, Sapphire did not do that anymore.  We believe he knew something was wrong.

About two years ago he had what we think was a stroke.  We though we were going to lose him then, but he rallied and recovered.  From then on he was a bit uncoordinated and sometimes confused, so we kept him inside the house unless one of us was outside to watch him.

About a month ago he began to slowly go downhill, eating less, sleeping more, and I knew the end was near.  He slipped n and out of a coma until finally, around 3am on the Sabbath (Saturday), he crossed over.  (It is strange how many of my pets have died on the Sabbath.  Far more than would be mere coincidence.  Perhaps it is because the sabbath is a taste of Eden?)

On Sunday morning, as is our custom, we buried him on our land, marking the grave with stones.  Frost had already killed most of the flowers in the yard, but I found enough to decorate the grave.  He will be sorely missed, and remembered as a wonderful friend.

You can make a donation to the ASPCA in Sapphire's memory at:

Sapphire's grave, November 1, 2015

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Sukkot Super-moon eclipse of 2015

The first night of Sukkot (Feast of Booths) always falls on the full moon of the Hebrew month of Tishri.  This year it was not only a full moon, it was a super-moon, because the moon's orbit brought it closer to Earth than usual.  But even more special, it was also a total eclipse where I live.  All of which made this a Sukkot night to remember.

My wife Caryl and I began eating in the Sukkah around 7:30, when the eclipse was just beginning.  We could see the moon through the natural branches on the Sukkah roof, but after the meal we decided to move our chairs outside for a better view.  The sky was not perfectly clear.  There were clouds moving across the sky, which sometimes obscured the moon.  Each time it appeared through a hole in the clouds, it looked a bit different as the eclipse progressed.  This added to the mystique, I think.

The night itself was perfect.  Not too cold, yet cool enough to be comfortable.  One interesting thing we noticed was that during totality, there were no mosquitoes.  Do they become less active in total darkness?  Normally the bugs are most active at dawn and dusk in the twilight.  As the eclipse came out of totality, there were again a few mosquitoes buzzing around us.  An interesting phenomenon.

 Sitting there together under the eclipse light was a romantic experience for Caryl and me, and we began talking about how long it had been since we had simply sat together in quiet sharing.  Watching the eclipse became a calm, gentle meditation for both of us.

We stayed outside the whole 3.5+ hours it lasted here in Sandstone, MN.  We could not take any photos because that is forbidden on a Jewish holy day, but the beautiful images of the experience are forever saved in our hearts.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Kim Davis and Religious freedom: A Jewish Perspective

Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who is refusing to issue marriage licenses because she does not believe in same-sex marriages, sees herself as a martyr to her faith.  As a religious Jew watching this story unfold, I have another perspective.  Namely, that Christians like her are very new at being a minority, and have not figured out how to balance public and private life.  For centuries in the Western World, Christianity was the dominant culture.   Now that is no longer so, and this is creating a crisis that we Jews already dealt with centuries ago.

In my own life I have also had this struggle, especially around Christmas time, when there is extreme pressure to conform.  I can remember a time when suburban Jews had "Hanukkah bushes" just to avoid being harassed by Christian neighbors.  Ditto for putting up "holiday lights."  If you were the only family on the block that did not, you heard about it.  It was simply assumed that everyone was Christian.

Now the shoe is on the other foot.  Puritan Christians are no longer in control.  And suddenly people like Kim Davis are finding out what it is like to be asked to do something you do not believe in.  Only with a difference.  Because Judaism has a principal called, in Hebrew, dina malchut dina, "The law of the land is the law."  Jews do not insist the whole world live according to our beliefs.  When it comes to secular issues, we obey the laws of the country we live in.  In the case of Kim Davis, as a public official, Judaism would say that she is required to issue those licenses.

I have tried to think of a similar issue for me as rabbi and came up with this:  Jewish law forbids intermarriage between a Jew and a non-Jew.  Many synagogues will not accept such families as members.  That is their right as religious institutions.  But what would I do if such a couple showed up at the courthouse asking me to issue a license, and I knew for a fact it would be a "forbidden" intermarriage?  I would issue the license.  I would not perform the ceremony.  I might not go to the wedding. But in terms of the secular law, I would be required to fulfill my duty.  This would not be a breach of my own faith, since I would be doing it as a public official, not as a rabbi.

Christians need to learn how to make this distinction between public and private.  They need to accept the fact that are not the majority anymore, and they no longer run the whole show.  Kim Davis could best demonstrate her faith by resigning her post and seeking another job.

Friday, August 28, 2015

I defeated the bullies: is mine again!

As I wrote in a previous article, I have been getting cyber-bullied around the Net for various stances I have taken on controversial issues.  One of these attacks consisted of some jerks putting up a bogus website under "," which was the URL of an old website I had that went defunct.  My alerts told me this week that this URL was now available, so I bought it.  Apparently my posting of a Ripoff Report, writing the blog post, and posting a notice on every one of my profiles that this was NOT me worked -- the bullies gave it up.

For now the URL is simply parked, I'm not sure what, if anything, i will do with it in the future.  But at least searches for my site will no longer take people to some phony escort service I was never, ever connected with.  Thank you to everyone who wrote protest letters and otherwise supported me in this!

Friday, July 3, 2015

In Memory of "Big Bird," my pet rooster

I am sad to report that Big Bird, the ten-pound yellowish-white rooster who appeared with me on posters and the cover of my latest book, has crossed the Rainbow Bridge.  He was the victim of a predator attack, probably coyotes, that also took the lives of two other chickens and a guinea fowl.  They will all be very much missed.

Big Bird was going on 11 years old -- a very long life for a chicken -- and was spending a lot of time in a cage anyway, because he could no longer fly up to the roost at night.   But he still loved going outside with the other birds on nice days.  So I let him take the risk and enjoy a more natural life as a free-range chicken.  At dusk he would come back to the coop, where I would put him in his cage for the night.  Last night he did not return, and stayed outside somewhere, along with a few chickens and two guineas who had taken to roosting outside instead of inside the building.  I looked for him but could not find him in the dark.  This morning I found the carnage, including the destroyed nest of a barred hen named Rockette who had been secretly incubating in the bushes.  I knew she was broody by her behavior when she came it to eat, but had been unable to find her well-hidden nest.  Last night the coyotes obviously did.

It is always very sad when this happens.  Nature is not Disneyland, and in the real world animals do attack and eat each other.  That's the reality of that "circle of life" that everyone is romanticizing lately.  Life is not a cartoon, and finding piles of feathers and other remains in the yard is not pretty.  I feel terrible when I lose a bird to predators, but at the same time, I still feel they would rather run free than be caged all the time.

I suppose it's a lot like letting your children run free instead of "helicoptering" them everywhere.  Yes there are dangers and risks, but there are also the joys of freedom and exploration.  I feel sorry for many of today's kids who don't have the "free range" experience I had back in the 1950s, when I rode my bike all over town and played for hours alone in the woods.  That experience shaped my love of nature and helped make me the writer that I am today.  Nowadays, parents are being arrested in some cities for letting their kids walk a couple blocks alone to the park.
(See for actual cases of these ridiculous ordinances.)

Big Bird was the poster child with me in the 2013 campaign against using chickens as Kapporos, by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos.  (See poster above)

A different pose from the same photo shoot (My wife Caryl was the photographer that day) now immortalizes Big Bird on the cover of  my latest book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition,   In this book, I present the issue from both sides (practitioners and protesters), explaining why the vegan" meat is murder" argument does not work, and presenting other, more effective reasons for using money instead of chickens.

The best memorial  you could give to Big Bird is to buy a copy and educate yourself about the Kapporos controversy, then pass a copy on to your local Orthodox or Hasidic rabbi.  In this way, Big Bird will continue to help his fellow chickens live to lead longer, happier lives.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New Book: "Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition" by Yonassan Gershom

Every year, right before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is a cultural war in certain Jewish neighborhoods over a ceremony called Kapporos, in which a chicken is slaughtered just before the holy day. The animal rights people show up claiming, “Meat is murder!” while the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who practice this ceremony accuse the activists of antisemitism and violating their freedom of religion. Epithets fly and confrontations occur across the barricades, but nobody is really listening to each other.

In this book, I seek to build a bridge of understanding between these two warring camps. On the one hand, I oppose using live chickens as Kapporos, as I have written on this blog before. (Read More...)  Like many other religious Jews before me, I advocate giving money to charity instead. But on the other hand, I am a Hasid who understands and believes in the kabbalistic principles behind the ceremony and Hasidic life in general. In fact, it is that very mysticism that has led me not to use chickens for the ritual.  And I believe it is essential for activists to understand and respect this mystical worldview if they want to be effective.

On the surface, my task in writing this book would seem easy: Explain to animal rights people the reasons why some Orthodox Jews use chickens in a religious ceremony, and explain to Orthodox Jews why animal rights people find this offensive and cruel in modern times. But there is much more to it than that. Beyond this specific ritual lies a vast chasm between two very, very different worldviews. On both sides of the issue I have found sincere, caring people who, in all good faith, believe in what they are doing. But at the same time, each side is appallingly ignorant of the other. Could I possibly write a book to bridge the gap?

To do this successfully, the book could be neither a vegetarian manifesto nor a "Torah-true" religious tract.   My methodology was to approach the subject as a combination of theologian, cultural anthropologist, and participatory journalist, examining the issue from the perspectives of both sides.   As Richard H. Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, wrote in his Foreword to my book:

“Rabbi Gershom has a very clear, conversational style of writing, scholarly yet very readable, and he explains complex issues very well. He is careful to put issues in context. He is not a polemicist, but seeks common ground and solutions. He uses examples from his own personal experience and also cites authorities.”

Chapter 1 opens with my involvement with the Alliance to End Chickens as Kapporos (Karen Davis' org), my reasons for leaving the Alliance over theological issues (read more on that...) but not the movement itself -- and how this ultimately led me to write this book.

In the rest of the book I trace the history of Kapporos and the impact of the modern meat industry on the ceremony, comparing it to my own experience raising and observing chickens in natural, free-range flocks on my hobby farm in Minnesota.   I explain how the very un-Jewish ideas of Descartes have affected Jews and gentiles alike.  And because I believe it is essential for activists to understand the mystical worldview of Hasidism, I devote an entire chapter to "raising Holy sparks," the question of whether animals have souls and/or consciousness, and how this relates to Kapporos.

In short, I explore the issue from many different perspectives and present what I believe to be a number of convincing arguments for why, in modern times, this ritual can best be accomplished by using money instead of chickens.  This will not be an easy book for either side to read, but I believe it fills an important educational gap on both sides.

You can order your copy now  on Also available on Amazon but if you order thru Lulu you get a discount and I get a better deal as an author. Lulu also offers quantity discounts.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Be Kind to Animals Week: a Jewish perspective

I did not grow up Hasidic.  There are those who immediately discount me for that reason, arguing that I am “tainted” by the secular world and therefore not a “real” Hasid.   However, I would quote back to them the adage that “The baal tshuvah (repentant sinner) stands in a place where the perfect Zaddik (saint) cannot stand.”  And both places are good, both have something to teach us.  Besides, I've been observant for decades now, so that should count for something.

Growing up in the 1950s in America, I went to public school, spent part of my summer at Scout camp, and otherwise participated in the world at large.  I was what is now called a “free range kid,” roaming the neighborhood on my bike, playing in the nearby woods, and spending a lot of time alone in nature.  For part of my early childhood we lived on the edge of what my father called a “game preserve,” where deer and pheasants were a common sight in the backyard.  The exact location was long ago lost to urban sprawl, but the memories are still with me.

Vintage ASPCA poster
"The cat they left behind"
One of my fondest childhood memories is Be Kind to Animals Week.  This was a nationwide event sponsored by the American Humane Association and the ASPCA, with posters and contests, public service announcements on TV by celebrities, and local animal-oriented events.  I hadn’t heard much about it lately, being mostly involved in the Jewish community, and I got to wondering if it still existed.  Yes, it does, and this year (2015) is the 100th anniversary!   In fact, Be Kind to Animals Week is the oldest commemorative week in all of U.S. history. It is observed during the  first week in May.

Next I wondered if it is observed in Jewish schools.  Do yeshiva students ever enter posters in the contest?  Does your school do anything to celebrate it?  I found a lot of older references to Jews participating, but very little about it in today’s curriculum.  This is not to say that no Jewish schools observe it, but it does not seem to be much of a priority nowadays, at least not enough to write about it on their websites. That’s too bad.  It would be wonderful to see some Jewish kids design posters about kindness to animals, which is, after all, a Torah teaching as well as a secular one.   It would be a great opportunity to teach the greater society about tzaar baalei chayyim, the Jewish prohibition against cruelty to animals.

It was suggested to me that the reason this event is no longer celebrated as much among Jews is because environmental issues have gotten linked to the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, which has become a sort of Jewish Earth Day.  That is possible.  But Tu’B’Shevat focuses more on planting trees and recycling trash than on animals.  Still, there is no reason why animals could not be more actively included in it.

There is also a recent movement to make the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, which the Talmud calls the New Year for Animals,  into a humane education event.  This seems a bit topsy-turvy to me, since this was originally the day that Jewish farmers tithed their flocks, so it was hardly “Animal Rights Day.”  But it would not be the first time that a Jewish holiday got re-defined after the Temple was destroyed.  Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” was originally celebrated with processions of people bringing their firstfruits to the Temple.  Today it focuses on receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, which also took place on the same date.  Tu B'Shevat, the “New Year for Trees” is now a form of Jewish Earth Day, when people not only plant trees, but also focus on current environmental issues.  So it would not be out of line to transform "Rosh Hashanah for the Animals."

However one may choose to approach it, there is definitely a need for more humane education.   While researching my new book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a more Compassionate Tradition (due out in June, God willing),  I found some appalling stories about Jewish children poking sticks at Kapporos chickens, throwing stones at stray cats, chasing pigeons in the park, and behaving badly at zoos.  Not all Jewish kids do this, of course, but there were far more such stories than there should be.  Kids will be kids, and wearing a yarmulke does not transform them into saints.  However, it does make them visible as Jews and it reflects badly on the community.

So I am suggesting that if your school or synagogue is not observing Be Kind to Animals Week, then this year would be a good time to start.  Why invent another holiday when we already have a national tradition that is a century old?  In fact, it is rapidly become an international event; in my searches I found posters and articles in many languages.  Really, it should be a global event, since we all share the same planet and the animals on it.  So if you are celebrating "Kindness 100" this year, I'd love to hear about it.  Tell me what you are doing to bring more kindness to God's creatures.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A "Seven Levels of Life" universal Arrow of Light Ceremony

Below is an Arrow of Light Ceremony I wrote for our Cub Scout pack this year.  A lot of the usual ceremonies are based on Indian lore, but we live in an actual Indian area (Minnesota) where it is controversial for non-Natives to dress up as Natives.  One of our families is Ojibwa and they find it offensive.   (I can understand that, since, as a religious Jew, I have mixed feelings about Christians wearing Jewish symbols.)

So I researched alternatives.  I looked at a lot of other Arrow ceremonies that were posted online to get ideas, and then created my own.  I liked the "Seven Virtues" that many packs use, but the order of the Virtues as they did it seemed rather odd to me in my own tradition (Judaism.)   Putting "love" at the top is probably based on Christianity, where love is considered supreme.  But in Jewish thought, the Mind is above the Emotions.  Although this is not a "Jewish" ceremony per se, I wanted it to make sense in my system of thought while still being universal enough for others to relate to.

 So I used a Jacob's Ladder motif, where the seven rungs of the ladder correspond with Seven Aspects of Life (and the chakras, if you know yoga.)  The ladder rests on the Earth and goes to God Above.  Symbolically, we are climbing it together. 

To do this ceremony, the main prop is a candle holder for seven candles.  It need not be curved like the symbol.  We used a small birch log (about 5 inches in diameter) with seven holes drilled in.  You also need an eighth candle for the "Spirit of Scouting" that is used to light the others.  This is separate from the log -- A regular candle holder worked fine.  Set it in front or to the side of the main holder.  We used all blue candles, but you could also use rainbow colors, or alternating blue and gold, or whatever -- there are a lot of possible variations.  Here is a pic of how ours turned out:

You need a table, perhaps with a blue-and-gold cloth, for setting the candles on.   And matches!  (Yes, I've actually goofed on that one in the past.  A checklist of props helps!)  I though of making a large poster of a ladder with the themes to put on the wall, but time got tight and I never got around to it.  (There's always next year.  From bottom to top the order of themes is:  Action, Feelings, Self Control, Heart, Speech, Wisdom, Faith.)  And be sure to print out scripts so participants can read it in case of stage fright.  Feel free to use this ceremony and/or adapt it to your own needs.

Arrow of Light Ceremony for Pack 185 
Audubon Center of the North Woods 
Pine County, Minnesota 

 Cubmaster: This candle represents the spirit of Scouting, the light we carry along the trail. (Lights the extra candle). The Arrow of Light is the highest award a Cub Scout can earn. It is the only Cub Scout award that he can wear on his Boy Scout uniform after he crosses over. An arrow that is straight and true will hit the target. This is why we all want to be straight arrows. We will always aim to do our best.

 Webelos Leader: Stop and think about the inner meaning of the word Webelos. It means “We'll be loyal Scouts” – loyal to our country, loyal to our home and family, and loyal to God. Now, as we look back down our Cub Scout trail, we see how bright the path we followed really is. It is bright because you Webelos have helped to make it so. You light the trail through Cub Scouting by doing your best and giving goodwill to everyone you meet on the path.

 Third Leader: The Bible tells the story of how Jacob was crossing the desert and went to sleep on a hilltop. He dreamed about a ladder that reached from earth to heaven, with angels going up and coming down it. Jewish tradition says that this ladder has seven rungs or steps. Each rung has a special lesson attached to it. Seven is a sacred number in many traditions. There are seven days of Creation, seven days of the week, and seven candles on the Arrow of Light symbol. The rays of the Arrow of Light stand for wisdom, courage, self-control, justice, faith, hope, and love. We have combined these with the seven rungs of Jacobs’ Ladder, to create a ceremony that is unique to our Pack. Together we will now climb Jacob’s Ladder.

 (Leader hands Spirit of Scouting Candle to the First Reader.  After each person reads and lights his Arrow candle, he passes the Spirit Candle to the next person)

 First reader: The first rung represents the earth, where the bottom of the ladder stands firm. As Scouts, we take good care of the earth. We leave no trace at our campsites. We are helpful and clean up litter that others leave in order to make the world a better place for everyone to live in. (lights candle)

 Second Reader: The second rung represents our good feelings and love for each other. A Scout is cheerful, friendly and kind. He welcomes new boys into the Pack. He greets everyone with a smiling face. He is kind to animals and happy to help others who are less fortunate than he is. (lights candle) 

Third Reader: The third rung is for self-control. Control means knowing when to stop. We follow instructions. We learn to be quiet and listen when others are speaking. We are willing to listen to ideas we do not agree with. Learning to control ourselves makes it easier to work together as a team. (lights candle)

 Fourth Reader: The fourth rung stands for a brave heart. Being brave does not mean you are never afraid. It means you face your fear and do what must be done. A Scout is strong-hearted, kind and loyal. He stands up for his friends, family, and country. He treats everyone fairly. (Lights candle) 

Fifth Reader: The fifth rung is for good words and good speech. A Scout is trustworthy. When he makes a promise, he keeps it. When he says “Scout’s Honor” he always tells the truth, no matter what. He does not gossip about others or say bad things about people. He does not use curse words. He is clean in thought, word, and deed. (Lights candle)

 Sixth Reader: The sixth rung stands for wisdom. In Scouting we learn many new things. We teach each other and share our knowledge about the world and about ourselves. But wisdom is much more than just learning facts. Wisdom means using our knowledge in the right way. (Lights candle) 

Seventh Reader: The seventh rung stands for hope and faith in serving God. Faith is when you believe in something, even if you cannot see it or prove it is true. A Scout is reverent. This means he does not make fun or laugh at religious beliefs. He serves God on his own religious Path and respects the ways that others worship, too. He understands that Scouts around the world serve God in many different ways, but all are praying to the same Creator of the Universe. (Lights candle)

Cubmaster: When these seven rungs are true and straight like an arrow, they make a path of light that stretches from earth to heaven, just like Jacob’s Ladder. When we remember the lessons of each rung, we can become like the angels who climb from earth to heaven. We become Good Scouts, trustworthy, strong, and true.

Pack 185 Webelos receiving their Arrow of Light
March 8, 2015  in Hinckley, MN

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Selma": Was omission of Heschel on purpose -- or a Hollywood blooper?

As I discussed in my previous article, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was front and center in the iconic photo of the Selma march, but was apparently replaced by a generic rabbi extra in the movie.   I have puzzled over this for several days, read lots of discussion about it, and come up with a few theories about why it might have happened.

The original photo:  John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, 
Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 
Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), 
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttleswort

Please note that these are only my personal theories, because Ava DuVernay has not, as far as I know, given any explanation other than "this is art not a documentary" and she did not want to make a "white hero movie."   But that does not explain why there is no actor made up to look like Heschel in this scene.  Especially since there are other white people in the lineup with King in her version.  So why no Heschel?  That's all it would have taken to avoid all this controversy.  Just show it like it was.

I would sure love to have DuVernay come here and tell us why she made this bad decision.  But since neither she nor Oprah answered my tweets on the subject, I suppose I'll just have to guess on my own.  Yes, I've read all the antisemitism and conspiracy theories, but I find myself wondering if it isn't something much simpler:  a major Hollywood blooper.  It would not be the first time.  But if so, it's a whole lot bigger blooper than a water bottle on Downton Abbey.  So here goes:

A still from the movie.  That guy on the right is no Heschel.
 And what's with that suitcase he is carrying?
Theory #1:  Maybe DuVernay didn't know who Heschel was, and thought she could just plug in some generic rabbi to fill the slot.  I'm pretty sure she had no idea how iconic his image is to Jews, or she would not have made this blooper.  I mean, would she have substituted some generic priest for the Pope in a famous scene?   Heschel was, in his own way, equally important, as one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century.  But what if DuVernay did not know that?

Theory #2:  Maybe Heschel did not look "rabbinical" enough for her take on the scene.  If you compare her version with the original, you'll see that Heschel is not the only change in the lineup.  The original doesn't have an Eastern Orthodox priest in clerical garb or a minister (priest?) in a visible clerical collar.  On the other hand the movie version does not have the "unidentified nun" dressed in a habit like the original.  So it appears that DuVernay was doing a sort of visual smorgasbord, plugging in what she thought would be easily recognizable to her viewers as an interfaith scene.  ("A rabbi, a minister, and a priest marched at Selma...")

Theory #3:  If she didn't know who Heschel was, then maybe DuVernay did not recognize the Heschel figure as a rabbi, and thought he was just some old hippie.  So she did a switcheroo to fit her visual imagery.  After all, Heschel usually wore a beret, not a yarmulke, which is what most gentiles think of as Jewish clergy garb.  But if this is the case, then her research crew really blew it.

Theory #4: Maybe DuVernay thought Heschel was too disheveled and hippie-like for her 21st-century take on the scene.  Again comparing the original to the still, there has been quite a bit of sprucing up.  The original characters all look a bit wrinkled, as indeed they would be, after hours of getting ready for the march.  Heschel himself flew out immediately after the Sabbath ended on Saturday in order to be there on Sunday -- no time for a trip to the barber.  But Duvernay's actors are as natty as can be, not a wrinkle or speck of dirt in sight, not a hair out of place.  And the substitute rabbi is perfectly neat and clean-shaven.  Maybe that is the "art" part of it that DuVernay refers to.  Creating a tableau instead of a recreation of history.

But if personal appearance was why Heschel was removed, then I wonder what she would have done with a movie about Einstein?  Given him a shave and a haircut?  But then, she would have known who Einstein was, would have realized how instantly recognizeable his "disheveled" appearance is.

Heschel and King
Which brings us back to my original question:  Did DuVernay even know who Heschel was?  Of course, I have no way of knowing what was in her head.  I just have a hard time believing she would purposely edit out Heschel if she knew how close he was to King, who called him "my rabbi" and compared him to the biblical prophets.   I really do think she had no idea how important Heschel was in the Jewish community, or how well-known the original photo is.  This does not excuse ignorance or bad research, but maybe it does explain why she made such a terrible blooper on this famous historical scene.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

No Rabbi Heschel in "Selma" movie? Inexcusable!

I was looking forward to seeing the new movie, Selma.  Emblazoned in my heart is the iconic photo of Dr. Martin Luther King marching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the front row.  A photo that for my generation has come to symbolize the unity between Jews and African Americans during the 1960s.  For years I have told friends, family, and students to "watch for the man with the bushy white hair and beard" in the original Selma footage.  Unfortunately, in the new movie Rabbi Heschel does not appear in this scene or anywhere else!  The omission has me -- along with a lot of the Jewish community -- wondering why not.

Marching from Selma to Montgomery: 
John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, 
Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 
Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), 
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttleswort

I can understand film director Ava DuVernay's desire to make a film that focuses strongly on Black leadership.  There have been too many civil rights films already with white sympathizers as the main characters.  (I have the same complaint about Holocaust films that focus on non-Jewish supporters -- of which there are also too many.)

And this is not the only revisionism in the film.  The King estate did not allow the filmmakers to use King's real speeches, so his words are paraphrases. That's not so bad, viewers say.  But to omit showing Rabbi Heschel -- or any rabbis for that matter -- is puzzling.  I find it hard to believe that DuVernay could not have known who Heschel was, given how close he was to Dr. King in those years.  Surely she did her research?  Or did she think the guy with the bushy beard was just some sort of hippie?  (Read more on that theory...)

The appearance of Heschel (second from the right) in that famous photo was not tokenism.  Rabbis and lay Jews alike were involved in the lunch-counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides. the early protests.  Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- both martyred on the same night as James Cheyney -- were both Jewish.  And while it is true that Southern rabbis tended to lay low publicly, for fear of antisemitism and violence against their congregations (some synagogues were actually fire bombed) many helped behind the scenes.

Rabbis from other parts of the country were more vocal.  Peter Dryer, in his January 17, 2015 article in the Huffington Post, Selma's Missing Rabbi,  lists the following rabbis who came to Selma (Plus Rabbi Leon Jick, who is not on Dryer's list but was at Selma, according to this article):

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (grey beard on the left),
Dr. King (center) and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
(holding the Torah) in front of the State Capitol in
Montgomery, Alabama
Israel Dreisner (Temple Sha'arei Shalom, Springfield, NJ)
Maurice Eisendrath (president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations)
Albert Friedlander (rabbi for Jewish students at Columbia University)
Herbert Teitelbaum (who led a congregation in Redwood City, California)
Gerald Raiskin (Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California)
Joseph Gumbiner (director of UC-Berkeley's Hillel)
Joseph Weinberg (Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco)
Saul Berman (Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel)
Mathew Simon (spiritual leader of a Los Angeles congregation)
Steven Riskin (New York City's Lincoln Square Synagogue)
William Braude (Temple Beth-El, Providence, R.I.)
Saul Leeman (Cranston Jewish Center in Rhode Island)
Nathan Rosen (director of Brown University's Hillel center)
Maurice Davis (Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation)
Arthur Lelyveld (Cleveland's Fairmount Temple)
William Frankel (Beth Hillel Congregation, Wilmette, Illinois)
Sidney Shanken (Temple Beth-El, Cranford, N.J.)
Allan Levine ( Temple Emanuel of Rochester, N.Y.)
Andre Ungar (Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, N.J.)
Perry Nussbaum (whose synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, MS, was bombed in 1967)
Leon Jick,  Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University

And that doesn't count unknown Jewish laypersons.  But most visible of all was Rabbi Heschel, right up there in the front row, only one person away from Dr. King.  Messing with this image is, to me, a sort of historical sacrilege, like changing the profile of the flag raising on Iwo Jima or the 13 stars on Betsy Ross's flag.  Some things are not meant to be changed.  I'm not asking that Jews be given equal time.  All it would have taken was to have an actor made up like Heschel for this scene.  Would that have been so hard?

King and Heschel had met at a conference on "Religion and Race" at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1963, where Heschel gave the opening speech and King gave the keynote address.   After the first Selma March, known as "Bloody Sunday" (March 7, 1965), Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City, protesting the lack of protection for the marchers.   King invited him to come to Selma for the next march and he did.

Afterward, Heschel made that moving statement that has become a watchword among Jews and gentiles alike:

"For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

Heschel and King remained close friends and continued to work together.  When King won the Jewish Peace Award, it was Heschel who presented it.  In fact, King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel's home, but was assassinated before that could happen.  Rabbi Heschel was the only rabbi to speak at King's funeral.

A still from the movie.  That guy on the far right sure doesn't
look like Heschel, even though he is in the same place.
So, with all these iconic images and events, why don't we see Rabbi Heschel -- or any other rabbi -- in the movie, when we do see King embrace a Greek Orthodox priest, and can recognize a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and other clergy in the front row?  One reviewer does make mention of "an elderly Jew in a yarmulke" -- and there is such a gentleman standing in the place occupied by Heschel in the original photo.  But Heschel usually wore a beret -- not a yarmulke.  And this stand-in, if indeed he is supposed to be Heschel, lacks the bushy hair and beard of the real Heschel.  So much so, that Jewish reviewers do not see him as such.  Neither do I.

Which brings us to another production detail that was pointed out by Ulrich Rosenhagen in The People's Legs Are Not Praying: Why "Selma" was not the Interfaith Movie I was Hoping For.  In the original film footage, King and others are wearing flower leis. given to them by a Hawaiian delegate.  In Hawaiian culture, the leis are a symbol of peace between rival or warring clans.  By extension, a symbol of racial and religious unity.  But as Rosenhagen writes:

"In the movie the protesters aren't wearing flower leis. I don't point this out to quibble with the director's costume choice but rather to draw attention to the curious absence of the spiritual sentiment that held these marchers together. They firmly believed that only a religious faith capable of transcending clannish religious divisions could challenge the deep injustices of American society. This confidence in a divine love that made the overcoming of such religious parochialism possible swelled in the hearts of the marchers and anchored the close friendship between King and Heschel. The activists truly felt that the many faces of God had their eyes on Selma."

Maybe the leis are gone for costuming reasons, out of concern that modern viewers might find them strange or puzzling.  Then again, that could have been solved by showing the Hawaiian representative giving them and explaining the significance.   Or maybe -- sadly -- the spiritual-political unity my generation felt back in the 1960s is gone.  Maybe the film unconsciously (?) ended up reflecting that.  In recent years there has been a lot of tension between the Black and Jewish communities, something that makes me very sad.

I had hoped this movie might bring back the story of how Jews and African Americans had once worked together for freedom.  But with Jews omitted from the script, that message is lost.  And that, too, makes me very sad.

(This article was updated by the author on May 6, 2019)

* * * SEE ALSO * * *

What Selma Meant to my Dad, Abraham Joshua Heschel -- Suzannah Heschel in The Forward, also reprinted in several other Jewish pubs

Following in My Father's Footsteps - Suzannah Heschel.  Interesting personal memories.

Why My Grandfather -- and my Dad - Marched in Selma -- Zoe Hick in Haaretz

Another Failure of the Selma movie: Why Did It Leave Out Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel? -- Jeff Dunetz in The Lid.  Has nice photos, including  a telegram Heschel sent to King in the Birmingham jail.

Negro Marchers from Selma wear Yarmulkes in Deference to Rabbis -- reprint of a March 22, 1965 article about a little-known show of solidarity

Jewish Voices from the Selma Montgomery March  -- some interesting firsthand stories -- including a Sabbath service -- about Jewish participation at Selma, from the Duke University Library, which houses the collection of Heschel's papers.

When we marched together in Selma - S.L. Wisenberg in The Forward.  Some Selma history plus a look toward hope for the future.

Praying with my Legs  -- a two-hour upcoming documentary on the life and teachings of Rabbi Heschel.  A worthwhile project -- and definitely needed, as all of this controversy over Selma will attest.  Visit the site and consider donating to the project.

On Anniversary of Selma, Remembering the Civil Rights Activism of Rabbi Heschel (VIDEO)