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From the Rabbi

From the Rabbi - June/July 2015 PDF Print E-mail

Summer is here again as is our summer bulletin.  Summer is a time for fun and relaxation (hopefully!) and the time many big summer movies come out.  So while you are enjoying the great blockbuster movies over the summer, I want to suggest some great Jewish movies to accompany them! 

First, of course, there is Fiddler on the Roof, the granddaddy of all Jewish movies and arguably the best.  No other movie combines drama, comedy, sadness and sentimentality along with great songs in such a wonderful combination, while also dealing with the serious questions for Jews in America of balancing tradition and change.  On a similar theme, but in a very different style is the hilariously funny The Frisco Kid starring the wonderful Gene Wilder as a bumbling but very committed Polish shtetl Rabbi who is literally mugged by America and learn to adapt to life as a Jew in the Wild West. 

For film history buffs, you might want to check out the first ever talking movie.  That’s right, the first ever talking movie was a Jewish themed movie called The Jazz Singer, about the son of an orthodox cantor who wants to sing jazz rather than Kol Nidre and who assimilates, falls out, and eventually reconciles with his traditional father.  The later remake with Neil Diamond is less historic but still quite enjoyable and the basic story was even used in the Simpsons when it turns out that Krusty the Clown is the son of a disapproving Rabbi Krustovski (voiced, of course, by Jackie Mason).

For biblical epics, you cannot go far wrong with Cecil B De Mille’s The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston as arguably the toughest Moses ever.  It’s long but truly epic in a way that movies cannot quite manage today.  Alternatively, for the kids (and a lot of the adults!) you can’t go wrong with animated The Prince of Egypt that tells the story of Moses with a modern sensibility and some great songs.  This one is my personal favorite and certainly much better than the most recent attempt at portraying Moses on the big screen.  It also contains a wonderful performance by the late Ofra Haza, the great diva of Israeli pop, as Moses’ mother.

On a sadder note there are of course numerous Holocaust themed movies.  Obviously this theme does not lend itself to light summer viewing, but there few such movies that are touching and sometimes uplifting despite the horrifying background.  One such movie is Au Revoir les Enfants a touching French film, based on true events, about a Catholic School Principal who hides Jewish children and the friendship between one of those children and a non Jewish classmate.  Another foreign movie on this subject is Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella), Roberto Benigni’s poignant and surprisingly humorous film about a Jewish man in a concentration camp who tries to shield his son from the horror of what is happening around them by convincing him that this is all an elaborate game, eventually sacrificing himself to save his son’s life and innocence. 

Another poignant and sad selection is the documentary Trembling Before G-d, a documentary about the struggles of Orthodox gays and lesbians, who have tried or continue to try to live an orthodox Jewish life in a community that, at best, does not understand them and pities them, and at worst rejects them altogether.  Another documentary, on a lighter note is Hava Nagila: The Movie, a great documentary about a song everyone knows but no-one actually knows anything about!

Finally, a few comedies.  Most recently there is the lovely and sweet The Band’s Visit, an Israeli film about an Egyptian Police Band who find themselves stuck accidentally in a back water Israeli town.   Also wonderful are the romantic Jewish comedy, Crossing Delancy and a couple of movies about Jews in the army, Private Benjamin and Biloxi BluesKeeping the Faith has a flawed but still funny portrayal of the rabbinate, and is essentially a movie version of the joke about a rabbi and a priest walking into a bar! And, of course, there is pretty much anything from Mel Brooks!

Enjoy your summer and I hope you take the time to see a few (or all of these movies) on Jewish themes. 


From the Rabbi - May 2015 PDF Print E-mail

 The book of Numbers begins with the statement:

“And the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. (Numbers 1:1)”

The Rabbis understand this statement as referring to the giving of the Torah in the desert and ask why God would decide to reveal the greatest truths of history and the cosmos in the middle of nowhere.  Would it not have made more sense to reveal the Torah in the midst of one of the ancient world’s great civilizations to show God’s power? Or why not wait till the Israelites had reached Israel and reveal the Torah there, cementing the connection between God’s revelation and Promised Land?

One midrash suggests that this was done to ensure the Torah was understood to be the property of all people equally.  Had it been given in Israel the nations of the world could have denied it had anything to with them.  And there would have been dissension in Israel with tribes claiming the Torah had been given in their territory and thus their exclusive property.  As the Torah is a universal truth, a gift to the whole world, neither of these possibilities would be desirable and so God gave it in the middle of nowhere, a place that belonged to no one so the Torah could belong to everyone.

Another midrash argues that the Torah, a revelation of wisdom, was given in the wilderness to teach us an important lesson about wisdom. It says: Anyone who does not make themselves “ownerless” (or “throw himself open”) like the wilderness is not capable of acquiring Wisdom and Torah.  

Truth and wisdom come when we are open to them.  Perhaps the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “Perception is reality.”  It concretizes our natural tendency to close our eyes and our minds to realities that do not fall within the bounds of our narrow preconceptions.  When we already believe we know how the world is, we stop looking for wisdom.  This is only natural. As human beings we are limited by nature and our perceptions of reality are limited by the scope of our personal experience of the world we live in.   But to truly be wise we must be willing to look beyond the limits of our perception and learn from the experiences of others whose lives are different from our own.  We must remind ourselves of what it meant to be a people in the wilderness. In doing so, we open our minds to all that we see and not just what we want to see, and we open our hearts to the wonders of God, of the world and of each other.


Rabbi Emanuel


From the Rabbi - April 2015 PDF Print E-mail
Passover and Jewish Greatness 
We Jews have always done things a little differently.  We even start our history as a nation differently to most other nations, particularly nations of the ancient world.  A look at most national creation stories uncovers a clear pattern – the ancestors of the nation almost invariably come from great nobility, sometimes even descended from the gods themselves, and the nation was usually formed in a blaze of heroic glory.   And what about us?  We start as slaves, oppressed by one of these other great ancient nations.   
It cannot be stressed how different this makes us in the annals of the history of nations and how we conceive of our greatness as a people.  For nations like the Egypt of ancient times, their greatness was inherent.  Born of gods, Egyptians were great because it was their due and because the gods decreed it. Greatness was an entitlement of history and birth, an inheritance for all time.  And yet that greatness, the glories of ancient Egypt, have faded into the desert sand while we, born of slavery and oppression, are still here. 
 Perhaps this is because our Jewish concept of greatness starts from rock bottom.  From where we started we could only go up!  And thus for Jews greatness is born of humility and striving.  Unlike other ancient peoples we are well aware of our own shortcomings, put in sharp relief by our humble origins.  We do not see ourselves as naturally entitled to greatness.  Our ancestors were slaves not gods.   Rather we understand that greatness must be earned.  That is why, despite all our history since the Exodus, so much of our liturgy and thought harks back to that central narrative.  We understand that to attain greatness from our lowly roots we have had to strive for it.  And, as a people, and as individuals we have often succeeded at greatness despite so many obstacles in our way. 
As Jews today, as we prepare for Passover, we also understand the nature of the greatness that must be earned.  As Jews we do not frown on wealth and status, but these are not our measures of greatness.  Rather we remember our slavery and redemption and strive towards greatness in morality and ethics, in truth and justice, in kindness and compassion.  While Egypt and all the other great empires we have outlived sought greatness in how much of the world they could conquer and own for their glory, we seek greatness in fixing the world for the benefit of all humanity.  

                                Rabbi Emanuel

From the Rabbi - March 2015 PDF Print E-mail
     There are lots of reasons why I am passionate about Judaism – the ethical and spiritual wisdom, the fascinating and multifaceted history of our people and, of course, the food!  But the thing I love most about Judaism is that it’s fun!  No really, it is, I promise!  There are of course times, such as slogging through a particularly interminable description of sacrifices in Leviticus, or near the end of Yom Kippur, when this might not be our first thought about Judaism, but Judaism is indeed fun and Purim comes along every year to prove it!
     Like other festivals it follows the pattern “They tried to kill, we survived, let’s eat!” and commands us to celebrate copiously.  We sing, we dance, we dress up, we eat (and drink!) and we enjoy ourselves with friends and family.    It’s a glorious reminder not to take ourselves so seriously all the time, and to experience our Judaism as a joy rather than a burden.
     And Purim reminds us that Judaism can be funny.  Parts of the Purim story are classic farce, with mistaken identities, awkward and surprising reversals and a bumbling and ridiculous king.  Traditional celebrations of Purim involve funny Purim Spiels, parodies of prayers and Torah stories and it’s the only day in the year when orthodox men are allowed to dress as women (and vice versa)!  Jews have always been funny.  Even the rabbis in the Talmud make jokes, like when they tell us that we need to see the Shofar being blown on Pesach lest we hear a donkey braying and confuse the sounds!  And in the modern era, the list of funny Jews is endless, from Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen to Gilda Radner, Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart.  And yet we seem to think that Judaism has to be somber, serious and guilt ridden all the time.
     In fact there is a lot of fun in Judaism.  All our festivals involve food and song, Shabbat is a day of joy as well as of rest, and some commentators even argue that Yom Kippur is the most joyous day of the year because we get to be absolved of our sins (although even I will admit that one might be pushing it a little!)
     So come join us for Purim, the most fun holiday in the Jewish calendar, and be inspired to bring that sense of joy and fun to the rest of the Jewish year and to everything you do in life.

                    Rabbi Emanuel

From the Rabbi - February 2015 PDF Print E-mail
I have been very impressed by the quality of our 92nd Street Y events.  The last one involving a discussion between Thomas Friedman and Dov Seidman was particularly interesting.  Seidman argued that, contrary to our usual assumptions, success in business and life in general in the modern world is about values.  Specifically, values such as trust and kindness will get you further in the modern business environment than a relentless quest for more efficiency and profit.  Or, to put it another way, nice guys don’t finish last after all!

And what is the best way to train yourself in being nice?  According to Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, being religious makes you nicer! According to Putnam’s research religious people are measurably more generous, more altruistic, and more civic minded.  In practical terms religious people are more likely to do things like give blood, vote in local elections, give money to a homeless person, give their seat to a stranger, help a friend in financial need, volunteer (both for their religious institution and for secular causes) or help an old person across the street. 

Why is this the case? Perhaps religious people are more concerned with divine punishment or reward.  But Putnam’s research also suggests that belief is not the key factor. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish, Christian or Buddhist, Orthodox, Reform or Conservative.  What is key is the level of a person’s involvement with their religious community.  Even an atheist who attends church or synagogue with their family has the same levels of ‘niceness’ as a true believer. 

What this suggests is that being part of a religious community is in and of itself something that makes you a nicer and more considerate person.  Communities such as our own reinforce ethical values in our services and our programs, and encourage sharing, giving and connecting with others.

So the next time you ask why you should come to synagogue, the answer is simple – it will make you a nicer person!

                    Rabbi Emanuel

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