Don't be afraid

"The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid." — Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav


Ellen Jaffe-Gill

I'm a rabbi, cantor, teacher, writer, and editor who lives by the late Jack Newfield's self-description, "Radical in politics, conservative in lifestyle."

Don’t be afraid to visit Cuba!

When the invitation came to join a humanitarian mission to Cuba sponsored by the American Conference of Cantors, I sent the itinerary to my husband, saying, “Let’s do this!” To my surprise, given Spencer’s mobility issues, he said “Sure!” And we signed up, in September or October. The trip, scheduled for Jan. 7-14, 2019, seemed very far off in the distance.

Then came January, and the abstract became concrete. Our paperwork was complete, our necessary documents were in hand, and we had read repeatedly the scary “Travel Tips,” with its warnings to bring toilet paper and not to expect toilet seats everywhere and don’t drink the water. This was our first trip to a Third World country. We brought travel sizes of everything on the list: hand sanitizer (used once, after Spencer petted a dog), sunscreen (never applied), bug spray (ditto, and no bites). I went to the dollar store and, per instructions, bought lots of aspirin, acetaminaphen, antibiotic ointment, crayons, and markers to give to the various Jewish communities we were visiting in Cuba. Then I went to GNC and bought a lot of good daily vitamins, which I divided into leftover, relabeled prescription vials for distribution.

We met our tour group in Miami and flew to Santa Clara airport (very basic) in central Cuba. Then we got on the tour bus for the first of about 60 times and went to Cienfuegos, a city on the south-central coast of Cuba. The hotel there, where we spent two nights, was very nice, nothing Third World about it.

Cuban cities are an interesting mix of preserved colonial and pre-revolutionary buildings, crumbling colonial and pre-revolutionary buildings, and crumbling post-revolutionary stucco-box apartment houses, with a faceless high-rise here and there in Havana. The “modern” buildings reminded me of some of the crumblier neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Graffiti and signs praising the revolution, which just had its 60th anniversary, are everywhere, as is Che Guevara’s face. Fidel Castro isn’t depicted on the billboards and graffiti, because he thought it was arrogant to plaster his likeness all over the place. (Che, dead since 1967, didn’t have a say about his image.) But Fidel gets plenty of love on the billboards too. In fact, he is Cuba’s most beloved figure, and Cuba loves its heroes. We saw a hagiographic film about Fidel on the bus, and I kept thinking about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, though the Rebbe had a much nicer beard.

Everywhere we went, there were stray dogs walking around and lying on the pavement, most of them looking very thin and tired. I didn’t see a cat until our last day in Havana. During the week we were in Cuba, I saw exactly three dogs being walked on leashes. I also saw two goats walked on leashes by two different people.

It was a strenuous trip: the steep steps on and off the bus, buildings and other sites reachable only by stairs, walking tours on cracked sidewalks and cobblestoned streets. Spencer was a champ, though. Only a couple of times did he skip a sightseeing venue because of accessibility. I’m scheduled for knee replacement in March, and because I’ve been working out pretty regularly for the past 11 months, the muscles around my knees are a lot stronger, and I haven’t been having much knee pain. I figured the Cuba trip would be the deciding factor for whether I went ahead with the surgery or postponed it. Even with knee braces, after two days I was dreading every staircase, so I’m going ahead with the surgery.

From Cienfuegos, we made a day trip to Trinidad, a little further east, which has the most really old colonial buildings. The country is green and pretty; still lots of sugar cane. Temps were in the 70s or low 80s every day of the trip. We realized the first evening that we were going to be uncomfortably sweaty the entire week and would just have to deal.

The highlight of the stay in Cienfuegos was hearing an amazing choral group singing Cuban and classical European pieces. Later, in Havana, we watched a performance by a dance troupe that incorporates percussion on drums and wooden chairs. We also visited a small art gallery, an artists’ colony covered with mosaics, and the Cuban Museum of Fine Arts. Visual and performance artists are lionized in Cuba. A dancer is paid more money than a doctor, lawyer, or university professor. Jobs related to tourism also pay well.

We visited the Jewish communities of Cienfuegos (no synagogue; five families meet in a living room); Santa Clara in central Cuba (a small synagogue); and Havana (a Sephardic and an Ashkenazi congregation, each with a building that it can’t fill). At each place of worship, we heard from leaders of the community (no rabbis or cantors in Cuba) and presented gifts of cash, OTC meds, and school supplies. There were about 15,000 Jews in Cuba before the revolution; now there are 1,500. But each community is determined to hang on. The seven of us cantors on the trip presented a concert at the Ashkenazi synagogue, and two or three cantors led very Reform Friday night services at the Sephardi center. I wonder what its regulars thought of that.

And from all accounts, there isn’t any anti-Semitism in Cuba. I believe it, because factors that feed anti-Semitism are missing in Cuba. Religion was more or less outlawed the first 30 years after the revolution, so during that time, no one was taught in religious school or from the altar that Jews had the wrong slant on faith. And everybody is poor in Cuba, so there’s none of the “Jews have all the money” nonsense you get in the Americas and Europe. Because the state controls everything, no one can accuse Jews of controlling anything. Plus there aren’t enough Jews to be on anyone’s radar.

We had very nice meals, though there was a certain sameness to them after a while. Lunch and dinner always started with a mojito or a Cuba libre with as much rum as anyone wanted. After a couple of days, the charm of free booze wore off, and I drank mojitos without rum, which are delightfully refreshing and stuffed with fresh mint, reminding me of limonana in Israel. All the restaurant meals were noisy, making it difficult to have a conversation. I would have given anything for one dinner being a pizza party at the hotel. We stayed at a five-star high-rise hotel in Havana, as nice as, say, any Marriott. Actually, by the end of the week, when we were driven to dinner in spiffed-up autos from the 1950s, I was getting a little uncomfortable with how comfortable we were.

The most important thing I took away from Cuba was sheer exasperation with the fearful derangement the U.S. has continued to harbor. The nervousness of having a Communist nation ninety minutes from Florida was understandable when Cuba was a client state of Russia (and make no mistake, Cuba Is a Communist nation; the state owns and controls the means of production, rations food, and allows residents few personal liberties). But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, it pulled out 85 percent of Cuba’s economy; Cuba has never recovered. The U.S. government missed an enormous diplomatic and economic opportunity by not filling the void the Soviet Union left. As it happens, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about this very topic a week after we got home; I recommend his analysis.

The trip was exhausting, sometimes trying, always fascinating. I’m so happy we went.

havana_st francis square

Don’t be afraid. Be like Dr. King.

Dr. King

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. loomed very large as a public figure and role model when I was a kid. I grew up in one of those homes where the television was always on, but early in the evening, it was always tuned to the news (WCBS and Walter Cronkite). Some of the first national news stories I can remember involved sit-ins, Freedom Riders, and sheriffs turning water hoses on Negroes in the South. I remember the coverage of Dr. King at the March on Washington, the week after my ninth birthday. He and the astronauts and President Kennedy, before and after his martyrdom, were the sociopolitical culture heroes in our corner of Westchester County.

I had a more personal connection, too. When Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 1964, our sixth-grade teacher, Vera Greene, had us students write letters of congratulation to him. “Peace is not a thing that you can take for granted,” I wrote at age 10. “You can’t just put it in a toy box and forget about it.” (Our penmanship, as well as our language mechanics, had to be perfect, something that caused me to have to write many, many drafts.)

After Dr. King’s assassination, Mrs. Greene had her sixth-graders of spring 1968 write memorial poems and notes of condolence to the King family. Eventually, all the essays and notes, with student drawings and an account of Dr. King’s trip to Oslo and his major speeches, were gathered in a slim book and published. Each of us got a copy, but mine disappeared some time after I reached adulthood. I finally tracked one down at a Manhattan bookstore a few years ago. It had retailed at $2.25; I talked the manager down to $70.00. (“But I’m one of the authors!”)

In recent years, Dr. King’s birthday celebration on the third Monday in January has been an important day for me on the Jewish as well as secular calendar, and it was extra special this year because the national observance was on his actual birthday, January 15, and my chavurah’s second-Friday Shabbat service fell at the beginning of the holiday weekend. And, as serendipity would have it, a colleague posting on Facebook dropped the perfect MLK Jr. text into my lap on Friday as the basis for a drashah.

In one of his less well-known speeches, Dr. King eulogized three of the four girls who were killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when it was bombed in September 1963. In that speech, he made reference to politicians who have fed their constituents “the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.”

That metaphor may seem mild, as we tend to compare hatred and bigotry to more dire bodily problems such as cancer or plague. But as I thought about it, the comparison seemed more and more apt. There’s nothing fresh about sinat chinam, baseless hatred; it’s been around forever. Meat that’s gone bad can sicken us. Nobody wants to eat stale bread and spoiled meat. But if that’s all you have to keep yourself from starving to death, you’ll eat it. If your existence is barren, if you don’t where your next meal is coming from and your soul has little to sustain it but threats of hellfire or a cheap high, you’ll accept hatred and racism as fuel to keep that soul going. Seeing hatred and bigotry as stale bread and spoiled meat helps us understand a little better why so many people accept fear and bigotry as sustainers of their souls, even when it makes their lives no better.

Dr. King had it right when he spoke of the leaders who feed hatred and racism to the populace. They, including our current POTUS, have no excuse for peddling fear and racism other than self-interest. They have plenty of access to soul-sustaining entities: family, creature comforts, religious faith (professed if not practiced), power. Yet they teach their constituents to fear what they don’t know and to hate the Other, even though they know it isn’t in the voters’ best interests to do so. Hatred and racism won’t fatten their constitutents’ paychecks, provide them with health care, put secure roofs over their heads, send their kids to decent schools. Hatred and racism are useful, however, if one’s goal is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a very few, and right now that appears to be the working plan of the current administration.

We can and must take up Dr. King’s lifelong struggle against inequality, injustice, and hate. As a Christian, Dr. King saw the possibility of a nation in which love and hope conquer fear and hatred. I join all the other Jews who walked with him toward his goal.




Don’t be afraid to confront loss.

This has been a year of real loss and foreseeable loss in our family. The real loss is my mother-in-law, Lloyd Bailey Gill, who died in October. She had been recovering from a mild case of pneumonia and was doing really well, scheduled to go back to her own apartment in senior housing after a stay in the nursing unit. She celebrated her 94th birthday on Friday, Sept. 29, walking into the building’s dining room for lunch with her friends. The following Monday morning, she was unresponsive when the staff tried to wake her.

In the hospital, she regained consciousness, but her left side was paralyzed, she couldn’t form words clearly, and she couldn’t swallow. She was terribly, visibly frustrated. And she had signed a Do Not Resuscitate order, which precluded hospital personnel from inserting a feeding tube. Four days after her return to the hospital, after her doctors determined that she wasn’t going to get better, she was taken back to her apartment on hospice status. She was set up in a hospital bed in her sitting room, facing out toward Norfolk Harbor, and was happy to be back in her own place. She died less than 48 hours later.

Lloyd’s death was a shock, although she was 94; she had been independent and healthy for so long that we were certain she was going to round the century mark without breaking a sweat and just keep going. She had outlived most of her contemporaries, and my husband, Spencer, and I were pretty sure she was going to outlive us. The Jewish birthday blessing, “To a hundred and twenty” didn’t seem that farfetched. It seems strange to say it, but I still can’t believe she’s gone so soon.

Lloyd was a devout Presbyterian, but she left instructions to be buried in the family plot immediately, and her funeral was the day after she passed away. Spencer was helped first by the mourning rituals of those first few days: the three shiva minyans we held at our house and the well-attended memorial service and reception at Lloyd’s church. Then he was distracted by logistics: the lawyer and the will, paying her last bills, clearing out her apartment, dealing with his difficult, dithering older sister. (Big sigh of relief when she went home to Massachusetts.) Because we were the only relatives who lived close to her, we brought home everything from furniture to laundry detergent and paper towels, not to mention a 1952 brass trivet commemorating the Confederacy.

Spencer says he feels his mother’s death in occasional pangs: someone will say something, and he’ll hear a response in his mother’s voice in his head, or he’ll turn on the lamp from her desk that replaced the smaller lamp that was on his desk. A big pang at Thanksgiving, when she wasn’t with us on the annual trek to Richmond to have dinner with Spencer’s cousins; we drank to the memory of their “Aunt Sistuh.” Another pang this morning, when normally we would have been opening gifts in her apartment with her and Spencer’s sister, who always flew down at Christmastime. There’ll be a big one in the fall, when Spencer used to watch the U.S. Open with Lloyd, an avid tennis fan.

I hope we don’t also lose Lloyd’s surviving friends at the apartment tower in Norfolk, who are warm and fun to be with. We should probably collect their phone numbers and make a practice of visiting on Saturday afternoons after shul. But of course we will lose them sooner than later, as they are 90-plus or close to it.

Meanwhile, I’m blessed that both my parents are still around and very much compos mentis, but Lloyd’s passing has thrown their mortality into sharp focus. My mother, Lois, has been on kidney dialysis since May, and although she and my dad utterly reject the prediction of two years’ further life expectancy that one of her doctors has made, dialysis is usually seen as the beginning of the end. She’s holding up pretty well so far and can probably withstand the tedium and tiredness for quite a while, but I’m dreading the day she decides she’s had enough.

And when we lose her, we’re likely to lose my dad as well. Either he’ll go soon after she does, or our relationship will devolve to a once-a-week, 30-second phone call, with maybe a once-a-year visit, by his choice. Mort grew up with an unloving father and a passive mother, and in adulthood he had enough real love for only person; boruch haShem, that person has been Lois, for 64 years. He held my sisters and me at arm’s length when we were kids and does so even more now, but all our lives we’ve had the role model of a father who treats our mother like a queen, now with the attention and tenderness of a devoted caretaker. We learned not to settle for less, and we’re all married to men who treat us well. I just hope Mort will let us in a little when he needs help.

Does it help or intensify the hurt that we have lost/will lose our parents without really knowing them? One of the sharpest differences between the baby boomers and our parents’ generation is that their culture taught them to keep problems and emotions to themselves, while we were encouraged to let it all hang out. What stories will go untold, what secrets unshared? Does Spencer regret not pressing his dad for details of his war experiences or his mother for stories of her college days? In the months to come, as I fly out to my folks more and more frequently, will I try to know them more before I have to stop asking questions permanently?

More to the point, what will I do when I can no longer talk to my mother on the phone every night? Clearly, I need to take my own advice.


Don’t be afraid that I died or something.

blank tombstone

Oh, dear, I thought it had been three months since I posted in this blog, and it’s been four, hasn’t it? Actually, FaceBook friends know I’m around, and it was one of them who asked recently when I’m going to add to my blog, repeating the question at kiddush a few days ago. The gentle reminder and positive reinforcement are much appreciated.

So an explanation is probably in order for anyone who cares. There was some big stuff, such as Passover, for which I spent two weeks cooking and trying to finalize guest lists for two pretty big s’dorim at our house. And issues around my mother in Arizona, whose kidneys have been failing. A visit out there just after Pesach, planned in February, wound up being three days of sitting in Mom’s Scottsdale hospital room and three evenings sitting with my dad watching episodic TV dramas at volume level 60. I don’t begrudge a minute of the time with my mom — we did some wonderful reminiscing. But it wasn’t conducive to up-to-the-minute blogging.

My mother was hospitalized in April because she was retaining a dangerous amount of water, and the docs were trying to figure out a pharmaceutical solution that would jump-start her kidneys while not endangering her heart, with which she also has issues. That solution didn’t work out, and Mom went on dialysis the following week. I’ll write more about that soon when I post something about how it feels to have parents who are no longer aging but old, an experience many of you have gone through, and yes, I realize how blessed I am that both my parents are not only still around but compos mentis and functioning, all things considered. Mom is tolerating dialysis quite well and has lost a ton of water weight, so she’s actually feeling much better than she was six weeks ago.

Another thing that has impeded my blog-posting has been a moderate case of PTSD: President Trump Stress Disorder. (Severe is when you behave in a way that gets you thrown off an airplane.) As the bad behavior and planned depredations pile up, so has my consumption of news, mostly via MSNBC and the Washington Post, the latter of which we get online for free because we subscribe to the local Virginian-Pilot. (Please, no cracks about MSNBC being left-wing; it consistently interviews conservative politicians and commentators and is starting to tug its lineup of hosts to the right.) I get WaPo headlines every morning, a loooong feed called The Post Most every afternoon, and an inside-the-Beltway analysis, The Daily 202, five days a week. There’s plenty of overlap among the three, but I spend at least an hour every day reading news stories and op-eds. Plus pieces from The Nation, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist that people post on FB. And I’m thinking of getting the Sunday edition of The New York Times because it comes with daily online access. What’s the threshold for news junkiehood?

Overconsumption of verifiable news, of course, leads to knowing too damn much about stuff going on in the world, which then leads to a desire to put a foot up the ass of any number of government officials and pundits, a desire that, as a rabbi, I can’t indulge. Even righteous anger turned inward becomes depression, so while I don’t spend a lot of time curled up in the fetal position, I spend a lot of time thinking about being curled up in the fetal position. That, too, cuts into my potential blogging time. (But so does phone banking, which I’m doing this year and next for Virginia Democrats.)

I also spend a lot of time sleeping during the day, which is mostly about untreated sleep apnea. (I’ve tried CPAP twice and can’t deal with the machine and the mask.) On the plus side, if I’m sleeping, I’m not eating.

The last factor in what’s been keeping me from blogging is a slight uptick in work, some of it rabbi work, but (more lucratively) also copyediting and proofreading for a company that helps people self-publish books, mostly business titles. I’m hoping to start very soon on an actual ghostwriting gig for this outfit, which would be interesting and involve some real money, maybe even enough to pay for a few months of health insurance if the ACA goes bye-bye.

So that’s my list of reasons I didn’t post anything on this blog for four months: Passover, worry about my mom, overconsumption of news, depression, sleeping, and work. But I pledge to do better in the coming months, as I replace sleeping during the day with caffeine abuse and depression with, I don’t know, maybe yoga, maybe reruns of Cybill.

Don’t be afraid about how holy your rabbi’s language is.

When I got on the bus to go home from the Women’s March on Washington, I vented briefly about my physical condition on Facebook: “My knees would like me to eff off and die.” The next day, a Facebook friend posted, rather disingenuously, “What do you mean by eff off?” I ignored the question, figuring she knew perfectly well what I meant, and the next day she made it clear that she expected me, as a rabbi, to hold myself to a higher standard of conduct regarding language than other people.

This was mildly annoying, for a couple of reasons:

• I had posted the comment about my knees on my general FB page (and by the way, ten years ago I would have spelled out the f-word), but the FB friend responded on my professional page, which I reserve for rabbi-related stuff.

• Her response was typical of Jews who want their rabbis to do all the Jewish things they don’t want to do and model all the fine behavior, at all times, that they don’t want to bother exhibiting themselves.

The fact is, as a lot of people do, I use salty language sometimes. I’ve been cussing since I was 14, and while I try to limit my use of cuss words to the privacy of my own home and the company of my spouse, I find them useful sometimes in conveying strong feeling or underscoring a point in conversation. The word “salty” in context of language probably derives from sailors’ reputation for cursing, but I think of cuss words more as spice: used sparingly, they add flavor to self-expression, though it’s important not to overpower one’s speech with them.

Don’t forget that the language associated with Jewish prayer, Hebrew, has its share of rudeness. For example, the Hebrew word for “female,” n’keivah, shares its root with the Hebrew word for “hole.” And the language associated with European Jewry, Yiddish, can win most contests for spicy vocabulary, to the extent that it sometimes gets sanitized in translation out of politeness. The word bupkes, used to mean “nothing of worth” or “almost nothing of worth,” literally means “goat poop.” Similarly, I don’t ever refer to an elderly man as an alter kocker, because kock comes from the same place ca-ca does, and I think it’s impolite to call someone an “old shitter.” Yiddish has lots of ways to call someone a fool, and several of them invoke body parts generally kept hidden.

Of course we expect clergy to stay away from acts that hurt or embarrass people and/or institutions, which include everything from hiring a hit man to murder your spouse because you’re infatuated with a congregant to showing up to give a civic invocation on behalf of your congregation dressed in a torn T-shirt and flip-flops. Nor would I use salty language during an invocation, on the bimah, during a lifecycle event, or in front of children. But I feel I have the prerogative to go off-color occasionally on the Facebook page I use to recommend movies, rail about spineless members of Congress, and post cute doggie pix. And I reserve the very occasional right, when teaching adults, to refer to a biblical character as a douchebag when the word “douchebag” describes him best. Of course I could call the same character an arrogant putz, but that would be even ruder.

When someone jumps my case for using profanity in a casual, colloquial context, that person certainly has the right not to like it, but she needs to understand that she’s denying a bit of my essential humanity and self-expression. (And please don’t haul out the old saw about how people who use cuss words don’t know the proper words; I’ll match my working vocabulary with anyone else’s, any time.) According to Torah, God wants all of us to be holy and doesn’t list extra requirements of conduct for the biblical priests. Maybe that’s why, at least in theory, Judaism expects its clergy to be human beings and live like other human beings: to be more learned, maybe, but not necessarily more holy. Actually, I think that’s pretty effing cool.







By now you’ve seen lots of news photos and video from the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches around the country and the world. I got on a bus at 5 a.m. to go to DC; while I’d been to a few rallies and marches in Los Angeles focused on LGBT and immigration issues, Saturday’s was the first really big event I’d been to in almost 25 years. And I have to admit, there were times when that deathless line from Lethal Weapon ran through my mind: I’m too old for this shit.

It wasn’t just the leg pain, either. (My knee braces proved ineffective by noon, and the Aleve might as well have been Skittles.) I mean, there were women there with walkers and wheelchairs, so I just kept hobbling along. It was more about being happy to be there, to have shown up, to be counted, but not being thrilled. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was always excited to be at a mass rally, to know that I wasn’t alone in my protest and that I lived in a country in which thousands of people could gather in one place to make their voices heard.

This time I couldn’t get as excited. I didn’t spend much time in the most crowded six blocks of the rally on Independence Avenue; it was claustrophobic even for someone not normally afraid of crowds or tight places, and I slowly moved back to where there was some milling-around space. By the time the rally became a march down Constitution Avenue, my knees hurt too much to join it; I sat on some stone steps and watched younger women walk by chanting “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!” while a millennial ran back and forth trying to start a wave among the folks on the steps. Finally, I tottered up to Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, which had programming all day, and dozed off during a session on community organizing.

Another thing that bothered me, and I don’t know if this is age or rabbinic formation, was the relentless sexual undertone and the uncreative salaciousness of some of the signs. I get the pussy hats, and they certainly made an impressive sea of pink, and yes, the event was billed as a women’s march, and DJT’s attitudes toward women are egregious, but I got a little tired of placards reading “This pussy grabs back,” and other (male and female) genital references. I don’t want to come on as a prude, but I don’t like my identity as a woman to be reduced to a single body part. Also, if you can’t come up with a sign more clever than “FUCK TRUMP,” you’re not an asset to the movement.

That said, I witnessed a lot of beauty and life-affirming spirit in DC. Posters and banners focused on love were ubiquitous, as was a full-page image from Friday’s Washington Post, showing a woman wearing a hijab patterned after the American flag and captioned, “We the People.” Besides the sheer numbers, the diversity was pretty darn good: age ranges from babies to seniors, lots of men and boys, a good representation of POCs, though Pallid Americans did predominate. People on the Metro made room, offered seats, talked to strangers. The D.C. police and National Guard members made me feel safer, not threatened. Rainbow flags and “All fired up — ready to go!” never get old. All the crazy had happened on Friday; by Saturday there was no violence, no acting-out, no panic. There was a wonderful sense of unity that I hope keeps up and turns into a left-of-center version of the Tea Party that will hammer at state and local institutions. Just please don’t call it the Pussy Party.

Next time I might stay close to home and go to a local rally; my body will appreciate it. But my soul will never forget January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. There’s nothing like being there.

A few photos:

Don’t be afraid to learn your prayers.

Last Friday night I did something I never thought I’d do: I conducted a Shabbat service entirely in English. Not because I think it’s a good idea, and not because I was pressured by a Hebrew-hating congregation. I was trying to prove a point and wound up discovering a couple of different ones.

The very small “congregation without walls” that I lead is unaffiliated but uses Reform liturgy and, while it includes some members who had substantial Jewish educations as children, the majority of the people who come to services don’t have much Hebrew background. (All of them are strongly committed to Judaism and are lovely, menschedik people, and many are eager learners.) We have a Friday night service just once a month, though I’m trying to nudge the steering committee to double that. A few members have kept up a drumbeat of wanting more English and less Hebrew in the services because they can’t read Hebrew, despite the usual comebacks:

“But Hebrew is the traditional language of Jewish prayer.”

“It isn’t our language, and I never had to learn it.”

“You could learn it now. I’m happy to teach you.”

“I’m too old/busy/uninterested.”

“But everything the congregation sings is transliterated just below.”

“It’s still Hebrew. I don’t know what it means.”

“But an English translation is right there on the page.”

“It’s distracting to read the English while people are singing in Hebrew.”

“Anyway, it isn’t all about understanding what the words mean. It’s the sound of the Hebrew, the rhythm of the Hebrew …”

“I get that, but I still want to know what I’m singing.”

Understand that I regularly include lots of English in my services: responsive readings, passages that aren’t transliterated, outside readings that I ask congregants to recite, spontaneous kavanot and discussions. But yes, most of the sung liturgy is in Hebrew. I sounded out members from Reform backgrounds about perhaps using a couple of English-language settings from the old Union Prayer Book days, but the only one they know is the call-and-response “Let us adore … the ever-living God …” for Aleinu, and that isn’t in the siddur we use.

Finally, after this issue came up at a membership meeting last month and we’d had the exchange described above, I said, “You know what? Next month’s service is going to be all-English. You probably haven’t heard a lot of our prayers sung in English. Maybe if you hear the things we sing with English words, you’ll get why they’re meant to be sung in Hebrew.” My theory was that they’d find the English, sung to the tunes we use regularly, so clunky or even silly that they’d understand why some of the passages don’t even have English-language settings and be okay with the traditional Hebrew. I figured even the Hebrew-averse congregants would be uncomfortable with a mourner’s Kaddish in English when they’d heard “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” all their lives, and by the time they were singing the boilerplate of Adon olam (“Eternal One, who reigned supreme…”) they’d have had enough.

Predictably, the congregants who knew Hebrew or wanted to know Hebrew were not happy at the prospect of an all-English service, while others were intrigued. I described it as an experiment, but I made my position clear at the beginning of the service when I announced that our thematic text for the evening was not the Torah portion of the week but rather Numbers 11:18-20: “You have kept whining before HaShem and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ HaShem will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils.” (Happily, that got a nice laugh.)

As it turned out, I probably did too good a job. I fit the English in the prayerbook to the tunes so that it scanned nicely for most of the passages. For Adon olam, for which the translation in the book was unusable, I pieced together rhythmic translations from three different siddurim (and three different movements!) to get a singable English version. More congregants sang along throughout the service than I’d ever heard before.

Afterward, the consensus was that Bar’chu and the first line of Sh’ma always need to be chanted in Hebrew, but different congregants had different views of what worked in the vernacular and what didn’t. Their opinions were really helpful and have given me ideas for future services that I think they’ll like. The really interesting comments, though, were the ones that revealed how oblivious some of them were to what’s in the prayerbook and what we do at services. One member said she never noticed that the prayers were translated into English in the siddur. Another appreciated reciting the mourner’s Kaddish in English but seemed somewhat annoyed by the fact that it doesn’t mention death. A third said she liked a certain prayer translation, forgetting that we read that blessing in English at every service.

It became clear that there isn’t just a Hebrew problem among my congregants; there’s a mindfulness problem. (And the latter is my problem, too: going on autopilot is the bane of clergy as well as congregants.) My task is to try to bring the kahal to an understanding of what they’re reciting or singing, regardless of language, so that, whether in English or Hebrew, it constitutes more than sounds coming out of their mouths. I have ideas about that, too.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I have no intention of drastically reducing the Hebrew of our chavurah services or of giving up trying to get Jews to learn prayerbook Hebrew. Although the rabbis of old have said it’s okay to pray in the vernacular because understanding the prayers is important, that doesn’t mean pushing away such an integral part of Jewish tradition. We Jews are a unique faith community, and reciting prayers in Hebrew is one of the most particularistic things we do. The use of Hebrew in prayer and sacred text is one of the most important things that makes us Jews and places us in connection with Jews around the world. “There is an emotional element that reciting prayer in Hebrew can add even to those who do not comprehend every word,” writes Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a noted scholar of liturgy. “There is nothing magical in Hebrew, but there is something culturally meaningful that is lost when traditional prayers are said in other languages.” (See more at

Accordingly, I’ll be starting a basic prayerbook Hebrew class soon. Really, anyone can learn how to decode Hebrew. If you can learn a bunch of text emojis, you can learn the Hebrew alef-bet. If you can remember social media initials (SMH, FWIW, ICYMI, etc.), you can learn some Hebrew prefixes, suffixes, and roots. But my class won’t be just about decoding. It will definitely include learning what we say when we speak to God, and why we say it.

Don’t be afraid to be politically correct when it means “having good manners.”

We just came through an election season during which the phrases “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” were used ad nauseam: the first to indicate a rigid adherence to language that offends no one in the least way, the second as a label for saying what you want, when you want, where you want, to whom you want. (Full disclosure: I’m recycling most of this blog post from one of my 5777 High Holidays drashot.)

Let me say up front that I’m n0t an absolutist when it comes to political correctness. Some of the reports I’ve read of college students having the fantods because someone spray-painted the name of a political opponent on a campus sidewalk or needing to be warned before a professor mentions a historical event that might upset them give me a swift pain. I mean, part of maturity is being able to deal with uncomfortable speech and subject matter.

I thought the kids in my generation who grew up with white privilege and enough money were sheltered, but we’re right off the streets compared to some of the students entering college today. By all means, nail the spray-painter for vandalism and suggest to instructors that they give students a heads-up concerning, I don’t know, graphic images and descriptions. But one of the reasons you go to college is to experience people who don’t necessarily think like you, to live outside a completely safe space. A demand for extreme political correctness, like extreme anything else, doesn’t make sense to me.

But the other end of the spectrum, the claim that a person’s right to say whatever he or she wants supersedes whatever discomfort that person’s words inflict, is much more dangerous in a civil society that’s becoming less civil with each passing year. Like many of you, I grew up with the jingle “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But language can hurt. It can kill, if it’s powerful enough to incite violence.

Even if language used isn’t used in a hostile, purposely hurtful way, it still can inflict pain. These are the faux pas, the “microaggressions” that I’ve seen described online and in magazines: small, often unthinking or even well-intended words or actions that make the recipient feel less-than. They can be based on race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender. They are everywhere, and whether or not you think they’re silly, trivial, or confusing, or someone is being oversensitive, these microaggressions are sincerely felt and should be acknowledged.

Many Americans take pride in being direct and outspoken, in contrast to other national cultures in which a veneer of obfuscation or politeness masks opposition. We have the right to say what we want and print what we want, and by God we’re gonna do just that. But there can be a very thin line between being outspoken and being tactless, between “telling it like it is” and lashon hara, which literally means “evil language” and represents not just malicious gossip but any derogatory speech about another person or group, even when it’s true.

Words are like a stone thrown into a still pond: the ripples flow out from the stone in ever-growing concentric circles that eventually go all the way to the water’s edge. Positive speech can carry someone through tough times. Negative speech can poison a relationship, with an aftertaste that lingers sometimes for decades. I know this because I have dropped such stones into the pond and, horrified, watched the circles spread.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever advise, criticize, even rebuke someone. But your words can come from a place of love, not just self-righteousness or condescension, from real concern for the recipient, not just for your own agenda. It all comes down to thinking before you speak. Or hit Post or Send.

One of the easiest ways we can care for one another is to refrain from unnecessary speech that does harm to someone else; to point it out — kindly, lovingly — when it occurs; to develop enough empathy to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of what we say. Were everyone to do that, we would have a society that goes beyond civility to real understanding.

(If you recognize the creator of the cartoon above, please name so I can give credit.)

Don’t be afraid of 2017. Be resolute.

My Facebook feed for the past two weeks has been full of messages bidding good riddance to 2016, and for every “Let’s hope 2017 is better,” there’s been someone else posting “And [I’m afraid] things are only going to get worse in 2017.”

It’s easy to understand why people are facing this new year with dread. Via a perfect storm of well-documented and chewed-over factors, our nation is about to inaugurate a president who is a 21st-century American version of Benito Mussolini and who is absolutely capable of trying to mold U.S. government and society into even more of an oligarchy — a polity in which a powerful cadre of individuals and corporations dictate to the rest of the populace — than it already is.

The dangers of a Trump presidency, backed by a Republican Congress and a host of Republican-dominated governorships and state legislatures, are obvious. His Cabinet choices show not just disregard for but hostility to environmental protection, civil rights and liberties, public education, expanded access to health care, and any boundaries for financial institutions. Trump, I have no doubt, will continue to make scapegoats out of Muslims, immigrants, and people of color and will continue to lie to the victims of corporate greed who comprise much of his base.

People will die because of his actions. More and more children who live near sites of unfettered pollution will develop debilitating illnesses such as asthma and fatal cancers. When the Supreme Court, after Trump appoints a couple of new justices, overturns Roe v. Wade, women and girls dying from septic abortions will once again become a common occurrence in America, because at least half the states are ready to recriminalize first-trimester abortion the following day. Thousands of people will perish because they will no longer have access to doctors and life-saving therapies. And although the possibility is more remote, there is no guarantee that someone of Trump’s immaturity won’t be provoked into sending U.S. troops into combat or even using — or inviting — nuclear weapons.

So yes, the Trump presidency is a scary prospect. But we who oppose what Trump stands for and what he’s likely to do in office won’t form an effective bulwark against his administration’s worst depredations if we react by hiding, lashing out, despairing, or even hoping that Trump’s presidency will implode or be stopped by the realities of American law and global economics. This piece by a Hungarian academic lays out the parallels between his country, now a populist autocracy, and ours: We need to start learning what to do and what not to do from people who have confronted, to use Fareed Zakaria’s term, the “illiberal democracy” in which we may be about to live.

Our anger must not be helpless; it must be channeled into resistance and practical aid  to  land and waterways and institutions and especially individual people who are being harmed by new or renewed government policies. The aid will involve donating money, because, to give two examples, money will be needed to feed hungry kids and help women travel to places where they can terminate pregnancies safely. But it will also include being present, showing up, for meetings, phone banking, lobbying, mass protests. It will include gathering the nerve on occasion to confront, on social media and face-to-face, not only people we know but people we don’t know whom you catch relying on fake news or letting their bigotry pollute civil discourse — always listening to why they think the way they do and responding by modeling love and compassion. It also means acting locally when local issues come up that endanger progress.

And we need to be very aware that our responsibility is to all human beings, not just the people who are like us, and that our activism has to include people who don’t necessarily look or live like us. For example, the current spike in anti-Semitic vandalism is upsetting and must be dealt with (see “acting locally”), but that doesn’t mean Congress is going to pass a new set of Nuremberg Laws next month. Rather than fear how illiberal democracy may affect us in an undetermined future, let’s fight against possibilities such as registries for American Muslims and internment camps for undocumented immigrants, not just because we could be next, but because we believe in an America in which every resident has equal protection under the law.

To wish you “Happy New Year” would border on the fatuous, so I wish each of you a new year in which awareness and inspiration bring the potential for joy.

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