Emor – Tradition!

Stephen Richer
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Having missed out on Jewish school and Jewish camp, I struggle with Hebrew songs—as anyone at last week’s Chabad Shabbat services can attest.  But when Rabbi Shemtov requested a solo performance of “If I Were A Rich Man,” I sang at the top of my voice, pleased to show that I can comfortably recite at least of one of our people’s great songs.

And now this week I’m titling my Dvar Torah “Tradition.”  I don’t try to see life through the lens of Fiddler on The Roof (FTR), but it is filled with so much wisdom and so many great songs that it is hard to avoid—and it is currently playing here in Washington.  Plus, seeing as how FTR is absent from my first seven Divrei Torah, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for your indulgence this one time.

And so we begin…

In the prelude to the Tradition song (found here), Tevye lists several of the traditions held by his town (Anatevka).  They have traditions pertaining to food, sleep, work, and clothing.  “How did this tradition get started?” Tevye asks himself, and then offers the following, “I don’t know.”

Like most things in Judaism, our traditions originate in the Torah.  This week’s Portion establishes some of our most prominent traditions:

Passover:  “In the first month, on the fourteenth of the month, in the afternoon, [you shall sacrifice] the Passover offering to the Lord.” (Lev. 23:5)

Passover cont.: “You shall not eat bread or [flour made from] parched grain or fresh grain…” (Lev. 23: 14)

Rosh Hashanah:  “In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion.” (Lev. 23:24)

Yom Kippur: “But on tenth of this seventh month, it is a day of atonement, it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord.” (Lev. 23:27)

And so on and so forth…

Despite not knowing the origin of his traditions, Tevye knows their purposes:

The first:  “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is.”
Traditions connect the individual Jew to the entire Jewish people, spanning both time and distance.  Just as we celebrated Passover in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, so too did Jews in Argentina and Israel; so too did Jews in New York City in 1910.

Our history gives credence to this “unbounded” theory of Judaism.  After the fall of the first Temple in 586 BCE, Jews were dispersed throughout Mesopotamia, the Middle East, North Africa, and even into Europe.  But physical proximity was not necessary to maintain Jewish peoplehood.  The Torah, and its enumerated traditions, gave shape and commonalities to the Jewish people, so much so that by 1200 CE, Jews in Spain exchanged letters on religious thought with Jews in the Middle East.

Tevye’s second answer to the question of “why traditions?” is that “because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years.”

If all knowledge of previous civilization suddenly vanished, we might not know when to work, what to eat, when to take seven day vacations, etc.  We would, in fact, lose our balance.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  More than 3000 years of human existence has given us a pretty good idea of what works.  And if it worked for our mothers and fathers, then it will probably work for us too.  Tradition!

If we accept this principle—that wisdom is established over time and moves from generation to generation—then we would be unwise to wantonly abandon the traditions of our ancestors.  We might not be able to articulate the logic behind all of our established traditions, but the mere fact that they have existed for so long should cause us to question any revolutionary break lest the questioned tradition be the very foundation for maintaining our existence.

So sing on to Tradition, and enjoy your Shabbos—a tradition that both reaffirms our commitment to Judaism and serves to balance our mental and physical health.

Mitzvah Maker – Jay Krasnow

Mitzvah Maker - Jay Krasnow

What is great about Hugs Across America?
Giving a teddy bear to a child may seem to be a small gesture. But for many of these same children, a hug is out of reach.  The feel of embacing something is important as these children begin their process of recovering from that crisis.  It makes a real difference to them. So Hugs Across America is great because it provides a way to do that.

Who have you hugged?
As a national charity, with chapters across the United States,  Hugs Across America has provided over 410,000 teddy bears to victims in traumatic circumstances. So we’ve provided hugs by responding to the survivors of house fires, police and medical emergencies, domestic violence and natural disasters. Locally, we’ve hugged children suffering from cancer and other illnesses and relatives of homocide victims. We’ve also given hugs to children at an orphanage in Cuzco, Peru.

What was your most memorable hug?
I remember a little girl at Georgetown University’s Hospital’s Pediatric Oncology department several years ago.  When the team arrived at her room I could tell she wasn’t haven’t a good day.  But then the nurse gave her a teddy bear and she was all smiles. That was powerful.

Who haven’t you hugged yet that you really want to hug?
As part of a film project I’m working on, I’ve partnered with Life Pieces to Master Pieces, a charity that works with young, underserved African American males living in our nations capital. To date, LPMP has served over 750 young males and create over 1,000 masterpieces as part of their quest to transform the community. I’d really like to hug them.  You can learn more about the amazing work that LPMP does on at http://www.artomaticvoyage.com/press

What was the name of your teddy bear when you were a kid?
I don’t think I had a name for it. My favorite teddy bear is one that I got as a gift from a friend when I was a senior in high school.  Shortly thereafter, my nine-year-old cousin Melissa asked if she could have it, so I gave it to her. I recently asked Melissa, now in her 20’s, about the stuffed anmial.  Melissa told me that she still has it and that she took it with her to her dorm when she was in college. But she also said that she didn’t have a name for the teddy bear either.

How can we learn more about Hugs Across America?
You can visit the Hugs Across America Website at www.hugsacrossamerica.net. The link for the Washington Chapter of Hugs Across America is http://www.hugsacrossamerica.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=127:hugs-futurearts-chapter&catid=34:washington-dc&Itemid=195. We’ve had all sorts of events to “raise” teddy bears.  Last year we did a networking event for entrepreneurs. We’ve also had happy hours. Last year we had a teddy bear stuffing and tagging party that also raised money for Hugs Across America.

What other projects are you working on?
I’m directing and producing a film about Artomatic, a popular arts expo that’s held annually in Washington, D.C. Over 1,000 artists take over a large vacant commercial real estate buildings for a month to show their works. The event is free to the public and has been wildly successful. Over 70,000 people attended Artomatic in 2009 and several artists have really made it big, in part, because of their participation in this event. Owing to the big draw of the Artomatic, the vacant buildings that house the event often find tenents shortly after the Artomatic ends.  The idea is catching on. A spin-off Artomatic was recently held in Toledo, Ohio, and other one is being planned in Houston, Texas. I’m an alumni of Artomatic myself.  You can learn more about my film on Artomatic, Journey to the Center of Artomatic, at www.artomaticvoyage.com

What was your Artomatic exhibit?
I had several, but my favorite one was a photographic exhibit with teddy bears as Hercules and recounted the twelve labors of Hercules. I called the exhibit “The 12 Labears of Bearcules.”  The exhibit promoted the work of Hugs Across America.

Jewish Girl – Sarah

Jewish Girl - Sarah

(Jewish Girl of the Year Voting Page)

Why are you the most amazing Jewish Girl of the week?
Because I actually paid you to make me Jewish Girl of the Week.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I have lived and traveled in many places and Seattle in particular will always have a big chunk of my heart. But I really love Italy, especially Firenze. Something about their obsession with food and naps makes me feel right at home.

Speaking of the world, what is going to be your platform for Jewish Girl of the World?! (We heard that they are taking applications.)
Free lattes for all.

What is the best part about being Jewish?
Having a community wherever you go.

Where could we find you on a Friday night?
On Friday night I am likely throwing down a massive Shabbat dinner at Moishe House where I live. If you don’t know about it, check out moishehouse.org. After that, we hit the dance floor.

What is your favorite Jewish food?
The words Jewish and Food next to each other make me cringe a bit. Growing up keeping kosher, this phrase reminds me of pareve desserts and that mystery food known as Margarine. As far as Jewish foods, I think my favorites are actually more Israeli; Shaksuka is an amazing breakfast food and a great Israeli salad with Chumus and Pita is a go-to snack of mine.

You got any videos of you doing poetry?!  Can we watch you throw down (is that the right language)?
Throw down sounds about right. There are no current videos on YouTube but you can check out my stuff at my blog, http://rememberwhenihadablog.blogspot.com/.

Jewish Guy – Rob

RobWhy should you be Jewish Guy of the Year?

A South Floridian-turned-Washingtonian, I’m inspired by GTJ to become more active in our community. Guided by Judaic spirituality, committed to Israel, and imbued with mensch-iness, I’d be privileged to serve as JGOTY. Would this mean I’d become an honorary member of the G-d Squad?? *cue Carlos Santana music*

What’s your favorite article of clothing?
Business suits.

Which popular sitcom character are you closest to?
Alex P. Keaton. Sha-na-na-nah.

How long can you go without your mobile phone?
Since when does a mobile phone affect stamina?!

I heard you went to Hebrew summer camp. What was your favorite or least favorite memory?
My favorite memory of Hebrew summer camp was being taken to see Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” and not understanding any of it because I was maybe 7, but seeing naked women for the first time!

If you could build a house anywhere, where would it be?
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, except they already built one there. D’oh!

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday and why?
Hanukkah, because Jewish military triumphs should be celebrated…and presents help too.

Acharei-Kedoshim – The Pyramid of Success

Stephen Richer
The Pyramid of Success
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

This week’s Torah portion is full of interesting topics.  It discusses Yom Kippur; dietary laws; incest, bestiality, and homosexuality; a number of the Ten Commandments; tattoos; and equal justice under the law.

A discourse of sexual immorality appeals to my puerile brain, but I’m going to instead start with the following quotation and see where it takes me.

“Any man of the House of Israel, who slaughters an ox, a lamb or a goat inside the camp, or who slaughters outside the camp,

but does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to offer up as a sacrifice to the Lord before the Mishkan of the Lord, this [act] shall be counted for that man as blood he has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.”  (Lev. 17:3 – 17:4)

The quotation reminds us to be grateful to those who have been kind to us.  In the grandest sense—as detailed in the Parsha—God created us, gave/gives us food, took us out of Egypt only a couple chapters ago, etc.  We acknowledge this by expressing our thanks, be it through sacrifice in the Tent of Meeting, through prayer, or however.

But this lesson applies equally to the non-spiritual world.  Nobody makes it to the top, or even close to the top, without significant help from others—teachers, coaches, mentors, etc.  The Parsha suggests that this is especially relevant to the family dynamic.  The beginning of the next verse—“in order that the children of Israel should bring their offerings …”—names the Israelites as children and God the parent, thereby suggesting that a similar relationship should unfold among genetic children and parents.  Later text reinforces this parallel:  “Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths.  I am the Lord, your God,” (Lev. 19:3) and “For any man who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon himself” (Lev. 20:9).

Most readily apparent is the lesson that because parents birth, feed, and clothe the child, parents are owed a sacrificial ox, lamb, or goat, or the modern day equivalent.

Children should certainly give thanks to their parents (**note to self**), but sacrificial lambs and Mother’s Day flowers aside, parents should derive satisfaction simply from the successes and prosperity of their children. On the most basic level, it is the combined genes of the parents that have built the child and his talents.  But it is also true that the success of the child reflects on the continuing actions of the parents.  Victory of the child on the athletic field, in the classroom, in business, wherever, is often the product of extra efforts of the parent.  For this reason, the parent should never be jealous of the child’s success, but instead, the parent should be the child’s biggest booster, realizing that any awards won for by the child translate (except in rare cases) to the parent.

In many respects, this is the story of the American immigrant.  First generation immigrants often struggled to reach the stereotypical definitions of success, but their efforts often paved the road for later generations.  To reiterate—but in slightly different language—success is not built in one generation; it is the product of generations of family members working toward similar goals.  Parents would do well to take the same pride and happiness in their child’s accomplishment as they would their own success. And the child would do well to acknowledge that his efforts simply represent the highest point on a growing pyramid.

On that note, happy upcoming Mother’s Day!

Take The Jews Out To The Ball Game

Stephen Richer
Take The Jews Out To The Ball Game

In an atypical fashion, the Jewish crowd showed up early to the Nationals baseball game this past Sunday.  And it’s a good thing they did; otherwise they would have missed the ten runs that Milwaukee posted in the top of the first inning.

But despite the fact that the announcer called the President’s Race “the main event of the day,” the Nats did manage to climb back, making the last innings interesting as they lost 7 to 11.

More than 20 people showed up with the DC Minyan contingent led by Judy, allowing for a very spirited Hava Nagila from their section behind the center-right wall.  Some bloke named Stephen Richer was the only person to have a go at getting on the “Dance Cam” in the 4th inning, but nobody in the group made it on the big screen; nobody caught a ball, and nobody caught a t-shirt.  Better luck next time?

Side notes:

Wanting to fully digest the experience, your GTJ investigative reporter bought a pretzel, a chicken panini, and a peanut butter flavored gelato, none of which were adversely affected by the lop-sided score or the wind. Additionally, one member of the DC Minyan crowd managed to time the Kosher hot dog stand just right so that he received a “closing sale” of four hot dogs for the price of one.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) also rallied together a number of J-Squaders to attend the event.

Jewish Girl – Julia Moss

Jewish Girl - Julia Moss
(Jewish Girl of the Year Voting Page)

What makes you a “super Jew?”
Um, hello! My name is JEW-lia. That kind of says it all. But the real reason I’m a super Jew is because I eat, breathe, and live D.C.’s Jew scene. Whether it is kicking butt at Sixth & I’s trivia night or going to the Labor Seder with fellow members of Jews United for Justice’s Jeremiah Fellowship, I’m all about exploring and building my Jewish identity in every possible forum. It’s the core of who I am; it’s my passion and my purpose. Also, my facebook picture used to be of me and Rick Recht.

If you could add on five more commandments
(per this video: 15 Commandments) to the Ten Commandments, what would they be?
11. Thou shall not judge thy neighbor on the cleanliness of her apartment/desk
12. Thou shall not miss an opportunity to have froyo or eat outside when the weather is beautiful
13. Thou shall not use proper nouns or made-up words when playing Scrabble or Bananagrams
14. Thou shall remember that snowpocalypses, long weekends, and happy hours are all perfectly good excuses to act like a kid again and have ridiculous amounts of fun.
15. Thou shall never feel embarrassed to dance or sing-a-long to really bad yet catchy pop songs (Party in the U.S.A., anyone?).

Favorite book by a Jewish author or book that discusses Judaism:
Sure, Abraham Joshua Heschel is amazing, and no one gets 20th century Jewish American life like Philip Roth, but they’ve got nothing on my “Camp JCA Shalom Malibu Summer 1996” songbook.

You are “so D.C.” because:
I am “so D.C.” because my favorite time of day is happy hour; my birthday always falls during the peak of the Cherry Blossoms; I’ve lived here for 6 years, and they’ve been the best 6 years of my life; I don’t understand why people would want to live anywhere else in their 20s and 30s; no matter where I go, I run into people I know; I don’t mind humidity; I root for the Nationals.

On Friday night, you can find me at:
I rarely miss a Moishe House Shabbat, and who doesn’t love Sixth & the City? I love NexGen’s monthly Shabbat Hoppins (Rosh Pina on April 16th at the Hamilton House). Also, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is an awesome experience, as is having friends over for a traditional Shabbat dinner with an Apples to Apples or Taboo showdown.

In ten years you will be doing where and doing what?
If all goes according to my master plan, in 10 years I’ll still be 24 and having an awesome Jewishly fulfilling  life in D.C. But if I can’t suspend time, then I hope to be 34 having an awesome Jewishly fulfilling life in D.C., but maybe not renting.

Tazria-Metzora – Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Stephen Richer
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Leviticus 12:1 — 15:33

The saying that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is an ancient Jewish proverb.  But like most of my acquired wisdom, I first heard the saying from my Mom and Dad who were upset that I regularly skipped showers for ten extra minutes of computer games (Starcraft in particular).  Had my parents not taught me the principle, however, it would have been made apparent to me by this week’s double Torah portion which is almost entirely about cleanliness.

“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.

And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Lev. 12:2 – 12:3)


“If a man has a se’eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzara’th on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.

The kohen shall look at the lesion on the skin of his flesh, and [if] hair in the lesion has turned white and the appearance of the lesion is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a lesion of tzara’ath.  When the kohen sees this, he shall pronounce him unclean.” (Lev 13:2 – 13:3)

And a final instance before we move on:

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, if any man has a discharge from his flesh, his discharge is unclean.

Any bedding upon which the man with the discharge will lie, shall become unclean, and any object which he will sit, shall become unclean.” (Lev 15:2 – 15:4)

This double portion undoubtedly had practical applications—general sanitation couldn’t have been too great in the pre-historic (defined by me, and others, as anything preceding the fall of the first temple in 586 BCE).  Child morbidity rates often approached 50 percent, and showers were few and far between.

But Torah wisdom spans time; what application can be drawn from this portion when leprosy—as alluded to in the second quote—is no longer a major concern?

Yes, there is, as I first suggested, a general prescription for cleanliness and organization.  The sages say that the state of our houses, or our personages, is reflective of the state of our minds—if one is unorganized, so too is the other.  This is substantiated by the Jewish notion that the person is composed of three equal and interconnected parts: the spiritual, the mental, and the physical.

Yet if this notion of cleanliness stopped there, we could simply hire a house cleaner and a fashion agent and thereby establish harmony in at least one of the three Jewish parts.

If something is too good to be true, it usually is—Judaism is supposed to be a difficult religion to follow.  So what are the broader applications for this call for cleanliness?  Other commentaries tell us that the physical impurities mentioned in this Parsha are not only physical, be they ailments or natural occurrences, but they are also symbolic for transgressions or unclean acts.  If we accept this premise, then I can see four ways in which the portion speaks beyond hygiene:

One: Wrong-doings cannot be hidden.  We might think that our unseemly conduct can be hidden by a public façade of Mr. Perfect, but it can’t.  The portion spends much time on the visible effects of the leprosy-like disease; the whole community is aware of the affliction—no make-up or hair cut is sufficient disguise.  Similarly, even the man who cheats on his spouse or steals from a bank and is not immediately apprehended cannot walk away unscathed.  First, he can never hide from his own conscious.  Nobody phrased this better than Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart, in which the main character is undone by the murdered man’s heartbeat that only he hears.  But the portion teaches that our relationships with others are similarly adulterated.  Community members might not sense the exact wrong, but they can see at least part of the uncleanliness.

Two: Deal with problems/uncleanly acts immediately.  For every uncleanliness the portion describes, it immediately follows with an antidote or a prescription to see the kohanim.  As noted in point one, problems don’t get better if they fester. (The Torah here predicts one of our chief remedies for cutting health care costs… don’t wait until problems get so bad that you require the emergency room).

Three: Sins and uncleanlinesses are contagious.  The portion is adamant about not only cleansing the perpetrator of the unclean action, but anything that might have come into contact with the actor.  “The kohen shall order that they clear out the house, before the kohen comes to look at the lesion, so that everything in the house should not become unclean.”  Disease spreads, but so too do ways of life.  Fascinating studies show that if you spend more time with thin people, you’re likely to lose weight.  Similarly, the depressed and pessimistic often have a negative effect on those around them.  The pernicious habits of the “morally unclean” can likewise spread.  Basically, make sure your kid goes to the right kind of school.

Fourth (and finally):  Take some time to reflect.  Nothing in the portion that is unclean or tainted is made clean in an instant.  Rather, they require waiting periods.  “And for thirty three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary.” (Lev. 12:4)  “And anyone who touches the flesh of the man with a discharge, shall immerse his garments and immerse himself in water, and he shall remain unclean until evening.” (Lev. 15:7).  If we commit an unclean act, we cannot simply say “sorry,” and that jump right back into life.  We have to set aside time where we behave differently so that we reflect on the action.

This week’s double portion does preach personal hygiene, and it isn’t adverse to the idea of spring cleaning.  But perhaps more importantly, it teaches us the characteristics of our unclean actions and their negative effects.

Jewish Guy – Dan

Jewish Guy - Dan

What’s your favorite kitchen appliance?
Hands down the food processor.  If you’re serious about cooking, as indeed I am, you know the food processor is a game changer altogether. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman is attributed with saying, “After the refrigerator, and maybe the dishwasher, it’s the most useful kitchen appliance invented in the 20th century.”  I use it for bread, tortilla and pastry dough, hummus, fruit juice, fruit spreads, veggie burgers etc.  When you learn to process your own food, you no longer have to rely on store-bought processed foods which are making Americans sick.

If you were told that this is your last day on earth, how would you spend it?
I’d spend it packing my family heirlooms, guitar and flip flops. Leaving earth behind would be very difficult, but I’m told the Red Planet has a lot to offer despite widespread ignorance of the place among earthlings. We must remember that many of Mars’s great critics who succeeded so thoroughly in tarnishing its image and slandering its living conditions never in fact visited.

Water balloon or super soaker?
Water balloon.  The super soaker is too bright and bulky to offer an element of surprise so critical to success in battle.  If you approach friends with a super soaker they will know what’s coming, but they can be devastated in a water balloon attack whether you were hiding it behind your back or standing on a two-story deck above them.

Which plague would you be most scared to live through?
Hail. I went to graduate school in Austin, Texas and I’ve seen what it can do to your car. To be sure, locust, lice, frogs, darkness etc.  are serious inconveniences, but their effects don’t extend beyond the duration of the plague (the obvious exception being death of the firstborn, which I don’t intend to have just yet), nor require an appointment with the auto shop. 
If you could trade places with any biblical Jew, who would it be and why?
Adam, because he was the first man according to the three great monotheistic religions.  I consider Adam the Jimi Hendrix of mankind, which is to say he was the first at what he did and a true innovator within his entire genre of people.

Jewish Girl – Tila

Jewish Girl - Tila

How will you change the world as Jewish Girl of the Week?
I’m not sure how I can change the world as Jewish Girl of the Week, but I would definitely know how to change the world as Jewish Girl of the Year… hint hint

Who makes the best matzah ball soup?
My mom!!! She is an amazing cook.

Which biblical character are you most like?
Maybe Esther… Because like her, I believe that a strong Jewish community is very important.

What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
My favorite Jewish holiday is Shabbat because it occurs every week! I love the feeling of being able to just relax with friends and family and not have to think about the stresses of the week.

Who is the coolest living Jew (besides the GTJ staff)?
Other than the GTJ staff, I would have to say Natalie Portman.

Where can we find you on a Friday night?
On a Friday night, you can find me either at Chabad or 6th and I.