Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Saying Goodbye to NYC

The City of David -- which began in the actual City of David, Jerusalem -- has traveled with me (virtually) to Seattle, Boston, and, of course, New York.  As we prepare to leave New York City this week and relocate to Aspen, CO, I thought I would reflect on some of our favorite New York experiences.  Not surprisingly, most of them are food related. We'll miss them all dearly, along with our friends and family in New York, but we'll be back...


Phoenix Garden, 242 East 40th St @ 2nd Ave
We discovered this gem while Rollin was living in Murray Hill, and it remains our favorite Chinese restaurant in the city.  Our favorite dishes:
•salt & pepper softshell crab (summer only)
•sauteed pea leaves with garlic
•vegetable fried rice
•sliced chicken or shredded pork with peppers and black bean sauce
It's BYOB and cash only. There's a wine store and beer mart on 2 Ave between 38 & 39th.

Cafe Mogador, St Marks Place between 1st Ave & Ave A
All around great menu, atmosphere, and location.  Our favorite things:
•curried chicken sandwich (lunch only)
•Greek salad
•labneh w/ zatar and pita
•french fries (the best!)
•Moroccan burger
•sparkling lemonade, Moroccan iced tea, bourbon cocktail with lemon and honey

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches, 2nd St @ Ave A
In the recent trend of rising popularity of Banh Mi, we have benefited from having this excellent place so close to our apartment.  We actually prefer the tofu sandwich over the meat options.  Best as take-out and eaten in a park or garden nearby (of which there are many in the East Village).

Zaitzeff, Ave B between 2nd and 3rd St.
This underrated eatery has some of the best burgers in NYC, and the best turkey burger I've ever had.  All their meat is organic, hormone-free, and grass fed.  I also really like the Caesar Salad.

Lavagna, 5th St between Ave B and Ave A
You will never have anything less than an excellent meal and excellent service here.  Perfect for special occasions.  Their wine selection and recommendations are always great, too.

Robert, 2 Columbus Circle (9th floor) @ Museum of Arts and Design
After receiving a generous gift certificate here, we went on a special date night and had a fantastic meal, start to finish.

Il Bagatto, 2nd St between Ave A & B
Another great Italian place in the East Village.  We usually order it as delivery; we've only been inside the restaurant once (it was really nice!).  We usually order:
•Verdure all'agro (steamed spinach with garlic and lemon)
•Fagioli Alla Paolona (cannellini beans slowly cooked with tomatoes, garlic, shallots and rosemary)
•Rigatoni Sorrentina
•Penna alla Vodka

Clinton St. Baking Co., Clinton St. south of Houston
A LES breakfast and brunch staple, they also have a great dinner menu.  Unfortunately, it's so busy on weekends that we only go on weekdays.  Great pastries as well.

Shopsin's, Essex Retail Market (Essex and Delancey)
This quirky hole-in-the-wall inside Essex Market is well worth the trip and, on Saturdays, the wait.  It's not easy to describe...the menu is huge and creative, the food is good, and the owner/waiters will glare and snap at you. A unique LES experience.  It's also the subject of no small amount of literary output: NY Times article by Calvin Trillin, a cookbook (Eat Me), and a documentary (I Like Killing Flies).

Union Square Cafe, 16th St just west of Union Square
We finally went here (to celebrate our 1-year wedding anniversary), and it was as good as I keep hearing.  Nothing fancy or "out there" in dish concepts, but the quality and execution of everything is just above and beyond.  Every dish, every course, was perfect.

9 Edo Sushi, 17th St. between Broadway and 5th Ave
After Sushi Twist closed, we were lost without an affordable, excellent sushi place. Then we found it!  This place doesn't look fancy, but the sushi is fantastic.

Other Food

Essex Retail Market, Essex and Delancey
Definitely worth a trip, and there various vendors have really inexpensive groceries.  Also the location of Shopsin's (see above) and Saxelby Cheesemongers (see below).

Saxelby Cheesemongers
This is my favorite cheese place in the city.  They get cheeses from local farms (NY, PA, NJ, VT, NH), and occasionally they sponsor day trips to the farms to meet the animals and see how the cheese is made. They also sell great eggs and bread, and an unforgettable egg and cheese sandwich.  To top it all off, they're really nice and will let you sample anything before buying.

Sundaes and Cones, 10th St @ 3rd Ave
This place very quickly became our favorite ice cream place in the city.  From exotic flavors like Taro and Sesame to standards like Cookies and Cream and Mocha Chip, they do it all well.  They make great ice cream cakes, too; I highly recommend the Poo on Grass cake (trust me. look it up.).

Friday, May 28, 2010

What's in a Blessing?

Rabbi David Segal • Aspen Jewish Congregation
May 21, 2010 • Shabbat Naso/Shavuot Week

“God bless America.”
Have you ever heard a State of the Union that didn’t end that way?
Bless you.”
Have you ever heard a sneeze that wasn’t followed by these words?
“God bless the whole world. No exceptions.”
I saw this on a bumper sticker yesterday on an SUV parked in Aspen.
But what are these words really saying?  
Are they...a request? 
An invitation?
A description?
A manifesto?
Or maybe just a soundbite?
And does saying these words do anything, 
or are they just words?

We can ask the same questions about the Priestly Blessing, found in Parshat Naso, our Torah reading this week.
    May God bless you and keep you. 
    May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
    May God lift God’s face to you and grant you peace.  (Num 6:24-26)

Ancient Jews might have seen this blessing as magical, 
as if the priests had special powers to “force God’s hand,” 
to bring God’s blessing into the world by uttering this incantation.

After all, we are a tradition 
in which words have power:
in our daily morning prayers we say, 
baruch she-amar v’haya olam
blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be.
In our creation story, God’s creative power 
emanates from words:
Y’hi or -- Let there be light -- va-y’hi or -- and there was light.”
Even the “magic word” abracadabra, some say, 
comes from the Aramaic,
avra kedavra, I will create as I speak.
(Now you can impress your friends at parties!  
Not to mention that this phrase seems to have inspired J.K. Rowling 
to create the lethal Dark magic spell in Harry Potter, Avada Kedavra!)

To the modern Jew, 
the blessing-as-magic idea is uncomfortable.  
We know too much about science 
to believe that we can force God’s hand 
merely by saying the right words.
Anyone who has prayed the Mi Shebeirach
by the bedside of an ailing loved one 
knows it’s not that simple.

Although Santa Claus may be endearing to some
as a motivator for good behavior,
we generally no longer believe in a God 
who sees if you’ve been bad or good,
and simply punishes or rewards you accordingly.

So what are these words of blessing,
if not tools for harnessing God’s coercive power?
What role do blessings play in our lived experience?
Are they merely symbolic, 
or do they actually do something?

To answer these questions, 
we should look to the Hebrew word for blessing, ברכה/b’rachah
and it’s root Bet-Reish-Chaf.
The same root forms the word ברך/berech, knee,
so some say it came to mean blessing
through association with the physical act of kneeling.

But there is another word we can form 
with the root Bet-Reish-Chaf:
b'reichah, which means in modern Hebrew, swimming pool.
But, deep within its linguistic DNA,
there is encoded another layer of meaning:
The word that today means manmade pools 
also means natural pools, fed by springs, 
often at the mouths of rivers,
the source that feeds them.
When we say 
Baruch Atah Adonai, Blessed are You, God,
We are really saying,
You, God, are the ultimate Source.
From You meaning and goodness flow.
Let it flow to us. Let it feed us.
Let us be open to receiving it.

This deeper meaning should resonate 
with the spiritual skeptic,
who refuses to suspend reason entirely,
who rejects the idea of blessing-as-magic-spell,
but who also knows that reason doesn’t have all the answers
to the mysteries of human existence,
and cannot express our deepest yearnings, fears, and loves.

There is an old rabbinic story 
about the Wind and the Sun,
locked in an argument about who is stronger.
The Wind says, “I’ll show you my strength:
I’ll get all those people to remove their jackets.”
So the Wind started blowing and blowing,
but the harder the gusts, 
the more the people clutched their jackets tight.
The Sun smiled knowingly.
“You’re using the wrong kind of strength.
And the Sun simply radiated light and heat.
As the Sun’s warm beams beckoned, 
the people loosened their jackets,
and eventually took them off,
to enjoy the beauty and warmth of the Sun’s radiance.

So too with our God:
Not the God of the ancients who compels by force,
but a God of invitational power,
who promises warmth and beauty,
if we will open ourselves up to it.

How timely that we celebrate Shavuot this week.
Blessing as prayer, as invitation, as communal commitment
is exactly what we affirm 
in accepting the Torah again every year.  
Not that following the Torah,
heeding the 10 Commandments,
will literally cause rain to fall and crops to grow.  
Nor that we will be free from disease and misfortune,
or be guaranteed long life.

Rather, the gift of Torah is the gift of purpose.
The power to create an ordered cosmos 
from the chaos of life.
The foundation upon which to build 
a life of meaning and immortal impact,
a life that matters.

When we bend our human berech, our knee, 
to the invitational power 
radiating from the divine b’reichah
the Source of All, 
We prepare ourselves to receive God’s blessing.

ken y’hi ratzon, indeed may it be God’s will.
Shabbat shalom u’mvorach.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

on pluralism and prayer

I recently (10/27) had the privilege of speaking at an international web conference of the Parliament of Cultures. The event was hosted by Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey; I went to college with the son of their rector, Ali Dogramaci. His third son, Sinan Dogramaci, is now a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.

I'm currently taking a class entitled "Visions of Reform Judaism," team-taught by Dr. David Ellenson (President of HUC) and Dr. Larry Hoffman. We are covering a number of major topics related to Jewish life and thought today.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thursday, October 09, 2008

L'chaim: Kol Nidrei Sermon (5769/2008)

Kol Nidrei 5769 / October 8, 2008

Hachayim yod’im sheyamutu. “The living know they will die.” So we learn from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, 9:5).

At this time of year, the season of Remembrance and Judgment, nothing separates us from the animals and the rest of God’s creation as dramatically as this knowledge -- not our being created in God’s image, not our sense of humor, not our civilization, not even our knowledge of right and wrong -- but the awareness of our own mortality.

Most of us probably don’t think about death very often, except when it touches someone close to us. Unlike the rest of us, philosophers have been writing about mortality for thousands of years.

For Socrates, philosophy -- the art of living -- was really about the art of dying. To live well, he explained to his disciples on the eve of his drinking the fatal hemlock, is to be prepared for death. While his followers began to grieve and urge him to avoid his fate, he faced impending death resolutely. His composure rested on his belief that he had lived his life with integrity in preparation for meeting his death.

Fast-forwarding to the 20th Century, the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig began his major work of theology, The Star of Redemption, with the contemplation of death. Mortality, he believed, presents humanity with an existential ultimatum. No one can contemplate death and emerge unscathed; knowledge of mortality demands a reckoning of the meaning, value, and purpose of one’s life. For Rosenzweig, the Torah and Jewish tradition define that purpose by building frames of meaning through which we can relate to God’s presence and God’s demands in our lives.

Psychologists also have much to say about death and mortality. In his book The Doctor and the Soul, Holocaust survivor and Austrian intellectual Victor Frankl explained:
How often we hear the argument that death does away with the meaning of life altogether. That in the end all man’s works are meaningless, since death ultimately destroys them. Now, does death really decrease the meaningfulness of life? On the contrary. For what would our lives be like if they were not finite in time, but infinite? If we were immortal, we could legitimately postpone every action forever. It would be of no consequence whether or not we did a thing now; every act might just as well be done tomorrow or the day after or a year from now or ten years hence. But in the face of death as absolute finis to our future and boundary to our possibilities, we are under the imperative of utilizing our lifetimes to the utmost…
Though there is a lot of wisdom in these thinkers’ writing, it goes without saying that reading about mortality in a book and experiencing it are worlds apart. One of my earliest memories of death takes me back to the age of 13, six months after my Bar Mitzvah. My grandmother on my father’s side, Grandma Lillie to me, was almost 82 years-old, in great shape and still as sharp as ever. While playing bridge with her friends, she started to complain of an unusually bad headache, and then she collapsed. By the time the ambulance arrived, Lillie had died from a massive stroke.

What struck my 13-year-old head and heart most about that experience was how my grandmother’s friends reacted to it. They all said, one way or another, “That’s how I want to go. 80-plus years, great health to the end, and then one day just gone. I don’t want to linger.”

What strikes my head and heart most now is that such a death would mean you wouldn’t have time to ask forgiveness from an estranged friend, or accept the apology of a loved one, or make amends where a relationship was broken. You would have to have your accounts in order, not just financially but ethically, spiritually, and interpersonally as well.

* * *

Like the philosophers, psychologists, and my grandmother’s friends, the rabbis have thought about this, too. In Pirkei Avot (2:10) and the Talmud (BT Shabbat 153a), Rabbi Eliezer gives his students a cryptic piece of advice: shuv yom echad lifnei mitatcha -- “Repent one day before your death.” His skeptical students asked rhetorically: “But does a person know on which day he will die?!?” Eliezer was ready with his response: v’chol sheken yashuv hayom shema yamut l’machar -- “All the moreso, one should repent today lest he die tomorrow. Then all his days he will be found to be living in teshuva.” And when his last day comes, he will be ready.

A life lived in perpetual repentance -- would that mean always making amends for mistakes, accepting apologies, being merciful in forgiving, never letting conflicts fester? The Sages of the Talmud share a parable to help us understand Rabbi Eliezer’s words [paraphrased]:
It is like a king who invited his servants to a banquet, but he did not set an exact time for them to arrive. The wise ones among them got dressed in appropriately formal clothing and sat waiting at the door of the palace, saying to themselves, “The king’s banquet could be ready at any moment, and we must be properly attired in case we get called in suddenly!”

The foolish servants went about their work and kept wearing their regular everyday clothes. “A banquet takes time to prepare,” they told themselves, “so we surely have time before the feast will be ready.”

Suddenly the king summoned all the servants to the banquet. The wise ones entered, adorned in their dress clothes. The foolish ones entered before the king with their clothes soiled from their daily work.

To those who were suitably dressed for the banquet, the king bade them sit, eat, and drink. To those who had failed to adorn themselves for the banquet, the king said they would have to stand and watch the others partake. These are privileged to eat, while those must go hungry. These may drink, but those are doomed to thirst.
What would it mean for us to live everyday as if it were our last, as if death were right around the corner? Yom Kippur gives us a taste of what it would be like to take this lesson seriously.

In the rituals of the Day of Atonement the reminders of mortality are pervasive. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer and others besiege us with images of God’s Book of Life and Death, of who shall perish by water and who by fire. The fast gives us the sense of a withered body, freed as in death from the need for physical sustenance.

Earlier tonight the Kol Nidrei prayer asked for us to be absolved of vows we are unable to fulfill. Usually this is interpreted as an admission of our inevitable failure to live up to our word. But couldn’t it also be meant as an acknowledgement of the possibility that -- God forbid -- our life might end before we can keep all our promises?

Moreover, when we stand before the ark for this prayer, we remove all the Torah scrolls. In that moment, the aron kodesh – the holy ark – without the holy sifrei Torah in it, becomes merely an aron – which in Hebrew also means “coffin.” And the traditional attire for Yom Kippur, the kittel or plain white robe, is also the traditional attire for burial. In effect, on Yom Kippur we stand together with the support of our community and look into our own grave.

In this light, the Day of Atonement feels like a rehearsal for the last day of our life. The effect could be despair, unless we can see this day as an unexpected gift: a God’s-eye view of our life from its end.

One day a year, we stare death in the face. And it turns out that death’s face is a mirror. When we stare into it, we get the opportunity to evaluate our lives as if from our last day. On that day, we will ask in the past tense what we are blessed today to ask in the present: are we living the life we should, the life we want, for ourselves and those around us? If this day were our last, what old wound would we try to heal, which broken promise would we try to keep, which loved ones would we remind how much we love them?

* * *

It may be enough to enshroud ourselves in this heavy death imagery only one day each year. In fact, I happen to think that the rabbis behind the story of the wise and foolish banquet guests are a little too fixated on the World to Come and dismissive of the work of the World As It Is. Taken to the extreme, obsessing about the possibility of impending death might lead us to neglect our responsibilities in the here and now.

After all, Judaism is a religion of life, not death. Our tradition repeatedly urges us to “choose life” for ourselves and our children, as we will read in the Torah portion tomorrow. The aim of our central sacred story, the Exodus, is not some otherworldly reward but a better life in the Land of Israel. The Talmud and our other Jewish law books spend hundreds of thousands of words on the details of life here in this world, from observing Shabbat and raising a child, to planting a field and running a business. Even the passages about death are essentially about how the living are to treat and memorialize the dead.

But Yom Kippur understands this, too. Again, there is great wisdom in our liturgy. As we finish the prayers for Yom Kippur tomorrow, the somber quiet of death is shattered by the sound of the shofar -- and not just any ordinary blast, but a tekiah gedolah.

A midrash explains that the shofar is a symbol of resurrection:
And how does the Holy One, blessed be He, resuscitate the dead in the world to come? We are taught that the Holy One, blessed be He, takes in His hand a Great Shofar . . . and blows it, and its sound goes from one end of the world to the other. (Midrash Aleph Beit D’ Rabbi Akiba 3:31)
Here in the synagogue, we have our own Great Shofar -- actually several great shofars in very capable hands! -- and when they sound near the end of Yom Kippur tomorrow, we too will be jolted out of our pseudo-death, to life renewed. Looking back on our year, the good and the bad, we are called to resurrect the person we have been in our better moments. From the mire of mortality, each of us is reborn with the new year.

* * *

When my fiancee and I get married -- God-willing -- next May, I will wear the ring that my Grandpa Al wore at his wedding. It was given to him by my Grandma Lillie with the following inscription: “LS [Lillie Streen] to AS [Al Segal] 11-25-35.” The same ring that sanctified their marriage 73 years ago will sanctify ours.

This symbolic ring will remind me of both sides of the coin of the human condition: you won’t be around forever; but you sure can live with meaning while you’re here. Lillie and Al managed to do it, and there’s a ring and a lifetime of memories to show for it, not to mention children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

It makes sense now that the kittel traditionally worn by the worshiper on Yom Kippur and by the deceased for burial is also worn by a groom on his wedding day. The awareness of mortality and the embrace of life’s joyful passages are inextricably intertwined. We turn to the words of Kohelet again:
Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun (9:9).
Again, two sides of the coin: our days are indeed fleeting, and yet there is happiness to be enjoyed. That nothing lasts forever need not entail that nothing has meaning, or impact, or lasting value.

During a recent summer internship as a hospital chaplain, I came across a pamphlet entitled Helping a Child Grieve and Grow. I relied on it several times during the summer to help bereaved parents support their grieving children. It said:
A wise writer once insisted that only death makes love possible. Because human life is fragile, it is precious. Because an individual makes but one appearance on this earth, his or her uniqueness must be cherished.
Do you really want to protect a child from discovering that truth?
I believe Yom Kippur brings us face-to-face with death precisely so we can discover and rediscover this truth. What feels like a curse at first turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For with the knowledge of death comes a new understanding of life: since it is finite, every moment counts. Since it is short, it is to be treasured.

And on Yom Kippur God gives us the chance to evaluate it and even to change it for the better. So we look back at what we could have done better and we look ahead with a prayer that we will have time under the sun to make it better this time around. The length of our days remains in God’s hands, but the fullness of them depends on us.

* * *

Only a few verses after Kohelet reminds us, the living, that we know we will die, the text continues with one of its most famous statements: “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy” (9:7a). And elsewhere, in more familiar words, “Eat, drink, and be merry” (8:15).

Of course, on the Day of Atonement there will be no eating or drinking (or merriment!). But this day of self-denial can help us live with more merriment during the year. Today we stare death in the face and endure a reckoning of the soul; tomorrow we come back to life wiser, more reflective, more appreciative. Today we fast in somber penitence; tomorrow we drink our wine in joy.

It is no accident, then, that when we drink wine in joy, we say l’chaim -- to life! -- that we mark those occasions with a nod in the direction of life. Each moment of celebration is a life-embracing act.

And so we say:
l’chaim, to a new year of lessons learned from years past;
l’chaim, to letting mortality teach us how to embrace life;
l’chaim, to renewing our days in the richness of our better moments.

May we fill the pages of our Book of Life, from word to word, and line to line, with the chronicles of a life well-lived, so that when we come to the end and look back, we might be able to say, “That was worth reading.”

Shanah tovah, g’mar tov. L’chaim.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What is Yom Kippur to *me*? (5769/2008)

Yom Kippur Morning 5769
October 9, 2008

We all have our own reasons for being here in synagogue today: our own hopes for what this day and year will bring, our fears about last year’s mistakes’ repeating themselves again, our doubts about whether repentance can mean anything for us in 5769.

As Modern Jews, we hear the Kol Nidrei prayer, we sing Avinu Malkeinu, we read the Unetaneh Tokef and the confessions of sin -- but what do we really believe? What do we really feel today? If the Wicked Son of the Passover Seder were here, he might ask: What is all this teshuvah to me?

The writer Howard Harrison, in a poem entitled “Yom Kippur,” struggles with these questions. He takes us through a crisis of cynicism, a crisis of faith and meaning, and he emerges with a little more reverence, perhaps a little more faith, on the other side. He writes:

Night and day, and somberly I dress
In dark attire and consciously confess
According to the printed words, for sins
Suddenly remembered, all the ins
And outs, tricks, deals, and necessary lies
Regretted now, but then quite right and wise.

The benches in the shul are new. So this
Is what my ticket bought last year; I miss
My easy chair, this wood is hard, and I
Have changed my mind, refuse to stand and lie
About repentance. No regrets at all.
Why chain myself to a dead branch, I fall
In estimation of my neighbors who
Would have me be a liberated Jew
Ridiculing medieval ways
Keep up with them in each swift modern craze
To dedicate our souls to modern taste
To concentrate our minds on endless waste.

“Medieval” must be too new a term
For deeper, longer, truer, something firm
Within me used the word “waste.” Despite years
Assimilating lack of faith, the fears
My father felt of God, their will to know
That vanity and greed were far below
The final aim of life will help me, too,
Atone, and be a Jew, and be a Jew.
~ Commentary, vol. 20, no. 4 (October, 1955), p. 355

As we fast today, stripping off that layer of comfort that food provides, and retreat into this sanctuary from the persistent pace and pressure of our everyday lives, may we also find something firm within us: a still small voice that says no to vanity, no to greed, no to pride, no to stiff necks and hard hearts.

If we each place our individual fears, regrets, and hopes upon the altar of community, and let our prayers and doubts mingle, then we can support each other in reaching atonement, or -- as a wise wordsmith said -- “at-one-ment.”

May it be God’s will for us today. Together we say: Amen.