Thursday, June 7, 2012

Happy birthday for me

First off, I know I got the title wrong. It was intentional. Let me explain why.

For years, I've been adamant in my stance against any kind of celebration on the anniversary of my birth. A lot of people have wondered why. A lot haven't, but they're probably not reading this anyway. For those who have wondered why, allow me to elaborate and maybe give you a glimpse into my mind so you can understand how it works (warning: my mind is not for the faint of heart; those with weak constitutions or pacemakers should consult with their primary physician before proceeding).

A birthday celebration is an acknowledgement and expression of joy for the fact that a person has lived another year. In my mind this is no cause for joy. After all, aside from everything and everyone that died in the course of the same year, this is a feat that has been accomplished by every living organism on the planet. So why the celebration? The birthday boy/girl has done what any three-toed sloth has done, or any convict on death row, or any house plant not under my wife's care. Whoopty-doo.

When it came to my birthday, I was no exception. Was the world any better now that I've taken a year's worth of more breaths? Not necessarily. But despite my efforts to stop them or provide alternatives (e.g. anniversaries of my Alyah, ascension to Har HaBayit, wedding, et al), people still want to celebrate my birthday. Maybe it's habit, maybe it's manners, or maybe they actually like me despite my Sheldon-Cooperesque view of birthdays. Whatever it is, it seemed nigh impossible to stop the birthday wishes. What to do?

As the saying goes: if you can't beat 'em, make 'em work for it. (ok, that's not how the saying goes, but it works with my concept here)

Since the problem I had with people celebrating my birthday was the lack of effect my existence has on the world and therefore was no cause for joy, I would use my birthday as a tool for changing the world for the better thereby making it the reason for happiness so many people wanted it to be.

And who wield that tool?


If, for my birthday, everyone reading this did something to make the world a better place, simply because it's the day I was born, then at would truly be a reason for me to celebrate.

So do something good. Give to charity. Help someone. Fix up your neighborhood. Bring people together. That way, instead of it being a happy birthday TO me, it will be a happy birthday FOR me.

And it'll probably be a happy day for you, too.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The man who made me who I am

The Jewish Week printed an article about my Rav, Rav Aharon Bina. Unfortunately, it is not a positive article.

I would like to respond to this article here because I feel that my short response, buried in the second page of the comment section, was ineffectual amidst all the other voices trying to be heard there.

I chose Rav Bina to be my posek because I have never met a man so open and honest. What he feels, he says. This applies to his opinions of people as well as his vast Halachic knowledge. I love knowing that he will always be up front with me when I ask him anything.

When I was told that it was financially impossible for me to return to Yeshiva for a second year, Rav Bina offered to accept me free of charge.

He bent the rules so I could go to family friends on Rosh HaShanna (a night when NO student is allowed out of Yeshiva) because he knew the family. He knew that they were close-to-poverty poor, and wanted them to have whatever gift I would be bringing them. He even gave me money to get them a thank-you gift afterward. I later found out that this was one of many families Rav Bina assisted financially without their knowledge.

On another "in" Shabbat (when all boys have to be in Yeshiva), Rav Bina once again let me out when my mother asked for special permission to have me be with her. She was visiting from the US and wanted to spend her one Shabbat in Israel with her son. Despite his reputation as a strict follower of his own rules, he let me go. Ever since my mother's murder, that Shabbat has even more meaning for me. Rav Bina let me spend that much more time with her.

I discussed my life with him. He let me into his home late into the night just so he could listen to whatever I'm-18-so-whatever-problems-I-have-are-monumental issues I had to vent. And he didn't only do this for me; he did it for any of his boys that wanted to talk to him. Almost 24 hours a day for a whole school year he was there for me.

When my mother was killed, Rav Bina was at the funeral even though I hadn't seen him in six years. He held me while I cried into his shoulder. He came back numerous times during the week of Shiva, despite the many other things he certainly had to do.

He officiated at my wedding. He didn't want any payment or even any under-the-table tip. He said I could donate some money to the Yeshiva if I felt like giving any money. Because he was doing it it for me, not the money. If money was to be given, it should be for his boys instead of himself. That's just who he is. He even gave us a lovely silver Kiddush cup that I'm proud to use at my Shabbat table.

Every year I pray with Rav Bina on Yom Kippur. I wake up before the crack of dawn so I can be in the Minyan HE leads. And in the nine years I've been doing so, he's never charged me for my seat. In return I've offered to lead the Yeshiva's tours free of charge, but he insists on making sure I get paid each time.

I'm not going to bring up the negative things said about him in the article, because I don't think they deserve acknowledgement.

He's my Rav, and I owe all that I am to him.

Consider that when you hear or read anything negative about him.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Almost every Jewish holiday has its non-Jewish "counterpart," a holiday observed by Gentiles around the same time and with similar themes as our holidays. But despite their apparent similarities, they are actually worlds apart.

Hanukkah vs. Christmas

Reason for Holiday
Hanukkah: Miraculous victory!!

The Assyrian Greek king Antiochus enacted harsh anti-Jewish decrees, with an aim to do away with our religion. Most Jews complied, either out of loyalty to the Greeks or out of fear. A small group of Jewish zealots began a guerrilla war against the vastly-more-numerous Greek army. After two years, on the 25th of Kislev, the Jews had reclaimed, repurified, and rededicated the Temple which had been defiled by the Greeks. And at the end of the fighting, the Jews had reestablished autonomy in our homeland for the first time since the Babylonian invasion hundreds of years earlier.

Christmas: god's birthday!! (well, sort of....)

Mary, a woman who was carrying a child conceived (allegedly) by the Holy Spirit, gave birth to Jesus. Jesus would later be hailed as the Messiah, and eventually as the son of God and even a part of god. However, the date of December 25th is not necessarily the actual date of Jesus' birth. It's probable that the date was chosen to coincide with the Roman winter solstice or some other pagan celebration like Saturnalia.

Although Christmas is a celebration of vast importance to the Christians (more on that later), it is disqualified for celebrating this particular event at this particular time. Heck, Jesus could have been born in February for all we know.
Hanukkah: 1; Christmas: 0

Duration of Celebration

Hanukkah: 8 days

According to I Maccabees, the celebration of the Temple's re-dedication lasted for eight days and was thus the basis for subsequent generations to do the same. According to the Talmud, there was one day's-worth jar of pure, Menorah-worthy oil left from the Greeks' defiling of the Temple. This oil miraculously burned for eight days, thus giving the Jews more time to produce more pure oil.

Christmas: 12 days

According to early Christian sources, January 6th is the date of Jesus' baptism - twelve days after his birth. But seeing as how Jesus was Jewish, it's unlikely that he was baptized in accordance with Catholic tradition. (However, eight days after December 25th is January 1st, what is commonly referred to as New Year's Day, which would have been little Jesus' circumcision date.)

Both holidays have sketchy reasons for their duration: I Maccabees is not 100% reliable, and the Christian sources are vague at best. But the point is once again lost to Christmas for their applying anachronistic practices to a first-century Jewish child.
Hanukkah: 2; Christmas: 0

Religious Practices

Hanukkah: Lighting candles at nightfall

In commemoration of the traditional story of the miraculous oil used to light the Menorah, a candelabra with eight candles (plus one extra "service" candle that lights the others) is lit; one candle on the first night, followed by two on the second, and so on until eight candles are lit on the eighth night. The candles are lit at nightfall in a very visible place (by the front door of the house or in a prominent window) to publicize the miracle God performed for us.

Christmas: Midnight Mass

Unlike most mass ceremonies, which are held in the daytime, Christmas holds a mass late at night to commemorate Jesus' nighttime birth. Some churches start the mass earlier in the evening, but most begin at midnight. The mass, which includes prayers, songs, and sermons, can last upwards of two hours.

When you compare lighting candles to devoutly praying in a house of worship, the first one's gotta lose. This is probably the biggest church-going holiday the Christians have. Heck, the very name of the holiday mean's "Christ's Mass." It's literally the defining aspect of the holiday.
Hanukkah: 2; Christmas: 1


Hanukkah: Chanukia (Menorah)

The candelabra mentioned above is called a Chanukia (although many call it a Menorah, this is an error; the Menorah was the 7-branched candelabra in the Temple). It must have room for eight candles (plus the "service" candle to light the others), and they must all be level with one another. Other than that, the design, shape, and size of the Chanukia is totally up to the individual.

Christmas: Christmas tree

Based on 15th century Germanic custom, an evergreen tree, usually a Douglas Fir tree, is placed in the home and decorated. The tree may be real or synthetic. There are no specifications as to the size, shape, or color of the tree. The decorations are left entirely up to the individual.

Both the Chanukia and the Christmas tree are classic icons of their respective religions. Each one allows for individual expressions toward the respective holidays. The sight of both immediately triggers feelings of fondness for the holiday they represent. It seems like this point could be a tie. However, keeping a Chanukia out on display after the holiday is common; in fact, many Jews use their Chanukia as part of their house's decor. The same cannot be said for a Christmas tree; on the contrary, it's considered gauche to keep it out for too long past the holiday. So, on a technicality, the point goes to Hanukkah.
Hanukkah: 3; Christmas: 1

Hanukkah: Folk/Children's songs

Most of the songs for Hanukkah are catchy tunes with easy lyrics that mention the different aspects of the holiday. None of them are particularly famous songs outside the Jewish community.

Christmas: Religious, Carols, Gospel, Rock & Roll, Blues, Children's, Punk, etc.

Christmas songs fall into so many different categories. There are certainly some that are less popular, like some of the more somber carols, but many of them are catchy tunes sung by world famous artists.

Not even a contest. Christmas songs are known throughout the world. All we have is "I Have a Little Dreidle."
Hanukkah: 3; Christmas: 2


Hanukkah: Judah Maccabee

One of the most dynamic, brave, and God-fearing military leaders the Jews have ever had. Son of Mattathias, the high priest, Judah led the revolt of a small guerrilla force against the largest army in the world at that time, the Assyrian Greeks. Through a combination of faith and strategy, Judah was successful in defeating the superpower. Although he died in battle before the Jews won their autonomy, the main victories against the Greeks are all attributed to Judah.

Christmas: Jesus, Santa Claus

Seeing as how this holiday (inaccurately) celebrates the birth of Jesus, it's only natural that Jesus would be the main representative. According to Christianity, Jesus was a pretty big deal, to say the least. See above for why. But Christmas is also represented by Santa Claus. Based on a Turkish priest, Santa Claus is a mythical character who lives at the North Pole, and delivers gifts to children on Christmas.

Although Judah Maccabee is more historically (and realistically) suited to his holiday than Jesus and Santa are to theirs, he's never been portrayed in the media as well as either of them. This point really should go to Hanukkah, but thanks to a poor PR effort on the Jews' part, it goes to Christmas instead.
Hanukkah: 3; Christmas: 3


Hanukkah: Eight Crazy Nights, The Hebrew Hammer, and a few others

There have been a number of attempts at Hanukkah representation in the media. The movies mentioned above are two famous ones, but they also heavily feature Christmas as well. Other than that, the pickin's are pretty slim.
As for TV, there's the Rugrats Hanukkah special, and maybe a few other episodes here and there mentioning the holiday.

Christmas: Dozens, if not hundreds, of movies, plus every TV show ever (almost).

Every genre of movie includes Christmas stories: Comedy (A Christmas Story), Drama (It's a Wonderful Life), Romantic (Love Actually), Action (Die Hard), even sci-fi (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). And although I only gave one example of each genre, there are plenty more in each one.
As for TV, every show I can remember has had a special Christmas episode. Every. Single. One.

It's a good thing for Hanukkah that this is only worth one point, that's all I'm saying.
Hanukkah: 3; Christmas: 4

Assorted Customs

Hanukkah: Oily food, Dairy, Dreidle, Gifts

Because the miracle we learned happened in the Temple revolved around oil, it's customary to eat foods with oil in them. Classic favorites are Latkes (fried potato pancakes) and doughnuts, but any fried food will do.
Another legend tells us that the Greeks practiced "Droit du seigneur," or the right of a noble/officer to take the virginity of the maidens under is rule/authority. One such maiden, Judith, fed cheese and wine to her Greek would-be violator, making him drunk and/or drowsy. When he passed out, she cut off his head. To commemorate this stance against Greek oppression, it is customary to eat dairy foods on Hanukkah as well.
The Dreidle is a spinning top with four sides, each side bearing a Hebrew letter :נ,ג,ה, and פ, representing the Hebrew words נם גדול היה פה, a great miracle happened here (diaspora dreidles substitute the פ for פה, here, with a ש for שם, there). Various rules are applied to what happens when a player's dreidle spin reults in any of the letters, but this is the iconic game of the holiday.
And finally, there is the gift-giving. The tradition started with students presenting gifts to their teachers, but has evolved to the practice today of people exchanging gifts after the night's candles have been lit.

Christmas: Gifts, Christmas Dinner, Mistletoe, Caroling, It's a Wonderful Life

The most well-known Christmas custom is that of exchanging gifts by the Christmas tree. Many families leave the gifts under the tree until morning, at which point all gifts are opened. Coworkers and classmates are also encouraged to exchange gifts; there's even a game called "Secret Santa" in which gifts are exchanged anonymously.
Christmas dinner is the holiday dinner for Christians. Families travel across oceans and continents to be with each other for this meal. It's usually a very opulent, multi-course meal with many delicacies.
Mistletoe is a small plant hung as a decoration, usually over a doorway. Customarily, anyone caught standing under the mistletoe must be kissed.
On Christmas eve, there is a custom for people to wander their neighborhoods in groups, singing Christmas carols in front of other people's homes. This is a way to spread the "Christmas cheer."
And of course, there is the near-divine custom of watching the Frank Capra classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life." The film used to be aired ad nauseum on every network during the weeks leading up to Christmas, but now it is owned by NBC and only aired once a year, on Christmas eve.

Once again, the Jewish side loses because of poor PR. Sure, the customs are about the same in fun and religious significance, but Christmas has been much better represented in popular media. The image of Santa coming down a chimney is universally recognized; the image of Judith beheading Holofernes is not.
Hanukkah: 3; Christmas: 5

So, when the dust settles, it looks like Christmas is the winner. I know many of you thought that I would skew things so that Hanukkah would win, but I'm just being fair here. If you have any suggestions for more categories for the holidays to compete, please let me know. Any other comments would be more than welcome. Otherwise, have a happy Hanukkah to my fellow Jews. And for those gentiles reading this, congratulations on your win and have a merry Christmas. (But I still think Christmas should have been disqualified from the whole thig for the first category. I'm just saying)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I just read an article about a store in a predominantly (completely?) Jewish neighborhood that refuses to sell Batman merchandise because, according to the owner, Batman doesn't represent Jewish values. (There is also a claim that interest in Batman would lead to watching TV, which is at least frowned upon by the haredi community, but that's a stretch; Batman is wonderfully represented in comics.) The claim is that Batman is violent, a trait the store does not want to offer as an option the Jewish children who end up with its toys. Although the owner is free to sell ANY toys, I disagree with the logic presented in the article.

Batman IS a hero, even from a Jewish viewpoint. 

His goal is to fix the dangerous and corrupt life in Gotham City by fighting the criminals there. This exemplifies the Jewish concept of תיקון עולם, fixing that which is wrong in the world. 

He usually acts on a local scale (as opposed to Superman, who more often acts globally), in accordance with the advice of the רמב״ם on the subject of צדקה, i.e. that charity should begin as close to home as possible. 

Not that he needs the money (more on that later), Batman does not get paid for his work; he does it all voluntarily. Public service is something admired in Jewish values. 

Although he does use violence, this is neither a bad thing nor is it contrary to Judaism. 
He fights criminals, usually violent ones who prey on the innocent citizenry of Gotham. And while some might judge his methods as harsh, he is displaying the attribute of justice. 

As for the idea that violence is not a Jewish trait, that is a distortion of the truth. Violence IS used, but only when it is the only option left. יעקב violently struggled with an angel, to the point where he was permanently injured. When משה רבנו saw the injustice of an Egyptian striking his fellow Jew, he used lethal violence as his solution (interestingly, a step Batman would not have taken). In just a few days we begin celebrating Chanukah, a holiday commemorating the violent overthrowing of antisemitic tyranny. Many other examples can be cited, of course. Judaism advocates violence in the appropriate setting, as does Batman.

At the same time, as mentioned above, Batman never kills. This shows his display of mercy. Despite the many calls from his colleagues to break this most sacred of his rules in extenuating circumstances (i.e. when the Joker tried to kill all the newborn babies in the city) he refuses time and again. Life is sacred to Batman. A very Jewish concept. 

While Batman does operate outside the law, which may be seen as a bad example for kids, he does so with the approval of Commissioner Gordon. This is tantamount to his being a deputized agent of the Gotham City Police Department. This is not only a way of showing the roundabout legality of his actions, it follows a little-known Jewish legal code. When a crime is committed, specifically manslaughter, it is the right of the victim's family to exact retribution from the killer, with the approval of the local court. In certain cases the court authorizes a deputized agent to exact justice on behalf of the victim's family. Batman can be seen as playing this role in Gotham; unofficially deputized by the GCPD to fight on behalf of the victims throughout the city. 

To sum up (almost), Batman displays very Jewish traits: תיקון עולם, local public service, justice, mercy, and a loose adherence to the laws of the land. But these are just his positive traits while in costume. He does other acts of charity and goodwill as his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. 

Bruce Wayne heads Wayne Industries, a conglomerate company that owns many businesses. Among these are numerous research and development facilities dedicated to curing diseases, creating new technologies, and preserving/cleaning the environment. 

By ever expanding his business' scope, he creates new jobs for the people of Gotham City. 

He also funds the Thomas and Martha Wayne foundations. These are two separate charitable organizations that help hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in Gotham. 

There have been two Robins (Batman's sidekick) who were orphaned at a young age. Aside from assisting Batman in all the acts of חסד listed above, they were looked after by Bruce Wayne. We are commanded many times to protect widows and orphans in our midst, and Bruce Wayne does exactly that.

So, what do we have when all is said and done? We have a man who has dedicated his life to upholding notions brought to the world by Judaism. An altruistic defender of the weak, who dispenses justice tempered by mercy, all while helping thousands of needy people. To say Batman is a good Jewish role model is an understatement. 

Oh, by the way - why does he do all this? To honor his father and his mother. I believe that's a Jewish idea as well. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I'm writing this while resting after a week of army field training, so pardon the run-ons.

After another week of reserve duty, I'm struck by the bravery of my fellow soldiers. Here are guys from Tel Aviv or Eilat or wherever working all year long as businessmen or accountants or students or whatever, and they are spending one week or two weeks or a month of their year sleeping in tents just so they'll be ready to defend their country when called. These men are lions. They are mostly guys I would never give a second look; secular or a smoker or a nerd or an ars or whatever. But we all share this insatiable love for our country. And it's this love that makes us more than just fellow citizens or neighbors or comrades in arms. We are brothers. And if God forbid we were to ever find ourselves in combat, I know I would be safe, surrounded by family.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What if...?

What if we got everything we want?

I'm almost done with my 34th day of mourning and fasting over something lost long before I was born. And because of that, for most of my life, Tish'a B'Av has been a detached sort of mourning. How can I mourn the loss of something I never had? I never stood in the courtyard of God's house, never saw the miracle of the wind-proof column of smoke, never heard the sweet songs of the Levites. I don't even know the tunes! I never got to see the radiance of the Kohen Gadol's face as he exited the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, KNOWING that God had forgiven us for our sins. I never had the closeness to God that I cry for having lost. As for why I should bother crying at all, I'll get to that another time.

But what if I could make the country into anything I wanted? That's what my next few posts are going to be about. And I would LOVE it if anyone reading would give me feedback, positive OR negative.

Let's start taking all our "What if"s and turning them into "When"s.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Miluim update

So I'm serving my country.

I want to tell you all about it, but I don't want to be like Anat Kamm and reveal any sensitive materials. So here goes my army service: the censored version.

I was sent to the [censored] base near [censored] for training. We [censored] for [censored] hours, and then ate [censored] before [censored]. Thursday morning, we left for [censored]. How beautiful it is here! I went on a [censored] to look over the [censored] and I was [censored] by it. No other word can describe it. Anyway, I'm [censored] so I'm going to go to [censored].

Hope you enjoyed the update. Thanks a lot, Ms. Kamm...y'dumb [censored].