Jewish-Latino Relations: Rooted in a Shared Immigrant, Working-class Experience


Jewish and Latino Immigrant Laborers

Jewish immigrants lent their acquired experience in organizing to the more recent Latino immigrants: “Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers. By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.” – Kenneth Burt

Jewish-Latino relations in the US are built upon a legacy of recognizing a shared immigrant and working-class experience. We have a long history of being natural allies in promoting social advances. And it all began with organized labor.

At the start of the 20th century an influx of impoverished Eastern European Jewish immigrants provided this country with a desperate and eager labor force. Many of these new immigrants going into the garment and dress-making industry. However, the working conditions in this era of the industrial revolution were terrible and even deadly. Women laborers such as these were among those who organized as early as 1900 in New York City, founding the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). Often holding meetings in Yiddish.

With immigrants venturing west and industry taking off in the booming years of Los Angeles, ILGWU became established here in 1910.

However, by the 1930s the largest growing group of new union members were Spanish-speaking Latinos. Saby Nehama a Sephardic Jew, a Jewish person of Spanish descent – first organized efforts among Spanish speakers on the east coast. And then whole Spanish-speaking branches were soon established in several major cities. [see “Memories and Migrations: Mapping Boricua and Chicana Histories,” p. 130]

As historian Kenneth Burt wrote:

In sections of the Bronx, in the West Side section of St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles, Spanish-speaking Latinos replaced Yiddish-speaking Jews as the newest immigrant group.

“Organized labor often served as a bridge between these working-class, ethnic communities. Unions also provided a political voice for the emerging Latino community.

The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) served this function on the Eastside of Los Angeles. The ILGWU engaged directly in civic life. It also helped establish and worked through a variety of Latino and Jewish and organizations, as well as broad-based civil rights coalitions.

The groups in the ILGWU’s sphere of influence included the Jewish Labor Committee and the Mexican American-oriented Community Service Organization (CSO). Early CSO leaders included Maria Duran and Hope Mendoza from the ILGWU.

Directly and indirectly the ILGWU played a key role in the election of Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949, and to the adoption of fair employment and fair housing laws in California in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

The historic influence of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Latino civil rights and politics cannot be overstated.

Founded in 1947 in the Los Angeles eastside, CSO was envisioned by Fred Ross, and funded greatly by Saul Alinsky. As well as later receiving essential financial backing from allied Jewish organizations – most notably the Community Relations Committee (CRC) – a Jewish organization founded originally in the early 1930s as an anti-fascist organization; dedicated to fighting antisemitism, pro-Nazi outreach and organized racism. [also see, “Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. Community Relations Committee (1933-), Special Collections & Archives”]

The Community Service Organization (CSO) was uniquely created to be a “Mexican NAACP.” Ross and Alinsky noted that Mexicans were by far the largest and yet most ill treated minority. Mexicans still being the only minority group to not be widely organized. And also standing alone in having no political power or decision-making, with less than 10% of Latino citizens being registered to vote. [see “The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights.”]

In the words of Scott Washburn of CSO:

In 1947, in direct response to rampant police abuse, a lack of educational opportunities, widespread discrimination in government services, a strong culture of bigotry that allowed even people of good conscience to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, and ultimately, to the Zoot Suit Riots and Bloody Christmas, the Community Service Organization was founded by Antonio Rios, Edward Roybal, and Fred Ross, Sr. Quickly, the CSO became a training ground for the first generation of Latino leaders, including Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla. Recognizing the need for a unified Latino voice and for some semblance of political representation, the CSO initially concentrated on organizing voter registration drives in Latino communities all across California. In 1949, the CSOs efforts culminated in the election of Edward Roybal, the first Latino to serve on the Los Angeles City Council.”

cc_ross_cover_130318_mnRoyball would ride a wave of crucial Yiddish speaking political support in Boyle Heights, backing his ascent to City Hall and further still. The future Congressman Edward Royball would later take his social causes to the halls of the US Congress with him as well.

Fred Ross would continue to expand CSO, helping establish their presence in San Jose. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, trained by CSO in Alinsky style protest, would then take the cause directly into the local fields; thus founding the United Farm Workers, which is widely considered the most influential and visible Latino organization to date. The UFW is the primary historical and still active model for Latino activism to this day.

While today American Jews might not be the face of the working-class anymore, many Jewish community leaders have made it an activist goal to fight for workers rights and better immigration reform for Latinos. Maintaining a legacy of support for these and other progressive causes, due to the similar collective memory Jews have of their grandparents and great-grandparents being exploited as poor immigrants.

For more information, I highly recommend Kenneth Burt’s unpublished paper, Garment Workers as Bridge Builders: Immigrant Radicalism and the Search for Economic Justice.”

For further information regarding the UFW and Jewish activism, see a wonderful piece by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: The Forgotten Story of Cesar Chavez and the Jews.” (HuffPost)

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Parshat Emor (5775)


Leviticus 21 -24

Do you expect perfection of your spiritual leaders?

Do you demand a lot out of your leaders? Do you find that you demand a certain level of perfection in your spiritual leaders and rabbis? Can a leader with defects still be useful and inspiring to the community?

11078623_10153757197976110_119730993_oIn age of the Bible and when the ancient Temples stood, the role of spiritual leadership was held by the kohanim, the Temple priests. This whole section of Torah is related the Temple sacrifice and to the sanctity of these priests.

I come to you today, with my eye drawn to this one section related to the demanding qualities and the harsh disqualifying physical characteristics which pertain to a kohen – a priest. To the section related to disabilities which disqualified a priest from religious service, specifically the odd topic of broken bones.

Though I am not a kohen or rabbi, I am recognized as a leader among many of you. I am returning after some time of being away from the written and scholarly world because of issues relating to broken bones, tumors and surgery; all of which has still left me unable to write well. Yet all the while maintaining my vital active service in my community and synagogue through these limitations. All this has me feeling pretty sympathetic to the priests in this story. But enough about me for now, let us jump right into the lesson and I’ll explain my current struggle along the way.

Now I don’t mean to be presumptuous and equate my work with that of the kohannim – the Temple priests. The role of the kohen was more demanding than any job I can possible think of, not just in laborious physical demands and responsibilities.

I find these thoughts regarding the role of the kohen captured most beautifully by the words of poet David Harris Ebenbach, in the Artist’s Torah:

“In Biblical times, the role of the kohen, temple priests, was an extraordinarily demanding one, and not just in terms of the workload. There was also an expectation that the priests would attempt to do better than a good job – to approach, in fact, perfection in a variety of ways – and that anything that compromised this perfection would render the priest unfit for sacred duty. We’ve seen this other parashiyot where God makes precise and detailed rules for the way a priest should set the temple up and maintain it, how a priest should conduct the sacrifices, even how the priest should dress. Again and again there is the sense that doing things a little bit wrong makes everything turn out extremely wrong.”

The demands upon the kohen were also extraordinary in regard the physical and carnal characteristics it demanded of these leaders. In them, the Torah also demanded a certain level of perfection. And this is what we find described in the greatest detail here in parshat Emor.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of all the ways by which one may become disqualified from the sacrificial service. These laws fall into two categories.

This first category is dealt with in our first aliyah – in our first reading from Leviticus 21:1-15 – concerning that which makes a priest tamei, ritually impure. Such as defiling oneself by coming in contact with the dead, except for the case of a close relative. In like manner the Torah also describes other defiling features, such as shaving one’s head in certain fashions and cutting one’s flesh for the dead. Among this is also includes other defilements and demands, such as those related to forbidden sexual unions: a sexual union with a harlot; or marrying a non-virgin; taking a widow or divorced woman as a wife.

These things are generally understood as clearly being a matter which one has a choice regarding. These things presumably can be remedied, as they are only temporary restrictions. The disqualifications are conditional and specific. This state of tumah which disqualifies him from duty is consequential. Therefore one can restore himself from this state and recompose himself. Even in the matter of forbidden relationships for a priest, this can be solved by sending his paramour away and repenting. Once he does, he can then return to the sacrificial service.

My Hand Xray with Tumor

A tumor was removed from inside the bone of my left index finger, seen here on this xray.

And then there is this second category which starts in our second aliyah – Leviticus 21:6 until the end of the chapter – covering that which rendered a priest mum, or blemished. And in this the Torah becomes even more specific and demanding. We are left to read a number of disabilities which render one unfit for sacrificial service: being blind, maimed or lame; having abnormally long or short limbs; having broken bones. And it also lists other unusual abnormalities which it lumps together; having a hunchback; dwarfism; cataracts; permanent lesions and sores; and even usual disqualifications like having crushed testes makes the list!

This second category of things – those things which are considered blemishes – these are the most striking of all because these things are all matters which a person does not have any choice or control over. These were seen as permanent disabilities, and therefore they permanently disqualified one from their priestly service.

It’s truly astounding to realize that the kohanim were required to be utterly flawless, even in the matters which he has no control over. He had to be free of all these impediments.

This is something which modern readers undoubtedly find shocking, as a form of discrimination. But some of us can almost understand their antiquated mentality of why this was required. Why it was important for Temple priests to be free from these “defects.” Why a certain level of perfection needed to be maintained.

Before I start to diverge in thought, I want to go back and share with you one other precious observation by Ebenbach though:

“Tough to be a kohen, for sure, and understandably – these men were involved in the most important work of the community, work crucial to the soul. What they did on a daily basis could either elevate us towards the divine or, if done poorly, could leave us cut off, bereft. What they did mattered. ”

I appreciate that as an artist he has come to understands the mechanics of the drama and the physical aesthetics, all of which were seen as necessary to facilitate temple worship. He then poses a question to other artists and modern readers in the end. Does an artist have to be perfect to produce art? He concludes that no, he clearly doesn’t. However, one also shouldn’t be riddled with personal issues which distract and get in the way of creating that art.

For a moment I want us to step back into the text to they key verse which caught my interest here. A verse which perks my interest, but which also is kind of a painful subject for me right now in my personal life, quite literally.

In the middle of the listing all these blemishes by which they are disqualified from sacrificial service, we find this listed:

Or a man who has a broken foot |

or a broken hand.|

אוֹ אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁריִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל,

אוֹ ,שֶׁבֶר יָד.

O ish asher vo shever ragel, o shever yad.”

Leviticus 21:20

From this we derive that a kohen who has broken bones may not serve as a priest for the offering of sacrificial offerings. Specifically, having one’s leg or arm broken, as the text literally reads.

Now today in the modern age we don’t have sacrificial worship led by kohanim, instead have prayer’s as offerings. And we engage in learning of the Torah which is led by our clergy. Our leaders are Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and often characters like myself. And luckily for us moderns, we don’t have so many restrictions upon us. And our responsibilities are quite different. Those of us who work for the Jewish community still do the crucial work of the soul and ministering to people’s needs, just in a different fashion.

Work which isn’t isn’t quite so back breaking, which doesn’t require the handling and dismembering of animals. Thankfully.

The most physical work I ever have to do is the carrying of some Torah scrolls around at synagogue and helping as gabbai during the Torah service. Helping out the clergy at the bima. And caring for the sacred scrolls as we transition between the ritual readings and several high points in the service. In a small congregation like ours, my knowledge and assistance in facilitating this is most often needed. Yet even this has come with some great difficulty for me lately, and has left me requiring even a bit of assistance myself.

11071892_10153723617031110_1988370096_o

The large post-surgery cast.

For the past few months I been notably nursing my left hand and arm. And I still currently find myself wrapped up in a series of cumbersome bandages and attention grabbing casts. All this related to some broken bones in one of my hands.

This issue all began a few months ago when I started experiencing pain in my left hand. Thinking that the pain was just something passing and being quite used to physical pains, I ignored it at first. Then one day I heard a crack in my hand, followed by terrible pain. And even then I ignored it for a few more weeks. I didn’t see a whole lot physically wrong at first, but then came the swelling. Of course everyone in the synagogue told me to see a medical specialist, which eventually I did get seen by once the condition became too hard to ignore.

In the end the doctors found a lesion growing out of the bone of my left index finger. Surgeons then identified it as a huge tumor growing out of my bone marrow, one which had been silently growing inside for some time. Getting fatter until its expansion fractured the bones in two places on its way out. A tumor breaking my bones, from the inside out.

The doctors quickly scheduled me for surgery, to remove the tumor and the damaged bone. And the surgeon also rebuild my hand from bone fragments sawed away and harvested from up near my elbow. The tumor was then submitted for biopsy, to make sure it wasn’t cancerous. And the hand and arm was then set in place, leaving me all bandaged up as I was sent home for a few months of recovery.

Of course, any of you know me well enough see that I have been just as stubborn and determined as ever during this recovery. I’m hardly the type of person to lay back and take it easy. Though it appears that I have been missing from the written world, this has actually been the most active time in my life both as a religious figure and as a community organizer.

11046907_10204989875323941_914874807304407853_o

Walking tour with Beth Shalom of Whittier; on Breed Street, Boyle Heights.

All through this crisis I’ve been planning all my many doctors visits and events narrowly close, just to keep up with my civic and religious duties. And just five days out of surgery, I even had the honor of giving a long awaited tour of historic Jewish Boyle Heights to the sweet people of my synagogue. And then from there jumping right into the thick of the Passover holiday. I have all the while been determined to stay in bed no longer than necessary, quickly returning to the joys of public service. Making public appearances as I’ve been capable.

Now I realized I’m not completely healed. I spend a lot of time teaching and directing things right now, but I’m a lot less hands-on with projects right now. Though the bones are set, I am not completely healed yet.

A reminder of this came a few weeks ago when my dear friend Eileen, who is like a mother to me, scolded me as I took a Torah in arm. It was a Passover holiday service which required more than one scroll, and due to a slip in choreography I ended up with a Torah scroll in my good arm during a set of prayers. Carefully cradled so as not to drop it, and to prevent a disruption to the special holiday service. Though as I turned to face the crowd I saw Eileen rightfully wagging her finger at me and later scolding us guys for letting me do it, in her motherly way of course. She is among the many of you who are now teaching me to slow down and how to accept that I’m not whole. And also how to also be patient with myself, as it will heal in due time.

Now you see why I am so drawn to this reading from our parsha about broken bones, specifically relating to the hand and arms of a priest in public service. Now it’s not that I’m just fixated with this issue of broken bones on my own. This Torah portion also seems to be quite fixated and very concerned regarding the topic of broken bones.

Why is this issue of broken bones so important? And why is this condition lumped up with the permanent disabilities?

For those of you who are part of my synagogue family, we will find an answer suggested in the Etz Chaim Torah volumes that we use for service and learning, found here in the isles. [see Etz Chaim, page 720; also cited by Ebenbach] It can be logically deduced, and so it is also suggested by some rabbis, that in the ancient world broken bones were indeed a permanent condition in most cases. In a world without precise medicine and surgical ability, a bone could not be properly set. And for this reason it would often continue to be a source of pain and disruption in one’s body for the rest of their life.

Unlike my broken bones as a modern person with the benefit of medical science to restore me, the same type of injury suffered by one in the ancient world was prone to remaining a permanent disability.

However, the prohibition against a kohen who has broken these bones is not just a practical one, so as not to have one physically disrupting the temple service. Our rabbis also point to another more ritually significant reason, one which keeps with the theme of sacredness which is stressed here in this sacrifice heavy book of Leviticus.

Parshat Emor is said to mention broken bones as disqualifying blemishes three additional times, when in relation to the animals themselves which are being offered up by the priests. In Leviticus chapter 22 – in our third reading – we are going to see this mentioned in verses 20, 22, and 25. Rashi teaches us that one is not permitted to (1) consecrate, (2) slaughter, nor (3) dash the blood on the altar of an animal with broken bones as blemishes. This blemish rendered the offering unfit at every step of the way, and was considered an abomination. [see Rashi, Lev. 22:22]

It is seemingly understandable that just as G-d required perfection for His offerings, so too He also required the seemliness of perfection in those priests who were appointed to offer them up.

Now before we move on, I need to remind us that we are talking about a blemished kohen only being disqualified from being a priest who could sacrifices offerings on the altar. He is rendered unfit for this service alone, however his state as a priest remained. As long as he remained ritually pure he could continue to partake of his benefit as a priest in eating of the priestly portions, as we see also described for the rest of the priestly household here as the Torah continues on to the end of the chapter.

The sages and rabbis also held that a priest was still viable to participate in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, one of the highest points of the ancient service. We know very well that the blemished priest could and did extend their hands in blessing towards the people of Israel in the ancient Temple, when it was physically possible for them to do so.

Now there is a rabbinic prohibition, one which relates to the calling up of a kohen with blemishes. A revealing text, we find in the Mishnah:

“A priest whose hands are deformed, may not raise them [to bless the people]. Rabbi Yehudah also prohibits it to a priest whose hands are stained with woad or with madder roots, because the people stare at him.”

כהן שיש בידיו מומין,לא ישא את כפיו. רבי יהודה אומר: אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות אסטיס ופואה, לא ישא את כפיו, מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו.

Mishnah, Megillah 4:7

Generally we know that the prohibition, both by biblical and rabbinic standards. relates to noticeable deformities. One is prohibited from ascending if they are deformed either from their body or upon their body. The first being a noticeable deformity growing from the body, much like my tumor once it grew out the bone and to the surface of my hand.

This latter case of hands simply being stained, being an example of blemishes caused upon the body; presumably staining his hand dying cloth. A blemish to his body, simply as result of a priest having to take up a trade to help make ends meet. This staining was an occupational hazard and not a deformity. The marks of a working-class man. Yet it disqualified kohanim nonetheless.

The reason given for this prohibition is the most interesting thing yet. Why should a kohen be prohibited from performing his sacred service? Surprisingly, it’s not because G-d simply doesn’t want “inferior” people offering up His worship; a thought which somehow comes to mind for many fundamentalists. No, a more sensible reason is provided for us. So that this person will not be gawked at as they perform this sacred service.

In the Gemara we would later see this prohibition also seemingly extended to feet injuries, speech impediments and even being blind in one eye. All these things which might cause people to stare at the priest as he blesses. Interestingly, in the end the rabbis proved this prohibition to merely be pragmatic, as the talmud would finally conclude that if a kohen was well known enough that his condition raised no suspicion among the congregation then his service was permitted. (See Talmud, Megillah 24b)

Again, this prohibition is purely pragmatic. So that when a kohen ascends to engage in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing – that people should not inadvertently stare up at the kohen. [It is our custom to not look up at their extended hands as they are blessing, in reverence and awe.] Disrupting and distracting from the sacredness of this blessing, which in many traditional congregations is still one of the highest point of our service.

So now let us answer for ourselves, why is this point so important? Why is this even an issue at all? The answer should be obvious to all of us. The truth, it is the awe and wonder of the moment is what makes our worship so very powerful. A great deal of the power of the service is the drama, as it rises and falls with choreographed precision. Prayers with words which are carefully chosen and precisely delivered, invoked to elevate both emotion and spirit.

Yet, our tradition knows how distractible we are as people, especially to anything which we perceive as unusual or off-putting. Be it found in the offering, or found in the person of the priest offering it.

Our rabbis narrow in on this point in the Sefer HaChinuk, regarding our biblical prohibition against the elevation of a kohen with blemishes: [Thank you to Aharon Varady for helping me properly locate this citation.]

“From the root of the mitzvah: Since people ascribe value to activities based on the importance of the performers of those activities. A person who appears imposing and well mannered will find more favor in all that he does before those who see him. In the opposite case, a person who is of low form and unusual appearance will seem unworthy in the eyes of his beholders if his actions are any less than perfect. It is therefore appropriate that the person on whom atonement depends be of pleasant appearance in all facets so that people will attach their thoughts to him. Aside from this, it is possible that in his perfect form there is a hint to certain concepts, for as a person contemplates [the perfect form] he will purify his soul and elevate it. Therefore it is improper for there to be anything unusual in any form in him, lest the soul of the contemplative be scattered due to the anomaly, for it would then be moved from the purpose.”

משרשי המצוה. לפי שרב פעלות בני אדם רצויות אל לב רואיהם לפי חשיבות עושיהן, כי בהיות האדם חשוב במראהו וטוב במעשיו, ימצא חן ושכל טוב בכל אשר יעשה בעיני כל רואיו, ואם יהיה בהפך מזה פחות בצורתו ומשנה באבריו, ואם אינו ישר בדרכיו לא יאותו פעלותיו כל כך אל לב רואיו, על כן באמת ראוי להיות השליח שהכפרה תלויה עליו איש חן יפה תאר ויפה מראה נאה בכל דרכיו, למען יתפשו מחשבות בני איש אחריו. ומלבד זה, אפשר שיש בשלמות צורתו, רמז לענינים, שמתוך מחשבות האדם בהן, תטהר נפשו ותתעלה, ולכן אין ראוי בשום צד שיהיה בו שנוי צורה מכל צורותיו, פן תתפזר נפש המחשב מצד השנוי ותנוד מן החפץ.

Sefer HaChinukh 275:2

Interesting, and also very revealing. The truth is we as a congregation are often quite consciously observant regarding the leaders offering up our blessings. Yes. We hold them to a higher level of accountability. Just as close to faultlessness as we expect in our worship, we also expect this to be embodied in the people offering it up before us. A distinguished person, but not one whose issues are distracting.

We expect the art of our religious experience to shine forth, without the artists being a distraction to the creation of that art.

Yet, in the end our tradition finally comes to recognize that the “blemish” is not always such a great matter of disturbance for the sufferer himself, but for the congregation instead. It lays fault for any exclusion squarely upon us as a congregation, and not on the person himself.

I’m glad to say that at the synagogue where I am a member and teacher, at Beth Shalom of Whittier, we have an inclusive and progressive community. One where unkind gawking or unfair exclusion is unthinkable. We welcome everyone to participate, including those with disabilities and special needs. We find this to be as blessing and not a distraction!

Shmuel Gonzales, 6th Street BridgeAnd this is what I have in mind and heart today. This is which turns-over in my head as I ascend the bimah this week. A thought I keep in mind as I once again snicker at myself, unnoticed to anyone but myself. As I secure my tallit around me and over my ever present punk rock jacket, the one with the anti-swastika pin. As I march forward unlike any other guy in the room: in Doc Martin boots, studded belt, piercings here and plugs there. A queer and ethnic person. A working-class Latino, from the wrong side of the tracks. Imposing only in personality, but a shadow of as man I used to be. Who is now far too thin already from my long battle with chronic conditions and constant threats of terminal illness.

There are so many things about me that are unusual and sometimes breathtaking at first sight, altogether different from what people expect of a “good Jewish boy.” And so many hard issues related to my health and body, things which make me less than whole. And yet the only thing that makes people stare, in loving concern of course, is my brightly bandaged hand and arm. Sometimes distraction remains, but it’s a good thing in this case!

I am coming to realize a truth, one demonstrated by you all. That despite the superficial blemishes people like myself may have, we can still be inspiring and a joy to the community.

For months now I have risen before many of you to say some prayers and help us elevate our worship, burdened with these noticeable casts; white, black, red, and black again. Mostly helping people as I try to be as hands-off as possible. Hopefully for this week is for the last time, bizrat hashem. Thankfully the tumor was found to be benign, I will make a full recovery. I will be back at it after some physical therapy helps helps me get it moving again. But thank you all for your support through all of this. Shabbat shalom!

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Sefirat haOmer: The Inner Journey of Liberation


Taking steps daily on our journey towards freedom

We now find ourselves in Chol haMoed Pesach – the intermediate days of Passover, the middle days of this ongoing eight-day holiday. After a gruelling week of preparation and a very energetic first two festival days, we are all physically spent, ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the week to come.

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: Mark Hurvitz wrote: "Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's father (Andrew Ross z"l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!"

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: In this Sefirat haOmer chart one envisions themselves taking 49-steps up the summit of Sinai in time for Shavuot. Designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

Still for many people the joy of the festival and that sense of momentum in our souls remains with us. As we each work through own personal exodus during this season. Now that we have determined to become free people, naturally there is a new passion to experience and actualize that freedom. And to continue this spiritual journey to become more liberated. A desire to push forward in this march of freedom still inspiring many of us.

So who do we do that? How do we become freer and more liberated people?

And how do we satisfy this expansive drive aroused in our souls, while also being amidst an exhaustingly vigorous season?

Our tradition responds to this with the mitzvah of the Sefirat haOmer – the commandment of counting of the Omer. And through this tradition we learn how everyday we can do a little bit of work on improving ourselves. That’s all it really requires to pursue freedom within yourself, just taking a small step each day out of whatever has held us back in our life’s journey.

In the procession of the Jewish year, we are on a journey from Pesach to Shavuot. A journey which takes us from freedom in Egypt, and brings us to celebration at Sinai.

We’ve talked before about the biblical commandment, to count seven weeks of harvest gladness in which our ancestors were to offer up their coarse barley growth. And how on the fiftieth day the ancient Israelites would offer up an offering of their finest wheat in the Temple,  in order to bring great culmination to this spring season on the holiday of Shavuot – the festival of weeks, celebrated on the 50th day from Pesach. (see “The Sefirat haOmer: Making The Days Count“)

These two holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, along with a third agricultural festival of Sukkot in the fall, they are called the Shelosh Regalim. These were the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, which in ancient times required people to journey all the way up to the capital of Jerusalem every year for these holidays.

This holiday of Shavuot has no fixed date, it occurs after 49 + 1 days after Pesach. Nor did this holiday historically have any fixed religious significance until the rabbis of the Mishna began to relate this holiday with the giving of Torah at Har Sinai.

The rabbis therefore understood these 49 days as a time of personal preparation for receiving Torah. A period which would come to be characterized by personal reflection and ethical introspection. In this way the rabbis made this period an inner journey for us. They helped us appreciate this extensive mitzvah of Sefrat haOmer as a process on a path to become worthy of receiving this revelation of Torah. In order to stand dignified at Shavuot and receive this Torah anew.

In this way we also come to appreciate the sefirah period as a way for refining and cleaning ourselves up along the way – as we shed our slave characteristics –  on our way to the reception of the Torah at Sinai.

This sense of devotion became even more stressed by the kabbalistic masters of the 16th century in Tzfat, and then later by the chassidic masters who followed them. These mystics also decided take the journey inward, but in a much deeper and more profound way.

According to their custom of meditating upon the prayers of their highly mystical siddurim, they gave practical application to the Sefirat haOmer for making it engage a personal tikkun – a correction, a repair in one’s nature. And to do so systematically and with motivated intention.

The mystics broke the sefirah period into seven cycles of seven weeks, seven being the number of completion and wholeness (i.e. number of days in a week; creation). Each of the seven weeks were set to correspond to one of the seven sefirot (Divine forces) which active in the physical world. Likewise each day of the week was set to correspond to a sefirah as well, making us look even deeper into each of these characteristics within ourselves.

This form of meditation reflects upon seven essential characteristics, and then makes us further consider how we operate those creative drives. We learn to focus on specific points of our character.

Let me give you a few examples of how this line of meditation works, and also demonstrate how one can reflect on these (with a few off-the-cuff meditative suggestions that come to mind for me during my personal reflection at this time, those are in quotes; to give us examples of how to work through these thoughts):

Day 1 of the Omer:

חֶסֶד שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Kindness within Kindness

“Do I display my kindness with acts of truly pure kindness?”

Day 2 of the Omer:

גְּבוּרָה שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Discipline/Judgment within Kindness

“Is my sense of discipline in-line with my sense of kindness?”

Day 3 of the Omer:

תִּפְאֶרֶת שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Beauty/Harmony within Kindness

“Do I use my expansive kindness for bringing harmony and balance?”

Day 4 of the Omer:

נֶצַח שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Endurance/Victory within Kindness

“Is my sense of kindness in-line with a love that is long-lasting and able to overcome the challenges?”

During the first week we start in Chesed (Kindness), which is an accessible point of reference for the soul as we continue on with the joy of celebrating Pesach and as are just starting out on our sefirah count. Then in the second week we move into Gevurah (Discipline/Judgement). The third week Tiferet (Beauty/Harmony), etc.

Each week we look at one part of our Divinely inspired nature, and then systematically examine how we can bring balance to it. Looking at each level of our consciousness, realizing there are elements of each impulse mixed-in with the others. Our challenge is to bring balance within ourselves so that none of these are in conflict, and so that we can achieve a sense of freedom within ourselves.

This might also be helpful for beginners of this form of meditation: Think of the daily sefirah as representing one aspect of your divinely inspired inner drives or ambitions, and the sefirah for the week as representing how you go about achieving that in your actions. There is certain ways we feel inside, but its all about bringing our outward displays in-line with that.

The kabbalists weaved other meditative elements into their counting of the Omer. They also assigned certain meditative words from psalms and letters to each day. As well as pieces of the highly mystical Aramaic prayer Ana Bekoach. All these textual overlays, to further inspire an inner journey.

Now there is a reason that I keep referring to the Sefirat haOmer as a journey. This mitzvah is one with many steps in order to fulfill it.  It requires us making the effort everyday for 49 days, taking many small steps everyday. We cannot move forward if we stop at any point. Which is what makes this mitzvah so much of a discipline to keep. However, it is a deeply rewarding journey of self-exploration and refinement for those who follow all the way through!

Modern Meditative Aids for the Sefirat haOmer

colorfulomerchart KOL ALEPH MINIOne of the best ways to help one remember the daily Omer count is to use a chart. Over the years many charts have been devised to help people remember and stay accurate with their count. Many communities and homes have unique ones which people festively display and refer to.

These clever charts are also very useful for helping people visualize this path and process. One contemporary chart posted by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is a personal favorite. See her entry at Kol Aleph:

This not only a great way to keep count, it is also a great way to meditate upon the Omer. To think of it as a journey moving inward, to examine ourselves in our deepest core. Or we can also see this as a path around a mountain, moving upward with a step each day until we reach the peak of Sinai. This lovely chart is also overlaid with other meditative elements which color and desktop formatting today allow.

Over the years I have made the case that the rabbis made intentional use of specific words, letters and sounds to deliver imagery. As they were limited in their means of presenting these ideas in a black-and-white world in which they produced their manuscripts,  the mystics used other schemas. I have always believed that had the mystics of old lived today they would layer meaning in color, which would also aid in showing relationships of one thing to another.

I’m glad to see that several scholars and rabbis of the modern age are utilizing color to expressed concepts in their works and materials. To help people visualize the lesson and their inner journey.

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartOne the finest examples of this is the Sefirat HaOmer Chart of Lieba B. Ruth (aka, Lauren Deutsch), which was originally created according to her own color scheme.

Aharon Varady also notes:

“Lauren Deutsch’s system of color correspondences for the sefirot mainly follows the light spectrum from red to deep blue, then black and purple. Her systems accords well with that of Mark Hurvitz’s 7×7 Color Grid for the Omer.”

My friend and colleague Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project, was able formulate a meditative chart which would alternatively correspond to the color schema innovated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

She has generously shared this Kabbalistic Sefirat HaOmer chart as free and redistributable resource through the Open Siddur Project. Please re-distribute!

DOWNLOAD: SVG (source) | PNG

Please also refer to the original post by Aharon Varady and Lauren Deutsch at Open Siddur Project:

This chart expresses how the sefirot – both for the corresponding week and day of the sefirah count – how they come together. Causing us to conceptualize and consider the relationship of one characteristic to the other, and helping us visualize the balance we are trying to achieve between these powerful forces inside us.

In like manner, Aharon Varady also created a variation of the meditative circles chart utilizing a classical and historically inspired color schema. A schema which was presented in Reb Seidenberg’s Omer Counter widget (Neohasid.org). Aharon noted that this color system corresponds closely with that of the colors suggested by the RAMAK in Pardes Rimonim,Aharon-Varady_-_Omer-Circles-(David-Seidenberg's-Color-schema) as cited in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, “Meditation & Kabbalah” (p. 181)  in the chapter titled “Colors.”

Having also taken personal interest in the color correspondences within classic kabbalistic literature, I had also tried to imagine this. To perceive how the mystics would have conceived of this. So this additional contribution has helped bring that to life for me. This color schema is very useful and meaningful to both Chassidic and Sephardic followers of the mystical disciplines.

The meaning of all this is also presented for us by Aharon in his detailed comments of the aforementioned post. The entry also wonderfully included the prayers, blessings, meditations, and even an updating counting widget… in addition to the helping you identify and visualize the interacting sefirot as you observe this special mitzvah!

Conclusion:

Many of us modern people don’t have the time or space in our lives make a religious pilgrimage like ancients used to during this time of year, therefore we have a long tradition of focusing on how to take this journey inward. We should utilize the many ways of teaching and thinking which helps take us on a journey for the soul.

Want to personalize your own journey? Here is a Do-It-Yourself help for making your own Sefirat haOmer Chart.

We have been learning about this inward journey through the soul we engage in during the sefirah period. One of the best ways is to visualize that journey as path up a mountain, as previously mentioned regarding another chart.

Aharon Varady also provides us with a subtle adaptation of a chart concept envisioned by Andrew Ross z”l. As noted by Aharon elsewhere:

 “Mark Hurvitz wrote: “Rabbi Amy Scheinerman‘s father (Andrew Ross z”l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!” (Please see: http://www.scheinerman.net/judaism/shavuot/omer4.html)

This wonderful chart is designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

The chart image shown at the top is a Creative Commons document, editable and redistributable design. Showing a spiral starting from the upper right, and moving counter-clockwise on its way inward. Indeed, all the items presented by Open Siddur are open-source licensed to edit and share! Feel free to personalize it with numbers or meditative thoughts.

What are you making your exodus from this year? Are you trying to leave bad traits behind? Are you making a journey out of addiction? Are you finding liberation from the effects of unhealthy relationships? Or are you just stepping forward in order to leave a sense of apathy behind? Personalize this chart and meditation for your goals. Whatever helps you visualize your journey inward to the soul and upward to Sinai!

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Tu biShvat: The active, virile energies it addresses in nature and us


The development of the seder, and what we can learn about our will for assertion from this tradition

Tu biShvat – the New Year for the Trees – is probably one of the most enjoyable, and yet one of the least understood, holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a highly mystical holiday, and also deeply connected to nature. And because us moderns tend to be quite detached from both the mystical and the natural world, it’s hard for us to connect with this frame of mind. It’s often hard – especially for those of us who are primarily urban business people – to connect with the land and do it in a most spiritual way.

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog (Israeli citron) trees breaking soil!

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog trees breaking soil! This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

This is especially more so for us Jews outside of the land of Israel, where the agricultural issues of how to manage the crops of Eretz Yisrael and where observing the related halacha isn’t something we really experience.

This holiday marks the agricultural fiscal year in the land of Israel. This is when all the trees are accounted for in the land, allowing the growers to know when it was appropriate to harvest from a tree. This accounting made it possible to know when to observe the many agricultural related Torah mitzvot; such as to give first-fruit offerings from a new tree, and when to mark for the agricultural sabbatical years (shemitah) in the land, and from what point to give tithes from ones crops. (see Leviticus 19:23-25)

Notice that this year is the shemitah year in Israel, where we don’t plant or harvest in Israel. We let the land rest and lay fallow in the holy land. But here in the diaspora most people are unaware of it. Like I said, it’s hard to connect to this outside of the Land of Israel. Where the seasons might not jive and the cycle doesn’t apply. This makes it difficult to grasp and appreciate, this cycle of life in Isreael. And this can even be unnerving to some, who do not hold Israel dear. As indeed, this holiday does ask us to consider the nature and produce of the Land of Israel. And it also calls us out to actively connect with this very land.

But this holiday which we know today comes down to us today as an outgrowth of both spiritual and secular reinterpretation. Ones which have greatly shaped the holiday and the way we celebrate it today.

The kabbalists of the middle-ages – those Jewish masters of mysticism and the esoteric – they were deeply connected to the land of Israel after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and upon their arrival in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There the symbolisms of this holiday came alive for them as they began to renew the land. And there they were also able to discover deeper spiritual meanings to this observance and to the traditions surrounding this holiday.

Out of this tradition we received the seder for this holiday, as documented in the “The Pri Etz Hadar: Fruit of the Majestic Tree seder for Tu biShvat by Rabbi Natan Binyamin Ghazzati (ca. 17th c.),” a deeply mystical text intended to help people take a spiritual accounting of their growth and produce on a soul level. This text first documented the customs for the Tu biShvat seder we know today. A source text made popular among Sephardic and Chassidic masters, being close adherents of the mystical schools.

Of course, as the age of enlightenment arose many people began to neglect the deeply mystical practices. And intern this holiday of Tu biShvat fell into neglect by many in the next couple centuries.

However, another huge revival and re-envisioning of this holiday – this time a secular one – would come about as the result of another direct encounter with Jews and the land of Israel. Actualized as part of the Zionist dream during the 19th and 20th century, during the rebirth of the land of Israel and the formation of the modern, secular State of Israel. This holiday would take on the role akin to Arbor Day, and focus upon the restoration of the land of Israel. Planting trees and restoring the wildlife of Israel, which had been stripped bare in the many wars, crusades and occupations.

For many Jews in diaspora, Tu biShvat would thus also come to hold significance. A day in which we direct our focus towards Israel. To try to connect with eretz Yisrael in the most direct ways possible. Many contributing to the restoration and preservation of the land. The world over, Jewish progressives and religious Zionists would come to observe this day by giving tzedakah (charity) for planting trees in Israel. This day noticeably marked with the passing around of the Jewish National Fund pushka.

Believe it or not, especially for Orthodox Jews in America, the giving of tzedakah for planting trees is one of the only ways most of us remember observing the holiday as kids. I was talking about this with my friends who were former yeshiva bochurs as we planned for the holiday this year. Except for obtaining from fasting, which isn’t necessarily an observance in and of itself, that was about it. Raising money in diaspora and physically planting trees in Israel was the most pronounced observance any of us remembers. One which was less likely if you were haredi, and therefore not Zionist leaning.

In the orthodox world I remember we would all do a little learning, but few people held a full Tu biShvat seder in those days. Most likely, because few people knew exactly how to perform it well enough. Which is quite sad because the seder is dripping in symbolism which should be most meaningful for those who are fully immersed in the verbiage of kabbalah and chassidus. And yet, we admit we have often been lacking in our application and enthusiasm.

Of course since then, a lot has changed. Newer siddurim and the advent of online resources, more people are finding the seder more accessible. But the reviving observance is also greatly motivated by a growing interest in kabbalah in society today. An interest which many traditional movements are thrilled to be meeting, so today there is a lot more promotion of this holiday more than ever to address this interest.

However, for the most part the most success in incorporating this holiday into the consciousness of diaspora Jews has come during the latter part of the 20th century and during the turn of the 21st century has been made by progressive Jews. By diaspora Jews who have brought the lessons learned in modern-day Israel to the rest of the world. Who have witnessed the melded of the secular with the spiritual in the modern-day State of Israel. And who have in this model taken the holiday and made it more socially conscious in our own lands. And who have also come to mark this day as an opportunity for their communities to become socially and politically active regarding the environment and nature. Realizing that we wont bear fruit until we break ground through social action.

In this spirit the holiday of Tu biShvat has come to be embraced the world over as a Jewish Earth Day Celebration of sorts. Where people not just celebrate nature, but actively show their green thumb and their social activism. A time when one gets to show their love for nature and vow to preserve it.

The latter reason is probably another factor for why this holiday of Tu biShvat is more well observed among progressives and less so among conservatives in America. Be it personal discomfort with being called a tree-hugger, one’s dissociation with nature… or even worse, ones troubling environmental politics. What ever the reason, many religious Jews in the Americas show neglect towards our observance because of our personal sentiments we need to correct.

Today I want us to take the time to focus on a tikkun atzim – a correction and repair within ourselves. So intern we can be more effective in making a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world! We need to have both.

A Peek into the Mystical Aspects of the Tu biShvat Seder

And that is precisely what this holiday is about according to our kabbalistic tradition. Making a tikkun (a correction) within ourselves.

And more specifically making a correction within our male energies and over our sense of assertion. This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

And this is where I fear I might lose readers, both nervous males and bashful females. I’ve noticed I can talk as much as I want about the feminine aspects of G-d’s shechinah these days, but talking about masculine things is something many are becoming less accustomed to! Men and women, both equally, show discomfort at times. However, I think that whatever our gender is we can all learn a very important lesson by looking at the very masculine and assertive essence of this holiday of Tu biShvat.

I don’t want to make it weird so let me explain what I mean, and use the paralleling examples we can draw from. At this time of year we are approaching the spring harvest two months from now, which is the biblical new year; that is something most of us know little about. So instead let us look at the opposite side of the calendar, and compare it to the coming of the civil and religious new year – to Rosh haShanah; that is something we seem to all naturally know more about. I’m sure many of you will immediate recognize the polar distinctions between these two seasons in our tradition.

When we think of the season of Rosh haShanah we think of it as a season with female spiritual correspondences. The season of Elul and Tishrei are often regarded as a feminine and receptive time of year. This month of Elul, its kabbalistic Zodiac sign is the Beitulah; the virgin which corresponds to Virgo, explained as the same virgin (beitulah) of Libra with the scales of justice (moznayim) in hand. This symbolizes the receptive nature of the virgin earth, during the season of plowing of the land. It also represents Din – or judgment, which is also seen as a feminine aspect of the Divine. As we know, we are making selichot in that month of Elul, in preparation towards being judged in Tisherei. That season is characterized by judgment and restriction.

But at the same time the season of fall is an intimate season, in which we are to mystically mirror a young virgin longing for marriage and intimacy. When we want to mirror that longing in our relationship to G-d. That is why we also consider Rosh haShanah our wedding day to G-d. From that point of spiritual reference, we focus upon our receptivity.

See, that wasn’t so hard. Not too difficult to talk about. And even if we are not kabbalistically learned, most of us recognize these themes. Now let’s see if we can grasp the other end of this.

In contrast, at this time of year we are supposed to be focusing on the more masculine correspondences displayed in these upcoming months. Now during Shevat we do not consider this season barren, this is now the time of the almond blossoms breaking forth. The ground will soon start to break forth with life, and with the hopes of budding of fruits to come.

We are now going into the fertile months. Two months from this night, we will be looking up at a full-moon like this and celebrating Pesach; we will be eating the produce of the spring wheat harvest, and counting towards the barley harvest until Shavout. This is a seminal and groundbreaking time of year. A very virile and fertile time of year!

We aren’t the only people who see this, consider how strong the theme of fertility is present in the cultures around us as this season approaches. As the common culture will soon find their celebrations also entrenched in symbols of fertility; as they decorate everything in eggs and bunnies. This theme is starting to be in the air for many cultures the world over, not just for us alone. It’s not hard to recognize and understand this seasonal contrast.

In contrast to the feminine and receptive nature of Rosh haShanah (and Beitulah), the spiritual new year of Pesach is a strikingly masculine holiday. And so is Tu biShvat. The Fall nature is barren and receptive, the Spring is asserting and springs forth. We know what we are talking about here, as traditionally cultures have often binarily called this “masculine initiative,” so we get what this means. I don’t need to be too explicit, I think we all get this.

Notice how the kabbalistic zodiac sign Taleh, the lamb in our tradition or a ram, it corresponds to the spring month of Aires (the month of aviv, spring; Nissan); it displays the masculine spiritual forces par-excellence. It represents an active and domineering partner in its spiritual attributes. It displays the Divine aspects of Chesed. – that passionate and ever-expansive type of love. That fiery and lusty energy is what takes center stage as this time of fertility draws close.

Now we really need to pay special attention to this point. And I think if we examine our own drives we can clearly connect to these points in every person. That what this side of the Divine essence represents is that power of assertion we have inside us. That drive to want to assert ourselves in life and in our relationship to other things. It signifies that ever-expansive desire to aggressively assert ourselves over nature and life itself. To take whats barren and make life spring erect from it.

These are the words and themes mystically woven together in this Tu biShvat seder. For those who are attuned to kabbalah and chassidut we know that part of the this tikkun we are making is within our own personal will and drive to assert ourselves; and to bring balance to an ever-expansive type of chesed in us, as displayed by masculine aspects of the spiritual forces used in the text of the seder. (Abba, Tzedek, Yesod, etc.) It calls us to consider and make tikkun (correction) for an expansive love and passion on overdrive.

Take a look at the Pri Etz Hadar when you get a chance. Notice that the seder wording clearly makes those parallels in how it speaks about making a correction in Yesod (the phallus), and by means of this expressing how our over expansive drives are so seen as a form of unchastity. As we are embracing the virile energy at this time of year, we are also asked to be equally mindful in using that power responsibly. It calls us to make a correction in ourselves, related to bring balance to our own carnal desires and actions. Instead of giving completely over to this virile drive we are called to bring balance to it. Asking men in the traditional text to be mindful that they might be over-expansive in their carnal passions, and to make a tikkun (a correction inside ones self) for that.

This is a lesson which was learned though nature, and which needs to be applied back in our relationship with nature. At the heart of the Tu biShvat seder, under all the layers of mysticism, that is what it is doing by calling us to on all levels overcome a base-level drive inside of ourselves to assert ourselves over nature and be more responsible with the power we assert over the earth.

At Rosh Hashanah in Fall we are called to be mindful of being receptive and properly submissive in our nature. But in this coming season of Spring, we are asked to be mindful of our will to assert ourselves and to expansively spring forth.

For those who are brave and honest with themselves, we need to be asking ourselves some questions deep inside our souls at this time. Privately ask oneself:

  • Am I over-asserting myself over the earth in a damaging and disrespectful manner? Am I being over-expansive in respect to the earth.
  • Am I over-asserting myself sexually, using it in a damaging and disrespecting manner? Am I being over-asserting in my sexuality?

The Seder and the Four Worlds

Now the structure of the Tu biShvat seder shows us how to apply this vigorous expansiveness, how to properly apply all this Chesed. And addresses how to become more effective in this aspect, both in our passions and actions. It does this by taking us on a journey up the scale of the kabbalistic Four Worlds of ABiYA:

Assiyah: The world of Action

Yetzirah: The world of Formation

Beriah: The world of Creation

Atzilut the world of Emanation (actualization)

In this seder we start our frame of reference grounded in the physical world of action, and we are moving towards pure thought which we perceive as being in the fiery heavens (where the sun and stars burn in the sky) as the mystics perceive of this path. We are moving upwards, elevating our senses and drives and thoughts to even loftier heights.

tree labeled four worlds kabbalahBut it all starts with activity, this process begins with us starting within the world of action. It starts with us putting our hands into action. And then as we begin to act, we can then better perceive of how to form and inspire creation in this world.

This holiday orients us and points us forward, and up. Directing us to strive on for a higher level of thought and passion which is beyond constriction, understood as the world of Emanation (Atzilut). Where G-d is One and the world is one. At this highest level of consciousness, we are trying to actualize a world without striving, restriction, disunity and lack; where there is completeness and wholeness.

Now I’ve said a mouthful, and I know very well that most of us aren’t mystics. I know not many of you consider yourselves too spiritual or mystical. Many of us are moderns and progressives, people who are not wrapped up in a world of mystical symbolisms as others. I understand this.

But that is the beautify of this holiday, it doesn’t require us to be at a place of lofty spirituality. The spiritual exercises of this holiday starts us firmly on the earth, in the natural world and in this very realm of physical action. All we need to do is focus on how to bring our actions better in line with our most loftier thoughts.

This tradition of ours doesn’t tell us we need to attain great spiritual heights. It just tells us to start with our actions, and to elevate our thoughts which inspire our actions. We don’t need to be concerned if we reach Atzilut, really. We aren’t literally trying to reach perfection, but what is important is that we are striving towards bettering and perfecting this world towards that more ideal reality. And doing a tikkun, making a correction, for those defects we recognize in this world.

In both our actions and with our passions as previously discussed, we are asked to become more conscious about our sense of assertiveness. That is what I want us to keep in mind as we make our way through the Tu biShvat seder this year. How to make a tikkun in that area of our lives as well.

Reflection: Now I don’t think that traditional Jews are less observant than progressive Jews in respect to this holiday, just less enthusiastic about it sometimes in diaspora. As it is noticeable that progressives have started to do more visible activism during this holiday in the west. And that’s a chesed, it’s a really great thing!

In actually, I don’t believe one side is necessarily more observant or correct than the other. But that traditional Jews and the progressives Jews today are often approaching this holiday from different sides, but for the same goal:

  • In the orthodox circles, people are and often have been more attuned to their tikkun atzim – a correction and repair in themselves.
  • And in the progressive circles, people are generally more attuned towards a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world.

However, the reality is that all of us need to be working towards a tikkun in both these areas, and do so more seriously during this season. Our tradition actually calls us to deal with both. We can’t really achieve one without the other, so we need to bring balance to both.

Tu biShvat Seder Resources:


Parshat Bo (5775)


Exodus 10:1-13:16

How Plaguing Addictions Affect Those Other Than Ourselves

Today we are going to talk about addictions. We are not only going to consider the personal struggle with addiction, but we are going to explore how addictions affect the other people in our lives. How they can come to plague not just us alone, but also cause casualty to others.

destitute familyThis topic has been rolling around in my mind since last Shabbat, when I happened upon this verse as I was thumbing my way to the reading for that day. This verse so interested me that I wanted to ask our own Rabbi Osnat Margalith about it right then, but held back so we could tackle the lesson at hand. But just then she quickly affirmed a view that I just saw open up to me moments before. As she noted how Rabbi Abraham Twerski connects the Ten Plagues of Egypt to the stages of addiction. Though I haven’t yet read this book she is referring to, I hope to soon. I’m intrigued now. As I also see so many unique connections along this theme, and today we will explore just some of that.

Not only was Rabbi’s observation timely for where my mind was at the moment, but it’s also a very timely thought for what I have been observing in the lives of people I care about. For as I began to sit down to learn this lesson from this angle of addiction, I was contacted by someone close to me who has had a long road with addiction. Reaching out to me from rehab, where he has been working through his few steps in sobriety.

Hopefully, I have a bit to offer on this subject. As I am no stranger to addicts. And I am no stranger to addiction myself. So when I speak about this, it’s from the position of personal experience. Personal experience which lend to both my empathy and frankness when it comes to this struggle. To this battle of the wills.

As we begin to look at this story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, I want us to keep in mind that this story is about a battle between two wills. The will of G-d and the will of Pharaoh. The narrative takes a focus upon the heart of Pharaoh all through out this part of the story regarding the Israelites exodus to freedom. This story of our fate is deeply intertwined with the narrative of this man’s battle of personal will.

Then again, this is also the case for his people – his Egyptians people and all his faithful servants – and that is something which also needs to be noted.

Now I know that during these weeks nearly everyone is talking about the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in their divrei Torah. What that philosophically means, as well as what the personal implications are for freewill and personal responsibility. And asking difficult questions. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s will here? Was He stacking the cards against Pharaoh? Wasn’t Pharaoh being set-up?

I don’t really want to go trudging down that path too far, because that is low road which many addicts prefer to take when resisting liberation through sober living: It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t be this way if G-d didn’t make me this way. I have a disease, so I’m not responsible for this. This is just the way I’m wired, how can you blame me? G-d has given me a hard life and hard heart, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be this way! This situation I’m in, both G-d and life are setting me up!

Let me be frank and straight to the point with this. None of us should really want to relate ourselves to Pharaoh too much here. As he is an archetypal rasha (evil person) personality. And it is especially so in this respect, when we talk about Pharaoh and his lack of freewill. Did Pharaoh lose his free will because G-d hardened his heart? The Rambam (Maimonaides) in Hilchot Teshuvah says, yes! However, such a person is rare, and we don’t ever want to be that type of person.

The Rambam makes this point in his commentary there, that Pharaoh’s lack of free will and likewise his punishment to follow, this all came about because of his original act of enslavement and oppression. All of this came about because of a primary action, for which he did have free will. The hardening of his heart by G-d was just to grant Pharaoh the toughness of character to resist the repentance which would stop his downfall and much deserved judgment. Judgment for his actions done, not his persisting resistance. G-d was hardening up Pharaoh to cause him to descent into a place in which repentance just wasn’t really possible for him anymore, so that he had to be dealt with as an example.

I know this is deep. Lots of philosophy going on here, and I’m not a philosopher so I encourage you all to look at Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter Six. We could go on and on with this topic, and many people do with heady conversations. But let me try to keep it simple.

The Rambam seems to point to Pharaoh as an extreme example to wake us up. I think the Rambam and most rabbis would agree that there are very few people in the world like Pharaoh. Who are so evil that they lose their ability to repent of their ways entirely. But then again, just look at Pharaoh! Do you want to be Pharaoh? You could end up like Pharaoh. Be careful, you don’t want to be Pharaoh!

Most of us with a history of addiction know what I’m saying here, about what it’s like to start out with the control in our hands when we start with substances (or behaviors) and then in contrast seem to not have any will over it at all at some point. And where our direction towards disaster seems inevitable, we can’t stop it anymore.

I have my own understanding which I’m still considering, but let me quickly share it with you so we can move on to the text and main point of this lesson. Look at the word we have here at the top of our parsha for Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” It says, “hichbadti.” To be hichbid means to be heavy, to be a burden, to be a nuisance; in a literary sense, it also means to intensify, or to aggravate. To me it seems fairly clear that what we see here is that G-d is increasingly burdening Pharaoh, and being a nuisance to him. Intensifying the aggravation for Pharaoh to continuously assert himself as he does to this terrible end. Maybe our understanding might not have to be all that complicated after all.

So much for my gentle side-note, but now lets us move on to main point for this week’s lesson I want us to consider. And I want to focus our lesson on this point, because if we are going to talk about addiction we need to recognize that it affects people other than the addict alone. No, we are not alone in this battle with willpower. As we often drag other people into our suffering along with us. The people closest to us and who we should value the most.

At the top of our parsha for this week, we see that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh because G-d has hardened his heart and the heart of his servants. G-d says that He has done this to make a mockery of the Egyptians. And to display His greatness through the signs and wonders to come, for all generations to know He had done this for them. (Exodus 10:2) Moses approaches Pharaoh and gives him a provoking ultimatum once again.

But notice, before we get a response from Pharaoh this time the servants and advisors raise their cries of concern to him. And they don’t really seem quite as hardened as Pharaoh! No, they do seem to be sensible and responsive at this point. And this is where we find ourselves, as we come upon our key verse for this week. Our text reads as follows:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?’”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם:

Exodus 10:7

Moses has just come before Pharaoh and announced the eighth plague of locusts, and by this point we can only imagine how battered the entire nation of Egypt was at this point. So even the servants, they seem to lose the composure and deference one would normally expect of them before their “divine ruler.” And they speak out in a most striking way.

Look at the text here. Their response is not a simple, “Oh, this guy.” No, they see Moses as a mokeish – he’s is a hindrance, and obstacle; or more precisely Moses is a snare. When they see Moses walking into the room, they see Pharaoh walking into a trap. They know Pharaoh is going to fall for his provocations again. So they have had enough with looking at this guy, Moses.They raise their cries and say to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and let them worship their G-d already!

Then these servant make a shocking outcry to stress their point, “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?”

I find this statement to be amazing, considering that it is coming from these people who we can only assume are servant advisors of Pharaoh here, getting sassy with the king. Saying, don’t you know that we have already lost this one? This seems to come with both sarcasm and frustration at this point, because surely that had been telling him for a while now that this was out of hand. He needed to stop this insanity already, and let all these people go.

However, I believe there is something deeper than merely a snarky statement made in frustration here. I think that if we consider these people – who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have also endured with Pharaoh all through this – their outcry comes with a lot of weight. An outcry made more in a tone of hysteria. This is a type of human suffering which I think is worth considering. As often times it really does happen like this in the real world.

Consider that these are the servants of Pharaoh. These are people who are quite honored to be able to appear before their Pharaoh. But for as much as they are honored to serve before him – while some of them even advise him and guard him – in their world view he is the one who is supposed to guard and guide them. He is the king of Egypt, he not just represents the people of the land, they also look to him as their source. They look to him to be their strength. He is supposed to be the smartest and strongest guy in the room. Their Pharaoh is supposed to be looking out for them, as their great protector.

But even above all that, they love Pharaoh just as much as they depend upon him for their wellbeing. They absolutely adore this king of theirs. As he is the living symbol of their civilization and religion, they cherish this Pharaoh whom they consider a living deity. So dedicated and adoring, his people are used to following behind him and keeping his every order even unto death.

So now once again, consider all of this suffering here. What Pharaoh is putting himself through, he is not in it alone. His people, they are also suffering through these plagues with him! They don’t want to at this point, and they really shouldn’t have to. Pharaoh’s people have already had enough of this misery, yet he still hasn’t.

They aren’t just being dramatic when they cry out to Pharaoh this way. They have some real suffering going on. Look at the second to the last word of our verse here, you will see it highlighted in red. The word avdah – the world translated as “lost.” We are not just merely talking about Egypt falling. What do we mean here by “lost?” Just for a second think of this word as a noun, to envision this as something for us. What are we talking about here then?

When we mention avedot, we usually mean human losses. Here we are talking about casualties. Generally when we are talking about avedot we are talking about perished people. Human lives which have been destroyed, or even snuffed out all together. And that is clearly evident here already, these people of his are beginning to literally perish along with Pharaoh amidst this battle of the wills in which he is engaging in.

Now I know that we don’t often consider this narrative from the position of the Egyptians. We take this story for it straightforward meaning as it tell us, to cause us to wonder at the glory of G-d’s salvation from generation to generation. (Exodus 10:2)

We don’t generally read this story with ourselves in this uncomfortable position of a stubborn Pharaoh. Even rarer, do we consider the suffering of Pharaoh’s people. But I believe that if we read this story this way we need to also consider the suffering of all the other Egyptian people, his servants and subjects who now are being lost along with their leader in this series of crisis and plagues. Reality is, we should do our best to not relate too much with the position of Pharaoh himself and should be worried if we do.

Today I want those of us who deal with addictions – or addictive behaviors – to consider the suffering that our addictions might cause others in our lives. To the people closest to us. To the people who adore for us the most, and for the loved ones who depend on us the most. For the people we care for, and the people who naturally care for us in our times of need. The people whose lives are intertwined with ours, and whose lives are naturally effected by the calamity we attract. Whose lives also begin to be continuously plagued by the consequences of our stubborn refusal to let go of our addictions.

I want us to consider our lives and the people in it who are also becoming casualties in our battle with addictions. As our hearts are often hardened to that sort of rough and twisted life, we need to consider the people who are dragged into this who hearts aren’t so hard. Who cannot withstand this type of calamity and loss anymore.

For a hard moment I want us to consider all those in our lives who also find themselves dealing with the disparity, poverty, violence, emotional distress and disease which our addictions often bring into their lives along with us. We aren’t alone in our addictions, a reality we can recognize no matter how cheaply we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So what can we do with this heavy lesson? How can we get out of this cycle of continuously asserting our hardness of heart in pursuit of addiction? I think it should start by softening up our heart to the people closest to us. And as the Rambam says, adjust our hearts so that our will should be to change.

My friends, we need to really listen and give weight to the words of our loved ones. Especially when they put their foot down and say something like they did to Pharaoh: “Hey, we are tired of this already! How long are we going to keep doing this, and having these menacing people in our lives tripping us up? Give it up already. Are you the only one that is so clueless to not have noticed that all is already lost? Make it stop!”

We have a choice to make today. Are we going to listen? Or are we going to harden are our hearts, yet again, until all really is lost?

Something to Consider: Have you ever found yourself at a point in addiction where you feel that you honestly feel that you have no free-will over it anymore? Or has your life ever gone out of spiral until you feel like you have no choice in the outcome anymore, where you feel that you simply cannot stop that cycle of tragedy?

Sometimes its hard to get beyond addiction with just the help of loved ones, because they are often as caught up into the momentum of the crisis as we are. And they often times don’t know how to help best. So it is also useful to get professional help from addiction counseling professionals, or support groups and sponsors. People who do have the resources to help you when willpower fails you.

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Parshat Shemot (5775)


Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) The Yiddish School , Jewish Education by the Arbeiter Ring; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokian, Russian Christian pacifists; a local Japanese-American family.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) A Yiddish dayschool , Jewish education offered by the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s circle; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokians, Russian Christian pacifists; and a local Japanese-American family.

In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.

I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.

In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.

As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:

“The children of Israel

were fruitful

and swarmed and increased

and became very strong,

and the land became filled with them.”

| Uveney Yisrael

| paru

| vayishretzu vayirbu

| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od

| vatimale ha’aretz otam

Exodus 1:7

Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.

These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.

Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”

The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.

Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.

Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.

From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.

I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.

Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.

He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:

“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.

“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’

“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:

הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם

Exodus 1:9-11

Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.

Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.

Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.

Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment

to the Immigrant Community

If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.

The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)

However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Stow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Snow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!

This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Snow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.

Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.

When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became permanently forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by infinity with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.

This is a copy of the

This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in 1941.

First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.

As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)

Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.

Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.

Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

Servicemen and civilians of the day attacked these youth citing a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen and civilians attacked these youth, citing excess in dress style and a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.

The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused of succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their supposed lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.

For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities. Causes he carried with him to the US Congress.

I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.

In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”

As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:

“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Exodus 1:12

The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?

What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.

What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.

Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.

And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?

There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:

And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”

ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:

Rashi to Exodus 1:12

We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)

So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!

And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenged. And furthermore they grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.

For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? And how could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?

An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.

And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:

“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”

Rabbi Robert G. Kaplan of

CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality

Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.

Related articles:


Havdalah as a Light to the Community


Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights

Dare to make anyplace a sacred space!

Havdalah at the 6th Street Bridge, overlooking the city. Dare to make anyplace a sacred space! Punk rock Havdalah with Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Los Angeles.

As Shabbat comes to an end, I always make my way back towards the town and people I love. Towards the arches which over the years have become know as my station and post. And leaning against the metal arches of the bridge, high upon the Los Angeles Sixth Street Viaduct, I bask in the final and lingering rays of the Sabbath’s sun. And then I wait. Wait for the sun to set. I wait, for my buddies to count the stars and declare that it’s time. “One… two… three stars… it’s time!”

And then out from my ubiquitous bag I take these items. A Hebrew prayerbook, a dried etrog and clove bundle as a D.I.Y. “spice-box,” a kiddush cup and a multi-braided havdalah candle.

Havdalah – the ritual for closing the Jewish sabbath – has always been one of my favorite Jewish traditions. And over the years I have always tried to make pause to observe it with the people I care for the most. There is something very warm and loving about the ritual. Something which has always captivated me, and has interestingly drawn my friends in along the way.

Indeed most of my local friends are not Jewish, and consider themselves firm atheists. I am one of the less than a half-dozen Jews who are currently connected to Boyle Heights. And among them few Jews, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is strongly religiously observant. Nonetheless my friends – Mexican-American, Anglo, African-American, Asian, and especially my older Jewish friends of mine who were born in classic Boyle Heights – they all encourage me to do Havdalah. And they also love to include themselves in this ritual, which is so part of my life. Even the occasional homeless Jewish person.

In a very fundamental way, over the past few years my adventitious return of Jewish rituals such as this back to this historical multi-ethnic neighborhood – one which itself has such a deep and rich Jewish history – has really touched people. These are symbols that the light of Jewish life and expression has not been fully extinguished here. It reminds the community that we haven’t forgotten those who went before us here, who also embraced these enrapturing acts.

"I will trust and not fear"

Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad! – Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear! – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me.”

A revelation of how much a part of my routine and how meaningful it has become to others came when I ran out of supplies recently, and my punk rocker friends went scavenger hunting to find me items to make havdalah with on the spot. Knowing that my joy would not be complete without this moment, they just had to find a way to improvise! A very sweet and revealing moment for me.

To say the least, I learned after that to never be caught without supplies again. This week we will use a new candle. A long bees-wax candle with nine wicks all braided together.

Standing at the observation point overlooking the skyline of Los Angeles. Lingering at what could well be considered the gates of the city, we make our stand. My prayerbook placed upon a decorative niche of the bridge as a shtender. As I stand there above the train tracks and the water of the river, suspended between heaven and earth. There I light the wicks. I wait for the flames to take hold, until it comes to a roaring flame like a torch. Before I hand it over to one of the guys, who are ready to take it in hand and hold it high.

Overlooking the city I can’t help but be reminded of the Talmud section from which we get this most ancient custom of using candles as a torch. In Pesachim 8a this conversation takes off with the sages calling attention to why we use bright lamps and lights, namely to search. Our sages draw from the prophets, on how G-d will search the city of Jerusalem with lamps, in order to punish the complacent; those who are indifferent to realities of good and evil. (Zepheniah. 1:12) With a light that is meant to search out for justice.

And furthermore the Talmud suggests to us that this light represents our need to extend a light to search out for other precious souls, drawing from the scriptures:

“The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem

searching all the most deepest parts of ones being.”

נֵר יְיָ, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; |

חֹפֵשׂ, כָּלחַדְרֵיבָטֶן. |

Proverbs 20:27

So among this most motley crew of eastsiders, among the most unlikely of circles I make my stand, and I bless from this place. From this cultural corner of Los Angeles my heart calls home, I stand with other diamonds in the rough. Among other unique souls worth searching for. This tradition challenges me to search people out as with a penetrating light, looking deep into their souls to find their worth.

Havdalah itemsI love the symbolism of this candle. Braided it represents the separations between the spiritual and physical wolds, and mystically symbolizes how they come together; to be intertwined. It represents the separations between the sacred and the secular, and also how they come together. That they are both needed in our lives. A symbolism which is poignant as we step out of the sacred joy of Shabbat, and into the secular workweek which we have before us. As we stand at the cosmological gates between the sacred and the secular.

And it also represents the souls of people, who are distinct; we are each our own flame, but in unity we must intertwine ourselves for the purpose of a mitzvah. Together our small and single flame becomes a roaring torch; for we are much better together and united.

As we stand I see the flames of the candle reflected in the awe of the guys faces and in the twinkle of their eyes. As Jesse exclaims, “Look how brightly you can see it, even from far away! It really is like a torch!”

As he says these words I keep in mind what the Talmud further relates to us as to why this is the best way to make havdalah, with the use of a torch:

“Surely Raba said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse: “And his brightness was as the light; he had rays coming forth from his hand: and there was hiding of his power.” (Habbakuk 3:4) To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah? To a lamp in the presence of a torch.’ And Raba also said: ‘[To use] a torch for havdalah is the most preferable [way of performing this] duty.’”

והאמר רבא מאי דכתיב (חבקוק ג) ונוגה כאור תהיה קרנים מידו לו ושם חביון עוזו למה צדיקים דומין בפני שכינה כנר בפני האבוקה ואמר רבא אבוקה להבדלה מצוה מן המובחר:

Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 8a

The sages then call attention to our own souls, in the light of this mitzvah. It says to consider ourselves as though we are search lamps. But as for this torch, to consider it as comparable to the presence of G-d. That our souls are as bright as lamps, standing next the presence of G-d – in the most radiant light of the Holy One, blessed be He. As the true torch, the most beaming of lights, the Shechinah – it is as thought the surrounding presence of G-d is made manifest among us as we stand with this light.

When I extend the lights of this multi-wicked candle I am welcoming the presence of the Shechinah – the presence of G-d to this place. Welcoming the all-encompassing spirit and the life of all the worlds to this place. For a moment spirituality becomes an almost tangible atmosphere.

"Shalom and Son's," a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats

“Shalom and Son’s,” a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats.

The Talmud further instructs us upon this subject of havdalah. That we need to include at least three distinct blessings, but adding no more than seven; not more than the days of the week, whose cycle we are renewing with this act.

I take my drink in hand as the ceremony begins. Today we are without wine or kosher grape juice, which is a shocking thing. Considering that underneath us, and just a few hundred feet to the east of us, right in the Flats of Boyle Heights, on Anderson sits a kosher food and wine distribution plant with their Kedem trucks parked in their gates. One of the few present-day Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights is “Shalom and Son’s,” which by way of this neighborhood supplies so many Jewish tables in Los Angeles with this staple of wine as a liquid symbol of joy. Yet we are all out after days of celebrating, and they are closed for shabbos. So the wine-cup goes away and a beer is placed squarely in the palm of my hand.

And then I begin to rhythmically chant the words of the prophets and psalms which begin the ritual of havdalah (in the western Jewish tradition):

Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me. You can draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3) Salvation is Hashem’s, upon your people is your blessing, Selah. (Psalm 3:9) Hashem, Master of legions, is with us, a stronghold for us is the G-d of Jacob, Selah. (Psalm 46:12) Hashem, Master of legions, praised is the man who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:13) Hashem save! May the King answer us on the day we call. (Psalm 20:10)”

הִנֵּה, אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי אֶבְטַח, וְלֹא אֶפְחָד, כִּי עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ יְיָ, וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה. וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה. לַײָ הַיְשׁוּעָה, עַל עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ: יְיָ הוֹשִׁיעָה, הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם קָרְאֵנוּ:

As we stand upon this massive chunk of concrete and metal, I chant the words in Hebrew. For me, the words become more alive here, at this spot and among these friends of mine. This is our “mishgav lanu” – this is our stronghold, our fortress, our hideout. It is only right that I come here to make such a mitzvah. The rain has just passed, so the river is filled with water. You can hear the faint rushing below, as my soul draws water with joy from the springs of salvation. The sights and sounds are all so vivid.

Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott, Havdalah with Los Angeles in the backgroundAside from the sound of an occasional train below and the rush of a bus at our side, the only other sounds are from the cars passing over the bridge to and from downtown. And the faint and distant rumbling of the freeways which are integral to this viaduct. Though this is the choice spot to observe this city from the eastside, we are among the few people who come here, as mostly its just locals and homeless people. More often these days the occasional hipster does come out of the arts district, but sadly they usually take one look at us edgy punkers standing upon the bridge and nervously turn around instead.

Indeed, this viaduct it is the most picturesque location in the city. But for those people who are more of a boutique style of urbane, this is not a regular destination. It’s a wild adventure, because its lodged right in between the infamous Skid Row and the much ignored ethnic community of Boyle Heights. We are standing on the main artery through the “rough neighborhoods.”

But still we hold the torch high, and with full conviction in my voice I declare in the holy tongue: “Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad / Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear!”

And for a moment, walkers take pause as they pass. And the drivers who are weary, my friends say they can catch a glimpse of the awe on their faces as well as they pass. No fear nor even dreary eyes for just a moment. Just awe and wonder as people witness this amazing sight. As we perform the ceremony cars honk at us as they go, joining in like urban “amen”s.

I can hear Zero-Renton say, “Look, those westsiders standing at Mateo are pointing towards the torch! They see it all the way over there!”

And then we continue with the next words, which I say in Hebrew and English. These words which are meant to be repeated by the participating crowd. An all-inclusive and universal phrase which extends the light and joy of Judaism to all who dare to embrace and befriend it:

For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16), so may it be for us!

“I will raise the cup of salvations, and I will invoke the name of Hashem:”

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשׂוֹן, וִיקָר. כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ:

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא, וּבְשֵׁם יְיָ אֶקְרָא:

So I then lift my drink. Today day we need to brown-paper bag it, since we are out of the kosher grape juice. We will have to exchange out one the blessing for wine with the appropriate blessing for beer (she’hakol).

As I lift my drink and at the right moment along with the words of the ritual. And I say the words of respect and reverence: “Savri maranan ve-rabanan ve-rabotai / By your leave my masters, teachers and gentlemen…” Words which ask permission of my guests for me to bless before them.

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But also mystically, when we say the savrei maranan – it is meant to symbolize a deferring of reverence to our Jewish sages, rabbis and masters who have gone before us. We acknowledge that through their teachings and traditions they gave us, that they still are living to us and with us. I show respect to them before I proceed.

Standing here I raise my drink as I also make a toast to my friends, family, my city and the historical Jewish heritage of Boyle Heights. And as I say these words, even my non-Jewish friends show their comfort and familiarity with this custom and respond with the traditional response: “L’Chaim! To life!”

Now it is the Jewish custom to bless, over a cup which is filled as near as we can to overflow. So that our joy should be the same, spilling and running over. (Psalm 23:5) And it really seems to, as I say the blessing over the drink.

Next we take the bundle of spices. Made from an etrog – an Israeli citron used during the Sukkot holiday for the mitzvah of Lulav right here in the eastside community – which was dried with cloves, as a spice-box. I say the blessing over the basamim; the fragrant species, the spices and herbs.

The Jewish tradition says that an extra soul is given to each Jews for the celebration of Shabbat, an additional soul to have twice the joy! But when the sabbath leaves us, so does this extra soul. This transition from the hight of joy to the lowly place of mundane life can be deflating. But in order to awaken our spirits anew, to rouse them to attention we use these spices. They are our traditional smelling salts, but they are instead intended to help arouse our common soul to life once again. Pleasantly reanimating us after our long day of Shabbat celebration. We each take a moment to deeply inhale this fragrance, passing it around the circle.

Next Jesse draws the candle low, within reach of us all, as I say the next blessing; “borai morai ha’aish.” As I bless G-d who creates the illuminations of fire. Tradition says that fire was created on the first Saturday night, at the end of the week of creation. (Pesachim 53b) When G-d gave Adam, the first man, the knowledge to rub stones together and create fire. We recall this act now, commemorating that very moment in order to reenact the wonders of creation, in which we are also active partners. I meditate upon this hope now, that G-d may likewise continue to give us the knowledge to continue to do awesome works of creation in this world.

20141220_174405And now near the flames we all hold our hands close and cup them, to see the light passing through the tips of our fingers. Not between them, but shinning through the translucency of our fingertips. For a movement I consider how the spiritual world and the Divine, it is hidden from view. We can only merely perceive this realm of spirit as a flame, the reality of which shines through from within our own holy being, as through good deeds this holy light emanates outward from within us all.

So for a moment I again make a mystical reflection as I look at these hands which I try so hard to use for good deeds. The Zohar, the main mystical text of Kabbalah which interprets the Torah, it tells us that when G-d first created man we were beings of pure light, translucent bodies which were “clothed in light.” And that from the depths of us, our souls would shine brightly to the surface from within. But that after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the consequence was that people lost their vestiges of pure light and became beings of mortal flesh. However, this tradition tells us that G-d let humans keep a reminder of our former state, in the translucency of our fingertips.

When I hold my fingers close I remind myself of this truth, that I am a being of light. A light in this world and this community, a light which will shine through to the outside world through my tireless work I perform with these very hands. This is a truth I strive never to forget.

The streaming passers still taking notice as we huddle together into a warm circle for these moments. Then once again we raise the candle and the cup high! And I begin the concluding words of the ritual (which are the same in all traditions, Ashkenazi and Sephardi):

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who distinguishes between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Who distinguishes between holy and secular.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:

I really consider these words deeply each and every time. The word that stands out to me is the key word of this ceremony, hamavdil. The word hivdil – in Hebrew, it means to distinguish.

Shmuel Gonzales, Havdalah flames and downtown Los AngelesWe draw our understanding for this word from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus which contains the holiness code; there we are told to be holy, and to be distinguished people. There we are told to separate ourselves and stand apart, to be holy by keeping the Torah laws which keep one sanctified (i.e. keeping kashrut; Leviticus 20:25; 10:10; 11:47). This word likewise brings to mind how on Shabbat the Jewish people are to separate from the world’s secular activities and all its toils and embrace the joy of the sabbath. That it is as different as the difference between light and dark, this embracing of the sacred over the “profane.” And so too, as a people who keep these ways we are distinct and unique because of these practices.

Lately, I feel that far too many times when religious people speak regarding this they focus far too much on the idea of separating themselves from that which they feel is “profane.” From people and a society which they feel are less than kosher; less than sacred. But I don’t believe that is what it should actually mean to us, here and in this place. In this place with this mixed assembly of people; Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, cultured and counter-culture.

The word hivdil means to distinguish. It’s often used in everyday speech to contrast one thing to another, not to really compare as there is no real comparison. As they aren’t really meant to be compared against. But it doesn’t just mean that, it also means that you can tell something apart from the rest. You can tell what it is, as it stands apart and is recognizable for what it is. I remind myself that I am special as a distinct person as a Jew, and so is each of these friends of mine distinct in their own way.

Punk Rock Havdalah Circle

Zero-Renton Prefect, Shmueli Gonzales, and Jesse Elliott.

Again, I bring our attention back to the candle. To recognize that life and the world is like this braided candle. There are certainly distinctions in the world and between people, but in our own ways we are unique lights in the world; just like each wick upon this braided candle. Though we must allow ourselves to be intertwined! Just like Shabbat is intertwined with the work-week, we must have one in order to have the other! We need to have a partnership between the sacred and secular. We could not have the joy of the sacred, without the labor of the week and its secular duties. So too, the sacred and the secular both have their place and their time to shine.

But now as this joy of Shabbat must come to an end, we must hivdil – we must separate – from the radiant light of a most holy Shabbat and begin our toils anew. And as the blessings of havdalah come to an end, I drink from the cup and I extinguish the candle with a pour of drink over the flames. Putting out the light of Shabbat until next week.

And as we make our way back home to the eastside over the bridge I begin to sing the traditional songs. Among them are “Am Yisrael Chai” and “David Melech Yisrael.” Songs of life! And as we pass the old Jewish sites, we remind ourselves that the works of the Jewish people and the joy of Jewish life are still flickering to life here. And keep in mind that the spark of this Jewish heritage needs to remain alive, to continue to contribute to the diversity which has enriched Boyle Heights for the past century. To show some continuity in the community, where change and modernity seems to quickly be making many things around here all but a memory.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

But sadly, even this last-stand act of havdalah is going to change for my circle in the near future. After all these years of hanging out at the Sixth Street Viaduct, I’m sorry to announce that the bridge is being demolished.

This iconic bridge which has graced the Los Angeles landscape since 1932, she is suffering an alkali-silica reaction in the concrete (called “concrete cancer” by engineers). This reaction creates cracks in the concrete, which are now seen covering all over the body of the structure. With a 70% probability of coming down in the next major earthquake, this most famous of Los Angeles sites is being demolished. It will be closing this Spring of 2015 and demolished in the following months, to make way for a newly designed bridge which is expected to open in late 2019.

So where will we perform havdalah in the future? I don’t know. Now, it’s not that we haven’t tried other spots for havdalah. But they don’t feel the same, and this is where people know to come and join in if they want to. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can recapture this spirit elsewhere.

A Touching Personal Experience from This Past Week

Let me give you one last precious story, from this past week. A special havdalah which really touched me.

This past week my dear friend Irv Weiser calls me while I’m on the bridge. He calls right as the boys are heading back, because as non-Jews they had plans for a ham related holiday feast! Oy, what a dilemma! I was sure I was gonna miss havdalah on the bridge this week, the ceremony which closes the gates of Shabbat. In the face of the rare occurrence of not having any participants, I was thinking I’d have to do it back at the house on my own.

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Shmuel Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But Irv calls me and says to stick around. That he was just a few blocks away having coffee with a Mexican Jewish man, a homeless friend of his from the eastside. They were wondering if they could join me for havdalah. So we went up and they said the blessings of havdalah with me.

Irv, was born and raised Orthodox Jewish in the neighbourhood of Boyle Heights. And educated at the Breed Street Shul and local yeshivot. He says he’s agnostic now. But as I begin the ceremony he starts to join in the Hebrew prayers. And tell me touching stories of his parents, who were holocaust survivors and who came to Boyle Heights after the war to join a relative already here. He related to me how his parents used to perform the ceremony, and how they pronounced the words in their Eastern European accents.

He then takes a look at the skyline and across the bridge, which he hasn’t seen that way since he was young… now he’s in his 60s. But all the more he’s in awe of the sight after all these years.

For a few moments I also got to talk about the significance of the ritual up there on the bridge with this new friend I’ve met through him, as my buddy Irv gets thrilled by my knowledge and passion. And willingness to take the time. (And in a caring manner nagging me why I don’t study for the rabbinate already, that’s the story of my life!)

As we completed the ritual with song and stories, Irv thanked me for keeping Jewish tradition alive here in this way. As a means of keeping the memory of the legacy of classic Boyle Heights alive, even today after the once predominate Jewish community started migrating away from the neighborhood some 50 years ago.

Irv also expressed his gratitude to me, for investing myself into nurturing the future Latino Jewish community on the eastside. A growing community of Jewish Latinos, who are noticeably becoming integral to the future of Jewish expression here and in our local synagogues.

Irv’s been texting me since. And he keeps telling me, interestingly and touching coming from a self-proclaimed “cynical” and “bored” Jewish agnostic, “Havdalah… the prayers… and that place on the bridge. Now that is really spiritual, and most memorable.”

How to perform Havdalah with alternative items:

  • Though it is most common to make havdalah over wine or grape juice which requires the blessing “pri ha-gafen,” (fruit of the vine) one may also say havdalah over any type of pleasant drink if kosher grape juice is not available; anything except for water or a common drink like soda (according to Rav Moshe Feinstein), which is meant mainly to quench thirst. One should pick a drink which is considered a sociable drink. This can include even coffee or tea (with or w/o milk), or other fruit juices. However, Sephardic rabbis such as Rabbi Ovediah Yosef suggest that the use of intoxicating drinks such as wine, beer, etc. is choicest. One should say the appropriate blessing for what ever drink you choose, in place of the blessing for “pri ha-gafen” (fruit of the vine) when noted in our siddurim.

  • If you do not have a havdalah candle, all you need to do is find two candles and hold the wicks together. Pick a couple of friends out and have them hold the candles with the wicks touching through-out the havdalah ceremony. This is also a great way to physically display how our individual lights are so much stronger when people come together in unity.

 
1896912_10152650980936110_1390575560_n About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. I dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

I am a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a modern-traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

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Zot Chanukah: And this too, this is Chanukah!


Celebrating Inclusion on the Special Eighth Day of Chanukah

As the festival of Chanukah comes to a close it seems that we can’t help but heighten our joy. As we make one last crescendo of the holiday melodies. It’s almost like we are tossing in all the remaining oil on to the lingering flames of Chanukah, to go out of the holiday in full glory. So special is this day, it seems to make sense why we call this day “Zot Chanukah,” – Hebrew for “this is Chanukah” – because this (zot) is Chanukah at its grandest.

Public lighting for Chanukah in front of the White House.

Public lighting for Chanukah in front of the White House. Let us use this final day of the holiday to focus upon and display radical inclusiveness!

Though there are some very good reasons why we call this eighth day of the festival Zot Chanukah.

One suggestion is that it gets its name from the special Torah reading for this day of Chunukah (Numbers 7:54-8:4) which begins with the words: “Zot Chanukat Hamizbe’ach,” meaning “This was the dedication of the Altar.” To chanukat means to dedicate. This reading relates to the dedication of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary.

Our tradition tells us that the work to complete the construction of the Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev, in the dead of winter as we are now. However, this sacred space and the Altar were not officially dedicated until the start of the cosmological and spiritual year, in Nissan – the month of the spring renewal, the agrarian new year starting with the month or Aires. We are also taught that the reason for waiting was in order honor the month in which the patriarch born and died, the month of Nissan. (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 11a)

Our tradition thus suggests to us that Chanukah was always there in the story, but we just need to look for it! We just needed to actualize it!

In the case of the dedication of the Tabernacle, in the Torah reading for this day, we have a most astounding thing described for us. Our special reading begins with the dedication offering by a prince from the Tribe of Menasheh. But notice, if we look at the text in the Torah, we will see though that this entire seventh chapter of Numbers is all about the princes of each tribe presenting their dedication offering for the Mishkan. Each tribe offers the exact same offering and it is even described exactly the same way, only changing the names of the princes who presented the offering.

How powerful is this story! That a work is not complete – that a community and sacred space is not whole and ready for service – until it includes all the tribes! These princes and tribes are all equal, and all deserve mentioning. And given as much text as is dedicated to this – some 89 verses in all – going to great lengths to accomplish this sense of inclusiveness is literally written into our Torah itself!

Let us consider this, as we meditate upon the special Chunukah Torah reading this day. And as we consider these starting words, “Zot Chanukat Hamizbe’ach.” (Numbers 7:54)

There is also another explanation for the name Zot Chanukah is brought down to us by means of the Beit Yosef – the words of Maran Yosef Karo – when he asks a most infamous question:

“Why do we celebrate eight days of Chanukah when the single flask of oil that was found was only sufficient for one day and burnt for eight – the miracle, in that case, was really only seven days because the flask of oil was sufficient for the first day?”

מדוע חוגגים שמונה ימים, שהרי הנס נמשך רק שבעה ימים, כי ליום הראשון בכל מקרה היה מספיק שמן?

The Beit Yosef presents an interesting quandary for us, as to why we celebrated this holiday for eight days. When the nature of the holiday seems to logically suggest that the miracle of the lights was only seven days long. After all, they had oil for the first day! There was no miracle there on that day. Our master asks us, so why do we celebrate eight days?

One of the thoughts in this line of thinking also suggests that the reason the holiday is actually eight days was because the Hasmoneans who rededicated the Temple in the days of the Chanukah story were not sure of the actual day of the Rosh Chodesh – the new moon, so they instead celebrated eight days to compensate for their doubt. That the sages weren’t sure, so they just included the eighth day anyhow!

The followers of this school of thought contend that to call the day Zot Chanukah actually is to gloriously embrace the day – and declare to people that despite any confusion or doubt – that it is right that we acknowledge that “Zot Chanukah… this too, this is Chanukah!” It needs to be included as much as any of the other days.

Chanukah Olive Oil LampsHowever, most of our rabbis and scholars would reject this latter explanation by the Beit Yosef. Instead they would point plainly to the name of this day to declare there is no doubt or confusion, they say we are sure about this day, because “Zot Chanukah… this too, this is Chanukah!”

Though the eighth day of Chunukah has already come – and the lights have already been lit the eve preceding this day – we still have a few more hours to extend this holiday joy. To show inclusiveness and to boldly broaden the reaches of our spirituality.

It is customary to light candles during the daytime as well! During the daytime we may light-up Chanukah lights in synagogues, in public spaces, and at gatherings held in honor of the festival. These lightings are done without recitation of the blessings as they do not constitute an observance of the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights. But it is a great way to include and be included within the community.

Though Chanukah is the not a major holiday to the Jewish people, merely a minor festival, this holiday has taken a prominent role in our society during this season. As the secular new year comes and as popular culture celebrates their celebration of Christmas, Jews have also been called to the forefront and to deliver a spirit of joy during this dark and dreary season.

For this reason the Lubavitcher Rebbe most infamously made the lighting of large public menorahs for the public a holiday staple in America and worldwide. In every major city people can find a giant menorah erected by Chabad. This has become a custom that almost all movements and communities have also come to embrace.

So as this eighth day of Chanukah is upon us, I call us all to embrace this day with full joy. If we got some extra oil or candles, grab them and set them ablaze just one more time during the daylight. Light the eight lamps to declare, “Zot Chanukah… this too, this is Chanukah!”

I also challenge us to use these last hours of the day to reach out to others, those who do not have this sense of joy. Who do not feel they have a place in this season, nor anyone there for them. I challenge us to embrace them and assuredly find a way to include them in our joy. And to take the time to show them these lights and say to them, “Zot Chanukah… this, this is Chanukah!”

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“A Toolbox for Jewish Learning” Classes in English and Spanish


The new “Introduction to Judaism” course starting this winter

Everything You Wanted to Know About Judaism

Are you from the Los Angeles eastside or the greater San Gabriel Valley, and looking for a learning opportunity to help you more deeply connect with the Jewish tradition? At congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier the new “Introduction to Judaism” course for this winter is uniquely formatted to help people learn about the practical tools of Judaism. This class is not just for converts, it is also geared for those who want to become better informed about Judaism.

This class is meant for those looking to connect with Jewish rituals, theology and beliefs. It touches on Jewish history, prayer, calendar and holidays, life cycle events, Bible and much more!

Join Rabbi Osnat Margalith on Sundays for our next 18-week course.

A Spanish version of this class will be taught by Shmueli Gonzales. (That’s me!)

Classes meet from 11am to 1pm

beginning December 7th, 2014.

Contact the synagogue office or myself for more information and reservations.

This class is required for those interested in converting.

Introduction to Judaism courses in English and Spanish

Grab a leaflet here in English or Spanish

Regarding Conversion to Judaism: While converting to Judaism is not a requirement for people to participate in this program, this class is a required course for all those seeking to convert. This course covers all the material needed to satisfy the essential educational requirements for the conversion process in an exciting, engaging, hands-on format. This course is intended to provide basic training for Jewish living, as well as to prepare those who are seeking conversion to Judaism to approach the conversion beit din (rabbinic court) with confidence.

Congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier and our clergy are proud members of the “Sandra Caplan Community Conversion Beit Din of Southern California” – the publicly operated and not-for-profit beit din which oversees conversions for all the progressive movements in our region.

In order to uphold klal Israel – the unity of the Jewish people – and to provide the dignity of recognition of our local converts throughout out all of the progressive movements – Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal and trans-denominational – our congregations have collectively agreed to cease the contentious and messy practice of “private conversions” in Southern California. Private conversions, which are often not recognized by other congregations or denominations.

In place of that ad-hoc way of functioning and to end the related confusion, the local Jewish community has collectively organized this publicly operated, transparent and not-for-profit conversion court. One which performs all it’s conversions under the proper halachic standards; supervised and singed-off by rabbis representing all the various movements, thus assuring one recognition of their conversion across the spectrum of the progressive Jewish denominations; over 150+ rabbis in total. In our region we have chosen to embrace public accountability and display pluralism at it’s best!

We are also proud to align with this progressive regional body, which rightfully welcomes people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences. In their own words:

“We welcome candidates for conversion to apply regardless of their race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, height, weight, physical or mental ability, or marital status.”

For more information about the Sandra Caplan Community Conversion Beit Din or to see if your local rabbi is a participating member, please be sure to also refer to their helpful website!

About our Spanish Program: Congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier is proud to once again offer the “Introduction to Judaism” courses in Spanish. We will be covering the same exciting material as the English course during our Spanish sessions. As a congregation with a very active Latino membership – and which regularly makes use of the Spanish language in our liturgy as well – we are very much committed to making all the resources of the community available for the Spanish-speaking.

I am very pleased to contribute to this wonderful educational opportunity, to service our local community and the needs of our Latino families!

Grab a leaflet here in English or Spanish, or find more information on the website of the synagogue!

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“Una Caja de Herramientas para el Aprendizaje de Judaísmo” en Inglés y Español


Un nuevo “Introducción al Judaísmo” clase para este invierno

Todo lo que usted quería saber sobre el judaísmo

¿Está cerca de East Los Angeles o el área de San Gabriel? ¿Está buscando una oportunidad de aprender y conectarse más profundamente con la tradición judía? En la Congregación Beth Shalom de Whittier el “Introducción al Judaísmo” para este invierno se formatea únicamente para ayudar a todas las personas a aprender acerca de las herramientas prácticas del judaísmo. Esta clase no es sólo para los convertidos, sino que también está orientado para aquellos que quieren informarse mejor sobre el judaísmo.

Esta clase es para todos aquellos que están buscando como a conectarse con las rituales, teología y creencias de judaísmo. Cubriendo la historia judía, las oraciones, el calendario y tambien las fiestas, los eventos del ciclo de vida, la Biblia y mucho más.

Aprender con Rabbi Osnat Margalith para este curso de 18 sesiones.
Una versión en español será impartido por Shmueli Gonzales (que soy yo!).

Las clases comienzan el domingo
7 de diciembre 2014

Las clases se reúnen los domingos, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Contacte la oficina de la sinagoga o conmigo para obtener más información y para hacer reservaciones.

Esta clase es un requisito para todos los que quieran convertirse al judaísmo.

"Introduction to Judaism Course in Spanish / “Introducción al Judaísmo” en Español

Agarra un folleto aquí en, Inglés o Español.

Con respecto a la conversión al judaísmo: Aunque la conversión al judaísmo no es un requisito para las personas que participan en este programa, esta clase es un curso obligatorio para todos aquellos que quieran convertir. Este curso cubre todo el material necesario para satisfacer los requisitos educativos para el proceso de conversión en una forma divertida, con la participación, y en un formato práctico. Este curso se ofrece la base para la vida judía, y también prepara a los que buscan la conversión al judaísmo como abordar el Beit Din (corte rabínica de conversión) con confianza.

La Congregación Beth Shalom de Whittier y nuestro cleros son miembros orgullosos de la “Sandra Caplan Beit Din para la Comunidad del Sur de California” – la corte operado en forma pública y no lucrativa. Qué es supervisado por los rabinos de todos los movimientos progresistas en nuestra región; mas de 150+ rabbinos en total!

Con el fin de mantener klal Israel – el unidad del pueblo judío – y proporcionar la dignidad de reconocimiento de nuestros conversos locales en todos los movimientos progresistas – Conservador, Reconstrucionista, Reforma, Renovación y trans-denominacional – nuestras congregaciones han acordado colectivamente a cesar la práctica contenciosa y desordenado, el de “conversiones privadas”. Conversiones privadas, no reconocidos por otras congregaciones o denominaciones.

En lugar de esa manera improvisada de funcionamiento y para terminar la confusión relacionada, la comunidad judía local ha organizado colectivamente este tribual público. Un tribunal de conversión transparente para el público, y no lucrativo. Que realiza todas las conversiones dentro de los estándares propias de la halajá; supervisado y firmado por rabinos que representan a todos los diferentes movimientos, lo que garantiza un reconocimiento de su conversión en todo el espectro de las denominaciones judías progresistas. En nuestra región hemos optado por abrazar la responsabilidad pública y mostrar el pluralismo en todo su esplendor!

También estamos orgullosos de alinearnos con este entidad regional. Una organización progresista que acoge a personas de todos los orígenes y estilos de vida. En sus propias palabras (un traducción):

“Damos la bienvenida a los candidatos a la conversión a aplicar con independencia de su raza, color, origen étnico, origen nacional, sexo, orientación sexual, identidad de género, expresión de género, edad, altura, peso, capacidad física o mental, o estado civil.”

Para obtener más información acerca de la Sandra Caplan Community Conversion Beit Din” o para ver si su rabino local es un miembro participante, por favor asegúrese de consultar también su página web (en Inglés).

Acerca de nuestro programa en español: la Congregación Beth Shalom de Whittier se enorgullece de ofrecer una vez más los cursos de “Introducción al Judaísmo” en español. Durante nuestras sesiones en español estaremos cubriendo el mismo material que el curso de inglés. Como una congregación con una membresía latina muy activo – y que hace regularmente el uso del idioma español en nuestra liturgia – estamos muy comprometidos a poner todos los recursos de la comunidad disponibles en español.

Estoy muy feliz de ayudar en esta importante oportunidad educativa, y dar servicio a la comunidad local y nuestras familias latinas!

Agarra un folleto aquí, o encontrar más información en el sitio web de la sinagoga!

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