Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Day Off for Granite and More New Rock

I've been a little swamped at work, so very little blogging lately. I have good reason: we're still keeping the ship afloat with two full-time rabbis and a few talented interns / support staff. Our recently hired Assitant Cantor is on maternity leave (Mazal Tov, Mia!), and our primary Rabbinic Intern recently completed his rabbinical placement in a congregation for the coming year (Mazal Tov, Greg!). I should have more to say soon about our staff, because I'd like to reflect in this blog about the working dynamics of a clergy team in a large and vibrant congregation... so stay tuned.

All of this is a long way of saying that I've been keeping long hours at work. I'm presently heavy in teaching-mode, with Confirmation for our fifty-two 10th Graders approaching on May 23. I'm also teaching a four-week adult course called "Crises and Catastrophes in Judaism" (fun!), an eight-week course about Midrash, and "the usual" other work.

In the meantime, today's my day off, so I'm sitting upstairs at home waiting for The Granite Man to show up. Doesn't that sound like a superhero? Or maybe an archvillain? Run! The Granite Man just pulverized the Bronx Zoo!

No, The Granite Man is but one more cog in the byzantine wheel of kitchen renovation. When it's all done I'll post some before-and-after photos, but the short version is that I've been without a kitchen since April 5. So far, we have new paint on the walls; the cabinets are up; the electrical work is almost done; a bamboo floor has been installed; the appliances are in (but not installed - so I have a fridge in the middle of the living room); and today The Granite Man will install countertops and the sink. Last time he was 90 minutes late, so I'm not holding my breath. So I'm passing the time, listening to a plethora of good new music, some of which I thought would be nice to share with you.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorite releases of 2007 - so far:


Caetano Veloso has been recording for more than four decades. During that time he has catalyzed Brazilian popular music, endured exile in London from a fascist regime ostensibly for his "seditious" and "revolutionary" music; and become the voice of his generation, earning him comparisons to Bob Dylan in his native Brazil. I was introduced to Veloso's music several years ago through David Byrne (formerly of Talking Heads) who is an ardent champion of Veloso and the Tropicalia movement that he helped to originate in Brazil of the 1960's. His new album, which was released in the US in January, has remained in my disc changer for four months - and will probably stay there for a good while longer. There is really no style that Veloso has not covered in his voluminous recording career, and much of his later material approaches a lushly orchestrated fusion of Brazilian music, jazz, Cole Porter-pop, and rock - a unique idiom in and of itself. Veloso, who is 65 (Dylan's age!) incontrovertibly possesses the lovelier voice - not that it's much of a contest - a sweet, expressive tenor with a lovely falsetto range - that in no way announces his age. His new album, Cê, is a departure: he teamed up with his son Moreno, a popular rock musician in Brazil today, and a drummer to fuse a stripped-down fusion of up-tempo rock and his distinct songwriting style. If it's punk (and some say it is), it's the prettiest punk you'll hear all year. I regard Veloso as one of the world's greatest living songwriters. This is the track "Odeio" (which means "I hate you." The lyrics, I am told, are a bitter screed against his woman...).

ANDREW BIRD, Armchair Apocrypha

Andrew Bird, who is my age, is one of America's most interesting and compelling popular singer-songwriters. He is also a professional violinist and whistler - both of which feature prominently in his albums. Hyper-literate and inventive, his lyrics and gift for melody raise in high relief everything that is wrong with radio today (try finding him on the air).

Listen for the pizzicato violin and the whistling in this track, "Scythian Empires."

DAN LE SAC vs. SCROOBIUS PIP, Thou Shalt Always Kill [EP]

Warning: Do not click on this link if you don't want some crazy-catchy British hip-hop-poetry stuck in your head for the next month. Scroobius Pip is the rapper, a lanky, bearded dude known for rapping his poems over live jazz and now, over dance-inspired beats provided by Dan Le Sac who supplies grooves with an Apple iBook laptop. This song is already catching fire in the UK - and I predict it could be huge here, too (though some of the references will be lost on these shores). You'll be stuck repeating the bridge all day long: "The Beatles... were just a band...."

WINTERPILLS, The Light Divides

Right now this album is in my top spot for 2007. So far the Winterpills, a band out of Northampton, Massachusetts, near Amherst where I went to college, have flown under the radar, which is okay with me because I feel like I'm giving a surprise present when I introduce them to people like you. By the way, their entire new album has been streaming on this website, so if you like this track, check it out.... The band has two lead vocalists, a male and a female, and their songwriting offers shades of Elliott Smith (of blessed memory), Harvest-Era Neil Young - but with an edge. The track "Broken Arm" is poised as the first single:


My friend Roland, who had one of my favorite releases in 2005 with "Love and Discipline," has posted for FREE on his website a beautiful little album of original songs, mostly acoustic guitar and a little electric piano for color - each one an introspective gem. Roland has a lovely voice and I wish I had sung with him in college. We are both members of Amherst's longest-running a cappella group, The Zumbyes, but we missed each other by a couple of years. (I graduated in 1995, Roland in 2000). By the way, congratulations to all the current Zumbyes for placing third in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella - the benchmark for these sorts of things - held last week at Lincoln Center.

Roland is also an accomplished violinist and plays in a Latin-themed band in the city when he's not performing at The Living Room on the Lower East Side. Interspersed with the ballads are a few meditative improvisations on violin. This is fast becoming one of my favorite discs of 2007. Download "Ptolemy's Guitar" here.

Sneak Preview: WILCO, Sky Blue Sky

...Comes out May 15. I can't wait. Here's a taste of things to come (listen to how prominently newest member Nels Cline on lead guitar changes Wilco's game) in a track called "Impossible Germany" (Does anyone else hear Aja-era Steely Dan, especially in the magnificent outro?):

Okay, that's enough for today. I'll update you on music in May - which is shaping up to be a huge music month, with releases from Björk, Elliott Smith, and Wilco, among others.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Wasting Away in Manischewitzville...

Another observation about Web 2.0 (see previous post) - that weird webby world where everyone can be famous, sort of.Case in point: My wife, Kelly, a musical theatre singer and actor, who works tirelessly, auditioning and performing, and whose calling is fulfilled before an audience, has found her largest audience ever - an audience of hundreds of thousands - totally inadvertently.

No, I'm not referring to her year on tour with "Les Miserables," nor to her present role in the regional premiere (Salt Lake City) of the same musical (see previous posting).

I'm referring to Kelly's surreal cameo in a hokey viral video called "Manischewitzville." This video slideshow began circulating the Internet in the weeks before Passover of 2007 and continues to enter my Inbox from various colleagues and congregants, occasionally prefaced by, "Hey! Was that Kelly in there? I'm pretty sure that was Kelly!"

Indeed it is. Kelly appears at 3:07 into the overlong video, which is a photo montage of Seder-related miscellany set to a badly performed parody of Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville." The photo in question is a picture of our family Seder from 2005 - held at the University Club in Providence, Rhode Island. I deduced that the picture was nabbed from the public domain archives on where I had uploaded a bunch of photos a long time ago - before switching over to Google's online photo utility, Picasa Web Albums.

The video is this year's answer to last year's cleverer animated rap video, "Matzah" (featuring Smooth E) by the wizards over at Jib Jab.

Kelly sat there watching the video, dumfounded. "What the hell am I doing in this video?" she said, quietly, over and over again, as we kept rewinding to 3:07.

"Manischewitzville" is attributed to one "Billy Ray Sheet," who happens to be in the punchline of one of my favorite corny jokes, which only a rabbi could love:

Q: Who are the three cowboys of the Adon Olam?
A: Billy Ray Sheet, Billy Tachleet, and Kid Ruchi.

Chag Pesach Kasher v'Sameach - Happy Passover, everyone.

P.S. The actual "Manischewitzville" is Cincinnati, Ohio - home of my alma mater, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. It was founded there in 1888. Cincinnati is the city where Kelly and I met and were later married. Perhaps she was destined for Manischewitzville all along!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Long Time, No Blog: What I've Learned in a Month


Sorry it's been so long - and a special apology to you sufferers from insomnia who rely on my blog for relief.

I've learned a lot about blogging in this month-long hiatus. The posting about Cantor Merkel has received a surprising amount of attention, with friends, colleagues, congregants, and total strangers emerging from the woodwork to comment on Cantor Merkel. Seems that a simple Google search for "Cantor Stephen Merkel" now leads off with a link to my little tribute. Today offered a case in point: a childhood classmate of Stephen from Winnipeg commented on her memory of the "larger than life flamboyant kid with the amazing voice."

Sounds like our Stephen!

So - thank you, readers, for the eye-opening lesson in the power of posting an online journal. A recent cover article in New York magazine explored today's youth/young adult culture in which the line between public and private has become so blurred as to render distinction impossible. I have observed as much in my 2-year "Facebook Experiment" in which I opted to become one of the first "adults" to open an account on - essentially an interactive, online bulletin board for students. I joined in order to stay in touch with former students who had gone off to college. Within months high schoolers had linked up to the network and a flood of students "friended" me.

Facebook's interface struck me as an excellent communication tool; most students today use Facebook first and foremost to communicate with their friends - more so than straight e-mail. Facebook is simpler, more elegant, and more powerful than e-mail. For instance, a student goes away for a long weekend. Her photos are posted on Facebook almost immediately upon her return and within hours all of her friends have commented on her photo album. Within one click, friends can send a private message or post a comment on the student's "wall" for everyone else to see. Most students opt to disclose their relationship status, so that a hookup or a breakup receives immediate attention. There's a dark side to Facebook, too, but I'm saving a lot of my thoughts on the subject for an intended future sermon called, "What I Learned on" - so, just be patient. In the meantime, I've linked to my profile in the right-hand sidebar; and you might enjoy getting a free Facebook account yourself. More non-students are doing it these days. I'm part of the Official Facebook Rabbi network, which boasts a startling number of real-life rabbis (mostly Orthodox, it would appear)!

Anyway, I write this to underscore how the Web 2.0, with its radical shift to user-supplied content, has transformed communication, perhaps more quickly and thoroughly than most of us understand. Teenagers, I think, get it - and embrace it. My little blog, then, is just a totally typical emblem of the new Internet, in which a few personal words about Cantor Merkel, intended originally for my invited readership (i.e., the friends and family who either subscribe to this blog or whom I have alerted to its existence) have become a sort of unofficial, official obituary. At the very least, it gives a writer pause before clicking "PUBLISH" at the end of a posting. I guess that while I knew, intellectually, that writing a blog would make my thoughts public domain, there's still a feeling of genuine surprise when I learn that complete strangers have been reading my "private" thoughts. Well, duh, that's because they're not private anymore. At any rate, I've developed some empathy for students who are caught off guard when they learn that "outsiders" have read all about them online. Did you know that many employers will now look up a work applicant's Facebook and MySpace profiles to learn about their candidates? Watch out.

After Stephen's funeral, Kelly and I took a few days in California to catch our breaths, then back here for a whirlwind March. A surreal challenge was preparing for the supremely silly holiday of Purim within 24 hours of landing in New York - and still just days after laying Stephen to rest. Though all thanks to my rabbi Rick Jacobs who invited the congregation to turn, quite literally, from death to life by proposing a spiel (i.e., our annual Staff Purim Skit) based on this premise: Westchester Reform Temple is actually a Fertility Clinic.

Indeed, it has been a time pregnant, ahem, with activity at the Temple, and the clergy shortage prompted by Cantor Merkel's death has been amplified by the recent birth of our Cantorial Intern's baby daughter (Mazal Tov, Mia!) and the beginning of the Congregational Placement Process for our Rabbinic Intern (Good Luck, Greg!). That means we're down to two rabbis for 1,200 families. Of course we have help from many talented, eager associates. (Thank you, Rachel, Dan, Ellen, and so many other congregants and colleagues!)

Spring always sees a resurgence of Jewish activity - we come out of a winter with few formal Jewish celebrations (the holiday Tu Bishevat is really the only one - and most of us Diaspora Jews don't really "get" the observance of Arbor Day in the middle of February) and plunge straight into Purim, Passover, Yom Ha-Shoah, Yom Ha-Zikaron, Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Lag Ba'Omer, Shavuot and so forth... all in the space of about three months.

Three months--one season--with so much happening. I hope to write a bit more often in these next three months. It's not that I'll have more time; if anything, I'm going to spend longer hours in the office. But these three exciting months on the Jewish calendar are also an exciting three months on the McBlake calendar. (McBlake = McCormick + Blake.) Kelly just left for Salt Lake City where she will perform as Fantine in the regional premiere of "Les Miserables" at Pioneer Theatre Company. I am sure that she will have some exciting exploits in Mormondom and with her permission I may relate some of them to you. As for me, I'm tending to a busy congregation and a condo in deliberate disarray - the cabinets are in and the Great Kitchen Renovation may now commence. Stay tuned.


P.S. That gravestone in the parking lot of Costco? Turns out not to have been such a puzzle. My friend Michael, and one of my college students, Jess, notified me (yes, on Facebook) that a story was published about a year ago concerning a controversy that arose when a parking garage was erected on an old Orthodox Jewish cemetery in Yonkers. Apparently long before the construction started, the bodies of the adults interred there had been moved to Israel for burial there, but the problem was with some 147 children, the whereabouts of whose remains were indeterminate. So a collective headstone has been plopped into the middle of a Costco parking lot. Kelly tells me they've unveiled it, so I'll try to get a photo next time I'm over there and I'll post it here.

P.P.S. Another music posting is forthcoming. If you're reading this, I'm curious to know: what 2007 albums have you enjoyed so far?

P.P.P.S. I'm wondering if you might be interested in using the "comment" space here as an opportunity to play "ask the rabbi." So, if there's something on your mind, go ahead. The worst I would do is totally ignore it or make fun of you for asking. But I'll resist, promise.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cantor Stephen H. Merkel, Of Blessed Memory

Dear Readers,

It has been an excrutiating week - which is why I haven't posted in a while - as we prepared for the death of our synagogue's cantor, Stephen H. Merkel. He died after a long battle with cancer at 11:40 AM on Sunday, Feburary 18.

Right now all of us at the synagogue are preparing for the funeral. It is different from preparing for a congregant's funeral in that we need to figure out how to address the needs of all of our 1,200 households who will want to express their grief and sympathy. Adding to the pain of this passage is the timing. Cantor Merkel died during a week when many of our families are on vacation - and during a season when many more of our elderly members are wintering in sunnier climes. While many will want to attend Thursday morning's funeral, we anticipate that many will feel a double sense of loss that they cannot return. We are holding consecutive evenings of shiva services at the synagogue, and on Shabbat we will honor Cantor Merkel at our service.

The thumbnail sketch of his life and the details of the week are encapsulated in the obituary that I wrote for tomorrow's New York Times:

STEPHEN H. MERKEL, CANTOR: The Congregation, Clergy, and Staff of Westchester Reform Temple mourn the death of its Cantor of 19 years. A native of Winnipeg, Cantor Merkel was a Juilliard-trained baritone and celebrated performer noted for his passion for Jewish music and Yiddish culture. A graduate of Jewish Theological Seminary, Cantor Merkel also held a Masters in Social Work and was a beloved counselor and teacher. He is survived by one brother, David and sister in law, Joyce; two nephews, Jarrod and Tyler, of Vancouver, BC; faithful assistant Lynn Hellman and devoted caretaker Susan Wiener, of Scarsdale. Funeral services will be held at Westchester Reform Temple, 255 Mamaroneck Rd. in Scarsdale, Thursday at 10:30 AM. Shiva will be observed at the Temple on Thursday, Saturday, and the following Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, from 7-9 PM with a service at 7:45. Contributions may be made to the Cantor Stephen H. Merkel Fund for Jewish Music and Yiddish Culture of Westchester Reform Temple. It is written: "With my song I shall thank God" (Ps. 28:7). Cantor Stephen Merkel's song will long resound.

Ellen Sunness, President
Richard J. Jacobs, Rabbi
Jonathan E. Blake, Associate Rabbi
Jack Stern, Jr., Rabbi Emeritus

These few words don't really capture the essence of the man. That task we will undertake in the services throughout the week, which will combine some of the music we associate with Stephen and a host of personal remembrances. For those of you who knew Cantor Merkel, it will not surprise you to learn that he planned every minute of his own funeral service with exacting precision and forceful opinion. He even called one of his dearest colleagues, Ida Rae Cahana, before he died to convey his wish that she come in from Portland, Oregon, to sing at his farewell service. He was a man of refined musical tastes and his service will feature, among others, a world-class cellist and clarinetist. That's our Stephen.

Though I am not delivering a eulogy at the service, I would have many remembrances worth sharing. Cantor Stephen Merkel was a colorful, intelligent, passionate man who loved life. He possessed a true operatic baritone that could blast the roof off the sanctuary, one of those voices that evinces profound natural resonance and professional training. True opera singers can sing without microphones. They have trained their naturally astounding voices to project to the back of concert halls. It was sometimes hard to sing next to Cantor Merkel because he was just singing so darn loud without even realizing it. But he was always generous with me on the bimah - he would point to me when he wanted me to sing a verse of a song and would lean on me for rhythm and timing (not his forte). He liked that I know my Schubert from my Schumann (two of his favorites).

When I came to our synagogue, Cantor Merkel was addressed only as "Cantor." Everyone at the Temple called him by his title. "Cantor would like to see you." "Cantor is going to Balducci's for lunch. Would you like a coffee?" And, "Why is Cantor's dog wandering into the sanctuary?" And so forth. After about six months, I asked him why everyone, including his colleagues on our clergy staff, called him "Cantor" instead of "Stephen." He shocked me by saying, "I never asked for that." So to me, Cantor was Stephen. And he called me "Jonny."

No one calls me Jonny - not even my wife. But Jonny it was, as in, "Jonny - remember, no brown shoes on the bimah on Yontif." He said that to me before my first High Holidays. To Stephen this was rabbinical mentoring.

Stephen loved his dog Boujie, that poor, old, scruffy, blind-as-a-bat terrier. I am told that Boujie turned Stephen into a man of open and warm affection, breaking his longtime stentorian demeanor. That dog drove us all nuts, wandering around the office like a homeless Roomba. Poor Boujie. He loved Stephen. I think he's going to live with Lynn, Stephen's assistant from work.

Stephen was fancy. He loved finer things. If he were going to drink wine, why not a $50 Cabenet? He went to all manner of shows - Opera, Broadway, Klezmer. He bought me great CDs - Debussy, Schubert, Schumann, and a terrific disc by Fado singer Misia. He adored the rising baritone star Matthias Goring.

Before Stephen got sick we talked constantly about our favorite restaurant discoveries in New York City. And in the final months of his illness he insisted that he was going to prepare a feast for me at his home - and so nudged me day after day to remember to give him a recent New York Times feature on preparing rabbit in the Tuscan style, Coniglio con something or other.

We didn't get a chance to eat rabbit together.

If he were going to buy a pair of plain black trousers, why not Prada? He gave me those Prada pants. He had bought them two sizes too small. When he offered them to me, I said, "You have ten seconds to rescind this offer." In an eerie coincidence, I was wearing those pants when I received the call informing me of Stephen's death.

Stephen took an interest in my professional development. He wanted me to pursue a Ph.D. but also understood my affection for congregational work. He had no sense of propriety about interrupting me when working - I'd be in the middle of a meeting with a Bar Mitzvah student when he'd barge in my office and say, "I need to see you." Invariably, he wanted to tell me about what he'd had for dinner last night.

There are many more remembrances to share but I think these need to be saved for our memorials later in the week.

Stephen died too young. I think he was 57.

I won't forget him.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

A Latent Appliance Fetishist

So Kelly and I spent the entire day reading ten-digit sequences of numbers and letters to each other in hushed tones. It was a sexy time, let me tell you.

We were typing up lists of product codes for appliances to order for our kitchen renovation project, also known as "I can't believe you've been using drawers held together with duct tape for over three years."

Turns out, I kind of like major appliances. We are ordering all stainless-steel major manufacturer, middle-of-the-road kind of equipment, nothing too fancy, but attractive and functional and all that. We are presently using a 25-year-old Hotpoint double-oven with only one working oven, the small upper module. The lower oven has a quirk I call "500 or nothing," meaning that it kicks on at about 500 degrees Fahrenheit and not before, then scorches the hell out of everything. We found this out the hard way our first Thanksgiving.

The duct tape reference wasn't hyperbole, either - we really do have drawers held together by duct tape and prayer. So it's time for a major facelift - wood cabinets, bamboo floors, a backsplash, all that HGTV crap that I for some reason always watch, wide-eyed and rapt.

And those handsome stainless steel appliances. The real disappointment is the oven/range because we love to cook, and gas is the only real way to cook, but our condo only allows for electric stoves. Many stores stock fewer than three electric models anymore; all anyone wants is gas. I was losing hope.

Then I saw a Viking ceramic-top electric range at P.C. Richard & Son tonight. Sooner than you could say "Pavlov," I began to salivate. It is the apotheosis of the electric stove, muscular and metropolitan, like a Mondrian canvas brought into three dimensions. Behold its glory and tremble, ye mortals, before the fiery blast of its iron heart!

I was getting carried away.

At this point I should tell you that our stove budget is somewhere between $500.00 and $1,000.

I located a sales associate: "How much for the Viking?"

"Five thousand dollars."

"Thanks!" I said, barely stifling the heartbreak.

So ... we left P.C. Richard & Son (losers didn't even have a consolation prize, i.e, a Wii, for me, though that hasn't stopped me from asking everywhere we go - I'm almost at the point where I'll stop at a falafel stand in midtown and ask when the next shipment is coming in - and we're not so debased to pay the $700 (!) that Colony Music wants. We/Wii will have to wait.)

We made one last stop tonight, at COSTCO, and that would not have been very interesting (no stoves, no Wii), save for a very weird landmark in their parking lot. We were driving out when all of a sudden Kelly (whom I sometimes call "Eagle-Eye McCormick") put the car in reverse and said, "take a look at that."

On our right, protruding from the wall of rock that leads up to Stew Leonard's, was a hulking granite tombstone, mostly covered in green tarp and duct tape (the universal constant, it would seem!)

Below the tarp we could just make out the traditional Hebrew inscription for "May the soul be bound up in the bond of life everlasting" and the year "2006."

Why is there a giant Jewish gravestone in the middle of the Yonkers Costco parking lot?

For the answer to that question, stay tuned to my blog!

PS - The title of this posting is taken from "A TOKEN OF MY EXTREME" from the Frank Zappa rock opera "Joe's Garage." Dan Saltzstein, you were right.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

10 Things You May Not Know About Me

Like I don't have anything more important to say....

Based as it is on the premise that everyone wants to read your diary, The Blog strikes me as the ultimate self-indulgence. On top of that, I've actually had a very busy week at work and could probably come up with something truly worthy of your attention for this week's posting. So, brave reader, if you continue, consider this parallel to opting for a trashy magazine over something of substance.

In no particular order, ten things you may not know about me. Of course, if you're Mom, Dad, Becky, Kelly, or most of my other faithful readers, you probably know most of these.

10. I am the tallest member of my immediate family at five feet and nine inches. (In heels, it's gotta be at least 5'11".) My paternal grandmother's maiden name was the Yiddish Kleinerman ("Litte Man") which was in all likelihood purely descriptive from time immemorial. My uncle Ben is over six feet tall but he married into the family. And he's not Jewish, go figure.

9. I own twenty-seven pairs of shoes and regularly wear about eighteen. My wife calls me Imelda.

8. On my right hand I wear the signet ring ("HG") of my late maternal grandfather Harry "Acky" Garb, who served with the First Marines in Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II.

7. I subscribe to music magazines Blender and Rolling Stone but intend to let the latter expire because I think their reviewers are in the pocket of the major labels. My tastes run to the eclectic and indie (see elsewhere on this blog) and some of my favorite artists and records never even make it into their pages. What's more, you can now read most of Rolling Stone online.

6. I used to be terrified of flying but now I would describe my attitude toward getting on an airplane with the phrase "strong distaste."

5. I was rejected from my early-decision college but ended up loving my alma mater. On a similar theme,

4. I once got kicked out of band for a day back in junior high school. I used to play trumpet. Mr. Fegley, our conductor, had finally gotten us quiet enough to begin, and raised his baton. At that moment, I leaned over to my stand partner Matt Kohler, pointed at the music in front of us, and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Gee, look at all the little black dots," a reference to an old Far Side cartoon. Mr. Fegley made me call my mom to pick me up, and made me explain to her what I had done. That was probably the worst thing I ever did in school.

3. I attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan in the summers of 1985 and 1986. Next week I'm going to my first-ever Interlochen alumni event, the play Frog and Toad are Friends.

2. I like to cook and experiment in the kitchen and sometimes it even comes out tasting pretty good. Perhaps if enough people ask I'll blog a few recipes, like Adobo Sauce, Afro-Caribbean Salmon, and the snack I made the other night. I was so hungry when I came home at around 10:00 but the fridge resembled a loony bin of unmatched ingredients. (Aging clementines, a salami, capers, greek yogurt, blackberries, a head of cauliflower.... You get the idea.) I scavenged enough fresh ingredients to put together a rolled omelet wrapped in a white-corn tortilla with muenster cheese, tomato chutney, and sliced avocado. Great success!

1. I play XBOX live with some friends (including another rabbi) under the perhaps-too-revealing handle, "RabbiBlake." I am not particularly good as most of my friends will readily attest. Our game of choice used to be Halo 2 but most of my friends in California upgraded to the XBOX 360, leaving me and my archaic black and green behemoth behind. Never fear; I plan to be the first among us to get a Wii.

If they ever restock them.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mmmmmmmmmmm, Pie

First of all - I am unduly proud of the pretty pie chart that I made using the free utility at the "KIDS ZONE" of the website for the NECS - The National Center for Education Statistics. This is why the Internet was invented, my friends.

A lot of people - kids especially - may have wondered how a rabbi spends his or her time. Many are startled to learn that in and around busy, heavily Jewish metropolitan centers, a congregational rabbi can regularly work upwards of 60 hours a week. But when they realize that most rabbis work on Saturdays, Sundays, and many evenings, they see how the hours can add up. My typical day begins at home, catching up with the news and e-mail, and I've taken to coming into the office before 9:00 AM only on Saturdays, Sundays, and when a meeting (say, over breakfast) has been scheduled. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I'm usually at the office between 10 and 11 AM - sometimes a bit earlier, sometimes a bit later. Many of those days I'm at work until after 9:30 PM because of committee meetings, classes, or services - sometimes past 11:00 PM.

Most children, when asked how they think a rabbi spends his/her time, will answer, "leading services," but a quick look at the chart shows that services account for a relatively small slice - somewhere between five and ten percent - of my weekly work, and that includes preparation. (See "Writing" below for a qualification of that figure.) In that figure I'm not including B'nei Mitzvah services, however: they belong in the largest slice, "Bar or Bat Mitzvah," which is close to a third of the pie (28.5 % or thereabouts).

That may be because I serve a congregation with about 100 B'nei Mitzvah each year, give or take five or ten. Each student in our congregation is required to master a passage from Torah and Haftarah, preparation to compose a D'var Torah (speech based on a teaching from their Torah portion), mastery of the prayer service, and eighteen hours of community service. We work closely with each student and his/her parent(s) to prepare for the milestone, and I supervise much of that effort. I meet with every student individually twice, and help prepare their speeches in a workshop format. Much of my Monday and Tuesday mornings are spent reviewing seventh-graders' D'var Torah assignments. Factor in the time spent meeting with parents about the intricacies of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service, the homily or charge that I write for every student to deliver from the bimah, the rehearsals in the sanctuary, the meetings and retreats to discuss the "deeper issues" of B'nei Mitzvah, and the service itself, and you begin to see why this responsibility occupies so much of the pie.

The next-largest slice is teaching. I teach various sessions and classes to 6th graders, 7th graders, 10th graders, and adults - on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Teaching in our Religious School often incorporates hands-on social action projects and fieldwork; so there's no separate designation for these.

Much of the day the congregational rabbinate is a desk job. I hate the phone but love e-mail; assorted administrative tasks take up the third-largest slice of the pie. While I have an assistant who helps with correspondence, photocopying, and scheduling appointments, I type all of my own letters, sermons, lesson plans, and so forth; any many appointments take place by phone or conference-call. The Temple just got me a PDA (Treo 700p) so now I'll never be without e-mail. This is a good thing in my case.

Meetings account for several hours a week - excluding counseling appointments, which I categorized separately. Our staff meets every Wednesday afternoon - alternating between a "full staff" meeting with all the Professional staff of the synagogue one week, just Clergy in a private session the next week. I also meet regularly with my Senior Rabbi and Temple President.

Meetings also denote small groups of combinations of clergy, lay leaders, and volunteer committee members. Board-of-Trustees meetings, Education Council Meetings, various "standing committee" meetings, and many "ad-hoc" committee meetings fill the calendar. For instance, if you want to change the policies for providing Ushers for a Bar Mitzvah service (as we recently did), first you (the rabbi) meet with the administrative staff, then with a commitee of lay leaders (including the Temple President), and then you present any relevant proposals to the Board of Trustees, who passes the resolution or tacitly gives its support (following discussion).

I hate meetings.

You can see that services are an important but proportionately smaller part of what I do. I lead services every Friday evening, Sunday morning, Saturday morning (following Torah Study), and for about a half-hour each on Tuesday and Wednesday. All told, with preparation time included, services usually account for about five hours a week.

However, and this is an important qualifier, around Jewish holidays the time spent preparing for and leading services can multiply many-fold. It is the public or visible aspect of leading services that misleads most congregants to conclude that the bulk of a rabbi's time is spent on the bimah.
The longer a rabbi stays in one congregation, the more s/he finds himself providing Pastoral Counseling for congregants. Many congregants need a while to feel comfortable with a new rabbi before seeking to enter a pastoral relationship. Much of this work is done in the hospital or in homes of bereavement. However, occasionally I am asked to counsel members enduring any kind of emotional or spiritual hardship. For me, knowing when I'm "out of my league" is essential and I usually recommend the services of a qualified therapist (Social Worker, Psychologist, or other specialist) after meeting a handful of times.
Writing refers to professional correspondence, letters of recommendation for students, homilies, Divrei Torah, and full-blown sermons (which are preached infrequently in our congregation in favor of interactive Divrei Torah that incorporate elements of preaching and teaching). I also post a weekly "Morsel" of Torah on our synagogue website for each week's portion. I do not count blogging under this header. Of course, as the High Holidays approach, the amount of sermon-writing balloons to fill my schedule - perhaps upwards of twenty hours a week is spent writing in the weeks leading up to Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.
The amount of time each week devoted to "Life Cycle" varies, depending on who dies and who comes into the world! I do about 5 or so weddings a year, maybe more, but most of these are in the Spring and Summer. I meet with every couple three or four times before the wedding day. I probably have one baby naming or bris ceremony each month, on average. The wildcard is the funeral. In our congregation of about 1,200 families, we learn of the death of a member or the close relative of a member (usually a parent or grandparent) at least once every week on average. Some weeks we'll find ourselves arranging two, three, or more funerals. Some weeks are quiet. I'd say that my senior rabbi and I officiate at about 50 funerals a year, combined.
In New York, a funeral can add up to ten or more hours of unscheduled work to a rabbi's calendar. First there's the phone arrangements that must be conducted with the family and the funeral director. Then we visit the family, usually in their home (sometimes at the synagogue) to discuss the service and to learn about the life of their loved one so that we can compose a proper eulogy. Then we write our remarks and plan the service. All of this takes place a day, sometimes two, before the funeral. The day of the funeral requires that we meet with the family before the service, conduct the service (usually 30 minutes to an hour), and ride with the procession to the cemetery. Which is often in Queens, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Long Island, or Putnam County. Only occasionally do funerals take place in nearby Valhalla, about 20 minutes north of Scarsdale. Including travel time, a funeral can easily take five, six, or more hours out of a day. Then we arrange to be with the family during their shiva period, often an evening or several evenings following the burial. So the modest-sized light blue "Life Cycle" wedge above is not always the most accurate indicator - it's an average "guesstimate."
"Rabbi" means "my teacher" and study constitutes a rabbi's lifeblood. Unfortunately most of us don't find, make, or utilize enough time for it. I try to find a few hours a week to learn some new material. Often this happens in tandem with preparing a class to teach - so that I push myself to master new material as frequently as I can. I also try to go to occasional workshops, lectures, seminars, conferences, and the like, for professional development and simply for the learning. Now, does practicing guitar count if I use the guitar primarily in Religious School and Religious Services?
The smallest slice of the pie is "ECC" which stands for our Temple's Early Childhood Center. I'll surely blog about my adventures with the three- and four-year-old students with whom I spend some Friday mornings leading a little pre-Shabbat workshop (songs, stories, Shabbat blessings and rituals). When available I visit the students who have class on weekday mornings, especially around the holidays when I might come in to sing songs with them at their Passover Seder, or dress up like a lunatic for Purim and scare the bejesus out of them. (One kid FREAKED OUT last year when I came into the room in a full-body Elmo costume. We had to rush me out of the room to get him to stop wailing.)
Thursday is my day off. I'm going to have some pie.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Second-Grade Skeptic

The rabbinate is not so glamorous as many people imagine (ha, ha). It's not like every day brings some new religious epiphany. In fact today I was asked to break down my work-week into specific tasks with figures representing percentage of time spent on a particular endeavor. (I'll post the results in the next few days. Suffice it to say that two of the top three were "Bar and Bat Mitzvah-related work" and "E-mail, Phone, and Assorted Administrative Tasks," together accounting for fully 40% of the time I spend at work.)

Having said that, a brief encounter from Sunday has stuck with me all week and I wanted to share it here.

In between appointments, a harried-looking Sunday School teacher arrived unannounced at my office with a towheaded second-grade girl in tow. Their body language bespoke an impasse. The teacher asked, "Do you have a minute for a question?" I said, "Literally, a minute: It's 10:14 and my next appointment's at 10:15. So it depends on the question." The teacher replied, "Perfect! I'll leave the two of you alone!" and fled like she was abandoning an unpinned grenade.

The girl stared at me, her eyes squinting just slightly. She was not smiling.

I said: "What's on your mind?"

She did not pull any punches: "How did the Red Sea split?"

I said: "Do you want me to tell you what the Bible says or what I think? ... or both?"

She stared at me.

I said: "Well what do you think?" (Every rabbi's favorite answer. Adults usually open up to this kind of inquiry. She said, "I dunno.")

Now had I been more reflective in the moment - and had I not kept peeking out the window for my next appointment - I might have taken the opportunity to dig a bit more deeply into what had gone down in that classroom. An argument? A barrage of unanswerable questions? My guess is that the teacher suddenly felt out of her league when a student asked a reasonable question with a difficult answer no matter what the teacher said. She had been backed into a corner because we have been trained to view faith and reason as antagonistic. Either the teacher responds with the boilerplate response of Faith - i.e., to cite chapter and verse of the Bible and implicitly impels the student to suspend her disbelief, or the teacher appeals to Reason, and thereby discredits the supernatural element of the story -- inviting the student to disavow the so-called "truth" of the Torah.

Or so I conjecture. Maybe the kid was just being a brat.

It should be noted that many congregants' questions of a quote-unquote religious nature are often thinly veiled invitations to a pastoral encounter. That is to say, congregants bring their doubts and fears and anxieties to their rabbi in the guise of religious language, but the emotional motivation that brings them to that office is often a human desire to be heard and understood and valued. So a bereaved congregant might ask a rabbi, "Why is God punishing me?" and a sensitive rabbi will know not to respond with a theological discourse but with a compassionate heart and two very open ears.

Having said that, I'm not sure that the student in question was in fact looking for a pastoral meeting. I think she really wanted to talk about the splitting of the Red Sea. And she didn't seem bratty at all.

So I took her question at face value.

It's a great question for this week, by the way. This week we read the selection from the Torah called Parashat Bo (Ex. 10:1 - 13:16) which depicts the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. The actual splitting of the Sea comes in next week's Torah portion. I reviewed with her the Biblical account in which Moses extends his staff over the waters and with God's power the sea separates - massive walls of water framing a dry corridor through which a ragtag band of slaves walked the sandy road to freedom. She nodded. She knew the story.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"What do I think?" I echoed. Stalling.

"What do I think? I think that sometimes the Torah did not set out to tell history, but to tell an amazing story ...with important lessons for us today."

By this point I had forgotten about my next meeting. I asked her to tell me about the books she's reading in school and at home, and if the stories she was reading were "true" and historical (non-fiction) or not literally true (fiction). She had read Aesop's Fables and was able to understand that a story about a talking fox serves a purpose other than to convince its readers that foxes can talk. She said that the important thing was that the story had a moral.

She's a damn smart kid. Could we please have more adults like her?

She asked if I believed that God wrote the Torah.

I upped the ante. I said, "I don't believe that God wrote the Torah. But I still believe that the Torah is the most special book we have. I believe that our ancestors wrote a book, over years and years and years, that had so much to teach ... not only for the people of their time, but for future generations too. I believe that part of what makes being Jewish so wonderful is the opportunity to study the Torah and discover what it has to teach us - and that each person can learn something unique and different from it."

The time rolled on. We talked about science and how some scientists are looking for a scientific explanation for what happened at the Red Sea. I remember a special on the History Channel that ran this summer ("The Exodus Decoded" - a lavish Canadian documentary narrated, in part, by director James Cameron) proposing the explosion of the volcano on Santorini as the root of the plagues and the spectacle at the Sea. She seemed intrigued by these theories. I am too. Maybe science and the Bible stand side-by-side, harmoniously, at least in some places. At the end of the day, however, the authors of the Red Sea narrative were not trying to offer a scientific explanation for the Israelites' freedom. They saw the world through God-dazed eyes and the gift of human freedom as an expression of God's power and God's love. An inspired, and inspiring message.

My congregants showed up late for their appointment, so I had time to ask our sweet skeptic, "Well, what do you think?"

She said, "I like your ideas."

I said, "They're not my original ideas, but I'm happy to share them with you."

It felt like the best compliment I'd ever received.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ten Best (Pop / Rock) Albums of 2006

I'll get back to the more serious musings soon enough. In the meantime, did you hear these albums this year?

I'd say 2006 was an average year for music. Sometimes I have a hard time getting the list down to 25. This year, ten was pretty easy.

Here they are, counting down from ten to one. I'm also a newcomer to blogging so I'm trying out embedding MP3s for the first time. Let me know what you think, either about the content or the interface.

My number one selection, Bob Dylan's "Modern Times."
Probably the second-most under-rated album of the year (see #2 for the most under-rated album of the year), judging from the gazillions of critics end-of-year Best-Of lists that ignored it (while lauding it at the time of its release in early '06). This scrappy, shape-shifting British quintet released the best work of their career, steeped in the sounds of Americana, like this country-inflected gem, the happiest-sounding track I heard all year, "See the World":

9. Josh Ritter, THE ANIMAL YEARS
I've been following Josh Ritter for about six years now, and his work has been consistently mature, thoughtful, and honest - combining the best of Dylan, Nick Drake, and a unique voice that, in this most recent album, does not shy away from the political and the spiritual. The two seem to be intertwined in the epic, phantasmagoric "Thin Blue Flame". Look online to see if you can find his live, solo acoustic performance of this on WFUV the evening just after he completed the New York Marathon. That would make it a marathon on top of a marathon.

8. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, RABBIT FUR COAT
It's the voice you notice first, but the songwriting is consistently great on this album. The Rilo Kiley frontwoman (Elvis Costello is a big fan) got everything right on her first solo outing. The so-retro-they're-post-modern Watson Twins fill out the songs in perfect tandem with Jenny. This is "Rise Up With Fists!!":

An out-of-left-field selection that I picked up in the last week of 2006 on recommendations from online users who have heaped praise upon this album. It's sort of like, What if the Eagles actually started recording good, brand new songs? But without the suffocating pall of nostalgia? You'd get a song like "Roscoe," the lead track on this enigmatic album that from first play greets you like a long-lost friend:

6. Joanna Newsom, YS
Easily the strangest, most confounding, possibly annoying, and brilliant album of the year. Just five songs, as you may have heard, and almost an hour long, the lead track "Emily" may be the album's highlight. The wordplay comes as close to poetry in pop music as you will ever hear, and despite the idiosyncracies of Joanna's voice, once the album ends, I want to hit play again. "Emily":

This one made just about every critic's end-of-year list, so I won't add much here. Together with Joanna Newsom's "Ys" (#6), the other album on the list that sounds like nothing else in your collection - it obliterates most points of reference. I'm still not convinced it's the best album of the year (which by consensus it would appear to be) - some of it is forbidding and opaque. And the album title, sorry folks, is just idiotic. But my complaints are few; the text and textures are riveting. This is my favorite track from the album, "Hours":

4. The Decemberists, THE CRANE WIFE
What else! A prog-rock, British sea-shanty-derived loose song cycle about, in part, a Japanese folk tale involving.... well, you pick it up and figure it out. This is the album's closer. I don't know what it's supposed to be about, but what a way to go out. "Sons and Daughters":

I think the coolest thing about Neko Case is her dual identity; she's equally magnificent, and completely different in this than she was in last year's "Twin Cinema" by the New Pornographers (My #2 from 2005). Neko brings her haunting best to "Hold On, Hold On" in an album that's consistently this good:

2. Destroyer, RUBIES
The critics fell over themselves to praise this album when it came out in early February but seem to have forgotten about it by year's end. I gave the #1 spot to a living legend, but the honor could just as well have been to Dan Bejar, the man behind Vancouver, CA's Destroyer. Get past the voice (like we do with Dylan) and you'll find the 21st century's riposte and kissing cousin to "Blonde on Blonde." Every song devolves into some kind of deranged, mystical, singalong anthem complete with nonsense syllables ... as in this track, "Painter in Your Pocket" (wait for the instrumental break when the full band enters, shimmering and shining):

1. Bob Dylan, MODERN TIMES
I saw him in early November at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. Lots of people who don't get "the voice" need to understand that the experience is not just about seeing (or hearing) the man - it's the band, too. They're tight as his band has ever been. As for his vocals: live, he's completely unintelligible. He sounds like he's been sucking on an exhaust pipe. But on this record, everything comes together beautifully, and his voice is weathered but perfectly expressive for the idiom: this album called "Modern" is in fact steeped in blues and 19th-century Americana. Bob brings it all back home - especially in the lead-off track, "Thunder on the Mountain" (Where in the world is Alicia Keys?):

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Reform Rabbi at an Orthodox Wedding

So... my sister is married!

Though I have lost count of the weddings that I've attended and solemnized, it was the first time I had attended (let alone participate in) an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony.

The Orthodox certainly get it right, in many ways, when it comes to celebrating a simcha - the ceremony should make people feel happy! Many people commented to me on the ruach (spirit) of the ceremony. A traditional Jewish wedding declares unadulterated joy.

Every stage of the ceremony is accompanied by dancing and singing. The guests are not to be polite observers; it is a mitzvah for them to make the groom and bride happy. All manner of silliness, merriment, music, and motion are encouraged to keep the bride and the groom smiling from the moment they walk to the chuppah until the celebration is over and everyone presumably passes out from exhaustion.

We began with a few shots of scotch for which I was grateful, because it eased a little bit of the tension. It should be noted that while the ceremony was conducted in accordance with Orthodox halakha (Jewish law), the actual number of guests who affiliate "Orthodox" was a scant handful - and many of the Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews in attendance (to say nothing of the non-Jewish guests) were a bit uncomfortable (it appeared to me) when they saw the large stack of siddurim (prayer books) waiting behind the mekhitza (room divider) for the short prayer service that would be conducted (among the men only -- women are not counted in an Orthodox minyan).
After the service, we proceed to the ritual of tena'im (the formal agreement made before a betrothal - solemnized in the presence of two witnesses, and ritually concluded by the exchange of a handkerchief (a legal formality) and the breaking of a plate by the mothers of bride and groom (symbolizing that just as a broken vessel cannot be repaired, so too with a broken engagement)). My Mom was a basket case beforehand, fretting about breaking the plate. Using a hammer (dressed up in gold ribbon - hilarious), the Moms acquitted themselves with excellence and smashed the hell out of the poor thing.

With the plate broken and the scotch working its amber magic, we proceeded to the signing of the ketubah (Jewish wedding contract). Rabbi Eric "Shmuel" Ertel and Rabbi Mordecai Katz witnessed the ketubah. Halahkah declares that two Jewish witnesses unrelated to the bride or groom are required to validate a ketubah. Many Orthodox rabbis further clarify that only shomer-Shabbat, shomer-Kashrut (Sabbath and Kosher-observant) Jews may witness a ketubah. So - by this standard, the most qualified men in the house fulfilled the obligation.

We danced Dean (the groom) down the aisle to the words Od yishama b'arei Yehuda u'v'chutzot Yerushalayim kol sason v'kol simcha, kol chatan v'kol kallah - "Let there yet be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and gladness, the voice of groom and bride." And lots of clapping.

A processional followed, with bride circling groom seven times (a mystical and murky custom that some say symbolizes the revolutions of the earth during the seven days of creation, or perhaps simply a Kabbalistic way of "fastening" the bride to her groom?), the opening prayers, the blessing of betrothal, the pronouncing of the vow and exchanging of the ring (groom-to-bride), a few remarks by me, the sheva berakhot (Seven Wedding Benedictions, here recited by various guests), and, of course, the breaking of a glass.

I've been reflecting on the weekend from the standpoint of a Reform rabbi. Probably the most important realization I've had, professionally speaking, is how important it is for Reform rabbis to feel comfortable and conversant in Orthodox ritual, tradition, and law. I felt that from the time I met Shmuel (Rabbi Ertel), he treated me with respect and collegiality. I'm sure that much of this is because he's a nice guy, but I think it also helped that I arrived to our pre-planning meeting with my Orthodox Rabbi's manual in hand (same one he uses) and that throughout the weekend I demonstrated my comfort and competence in Orthodox practice (from bensching the full birkat ha-mazon (blessing after meals) to davenning a traditional service, etc. etc.). With regret I can tell you that many Reform rabbis do not avail themselves of opportunities to become comfortable in Orthodox settings - in my opinion, to their detriment both personally and professionally. Some seem intimidated; others simply unmotivated; and still others take their principled rejection of Orthodoxy (e.g., its non-egalitarian stance toward women, gays, etc.) to the point of stridency or mutual exclusion.

In my view, this is a big mistake for a Jewish leader, even the most principled Reform Jewish leader. It's not that I think we should kowtow to the demands of the Orthodox. (Read enough of this blog and I'm sure my rejection of Orthodoxy will become evident.) And it's not that I think Orthodoxy should define normative Judaism for the world's Jewish population (it shouldn't, in my view, and it doesn't, strictly in terms of numbers). However, in the name of Klal Yisrael -- the worldwide community of the Jewish people -- and the belief that what unites us far exceeds what divides us -- I would urge all Reform rabbis and rabbinical students to familiarize themselves and become comfortable in Orthodox settings, at least so that they can participate fully in all expressions of Jewish life. Feeling confident and competent in an Orthodox setting may also earn you respect outside the liberal Jewish world, where it is not usually freely given (sight unseen) to non-Orthodox Jews. At the very least, shouldn't a Reform rabbi be able to represent more than his or her own limited contingency?

Mazal Tov to the happy couple!

You can view pictures from the wedding weekend here:

Thursday, January 11, 2007

2006 Lists - RELIGION

Those of you who know me know that I'm obsessed with making lists - especially "Best Of" lists (cue Kelly's eye-rolling). This would also explain my affection for Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.

So why not start with some lists?

We've just endured 2006 - here are the few things that made it better.

Every list is in order of preference, from least to most, from ten to one.

Since the official themes of this blog are at present Religion, Music, Food, and Wine, we'll feature one list for each of these. As a bonus, movies. And as a bonus to the bonus . . . there will be one more list. We'll be posting these over the next few days.

The good, the bad, and the ugly. Guess which most of these would be?

10. A Muslim couple is ordered to divorce because the husband mumbled the Islamic divorce formula in his sleep.

9. President of Israel Moshe Katzav refuses to acknowledge Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (representing the largest number of American Jews). Katzav declined to address Yoffie as "Rabbi" because he's not Orthodox. Katzav, meanwhile, is under pressure to step down in a sex scandal. Karma?

8. Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist breakaway sect, is arrested in Nevada after three months on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. He’s charged with sexual misconduct, accused of arranging multiple marriages between underage girls and older men. Boo to plural marriage! (See #5)

7. Rick Warren of Mega-church Saddleback defends clergy parsonage, a tax shelter for housing expenses that allows American clergymen and women and their families to live with dignity even while most remain overworked and underpaid.

6. Americans march on Washington to save Darfur, April 30, 2006. A large percentage of the demonstrators are Jewish. The march places momentary pressure on Washington, which responds effectively within days to reach an agreement with the largest militia, and then promptly gets back to tromping around Iraq. Meanwhile, the situation in Darfur continues to spiral out of control, while our government turns a blind eye.

5. Big Love on HBO. Three cheers for plural marriage!

4. The defeat of the anti-Darwin bill in Utah of all places - February, 2006.

3. Jimmy Carter's morally irresponsible book whose title is too offensive to reprint here, and, it should be noted, the backlash. As of this posting, fourteen advisers at the Carter Center have resigned in protest. Kol ha-Kavod!

2. The astonishing murder and freely given forgiveness among Pennsylvania's Amish.

1. Muslims take to violent protest in response to Danish cartoons, giving a great name to fundamentalist nutjobs everywhere. It's the funny pages, for God's sake!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007