The Antidote to Idol Worship

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks returned to the Kohelet Yeshiva Beit Midrash for a Shabbat Shel Ruach services this weekend.  On Shabbat morning, he gave a drasha on “The Idols in Our Lives: Contemporary Echoes of the Golden Calf.”  His opening joke to warm up the overflow audience was an anecdote from when he was appointed a knight of the British realm: Given the Jews’ stiff-necked nature and disinclination to bow, Buckingham Palace prepared a special lecturn (like the shtender used for Torah readings) that Sacks could rest his hand and incline about 15 degrees.  Upon observing this unusual behavior, the Queen turned to her husband, Prince Philip, and asked, “Why is this knight different from all others?”

Modern society is one where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, quoted Rabbi Sacks.  This focus on material acquisition leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, by focusing on what we lack– the latest model car, smartphone, or other fashionable item.  This instability leads to a state of anger, which fuels the popular unrest across the world. 

Two days before the colossal economic crash of 2008, the prominent Sothesby auction house raised $198 million for the artist Damien Hirst, breaking the record for a one-artist auction.  The most expensive piece: The Black Sheep with the Golden Horn.  Rabbi Sacks called this the Golden Calf that heralded the economic woes.

What is the Torah’s antidote to the Golden Calf?  The text immediately before and after the mention of the icon of idol worship explicitly states the divine gift of Shabbat, the sacred time that removes us from the secular state of being.  Shabbat offers three important features that counters our immersion in contemporary values; Family, Community, and Disengagement.

Rabbi Sacks participated in a BBC program on the modern family, in which he invited the noted child development expert, Penelope Leach, to visit a Jewish nursery school.  On a Friday morning, the children were engaged in their weekly Shabbat party, in which five-year-olds portrayed the roles of Imma, Abba, the children, and Bubbe and Zeide.  When Dr. Leach queried a young boy playing Abba for the day: what was the best and worst aspect of Shabbat.   The boy cited, not watching television was the worst, but the best being that it was the only time, his father didn’t rush off to work.  Dr. Leach turned to Rabbi Sacks and pointed that out as the reason that the boy’s parents’ marriage was sustained. 

Community is the place where your name is known and your absence is noted, quoted Rabbi Sacks.  Wherever he visits, after his presentation, he is always asked the same question: “I know who you are, Rabbi, but do you know me?” The person would invariably have a personal connection, however tenuous.  “Two Jews meet as strangers and find out that they’re mishpocha,” quipped the Rabbi.

Disengagement on Shabbat is when we leave behind the deadlines and worries of the secular world for a sacred time in which we spend in appreciating what we already have.  We learn to appreciate God, Family, and Community.  A woman from the Bay area in California, the heart of Silicon Valley, reported to Rabbi Sacks that modern technology has been the downfall of good relationships.  She related that their solution was a technology-free day, which we Jews know as Shabbat.  The value of Shabbat has even charmed the Archbishop (of York? Not Canterbury) who spent the full 25 hours of a traditional Shabbat with Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine in London, who said that the devaluation of the Christian Sabbath has led to the dissolution of the family in Great Britain.

Rabbi Sacks was invited to the President’s National Prayer Breakfast where he met up with a friend and he asked what was the mood in the country?  The friend (a Jew who was not identified) replied, It’s like being the man on the deck of the Titanic [on its way to being hit by the fatal iceberg].  The man is holding a glass of whisky and bemoaning, “I only asked for some ice.”

Rabbi Sacks has authored over 30 books, the most recent being Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, published in February.

 

 

Book Chat: Get Real, Get Married

By Hannah Lee

Aleeza Ben Shalom has always happily served as a networker or a “connector,” bringing together people whether it was about housing, cars or furniture. Her successful connections, made through her Shabbat hospitality at her family’s table and her volunteer work for the SawYouAtSinai dating website, have led her to launch her business, “Marriage Minded Mentor,” in February 2012. To date, she has brought 14 clients to the wedding chuppah and another eight are engaged.

Her 132-page book, Get Real Get Married, hit the stores on Tuesday. With clients from the observant community, her shortest match took four months from introduction to marriage (Those two really knew what they wanted!), while the longest match took about nine months. Her clients in the general public need more time.

Raised Conservative and formerly known as Lisa Caplan, Ben Shalom studied Jewish studies, children’s literature, and environmental studies at the University of Pittsburgh. While attending a retreat with IsraLight, a kiruv (outreach) organization founded by Rabbi David Aaron, she found both meaning and purpose in a life structured by Torah and mitzvot (commandments). Overnight, she began to observe Shabbat, swapped out her trendy wardrobe for modest clothing covering her collarbones, shoulders and elbows, and already a vegan, she started keeping kosher.

Also attending the same retreat was Gershom Ben Shalom, although they were both dating other people. They dated for three weeks, got engaged, and were wed in four months. This is not what she recommends for anyone else, but as her mother noted to her, “You’re not flaky, but this [rapid transformation] is flaky.” Her parents nonetheless supported her decision and they are delighted in their four grandchildren (and another on the way). The Ben-Shaloms have been married for 10 years.

Ben Shalom says a matchmaker has to work in three levels: in fact, in act, and intact. The first goal is the one that’s most familiar to us, but a successful matchmaker has to also walk the client through the process — “in act,” as well as support the client through the inevitable ups and downs of relationships — “intact,” to keep them together. Even after the wedding, she fields calls from former clients asking if some particular issue or conflict is typical to other marriages. She is even planning a sequel to be titled “Stay Real, Stay Married,” for a society where 50% of marriages end in divorce, as do 20% of Orthodox Jewish commitments.

Recently, Ben Shalom spoke at a non-Jewish event attended by women aged 18-65, and she saw that her message, that you have to be marriage-minded to get married and stay married, resonated with the audience. She realized that her message is universal: that marriage is a lifelong process of growth and connection.

She offers her clients a pithy lesson of one, five, and ten. One: you have to pick one goal to focus on. If marriage is your goal, then choose no more than five mentors to assist you. Who qualifies as a mentor? Ben Shalom advises to choose someone who has been married for more than five years and who has shown wisdom and a history of good decisions. Then, choose ten or fewer people to date until you pick your spouse. This directs dating in a healthier way, so that one thinks carefully about whether a person is worthy of dating for marriage.

Older singles can be particularly fragile, but they usually hide their vulnerability: They present themselves as accomplished, financially stable, and able to live independently. How do we, who are not matchmakers, help these people?  ”Engage in open dialogue,” counsels Ben Shalom, “and ask what does the person need at that moment.” Check back each time, because the emotional terrain is very volatile and someone who’s ready to meet people one month may be exhausted emotionally the next one, so that person may wish to simply join your family for a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal, with no expectations for a shidduch.

Successful clients are stable: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Some clients have met with Ben Shalom’s refusal to arrange meetings during a period of transition. She also readily refers clients to other professionals for therapy, diet counseling, or personal organization (clutter management).

What does she think of speed dating (a phenomenon that’s not so popular in the Philadelphia area, where singles have the opportunity to sit and engage with each other individually in a focused, limited time — usually several minutes)? This may work for some people, but Ben Shalom finds it emotionally challenging, and it is not amongst her top techniques. She is more a proponent of “inspect what you expect,” and her clients do not go on blind dates without evaluating the particulars of a prospective date.

The dating scene in Philadelphia is unlike those of New York and Los Angeles, where there are so many singles, that they don’t feel the need to get married. “They are practicing to be single,” said Ben Shalom, “not practicing to get married.” Moreover, people tend to leave New York once they do get married for more affordable communities, in order to be able to raise children.

Are the rabbis doing enough for singles? The times are changing fast, so while individual rabbis may be helpful, they are not unified in their efforts. In earlier times, all Jews in any particular area knew each other, and so it was easier to facilitate with matches. In our times, Ben Shalom advocates the use of a “dating resume,” or dating profile. In addition to personal statistics and biographical data, she asks her clients to reflect on who they are and what they are looking for.

A crucial advice by Ben Shalom is not to look for what the mentors want instead of what you want, because that could lead to shaky relationships. As for highly-specific documented demands such as the dress size of the kallah (or mother-in-law!) or the color of the tablecloths, Ben Shalom asks, “are their head and heart in line? The color of the tablecloth may be a surrogate for family minhagim (customs), but is the person marriage-minded? Can he or she stay married?”

Ben Shalom hosts a weekly radio show at Jewish Talk Radio, and blogs at the Marriage Minded Mentor website.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3273/book-chat-get-real-get-married

Film Chat: The World is Funny

By Hannah Lee

This year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia opened this past weekend with the 2012 box-office hit, “The World is Funny.” The gala weekend included a visit by the director/screenwriter, Shemi Zarhin, for a Q&A session with Sunday’s audience.

Nominated for a record-setting 15 times by the Israeli Film Academy for its Ophir Awards (and won for one), “The World is Funny” is set in Tiberias, the birthplace and muse of its director. It has a stellar cast, including Assi Levy, who won a Best Actress Ophir for her starring role in the 2006 film “Aviva, My Love” (Aviva Ahuvati), also written and directed by Zarhin. This film also is graced by the presence of an Israeli legend, Yeshayahu “Shaike” Levi, whose career with the Gashash HaHiver comedy trio spanned 40 years and won the Israel Prize in 2000. (My favorite Zarhin film remains the 2007 “Noodle,” in part because of the Israeli cheerful bravado spirit and the Chinese actors.)

“The World is Funny” is narrated by a young woman, Tsephi, who cleans houses (although she doesn’t need the income) while seeking out interesting stories for the writing workshop that she attends at the library. Her duties bring her into the lives of three estranged siblings: Yardena, whose daughter died while serving in the Israeli Army; Meron, whose wife died in a car crash and whose teen son has awakened from a 8-year resultant coma; and Golan, whose sweetheart is dying from cancer.

In a testament to the writer’s craft, the film is not depressing. The director livens up the mood with comic depictions of the student writer’s scenes, including a man who falls in love with the goat he’s raising for slaughter for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration, and an assassin who only reveals his true face during his deadly assignments.

“Is the world funny?”, asked Zarhin during the Q&A session. “Well, it’s not so funny; it’s actually sad. But, it’s up to us to make it funny, because we need it to be so”, he answered.

Israeli films succeed when they are “communicative,” when they touch people, and not subjects. Zarhin concludes, “Life is a story we’re telling to ourselves — especially in Israel — and it always has a happy ending, but in Israel, it’s always too late.”

Shemi Zarhin is in front, second from the right

After the opening weekend, which included “The World is Funny,” “By Summer’s End” and a collection of short films, Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia continues with “Life in Stills,” “Out in the Dark,” “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, and “The Flat,” concluding with “Fill the Void,”  on March 17th and a farewell reception at Zahav.

 

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3098/film-chat-the-world-is-funny

 

Film Chat: The Other Son

By Hannah Lee

Last night, I was fortunate to watch The Other Son at the Bala Cinema, before the whole township closed down for Hurricane Sandy. My family declined to join me, thinking it too sad to watch a movie about two babies switched at birth (because of a Scud attack to the hospital’s region in Haifa) and one son growing up with a professional Israeli family and the other with a Palestinian family barely eking a living on the West Bank. The premise was wretching, but it was also beautifully acted, especially the expressive face of the Palestinian mother played by Areen Omari. Directed by Lorraine Levy, a Frenchwoman, it tries to give a human face to the Middle East conflict. It was filmed in Israel, and shown in French as the dominant language (with English subtitles), and supplemented by Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

Joseph is the musician son of an Israeli Army colonel, Alon Silberg, and a physician mother, Orith.  At age 17, a blood test for Joseph being drafted into military service proves that he is not their son. Their baby was switched with another baby born premature the same day by a Palestinian woman, Leïla Al Bezaaz, who was visiting her sister. This other son, Yassin, has just passed his baccalaureate exams in Paris and is expected to commence his medical studies.  He plans to return to the West Bank and, with his older brother, Bilal, open a hospital there, so other families would not have to grieve over a child dying from inadequate medical care, as happened to their brother, Fariz (circumstances not detailed in the film).

The shock of mistaken identity is intensified for these two families who are on opposite sides of the political war of existence.  Is Joseph, who’d had a brit milah and a bar mitzvah and who was the star pupil of his yeshiva, still a Jew?  No, said his Rabbi sadly, but he only need to immerse in a mikveh, under the supervision of three rabbis. So, was Yassin who’d been raised by Arabs a more authentic Jew than he was?  Does he exchange his kippah for a suicide bomb?

Yassin better learn Hebrew, taunts the border guard, who’d presumably been informed by their Army superiors.  Both fathers, Alon and Saïd, struggle to cope with the devastating news, and Bilal who lashes out at Yassin, for being an enemy in their midst. But he was the same person as before, with the same dreams, responded Yassin. The two mothers, Orith and Leïla, are the harbors in a storm, the ones who quickly adapt to the cruelty of fate, and caution their men for love and acceptance.

A special visa from Colonel Silberg allows Yassin to seek out Joseph, who’s selling ice cream (poorly) at the beach.  Yassin offers his more agile sales technique and Joseph gives him half his day’s earnings, which Yassin noted was almost a full month’s wages for his father, an engineer who works as an auto mechanic (because he’s not allowed to work outside of the West Bank).

When Joseph attempts to visit Yassin at his home, he is welcomed but to the neighbors he is labeled the nephew from Paris. When Leïla realizes that the Silbergs did not know of his intentions, she calls them with the news. The Silbergs race to the border at dusk, and it was poignant to watch the Colonel race-walking along the border fence, in an effort to find his son before he comes to harm.

Spoiler alert: In the climactic scene, Bilal gets to visit Tel Aviv, but the boys are attacked on the beach and Joseph sustains a serious abdominal cut and needs emergency care.  When he awakens, Bilal, who’s also been bloodied in the attack, tells Joseph that he’d alerted his parents. Which ones, queried Joseph, with a weak smile. It’s the bizarre and charming premise of the film that people have hearts big enough to adapt and welcome new members into the circle of loved ones. I’m not convinced it’s a fitting metaphor for the troubles of the Middle East, but it’s a delightful conclusion to the film for me.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2642/film-chat-the-other-son