Monday, March 30, 2009

A convenient truth

This video has been sent to me by a bunch of folks over the past few weeks. It is footage of a lecture given by the late Lubaticher Rebbe in 1981, in which he says:

"This country, with God’s help, can be self-sufficient in energy. The problem lies in the failure to utilize God’s gifts to their fullest ... There is one energy source which can be made available in a very short time. Solar energy is non-polluting, cheap, and inexhaustible ... it can power individual homes as well as giant factories. The United States has been blessed with plentiful sunshine, especially in the south … God has blessed this country richly, and it is our duty to use those riches to their fullest."

Full video here.

The lecture came just days after the last celebration of Birchat Hachamah, the blessing that commemorates the sun's return to its precise place in the sky as it was at its creation (and when that return happens on a Wednesday), an event that occurs once in 28 years (and is about to happen again, next week, on the eve of Passover.)

How to find a seder in 600 cities around the globe

NEW YORK—More than 1,500 Passover seders are being organized in 600 cities around the world by the Chabad Lubavitch organization.
If you're on the road, on vacation or away at college, you can find a seder near you at
Chabad seder locations range from resort areas like Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Jackson, Wyo., to farflung cities like Christchurch, New Zealand; Lima, Peru; Hanoi, Vietnam; and The Hague, in the Netherlands. Other locations include Kyrgyzstan; North Cyprus, and Venezuela.
Chabad's most famous seder is probably the event it holds each year in Katmandu in Nepal, which attracts hundreds of participants, many of them Israeli backpackers.
The organization also sponsors seders in many college towns around the U.S. and most major cities.
Passover, which begins this year at sundown April 8, commemorates the exodus of Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt. Seders are ritual communal meals that celebrate the holiday.
Anyone is welcome to attend the Chabad events. Many are free of charge, though you should let local organizers know in advance if you're coming so they'll have enough food on hand. Contact information is available on the Web site.

Chabad to offer new Orthodox services

The Jewish organization Chabad will begin holding Orthodox services at the University this Saturday, following their dedication of a new Torah last Sunday afternoon.
Though the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) offers a variety of services, the Chabad services will target a different audience, Chabad Rabbi Eitan Webb said in response to concerns of Orthodox students within the CJL that the new services will promote competition between the groups. Webb explained that the Chabad services will aim to provide students who are currently not very involved in Jewish life with an opportunity to learn more about how Orthodox services work.

“Over the years, we’ve been asked [by students] for a group … where they can learn how the services work,” Webb said, adding that Chabad’s new Torah provided the extra motivation and opportunity to start it.

The Torah scroll was given to Chabad by the Sandra Brand Torah Project, which refurbishes old Torahs and donates them to colleges for young people to learn and reconnect with their Jewish heritage.

“The gift was one to which you can’t say no, and when you receive a Torah, you must try your best to provide services, and since we don’t have to start another one, we thought a learner’s minyan [Jewish prayer service] would be the best idea,” Chabad on Campus student president Ethan Ludmir ’11 said.

Though the Yavneh House of Princeton, the CJL Orthodox student group, was initially worried that the new service would drive students away from the CJL services, these concerns have since been dispelled, Yavneh president Zahava Stadler ’11 said.

“I’ve spoken to Rabbi Webb and the student board president of Chabad and showed initial concern, but it is my understanding that they have an explicitly educational purpose,” Stadler said.

Hilana Lewkowitz-Shpuntoff ’10, co-chair of the Chabad Torah committee, said she does not foresee the new service detracting from ones already offered by the CJL.

“The purpose of the service is not designed to have any competition with the CJL,” she said. “The target audience is people who want to learn more, regardless of where they stand.”

Chabad on Campus contacted CJL representatives as soon as it received word of the Torah donation and was mindful of the CJL services when planning the new one, Stadler said.

“I didn’t have to make any agreements or stipulations because their plans were already addressing any concern I would have,” she explained.

The considerations included offering monthly services on Saturdays, which would not interfere with Yavneh’s Friday night services, and targeting students not currently involved in Jewish life.

Chabad’s efforts to not encroach on CJL service attendance have alleviated initial concerns of several CJL representatives about Chabad’s decision to offer the services, Webb said.

“I think they’ve been supportive. They understand that the goal is to create further Jewish learning at the University,” Webb said. “Anything to help the student body is a positive force, and everyone is willing to work and try to achieve that.”

Members of both Chabad and the CJL said they hope that once students learn more about the workings of the Orthodox services through Chabad services, they will feel more comfortable attending the more conventional services offered at the CJL.

“It is certainly possible that once people gain more understanding of how the Orthodox services work, they will want to attend [CJL services],” Stadler said.

Lewkowitz-Shpuntoff echoed those sentiments, saying there was “no conflict” between the Chabad services and those offered by the CJL. “If anything, [attendance at the CJL] will increase because people will feel more confident attending the services,” she said.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

When The Blessing Was Born

by Jonathan Mark
Associate Editor

In 1981, the Blessing of the Sun was reinvented by nocturnal Jews better acquainted with the moon: the artists, poets, musicians, writers, mystics and renegades who, like the old jazz joke, had long ago forgotten that there was also a 9 in the morning.

It was the year the blessing went from a dusty box in the Jewish attic to a pan-denominational phenomenon.

The blessing, said three times a century, marking the sun’s return every 28 years to its original point in the heavens, dates from Talmudic times. But for too long it was said, as was the more frequent Blessing of the Moon, only by a small cluster of Orthodox men, standing outside shul, alternately looking from siddur to sky.

It was recited by
sober men with their feet on the ground, in communities where there was no higher compliment than “he has his feet on the ground.”

In 1981, all that changed. A vague network of the neo-chasidic and spiritually nimble, informally led by Rabbis Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach, decided that it would be terrific to say the Blessing of the Sun with our feet off the ground, as close to the sun as possible, atop the Empire State Building.

Speaking by telephone from his Boulder, Colo., home, Reb Zalman mused that the idea was born in those summers when he’d take campers to mountaintops for daybreak davening. He liked the idea of “a shul” that gave you “the freedom to space out, in a way that is not interrupting our prayers but is following the prayers with our soul.”

So with the approach of the sun’s 206th round-trip, Reb Zalman wondered, “Where can we find a mountaintop in Manhattan?”

The Martin Steinberg Center, “a community of Jewish artists,” led by Yosef HaKohen (then known as Jeff Oboler), booked “a mountaintop,” the observation deck of the Empire State Building, for the morning of the blessing, April 8, 1981.

Reb Zalman, born in Poland in 1924, couldn’t remember anything special about the previous blessing in 1953.

Every generation gets its shot. In 1981 came the baby boomers, blessed or cursed with a profound fear of being bored or being boring. This was the generation that tried levitating the Pentagon; that turned a Catskill farm into Woodstock; that came like a gypsy circus into Central Park for — so quaint does it sound now — “be-ins” and “happenings.” It was a generation raised on street theater, performance art, like Kerouac’s desolation angels in perpetual search of a scene.

It was a generation from whose energy Reb Zalman, the Steinberg Center and New Jewish Times, an alternative paper, was emerging, except with less Jewish naiveté and greater Jewish dignity.

Spiritual guidance also came from Arthur Waskow’s “Menorah” newsletter; from ArtScroll; from Rabbi Nehemia and Laurie Polen in Massachusetts.

This informal network said the blessing in 1981 at folk shrines and icons, everywhere except at a synagogue: in the Redwood forest, on the dock of the bay, at the Jefferson Memorial, at the Golden Gate Bridge, atop the Rockies, down by riversides, balancing on the Cape Cod rocks lapping the Atlantic waters, as close as you could possibly get to the sunrise horizon.

A few went to the roof of the World Trade Center. Perhaps their souls are up there still.

And yet, for all the excitement, you could probably fit all of these ad hoc minyans into Yankee Stadium’s left-field bleachers.

Jewish newspapers pretty much ignored the blessing or buried it. After all, they must have figured, what’s news about a blessing? On the other hand, New Jewish Times (a newspaper edited by Yossi Klein Halevi, Izzy Lemberg and myself) started providing information and resource guides as early as February.

In 2009, New Jewish Times was remembered romantically by both Haaretz and The New York Times for declaring its “independence from the norms of Jewish journalism,” reporting “presciently,” said Times columnist Sam Freedman, on the emerging Chabad and Jewish Renewal movements. Reb Zalman was a fusion of the two.

“I’ll tell you,” Reb Zalman says today, “We have to give credit to the [Lubavitcher] rebbe. The rebbe always pushed, What can you do to get out of your habit? How do you break through the usual to reach your full consciousness?”

In a stiff recession, New Jewish Times died just days before the blessing. We, who had a financial stake in the paper, were lowdown broke, spending the nights before the blessing taking stationery and promotional items from the office, in lieu of a final paycheck.

In truth, not too many people were paying attention to the paper or the Steinberg Center. No more than 300 of us came to the Empire State Building where, by special arrangement, the observation deck was opened at 5 a.m.

Some brought guitars, singing “Here Comes The Sun,” and Hair’s “Let The Sun Shine In.”

Some put on tallis and tefillin in the northeast corner, closest the horizon. Halevi, in his “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” remembers that “below us was a city of gray towers. The distant streets were still,” the observation deck indeed seemed “like a mountain peak,” at the end of night. “One man wore a rainbow-striped prayer shawl wrapped around his head like a Bedouin; another carried a tefillin bag on which was stitched the word ‘Tibet.’ Some women wore prayer shawls and yarmulkes. ... I wrapped myself in the [tallis] and tefillin that belonged to my father and in which I routinely prayed. [Sara] stood beside me; I extended my prayer shawl over her shoulders, to protect her from the wind.”

To the south, one could see dim lights on freighters in Sandy Hook Bay; to the north, the shadowy Palisades hulking over the Tappan Zee; to the east, the birth of morning over Long Island Sound.

The sky turned from tar-black to charcoal. Some cheered but then hushed, in awe, as if we were witnessing the 16th verse of Genesis. In the eastern firmament appeared a small rosette, particles of indigo, vermilion, shards of argent, crimson daybreak.

Reb Zalman blew a shofar, crying out, may this blessing “bring a healing for ourselves and for our planet, good crops and solutions to our economic problems. ... Master of the Universe, whatever we can fix, please God, show us how. And whatever we can’t fix anymore, have rachmones, a little pity on us, and fix it yourself.”

Reb Zalman remembers, “We read the fourth day of Creation from a Sefer Torah, said some Hallel, and released 70 balloons,” evoking the 70 bulls sacrificed on Sukkot for the mythical 70 nations of the world, “as if to say that we aren’t just interested in ourselves and what we need, but we were interested in the world.”

The world took little note. The New York Times covered the spectacle with a few paragraphs, but The Jewish Week & American Examiner, a pale ancestor of today’s paper, had nothing the following week.

Without New Jewish Times, I sold a piece to The New Yorker about the blessing, but it never ran. Halevi wrote a piece for The Village Voice, when it was still a great paper, but they, too, accepted the story before deciding it was not a story, either.

The Steinberg Center lost its funding, fairly soon after, and closed its doors.

Reb Zalman went back to being considered, along with Reb Shlomo, brilliant but fringe, chasidic outlaws unfit for slick company. It would be a while before Carlebach minyans, or Reb Zalman’s eco-kashrut and halachic-organic understanding of the world, would enter the mainstream.

As Reb Zalman joked, “I felt like the gonif geshnitin fun der tliya – when you need a thief you cut him from the gallows.”

On that holy morning, at rush hour, people started taking the elevator down to street level, except those of us who had no paper, no readers, no job or place to go. We lingered in the quiet, high over the city, halfway to heaven. There was nowhere to go but up.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The PM, Jason Kenney and a room packed with rabbis

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a speech to the Canadian Federation of Chabad Lubavitch to honour the memory of the Lubavitchers killed in the Mumbai Chabad House terrorist attack.

Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, also spoke passionately about the horrific attack.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Is Asher Lev An Idolater?

By: Menachem Wecker

Date: Wednesday, March 04 2009

My Name Is Asher Lev
Directed by Asher Posner
Adapted from Chaim Potok's novel
Artistic consultant, Adina Potok
Until March 15
Arden Theatre Company,
40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia

A Chassidic prodigy alienates his community by painting nudes. When he dares to crucify his mother in two of his paintings, the Rebbe has no choice but to banish him from Brooklyn and ship him off to Paris. There is no escaping the provocative plot of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel, My Name is Asher Lev. However, despite seeming to suggest Orthodox Judaism is incompatible with art-making, Potok gives every indication Asher will identify as an Orthodox Jew, Sabbath-observant and exclusively kosher, even as he abandons Crown Heights for France.

Two of the major influences in Asher's life, his father and his mentor, assure him he must be either a painter or an observant Jew, not both. His non-observant painting instructor, Jacob Kahn, draws a sharp contrast between true art and painting calendars for matzah companies and Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. At one point, Kahn demands, "Asher Lev, you want to go off into a corner somewhere and paint little rabbis in long beards? Then go away and do not waste my time. Go paint your little rabbis."

In Kahn's equation, true art is pagan and goyish, while religiosity can only hope to produce kitsch. Meanwhile, Asher's father Aryeh, a general in the Rebbe's army of synagogue planters, denounces all art - not just Asher's variety - as a waste of time, or even as evil ("sitra achra"). Given the choice between being demonized by his dad or deified by his art teacher, it is no wonder that Asher chooses the hedonist.

But the Rebbe is Potok's great equalizer. Knowing full well that Jacob is a persuasive atheist, the Rebbe entrusts the impressionable, already at-risk child to him. Even as he asks Asher to leave his community, the Rebbe upholds the value of art. "I do not hold with those who believe all painting and sculpture is from the sitra achra," he says to Asher, explaining that he objects not to the fact that Asher paints, but to the content of his paintings, which pains his parents. "People are angry," Potok's Rebbe tells Asher, "They ask questions, and I have no answers to give them that they will understand." One gets the sense the Rebbe asks Asher to leave, as much because he has surpassed the community, as for the harm he has caused it.

The current production of "My Name is Asher Lev" at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company lacks Potok's delicate balance between father figures who struggle to shape Asher's life. It is surely difficult to collapse an entire novel into a 90-minute production, but several of the Arden show's decisions swap Potok's respectful prose for propaganda.

Explaining to the audience why the Rebbe has asked him to go into exile, Asher (Karl Miller) truncates the Rebbe's sentence above. Instead of the community being unable to understand Asher, the Rebbe himself is lost - "he was being asked questions he couldn't answer," Miller says. Equating the Rebbe's inability to answer a question with his community's lack of imagination to grasp the answer is inexcusable, and it deprives Asher of his greatest ally in the Chassidic community.

Where Potok's Asher can draw confidence from the Rebbe's admiration and respect even as he is banished, Miller's character is very alone. One such error is forgivable, but Miller plays Asher throughout as a confident, sarcastic, and charismatic young man, who gets periodic laughs from the audience. Potok's Asher is no comedian. He is shy, pained, and perhaps even delusional and depressed, and his life is a tragedy, which is not to be joked about.

The Arden performance also fails to account for the true cause of the communal strife. Potok makes clear that Asher's community objects to his drawing from the model on the grounds that it is immoral for people to reveal their bodies. Asher tries in vain to explain he is part of a tradition of art making, which is not about lewdness, but about seeing. Potok also clarifies Aryeh's disgust at his son's incorporation of Christian iconography into his work.

Aryeh has devoted his life to saving Jews from Communism and Christian anti-Semitism, and he is very well respected in the Ladover community. The revelation that his son is embracing the very symbol of the anti-Semitism threatening Russian Jews, and which killed Aryeh's father, who ventured out one night to do the Rebbe's work forgetting it was Easter, and was killed by a drunken peasant, is devastating to him. The Arden script takes it for granted that Chassidim object to art without really delineating the areas of concern.

One of the most successful aspects of the Arden production is its character recycling. The decision to collapse the cast to three actors was surely driven more by the economy than any aesthetic concerns, but fascinating new approaches to the novel emerge when characters move in and out of roles. Adam Heller plays Aryeh, the Rebbe, Kahn, and Aryeh's brother Yitzchok. Gabra Zackman performs the roles of Asher's mother Rivkeh, the art collector Anna Schaeffer, a model, and the students in Asher's grade school class.

This exchange of roles speaks directly to Potok's theme of a grand tug-of-war of characters all vying for control of Asher's life. Kahn is the only one who admits it, shamelessly telling Asher he intends to mold him as Michelangelo sculpted Moses, but Aryeh, the Rebbe, Yitzchok also try to sculpt Asher in their own image.

Heller plays a very compelling Kahn, ironic, sly, hedonistic, and grand. But the script can hardly escape the romanticizing of the art-making experience that plagues Potok's novel. Asher insists on several occasions that the purpose of art is to reveal the painter's feelings, and Potok throws Asher into a trace every time he paints. The prodigy is so unconscious of his actions that he does not realize he is drawing on his bedroom wall, on his school notebooks, and even in one particularly sacrilegious moment, all over the Bible. (Mysteriously, the performance has Asher draw in a Siddur, prayer book, rather than a Chumash, which makes a huge difference.)

Potok's "explanations" of the painting experience range from "new shapes [coming] alive and [dying] in the slow movement of color and light" to Asher "drawing with [his] eyes inside [himself], copying the painting slowly, very slowly, and feeling the contours with [his] eyes." This sentimentalizing of the painting act, costs Potok a bit of his credibility, and it can be seen in an uneventful painting Potok himself made of one of Asher's infamous works.

In Potok's novel, everything is either true art or intolerable kitsch, with no middle ground. The Arden play could have sought more aesthetic nuance, and in so doing, also uncovered more religious gradations - for example noting that Chassidim tend to find more religious value in the arts than Misnagdim do.

One of the main specters Potok neglected in his novel is the question of idolatry. Kahn has his theories about true paintings (they must show no cowardice or indecision, the aesthetic version of Polonius' advice in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true"). But Potok gives no indication that the Rebbe might be concerned about the Second Commandment. Instead, the Ladover concerns are cultural (painting is goyish) and historic (it symbolizes anti-Semitism).

Ironically, Asher and Kahn's philosophy of art is perhaps at least symbolically idolatrous, not because Kahn insists upon incorporating pagan symbols, but because by doing so, it allows such a rigid and sentimentalized definition of art. Though the audience never gets a glimpse of either Asher's or Jacob's works, one gets the impression they are likely to appear quite dead.
Despite its problems, the performance comes to a crescendo - at the opening to Asher's exhibit, with the objectionable paintings - that is very moving. Even when viewers know the showdown is coming, Heller, Miller, and Zackman play the scene masterfully. After seeing the pieces in question, Aryeh and Rivkeh turn on their heels and walk "with dignity," in Potok's words, from the gallery. It is hard to hold back tears at the ultimate collapse of the Lev family unit, and that is a testament to the great skills of the actors.

Potok's Asher follows after his parents and tries to explain himself to them, but they close the cab door in his face. Miller's Asher lets his parents walk away, though Rivkeh stops half way and turns to look back at him before Aryeh directs her out of the room. Later, as Asher prepares to leave Brooklyn, Aryeh manages a handshake and Rivkeh asks Asher to write, so all is not lost. Perhaps Asher and his parents will be able to better understand each other from a distance. But one can hope that the Arden players did not choose to soften many of Potok's harsh scenes (like the departure from the gallery) in an effort to be more respectful to the Chassidic lifestyle.

Asher might think his exhibit is to be lauded for its honest portrayal of his feelings, but he is selfish not to consider the implications of his actions and how they will affect his parents. When Aryeh and Rivkeh walk out of the gallery, they do not need any justification for their horror and shame. Perhaps it makes sense for Rivkeh to turn around and consider her estranged son as she reaches the exit, but Jacob Kahn would probably have told Zackman that turning around is not true art, and she ought to get real.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.