Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Happy Sylvester!", Israel's Secular New Year

Throughout Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, the last day of the year is “party night.” On December 31st Israelis will celebrate along with the rest of the world but instead of shouting “Happy New Year,” Israelis do something different. As the year turns from 2013 to 2014, Israel’s Jews will wish each other a  “Happy Sylvester,” a New Year’s greeting that invokes, of all things, the name of a Catholic saint!

Israel is the Jewish state and the Jewish New Year of Rosh HaShanah is marked on the Hebrew calendar on the eve of the first day in the Hebrew month of Tisrei – a Jewish Holy Day that occurs in the fall of the year. Rosh HaShanah is the day to greet friends and family with “Shanah Tovah,” a Hebrew phrase that means “a good year,” or “Happy New Year.” Hence the dilemma – What to say to differentiate the secular new year from the religious one? 

That was the problem that immigrants from Western Europe faced when they first came to Israel. These newcomers still wanted to celebrate the secular New Year as they had done in their home countries and to avoid confusion they needed a new greeting. 

Sylvester the Cat, Looney Tunes
But why Sylvester?

Israeli writer and columnist Daniel Rogov did some digging and found that for years no one was certain who Sylvester really was. Until recently many scholars believed that the original Sylvester was a Catholic saint, however there was always some confusion about his life. Speculations included one popular story that Sylvester was an obscure Catholic priest who became famous for walking from Bordeaux to Jerusalem – barefoot!

Others believed that the saint was really a Roman Catholic pope whose claim to fame was that he had brought an animal back to life. Pope Sylvester, legend has it, raised a bull from the dead. Others opined that Sylvester was an Italian monk known for his “friendly relationships” with the local young ladies.

Recently new information about the illusive Sylvester has come to light. Historian Georges Duby in his recently published book,  “France in the Middle Ages,” speculates that Sylvester may have been Peter Sylvester, who was the bishop of Beauvais in 1431 when Joan of Arc was arrested in his city.

Joan of Arc, by Rossetti 
Sylvester earned the respect of his fellow Frenchmen because his was the voice of calm among the hype and hysterics surrounding Joan of Arc’s rise to fame. Apparently Sylvester was the only cleric who did not believe that young Joan was acting under the influence of the devil. Sylvester defended Joan of Arc as “a good Christian, a woman of purity who lived according to the rules of the church and who had no evil in her.” Although Sylvester’s colleagues were determined to bring Joan to trial and subsequently execute her, Sylvester spoke out against such harsh treatment.  

On the morning of December 31st, Sylvester himself was arrested, thrown into jail and tortured there. Several minutes before midnight the 82 year old Sylvester died, but not before saying his final words, “The year ends and so do I.”

Bishop Sylvester, as one who stood up to the Church authority and who died for his beliefs on the last night of the secular year, became the “Sylvester” of the Israeli greeting offered at the beginning of each secular year. So in his honor and memory, Happy Sylvester 2015! 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Torah in a Tree House: One Month as an Honorary Alaskan Jew

They live five thousand miles from New York City and they call themselves the “Frozen Chosen.” They are Alaskan Jews who make their home in the cold North Country and who have carved a vibrant Jewish community out of mountains and glaciers, oceans and forests in our 49th state. For one month, beginning with Rosh HaShanah and concluding with Simchat Torah, I had the opportunity to serve these hardy Alaskan Jews as visiting rabbi for Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Juneau.

Like most folks who prepare for a long journey to parts unknown, I used the internet to learn more about what would become my Alaska adventure. I googled photos and videos, articles and slide shows to see what Alaska would be like. Once I arrived I realized that the computer could not do justice to the magnificent natural beauty that was mine to enjoy each day for 31 days. And Juneau’s unique synagogue was at the top of the list. 

Synagogue Sukkat Shalom was founded as a chavurah many years ago but it wasn’t until 2005 when the congregation was able to purchase its own building – an unusual structure built on the trestle rails of what was once the railroad track for an active gold mine. Imagine the setting - a long, narrow building more than ten times as long as it is wide, secured on trestle rails high above a deep gorge. A congregant’s architect daughter and her students designed the sacred space to conform to the natural beauty of the area. The result is breathtaking. Synagogue Sukkat Shalom, surrounded by glass on three sides, literally wraps the congregants in a panorama of majestic pine trees, verdant mountains and rolling sea. Imagine reading about the creation of the world at the very moment that you are immersed on all sides in nature’s beauty! 

It was an honor and a joy for me to serve the Sukkat Shalom congregation and I enjoyed leading services and teaching the children in the after-school program as well. I learned that Alaska kids, living as they do in the rugged mountain country at the top of the world, are strong and confident. Putting up the sukkah was no problem for these eight, nine and tend year olds who worked outside in the pouring rain to get the job done. In a climate where rainy days are the norm for much of the year, Juneau Jews echo the sentiment of most residents when they say, “If you don’t put on your boots and slicker and get outdoors, you’ll never get out at all!”

Jewish Alaskans quietly have been securing their own place in history for more than one hundred years when the first Jews came northward in 1898. Ernest Gruening, Alaska’s first governor and the first senator, was Jewish and four of Alaska’s magnificent mountains are named after Jews. You’ll find a Star of David window in Alaska’s most famous Christian church and more recently
Alaska Airlines assisted in the airlift of Yemeni Jews to Israel. Today there are 6,000 Jews in the entire state, concentrated in three major cities – Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau

After having spent one month in Juneau, I understood how “Sukkat Shalom” is the perfect name for this Alaskan synagogue. “Sukkat Shalom” means “shelter of peace,” and indeed I felt sheltered by the love and caring of this marvelous congregation. It was the “meshpucha” feeling times ten as members of the congregation opened their homes to us, guided us on the trail to the Mendenhall Glacier, and made certain we saw giant whales swimming in the Pacific Ocean. On our last day in Juneau, our hosts pushed us out the door just in time to see a towering mother bear, nearly seven feet tall, frolicking with her cub beside a mountain stream.

It was at that stream, called Gold Creek, where we tossed away our sins during the Tashlich service. As October rains poured down, the rugged Juneau Jews carried on as though the sun was shining. Dressed in orange, yellow and neon green slickers, “wader” boots and hoods,  nearly 50 hearty congregants linked arms to sing “Hi ne ma tov,”  How good and pleasant it is,  here in Alaska, when we not only “sit together,” but walk together, hike together, trek and schlep together as brothers and sisters at the top of the world.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sukkot Is Jewish Camping Under the Stars

A requested repost from September, 2013. 

We are doing it here in Calabria and many of you are doing the same thing all over the world.  When my daughter was a little girl she always called this holiday Jewish camping.  For Jewish families, many of us will be “camping out” this coming week as we eat our meals under the little temporary huts called (and this is where the holiday gets its name) “Sukkot.”

So here’s the question. What is the only building that is authentically Jewish?  The only real, true Jewishly Jewish structure?  If our answer is “synagogue,” or even “temple,” then we’ve run into a problem.

Think about synagogues you’ve seen.  Some are built in the round, others are square. In the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv there is a synagogue display – tiny miniatures of synagogues from all over the world. There you can see Spanish synagogues designed in the Moorish style, western models that come from Germany and bold and experimental types from Australia and America.

Why all the different architectural forms? Because nowhere in the Torah or in any other of our holy books is there any explanation of just exactly what a synagogue should look like. 

So, if the answer to our question about the most Jewishly Jewish building is NOT the synagogue, then what is it.  What’s the most Jewishly Jewish building you could ever have? It’s the Sukkah.

In all of the Torah, the Sukkah is the only building we are told we absolutely must build.  And as far as buildings go, the sukkah is kind of strange.  For one thing we are told to build it so that you can see through the roof and look straight up to the stars.  That’s not all. The sukkah has to be made so that its sides aren’t very sturdy. Open space is gently corralled within its wispy walls.

The sukkah is a building, if you can even call it that – a building that, more than it separates us from the outside, a building that links us with the outside.  For eight days a year our sukkah makes us one with the great outdoors. 

Our sukkah calls us back to the time when we lived in the wilderness.  It is a building that reminds us how fragile and temporary all buildings really are -even those made out of bricks or cement. 

That’s why, once every year, we go out of our “permanent” buildings into our temporary shelters so that we get a hands-on experience with how fragile all life really is.  If you don’t believe that just talk to anyone who lost a home to the ravages of “Sandy” or the tsunami in Japan. 

As Jewish families build their sukkahs and spend time eating, maybe even sleeping in them, these little temporary huts seem to be saying to each of us …  don’t shut yourself off from the world outside.  Because the walls are wide open, our sukkah demands that we connect with each other. Our sukkah asks us to remember the words of our sages; “The closest that anyone on this earth ever gets to God is our relationships with other people.” 

So as we Calabresi enjoy our mountain top  sukkah, built beneath the “pergola,” the grape arbor where we regularly make our Shabbat Kiddush blessings, even we Italian B’nei Anousim, who are only now reclaiming our Jewish roots, understand that regardless of where we live, our homes and our hearts need wide open spaces. We need to remember that regardless of the structure, we live under roofs that are gentle and fragile, just like the roof of our sukkah.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot says to us that we need to stop for a moment and take time to look up.  It’s curious how, in shaky temporary lean-tos, we can feel God’s presence even more keenly.  And how important it is for us to know that when we sit in our ancient flimsy sukkah, it is here where we can truly see the stars. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Hebrew Month of Elul: Facts, Tips and Actions

The Month of Preparation

On the secular calendar it’s nearly the end of August while on the Hebrew calendar a new month has begun. It’s the month of Elul, the only month that does not feature a holiday, a feast day, a fast day or a memorial. And that’s no coincidence. Our sages understood that we Jews need time to prepare spiritually for Rosh HaShanah, the new year, when we are asked to make our apologies and amends and to accept, with a forgiving spirit, apologies made to us.

So nu, what do you do during Elul? Below you will find 29 the FACTS, TIPS and ACTIONS to help you prepare your head and heart to receive the blessings and joys of Hebrew year  5775.

1. The month of Elul begins this year at sundown, Tuesday, August 26.

2. Elul is the only one of the Hebrew months where there are no festivals, memorial days, fast days or days of simcha.

3. Elul is the month of preparation. In fact the name Elul originates from the Babylonian period. In Aramaic it means, “to search.”

4. Thus, Elul is the month for Jews to search their souls.

5. The word, Elul (Hebrew letters “alef, lamed, vav, lamed”) is thought to be an acronym of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” which translates to “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs Chapter 6: 3)

6. he “beloved” is believed to be the “One God,” and the “I” represents the people of Israel.

7. The word, “Elul” first appears in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Nechemiah (chapter 6 verse 15)

8. During the month of Elul it is traditional to sound the shofar each weekday morning

9. The shofar serves as a spiritual “alarm clock,” to remind us to take time each day to examine our behavior, ask for forgiveness and prepare to change.

10. Our great sage and teacher, Maimonides (Rambam) taught us in Hilchot Teshuvah about the symbolic meaning of the sound of the shofar: 

11. “Awake all of your who are asleep. Search your ways and mend them in repentance.”

12. The shofar, or ram’s horn, that is sounded during Elul and for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, is the oldest musical instrument in continuous use in the world.

13. The person who sounds the shofar is called “Ba’al Tekiah” or (in the feminine) “Ba’alat Tekiah,” which means “master of the sound.”

14. The shofar can be made from the horn of any kosher animal.

15. Around the world the horns of the ram, goat, antelope, sheep, gazelle, ibex and kudu can be used to make a shofar.

16. The horns of cows, calves or oxen to do not qualify as shofarot because they are connected with false worship in the time of Moses while the horns of oxen are called “keren,” and technically are not “shofarot.”

17. The original Sephardic shofar is straight with no curves while the typical Askkenazi shofar is curled or bent. In Poland the rabbis taught that this bending symbolizes the human heart, which should be bent before the Lord on that day.

18. The shofar can be sounded once a day for the month of Elul and during Rosh HaShanah services for a total of 129 blasts.

19. The names of the shofar sounds are “tekiah,” “shevarim” “teruah” and tekiah gadolah.”

20. The original name for Rosh HaShanah was Yom Teruah, the day of  the sounding of the shofar.

21. “Kolel” The Adult Center for Liberal Jewish Learning, reminds us that there are specific things each Jew can do during the month of Elul.

22. Make time every day for personal reflection, meditation and prayer. These things prepare us for “Cheshbon HaNefesh,”  - “the accounting of the soul.

23. Think of the people you have hurt during the past year. Meditate on what you have done.  Find the person and make an apology.  Ask for forgiveness.

24. Think of those things that you should have done but did not do.  Did you borrow a tool or a book from a friend and fail to return it?  Did you forget to send greetings for a birthday or special occasion?  Make your apology for these sins of omission.  Return the item and make a belated greeting.

25. Hear the sound of the shofar each day during the month. Find a synagogue where the shofar is sounded or invest in a shofar and sound it yourself each morning.

26. Read Psalm 27 each morning. 

27. Give Tzedakah.  Now is the time to give charity to those in need.  Now is the time to make a special donation to the synagogue.

28. If you can, make a visit to the burial place of your loved ones. 

Apples and honey for a sweet new year.
29. Find your Tallet. Take it to the drycleaner for cleaning and pressing.  Polish and shine the Mezzuzot at your doors.  If you don’t have a mezuzah, now is the time to purchase one and hang it proudly on the right side of your door frame, point inward..

The best way to assure a “Shanah Tovah” a Good New Year, is to begin now in the Month of Elul.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Soul Searching for Rachela

Rabbi Barbara welcomes guest blogger, Marcia Colagiovanni.  

Marcia and Rabbi met via the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC) when Rabbi helped Marcia discover the Jewish roots of her family's Italian surnames. Marcia describes her remarkable Jewish journey which includes a deeply spiritual experience at the Hayim Mayim Mikveh in Boston, USA.​ You can also access this post on Marcia's blog, The Mikvah Lady Has Left the Building.

Left to Right: Marcia Colagiovanni, Robin Weintraub,
Rabbi Barbara Aiello, Florence Preisler, and Ellen Paderson.
It was an honor to introduce Rabbi Barbara Aiello to Mayyim Hayyim during her February 2014 Boston visit to serve as a Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Beth David of Westwood. While all annual Scholar Programs at my temple have enhanced my ongoing Jewish learning, this one was particularly personal for me.  I am an Italian American “baby boomer” raised Catholic who has discovered and embraced her Jewish ancestry.  Both Rabbi Aiello and Mayyim Hayyim represent the beginning and ending of my spiritual journey “home” to Judaism.

Rabbi Aiello is rabbi of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria, Italy in 500 years since Inquisition times.  She is the first and only woman and non-orthodox rabbi in Italy.  Born and raised in Pittsburg, Rabbi Aiello traces her roots back nearly five centuries to Serrastretta in Calabria.  Hers was one of five Jewish families who founded the town 460 years ago as they fled persecution.

My ritual conversion took place on January 23, 2012, at Mayyim Hayyim.  Simply put, it was a highly dignified and profoundly validating experience.  My spiritual journey to Judaism had begun decades before.  I always felt strongly connected to Judaism especially when I learned from my many Jewish friends and colleagues about its teachings, and I comfortably shared with them its practices.  I was often told that I possess a Jewish soul.  But it was not until 2010 when I met Rabbi Aiello after I decided to convert to Judaism that I fully understood my lifelong attraction to and affinity for the faith.

In 2007, Rabbi Aiello founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), an organization that helps Italians and Italian Americans discover the Jewish heritage of their surnames.  She is also founder of the B’nei Anousim (a Hebrew phrase that means “children of the forced ones”) movement in Southern Italy, an initiative to help the “hidden” Jews of Calabria and Sicily whose ancestors were forced into Christian conversion return to Judaism.

Archival research conducted by the IjCCC reports that individuals with the surname of my great grandmother “Rachela” (Rachel) who was born in Southern Italy: 1) are listed in Inquisition records of those brought before the Inquisition authorities under suspicion of practicing Jewish ritual in secret after they had been forced into conversion to Christianity, 2) are listed in Nazi Deportation Records, and 3) appear on the rolls of those recognized today as Jewish by the Italian Jewish Community.  And analysis of my DNA finds my ancestry to be Middle Eastern (Jewish) and European (Spanish and Italian).  Remarkably, this profile traces the centuries-long geographic journey of some of my ancestors: Jews originating in the Land of Canaan who migrated to the Iberian Peninsula, Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition who sought refuge in Southern Italy, and Jews who settled permanently in Southern Italy and eventually became B’nei Anousim.  Until Rabbi Aiello’s groundbreaking research began to uncover the “hidden” Jews of Southern Italy, many of us with Southern Italian roots had no knowledge of our Jewish ancestry.

When Rabbi Aiello toured Mayyim Hayyim, she learned that it is a 21st-century creation rooted in ancient tradition and reinvented to serve the Jewish Community of today; a resource for learning, spiritual discovery, and creativity where women and men of all ages can celebrate milestones such as conversions and weddings; and a place where survivors of trauma, illness, or loss can find solace.

As I immersed in the “living waters” of Mayyim Hayyim, my eyes filled with tears.  They were an expression of my overwhelming joy and peace to have finally returned home to the Jewish faith of my ancestors.  In memory of my great grandmother Rachela, I choose Rachel as my Hebrew name.

Recently retired from a 30-year career as an Immigration Legal Specialist in Washington, D.C. and Boston, Marcia enjoys spending more time with family and friends, volunteering, and traveling the world.