Friday, October 30, 2015


It's October 30.  Tomorrow night is Halloween.  We don't get too many Trick or Treaters at our house, but Halloween raises interesting challenges for Jews. 

Has Halloween become a secular observance like Thanksgiving for everyone to observe?  Most of us don't think twice about Valentine's day as a day for sending notes or flowers though we all know it's really St. Valentine's Day.  (Most authorities question whether there ever was a St. Valentine altogether.)

When I was maybe 9 or 10 growing up in San Francisco, one year the parents gathered all the kids on the block and paraded us in our costumes in the small grocery parking lot on the corner.  I'm sure I was the only Jewish kid.  I remember overhearing several parents quietly complaining about the Fogiottos, a religious Catholic family that dressed their kids in religious costumes: a priest, a nun, a monk.  "Why," they asked, "did the Fogiottos have to make this event religious?"  I remember agreeing with them.  Only much later did I come to appreciate that the Fogiottos had it right.  Halloween is a religious holiday.

So, should we abstain as most Jews do from Easter and Christmas?  Or should we conclude that Halloween or All Hallow's Eve has lost its religious meaning?

As indicated above I went out trick or treating.  My mother was a master craftsperson.  She hand- made all of my costumes, which were then handed down to all the relatives and friends.  There was the cute clown costume, and the Dutch boy costume complete with wooden shoes, etc.  When Carol and I had children I took them trick or treating.  (I grew up on a block with many children and where the houses were close together.  Each year I rang doorbells for several blocks bringing home quite a loot..  When our oldest Ari was ready to go out in a suburban neighborhood where the houses were on 3/4 acre plots, I remember being disappointed when Ari said he was tired after only hitting four or five houses!)

But some Jewish parents take the position that Halloween is not for Jewish children.  Cantor Shivers did not take her kids out on Halloween, but remained at home and made sure to distribute candy to anyone who came to her door.

So here's the dilemma.  If you decide not to engage in Halloween festivities because it is a Christian or even pagan observance, should you behave as Cantor Shivers or keep your porch light off and not engage in this silliness at all?  One might legitimately decide that none of this is for Jews. Period.  Alternatively one might decide that from a Jewish perspective it is important for me to be a good neighbor.  I live in a mixed neighborhood of mostly non-Jews.  It is incumbent upon me to participate even if just to give out candy.  Or one can avoid the entire matter and go out to the movies.

I wonder what our Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu neighbors do?  Do atheists observe Halloween?      


Everyone Carol knows asks her what it's like to have her husband home all the time.  And she readily admits that I'm not home that much.  Well, the truth is that I am home somewhat more than pre-retirement. However I find myself pleasantly busy.  With what? All kinds of good things.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of officiating at Linda Shivers and Albert Kolkin's wedding along with Linda's brother.  I have officiated at weddings of immediate family which is one of the enormous perks of being a rabbi, but never before at the wedding of someone I worked closely with as a professional partner for close to 20 years. 

At Rabbi Stampfer's suggestion we are both teaching "Emeritai Classes" on Thursday mornings.  I teach from 9:15-10:15am and he then teaches from 10:30-11:30am.  In my class we are studying "The Jewish Mind" by Raphael Patai, a fascinating exploration of the intellectual and cultural encounters that Jews have had through the centuries and how Jews balanced the attractions of assimilation while maintaining our distinct identity. Rabbi Stampfer and I both have challenges keeping our classes to just one hour.  I also continue to teach my Bible class,  We recently concluded the Book of Esther and now are engaged in understanding Deuteronomy.

The Oregon Food Bank has also captured my imagination.  I sit on both its Board of Directors and Executive Committee.  OFB is an enormously impressive organization.  With an annual budget of over $20,000,000, the organization is dedicated not only to feeding the hungry, but to get at the root causes of hunger: everything from proper health care and nutrition to productive employment.  I sit on the Board Advocacy Committee and chair CEO evaluation committee.  Once a month I get right in there distributing 4 tons of produce in a program called Harvest Share, our small piece of the program chaired by Barb Schwartz.  I am overwhelmed to learn that 50% of Oregon school age students are eligible for free or reduced lunch!  Those children receive hot breakfast and lunch during the school year, but then take home backpacks over the weekend so that they will not go hungry.  Shocking!

I also teach in various venues.  Each year I am invited to PCC Sylvania in a class focused on death and dying traditions to speak about Judaism's views on everything from cremation to mourning customs.  Concordia College, a Missouri Synod Lutheran School in Northeast Portland, requires every student to take a course in comparative religion. I am their go-to guy to introduce the students to Jewish ideas and approaches to life.  I  mentioned Missouri Synod, b4ecause that is the conservative branch of Lutheranism.  I am unbelievably impressed that Concordia determines that having a broad knowledge of various religious traditions is sufficiently important to make it a required course. 

I continue to teach in our Oregon Board of Rabbi Introduction to Judaism course, which attracts many people considering conversion.  Teaching Jews by choice has always given me great pleasure and I think I will continue to welcome students.

One of the challenges of retirement is to rethink one's daily routine.  I am enormously thankful that I have an office at the synagogue, considerably smaller than my previous office, but an office nonetheless.  Here I can think and do much work and preparation. (Two weeks ago without thinking after teaching a class I automatically walked into my old office and with considerable embarrassment closed the door.  Rabbi Kosak was not there, thank goodness. 

I continue to attend morning Minyan though not everyday.  I do not come to shul Friday evenings, spending them with Carol and invited guests at home, but I am here every Shabbat morning, sometimes attending the main service and sometimes the Downstairs Minyan.  I now get to the gym three times a week, something I was never able to accomplish previously and get to my yoga class each week.

Recently my uncle died at age 89 in Florida.  I am saying kaddish for him since his wife and children will not do so.  I will soon fly to Montgomery, Alabama, where his oldest son/my cousin lives to attend a memorial service.  We have preliminary plans to see our San Diego children and grandchildren after the new year and Carol and I are excited about plans for an extended trip in March and April to Southern Spain and Morocco.

I am addicted to the New York Times and read the New Yorker on my hike to and from the synagogue when it is not raining on Shabbat morning.

So far so good.  The world is complicated, but life is truly a joyous gift.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Observing Rosh Hashanah 5776

I began leading High Holy Day services during my senior year in high school.  As chief Jewish military chaplain of the Western States, my childhood rabbi in San Francisco who officiated at my Bar Mitzvah, William Dalin, provided Jewish service leaders for every military base in the West. As such he asked me to lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Beale Air Force base about an hour's drive north of Sacramento.  (Beale, I discovered, had originally been a World War II Japanese internment camp.) The congregants would be military personnel and civilians from the local community.  It's hard to imagine that that was 48 years ago!  Except for two years while studying in Jerusalem, I have led HH services every year since.

August and early September inevitably became annual pressure filled times in the Isaak household. Four major sermons, Torah and Haftarah insights and prayer theme explanations to consider and prepare. How would I address the congregation this year? What personal concerns, societal problems, current issues ought to be addressed?  What expressions did the congregants want/need to hear from me. What is the proper balance between conditions of the individual soul and more general concerns of the environment, bigotry and/or challenges confronting Israel and the Jewish people? In addition days and weeks leading up to the High Holy Days also entailed the distributing of High Holiday honors, distributing parts for our teens, preparing Torah scrolls and checking in with Torah readers. Also needing attention at this time of the year are the welcoming of prospective and new members, the beginning of Foundation and religious school and aiding in general program planning for the academic year.    

This year would be different.  With Rabbi David Kosak now at the helm following my retirement, Carol and I decided we would become sitting in the pew congregants, joining our children and grandchildren at Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn.  After many years of complaining that she could never sit with her husband in shul, this year would be different. Marissa and Daniel with their two children occupy a postage stamp sized apartment, so after exploring airb&b, I rented a room in an apartment within walking distance.  Our son Gabriel and his family in Manhattan joined us for a joyous Shabbat dinner.

We had visited Kane Street Synagogue just a few months ago when we named our newest grandchild, Louise.  When I called Sam Weintraub, Kane Street's rabbi, to let him know that we were coming and to check how we might procure tickets if that was wasn't, he suggested that I might enjoy their alternative service at the Friend's School held a few blocks away.  Marissa assured me that that was also their preferred venue.

In a small rectangular space with a capacity of no more than 150 max, we gathered for Erev Rosh Hashanah. Clearly the attraction is a young man named Joey Weisenberg.  Though neither ordained rabbi nor cantor, Joey welcomes all with a warm smile.  Clearly he knows traditional nusach, but it is what he does with the nusach and the easy to join-in nigunim that create a truly masterful experience. There was a time when I would somewhat disparagingly refer to what Joey does as "yubba bubba", but I found there a sweetness and a genuine spirituality, a term I generally shy away from, that I found very attractive.  Though the main service began first and second day at 8:45am, Joey's service started at 7:45am!  (Rabbi Weintraub told me at Tashlich that years ago Joey could not understand why anyone would object to a RH service that would run past 3pm.  Therefore the early start.)

The service contained no English readings, no introductions to Torah or Haftarah portions, no explanations of specific prayers or parts of the service. A congregant offered a brief Dvar Torah/Sermon.  Pages were indicated on the front wall. Joey and a small group of his "hasidim" stood around the Amud in the center of the room, adding  creative percussion that supported the singing. Clearly this is not a service for everyone.  I suspect it attracted some of the most knowledgeable congregants.  What also enhanced the service was the large number of young families with young children.  Our children Marissa and Daniel with their three and five month olds were typical.

Employing the marvelous new Lev Shalem Makhzor, we skipped not a page.  Some might mistake the complete liturgy for an Orthodox service, but it was unmistakenly egalitarian: female as well as male Torah and Haftarah readers, honorees, gabbaim, etc.  

We will return for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services before returning home the next day to enjoy our Sukkot observance.  

Joey Weisenberg takes his magic on the road, visiting various communities as Shabbat scholar in residence. He has much to teach in creating a lively, participant engaged religious experience.  I would certainly strongly encourage bringing Joey to Neveh Shalom.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

We Are All Refugees...

Note: Carol's photographic opening from previous blog post was Thursday evening.  The post was only published on Friday.

The great migration of Jews fleeing Eastern European persecution occurred between 1875 and 1915, when over 2,500,000 Jews arrived on these shores.  This was a time with few if any immigration restrictions.  "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

I on the other hand am a first generation American.  My extended family struggled to discover avenues of escaping Nazi Germany, and doors which would open for them. They were few and far between.  My father who never completed high school made his way to Palestine alone as a 17 year old in 1937.  My mother, too old at 16 to qualify on her own for the Kindertransport, was nevertheless allowed to accompany her younger brother to England. There the family who took her in treated her as a maid. Subject to food rationing in Germany, she often talked about eating bread crusts that her host family threw in the garbage.  My aunt, my father's sister was on one of the boats that returned the Hamburg, finding no port in the new world affording disembarkation to any of its desparate refugees.  She eventually escaped with her mother, my paternal grandmother, though Italy to freedom.  My maternal great grandmother was shipped off to Theresienstadt, the supposed model concentration camp.  She survived when she and others were traded for trucks... My maternal grandmother was gassed on a train.  When Carol decided to collect a family medical history of my father's 33 (!) aunts and uncles, I learned for the first time how many never made it out.

It is with this personal history and the larger Jewish experience of fleeing persecution and antisemitism that I see in the eyes of Syrian, Iraqi, East African, Central American refugees familiar faces.  And so must we all.  These are the faces of fear and despiration.  We must not let them die at sea, or languish aimlessly for months and years in refugee camps.

We must open our arms and find ways for them to house, feed and educate their children. These are extraordinary times, requiring extraordinary selflessness and governmental generosity and creativity.  The selfishness of a Donald Trump who demonstrates no compassion for the undocumented and others of his ilk must be roundly condemned and rejected.

These are helpless human beings, struggling against evil forces not of their making.  Let us open our hearts to their plight and afford them the dignity they deserve.      

Friday, September 4, 2015

"We Will Not Negotiate Out of Fear, But We Will Not Fear to Negotiate" (JFK Innaugural address 1961)

I write from Boston where tonight I will celebrate my wife's photography exhibit opening at the Griffin Museum. During the day Carol and I made our way to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

The quote above from Kennedy's famous inaugural address struck me as particularly poignant during this week when America's approval of the Iran nuclear deal was guaranteed.  34 Senators all Democrats including our own Jeff Merkley vowed that they would not override the President's veto, guaranteeing passage. I hope Senator Ron Wyden will decide to join them, for if that number of Senators reaches 41, the agreement will not even require Obama's veto. (If I am not mistaken the vote is not to approve the agreement, which is not required since this is not a treaty. However the vote is actally to agree to drop the sanctions against Iran implemented originally by Congress, a stipulation required by the agreement.)

I am personally exceedingly pleased that the international agreement will take effect. I am convinced that it will be shown to be in American as well as Israel's best interest.  If the US did not approve, nothing would prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons immediately, completing the project within months.  Iran would also receive most of the money that is in escrow, because it is being held by foreign governments. Only American sanctions would remain in place. That of other nations would be removed.  Contrary to the opinion of nay sayers, there was no better international agreement in the offing.

Yes, PM Netanyahu's vehement opposition was to be considered. And if I were the only one who favored the agreement, I would have had to consider why. However three polls demonstrated that a majority of American Jews supported the deal.  Early in the process I signed on to a list of American rabbis in support of the deal which grew to over 425 names.
Israeli intelligence officers, heads of the Shin Bet, overseers of Israeli security, claimed this deal was the best guarantee to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for at least 10 to 15 years. And today scores of Israeli generals, colonels, admirals and heads of branches of Israeli security published their support in a full page New York Times ad.

 I agreed to join a delegation from J Street to encourage the Oregon congressional delegation to vote in favor. While J Street spearheaded this effort, they proved to be not the only Jewish organization to support it.

I believe that PM Netanyahu made a serious miscalculation.  Rather than take on the Obama administration, he should have appealed for greater guarantees from the US and European governments should there be reason to believe Iran was cheating. Israel could have asked for determination as to what will happen at the end of 10 or 15 years.  Now there is need for serious repair in the most serious rupture in US-Israel relations in Israel's 67 year history.

Kennedy's promise was prophetic.  We will not negotiate with our enemies or antagonists out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.  The alternative brings not only death and destruction, but inevitably unknown consequences.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hillel Sandwich???

It's somewhat crazy to write about Passover's Hillel sandwich before the High Holy Days, but so be it.

Getting into my car the radio is automatically tuned to NPR. The discussion between interviewer and guest is about the history of the sandwich!  The interviewer mentions Lord Sandwich after whom the sandwich is evidently named and the guest adds for accuracy sake: Lord Sandwich the Fourth!

Then the guest whose name I never got continues that some 1500 years before Lord Sandwich the great Jewish rabbi Hillel actually invented the sandwich and she explains that Hillel would eat two pieces of Matza with bitter herbs and haroset inside.  She then briefly explains the Passover symbolism.  Isn't that the history we all learned in Hebrew school?

Well, if it is, it was taught incorrectly.  Hillel did not eat a Hillel sandwich, not if we mean two pieces of bread/matza with something in between.  It says clearly in the Haggadah (but we are so hungry at that time that we don't pay a great deal of attention, that it was Hillel's custom to eat the three Passover symbols together. 

What are the three Passover symbols? We learn from Rabban Gamliel just a few pages earlier in the Haggadah: they are Pesakh, i.e. the Paschal lamb, Matza and Maror.  In other words Hillel ate a piece of lamb, on a single piece of matza with horse radish on tip.  Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

So how did we get our custom of two pieces of matza with maror and haroset?  Hillel lived in the first pre-Christian century, when the Second Temple still existed.  As long as the Temple stood, the centerpiece of the Passover celebration was the Passover lamb offering.  That's what Hillel ate.  However after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70c.e.long after Hillel's death, Jews no longer offered sacrifices.  The custom became that whenever lamb was to be eaten, since there was no lamb, a piece of matza would be substituted.  Therefore two pieces of matza.  Now we have two pieces of matza with horseraddish, clearly not as delectable as lamb with horseradish.  So the rabbis added haroset to make it all sweeter and to make it all go down easier.

So Hillel never ate a Hillel sandwich.  Our custom of the Hillel sandwich came about at some time probably long after Hillel's death and as a result of trying to eat the three Passover symbols together when one of the symbols no longer was part of the Passover ritual.

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah/ A good and sweet new year to all.     

Friday, August 21, 2015

Nostalgia: Craving Some Deeper Connection and Meaning

This past February Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and author of countless books and articles, offered up his philosophy of life upon learning that he has terminal cancer.
 It was beautifully articulated and although I would not be preparing High Holy Day sermons this year, but if I were, it is with Oliver Sacks where I would begin. 

After all these coming Days of Awe are a struggle with our mortality.  We pray to God for life.  Knowing that our days are numbered we question life’s meaning.  Facing immanent death Dr. Sacks offers us insight: “I have to live the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”  “…trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness as well).”  What important lessons for us as we inevitably lose sight of what is important and get lost in trivialities, in minor irritations, in interpersonal squabbles!

And this past week Sacks treated us to very different insights into his life and living in general.
Sacks grew up in a large observant Jewish home in England.  His parents though physicians themselves were personally devout, maintaining Shabbat, kashrut and regular synagogue attendance.  Sacks gave Jewish observance up after his Bar Mitzvah and was repelled when at age 18 his mother learning of his homosexuality called him an abomination!  Enough to turn anyone away…

After qualifying as a doctor, Sacks moved to America where his vocation became his “religion”, his source of purpose and meaning.  Many of us do that, probably especially men, even rabbis, which he pursued “doggedly, single-mindedly”’.  He describes the experience as “lonely, but deeply satisfying”.

Now even closer to death than he was in writing the earlier piece, Sacks returns to nostalgic thoughts of Shabbat.  He writes glowingly of his observant cousin Robert John Aumann, a Nobel prize winner, “a man of great intellectual power, but also of great human warmth and tenderness and deep religious commitment”. 

Disturbed by the politics of the Middle East, Sacks resolved never again to visit Israel after working on a kibbutz as a 22 year old.  But he nevertheless agreed to return to celebrate another dying cousin’s 100th birthday.  There he experienced anew the warm embrace of family.  Robert Aumann welcomed both Sacks and his partner Billy for Shabbat dinner without judgement.

Sacks writes of “the peace of the Sabbath, a stopped world, a time outside time, which was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness.”

How amazing it is what thoughts we have as we contemplate our lives and what gives it meaning. 

P.S. A far reaching Neveh Shalom connection to Sack’s cousin, Robert John Aumann.  Clara Eltman entered our religious school at age 9, having arrived here with her single-mother.  Joan studied for conversion and both mother and daughter became Jewish together.  Clara celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Neveh Shalom and was determined to deepen her commitment.  I visited her when she studied in a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem. She remained in Israel and made Aliyah.  She married another American and together they created an observant Jewish home.  They were living with her husband’s grandfather when the phone call arrived that Dr. Aumann had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize.  The young couple immediately assumed secretarial responsibilities, acknowledging letters of congratulations from around the world.  Today Clara and her husband and their three children live in the modern city of Modi’in.  Two years ago on a trip to Israel I made it a point to visit Clara at her home.  What a special treat to visit a young person who I have known since the age of 9 and to see her having made her permanent home in Israel, happily married and raising a family.  Joan Kelsey, Clara’s mom, remains a Neveh Shalom member, living in Tillamook, visiting her daughter and her grandchildren as often as possible.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Elul: the Month of Personal Reflection

Through the entirety of the month of Elul we are obligated to consider where we have been in order to set our direction for the year soon to begin.  We are to engage during Elul in that self-evaluation and self-scrutiny we do our best to avoid during the other months of the year.  It’s difficult work to face up to our limitations, to our irritating habits, to our worst self.  But that is what our tradition calls on us to do.

The name Elul is made up of four Hebrew letters which we are told represent the first letters of the words in the statement, Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li/ I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, taken directly from Shir haShirim, the Biblical Song of Songs.  The rabbis interpreted the entire Song of Songs metaphorically as a statement of the intimate relationship between God and the Jewish people.

So in this most intimate of relationships, how does God perceive the role of human beings?  Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “God In Search of Man” gives the following reply:

“How should man, a being created in the likeness of God, live?  What way of living is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of life?  It is a problem which man has always been anxious to ignore.  Upon the pavement of the Roman city of Timgat an inscription was found which reads: ‘To hunt, to bathe, to gamble, to laugh, that is to live.’  Judaism is a reminder of the grandeur and earnestness of living.

“In what dimension of existence does man become aware of the grandeur and earnestness of living?...

“It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions.  It is in the employment of his will, not in reflection, that he meets his own self as it is, not as he should like it to be.  In his deeds man exposes his immanent as well as his suppressed desires, spelling even that which he cannot apprehend.  What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds.  The heart is revealed in his deeds.”

Monday, August 17, 2015

How Is This Elul Different From All Other Eluls?

The pressure of High Holy Day preparation is enormous.  As rabbis we are conscious that hundreds of our congregants will sit before us to hear a series of messages that must resonate, that speak to our lonely souls, that might assist us in repairing a painful strained relation, that will help us make sense of our broken world.  Rabbis search for the perfect anecdote or personal experience to which the majority will nod assent as an opening to broach a difficult topic. 

Protestant clergy consider themselves in the role of the ancient prophets, to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable.   Though as rabbis we do not see ourselves as prophets, we nevertheless desire to pierce the soul, to grab at least a few who can reconsider, who can engage in serious introspection.  We hope to raise consciousness about life, about the world, about the contributions each of us must make to live a fulfilled life, about evil and the potential for human compassion and righteousness.

We will address these our congregants on both days of Rosh Hashanah, on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur Day and prepare separate talks for each.  As the days draw nearer rabbis tease/taunt each other with how our preparation is going.  I have experienced nightmares of standing before the gathered flock without a note in front of me, not knowing how to excuse my lack of preparation.

As rabbis we speak publicly virtually every day: at Shabbat and festival services, at funerals, at lectures and community events.  We write articles for the monthly bulletin, letters of various types.  But the High Holy Days is the Big Kahuna.

Every year since graduating from rabbinical school 39 years ago, I have spent summers tortured by the prospect of the holy day’s approach.  And life doesn’t stop.  People die and their families need to be consoled.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates need help with their speeches.  New members must be welcomed and the beginning of religious school requires our attention.

Well, this year is different and I must admit to some mixed feelings.  I retired this June 30 to my new role as rabbi emeritus, and will celebrate the High Holy Days this year with children and grandchildren in New York.  I am thrilled.  August is not pressure filled.  I went fruit and vegetable picking with visiting family yesterday without an ounce of guilt.  Nevertheless after all these years, how will it feel to sit in the pews in a community not my own?  If I were to address the congregation, would I address the discomfort of increasing strains between loyalty as an American and love for Israel?  Would I touch on the rabbis who have been sent to jail for egregious violations?  What does the enormous attitude change concerning same-sex relations mean in terms of the inviolability of values?  Have we truly made any progress in race relations in this country since the Civil Rights movement?

This year I will be on the receiving end and hopefully that too will be inspiring.