Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

National tragedy and personal loss

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Today, three Israeli teenagers, Gilad Shaar (16), Naftali Frenkel (16), and Eyal Yifrach (19), are the children, the sons and brothers, of everyone in Israel.  Today, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal are the sons and brothers of the Jewish people the world over.  Today, in Jewish community memorials, from North America to England, to France, to South Africa, to Australia, they have become part of the historic drama of being a member of the Jewish people.  Today, the unspeakable crime committed against them is the subject of Israeli Cabinet discussion, plans for response, and the stuff of Israeli national news headlines.  Today, the murder of three Jewish teenagers captures the attention of the White House, the Kremlin, the Elysee Palace, and 10 Downing Street.  Today, the murder of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal transforms all Israel into one family.  Today, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Officers, and the security and defense establishments, and the members of the Knesset are immersed in what has happened to Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal.  Today, everyone in the Jewish world knows these three names and recognizes their faces, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal.  

That is today, and for tomorrow, and possibly even for a few more days and weeks.  In not too many days the news and the conversation will move their names and their tragedy aside and other events will overtake Israeli, Jewish, and world consciousness.  When that happens not too many days from now, we, who will soon forget, must today remember that when all is said and done, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal are the sons, grandsons, and brothers of only a few people.  After today is gone and the Shaar, Frenkel, and Yifrach families go home and sit down at dinner this Shabbat, there will be an empty place at the Shabbat table.  That empty seat will never be filled.  And on Shabbat morning these teenagers will not walk to synagogue with their families, and will not be late coming home for Shabbat lunch because they were hanging out with friends after shul.

And when today is over, after all is said and done, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal will have died only to their parents.  For each one of them has only one father and only one mother, and only those six parents lost a child.  Only those six parents will live the rest of their lives with this palpable void.  At family moments, sad and happy, at milestone moments when they would have been 18, 21, 25…, when if they were still here they would have been doing this or achieving that, or helping with this or saying that, there will be an abyss.  For in the end, while the Jewish people have a long memory, national tragedy and historic events are never as close and as real and as enduring as the death of three children to their three mothers and to their three fathers, who will live out the rest of their lives always wondering what might have been, what might have been.

Of God and Man:Some thoughts on the Rebbe

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This article first appeared in JUF News 20 years ago upon the passing of the Rebbe and is posted now in honor of the 20th yahrzeit

That he was of a different order of magnitude than the rest of us is commonly accepted. The complex and varied responses to his death, from the perfunctory to the adulatory to the confused, on the part of all sorts of Jewish organizations and leaders, is witness to that.

His death leaves no one untouched. How we respond to a person of Rabbi Schneerson's spiritual stature says as much about us as it does about him.

In death, as in life, he has become a critical standard of measurement. Like the mystical philosophy of Chabad which he successfully represented and taught to the Jewish world, his very life, the living scroll of Torah that it was, is in need of unraveling, for it is composed of layer upon layer upon layer, each one more radiant and closer to God than the one that precedes it.

His traditional garb, his public speeches in Yiddish, the appearance and dress of his devout followers  belie the fact that he was the most modern of Jewish spiritual figures. Modern in the sense that he engaged in a dialogue with modernity and reached out to, worked with and lived amongst all sorts of Jews.

Aside from modern Orthodoxy, Lubavitch is the only Orthodox movement willing to accept and embrace all Jews, no matter who they are and where they stand. The Rebbe of Lubavitch can be better appreciated in reference to another spiritual giant, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who passed away a little more than a year ago. Their lives are in such amazing parallel that the divine hand may  not be  hard to discern. They both lived into their 90s. They both emerged out of the great, scholarly, philosophic and mystic traditions of  Lithuanian Jewish civilization in Byelorussia, with its grounding in Talmudic scholarship and Chabad philosophy. They were both educated prior to World War II at the University of Berlin, each one thereby appearing to break with the past.

They both came to America and realized that the New World required new Jewish strategies. They both rebuilt Jewish civilization in the half‑century following its destruction in World War II. They believed in outreach, investing thousands of students with the authority and the spirit to teach Torah to the masses; the one, the Lubavitcher Rebbe through his Chasidic emissaries, and the other, Rabbi Soloveitchik through the rabbis he taught and ordained.

They had a major intellectual difference over whether to grapple with modernity through philosophy or science. Rabbi Soloveitchik sought to engage the Western world and its challenges to Judaism through the study of philosophy in order to develop a theology of Halakhah, Jewish law, that would address the modern human condition in all its complexity. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sought to engage  the challenges of modernity through the study of science in order to understand and be in awe of God's creation.

What both had in common was a deep understanding of the circumstances of modernity and of the need of Orthodoxy and classic Jewish faith to interact with the modern world and with the rest of the Jewish world.

Here, however, the similarities part. Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik used as his medium Talmudic scholarship and philosophy, which were designed to appeal to the intellectual elite who would then deal with the masses, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a man of magisterial scholarly proportions, sought to relate to the Jewish people after the model of the kohein, the priest, who is accessible to all rather than after the model of the melekh, the Jewish monarch, who is accessible to just a few. This distinction was made by Rabbi Soloveitchik himself when he eulogized another Chasidic Rabbi, the Tal'noye Rebbe, in order to describe the difference between the Lithuanian rabbinic scholar and the Chasidic Rebbe.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe understood phenomena  that only a great spiritual figure can grasp. For, if in fact one is involved in the life of the spirit, then one knows how spiritual life develops. One knows that children have a spiritual life, that teenagers have spiritual lives, that men and women have spiritual lives that grow, develop and follow their own course throughout the human life span. Chabad is nothing if not a system for the religious cultivation of the human personality. Preceding Freud by a century the Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman Borokhovitch, the first Chabad Rebbe, is a highly developed psychology of the human inner life based on the Qabbala of the soul.

Therefore, the Rebbe was one of the first, if not the first, to put forward the notion that in order for Jewish children to become attached to the Jewish tradition, there has to be such a thing as Jewish fun for Jewish children, not just fun for Jewish children.

At the same time, his originality of thought in Jewish theology is prodigious. Too much of it is, to this day, confined to the Yiddish language. Hopefully that will soon change. He was that sort of person whose very being of faith infected others with faith. Those who were shaped by his faith then brought theirs to others.

He understood that the Jewish people can be reached only through personal example and love. He, more than anyone else (yes, in this season of exaggerations one must be careful) loved the Jewish people unconditionally.

His simple piety, his plain love for the Jewish people and his profound intellectual and spiritual gifts were daunting. Some, in all denominations, found him threatening. On a recent edition of the television program "Nightline," Chaim Potok was honest enough to admit this when he told Ted Koppel that he was afraid to meet with the Rebbe privately for fear of being "overwhelmed by the power of his charisma."

Who was this man for whom Jewish summer camping and Jewish fun for children was as important as sitting with world leaders?

Who was this man who sat with each and every type of Jew and was able to penetrate to the depths of their individual souls and personalities?

Who was this man who asked Jews to engage in massive campaigns of simple mitzvot that express love of the Jewish people and love of humanity?

Who was this man at home in science and at home in prayer, at home in mysticism and at home in the languages and histories of the world?

Who was this man?

The truth may very well be a truth that many modern Jews are not willing to consider. But, nevertheless, here then the consideration: We are a people rooted in the belief that, at one moment in time, God broke into history and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt; and that, at another moment not too long thereafter, God broke through into our time and our space and revealed His will and His word in the Torah, and that all who were there heard Him declare, "I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt."

If that is the case, then are we not willing to consider that from time to time, possibly in each and every generation, almighty God  in the manner of the shekhina, the abiding presence, breaks through in an abundance of the ru'akh-spirit to great persons of the spirit?

The life of the magesterial Rebbe of Lubavitch summons us to a Judaism rooted not just in mitzvot-commandments but in a commander, not just in deeds but in the spirit, not just in the history of the Jewish people but in deep and profound relationship with God. Is it not possible that in the second half of the 20th Century, as has happened  many times before, the ruakh-spirit of God came to rest upon this man, and  like prophets of old, he then made that spirit accessible to all of us?

Is that not, after all, possible?

The next big whatever

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I do not like big questions.  The Ted Talks notwithstanding, I am not looking for the next big idea, or big thing, or whatever else big everyone seems to be after.  Furthermore, I don't think Judaism likes big questions or big ideas.  Please show me the next small idea, the next little thing to do.  I cannot grapple with how to achieve truth, justice, peace, love, and all of those wonderful words that are vessels for infinite thought and emotion, that glibly establish unattainable and frustrating goals ever crashing like waves against rocky jetties of reality. 

We are a small, little people.  We are meant to be a small, little people.  As God says, "I didn't love you because you were so huge; because in fact you're the smallest of all the nations of the world."  That surely is true to this very day.  As a small people we were given a Torah.  To be sure, the Torah has some huge ideas; really massive important fundamental ideas:  There is one God, the Creator.  All humanity is created in the image of God.  These are towering, earth shaking ideas.  However, the Torah doesn't expect us to get to big ideas and huge beliefs by wrapping our arms around them.  A theological medicine ball is too big for anyone.  These big ideas can only be had in lots of little mitzvot.  That's why we have so many mitzvot, because they're all so very plain, simple, and little.  They're not big.  They're right at hand.  They're easy to do.  They manage the world, because the world can't be managed by big ideas and abstractions like love and justice.  We have so many mitzvot because life is lived and loved in the details. 

One of the most famous passages in all of the Torah is, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."  Love?  How can I possibly love my neighbor?  I love my immediate family, but my neighbor?  Love's implementation is impossible without reading the preceding verses.  

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.  You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind…  You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.  Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.  You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:11-18)

The Torah instructs how to love.  What is love of neighbor?  Love is one of those words that moves, that slips ever to easily and glibly off the tongue.  The Torah tells us what love means.  If you really want to love your neighbor as yourself, here are the simple little behaviors that you should engage in:

Don't lie to your neighbor;

Don't gossip about your neighbor;

Don't nurture hateful attitudes to your neighbor;

Don't be deceitful to your neighbor. 

Nothing big here.  Just small stuff.  That's what love is.  There are many more examples of this in the Torah.  You love your neighbor by returning what he or she has lost.  You love your neighbor by not cheating them in business.  You love your neighbor by letting them into your field at harvest time if they're poor.  That's how you love.  In fact love has very little to do with "I love you."  The Torah could have said, "Love your neighbor…", and assumed that the rest is easy for us to figure out.  No such thing.  Love is in the details, just ask the devil.  Love has everything to do with lots of little details.  Save the next big thing, idea, or question for someone else.  For the Jewish people the question is always: Where is my next little, easy mitzva to be found?

Kansas murders reveal an uplifting truth about America

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It is bitterly ironic that the murderer in Overland Park, Kansas unwittingly revealed an excellent truth about America, and the place of Jews and other minorities in these great United States.

Jews came here to flee oppression in several continents. America welcomed them, as it has welcomed every immigrant group.  It asked of the Jews the same thing it asked of every immigrant: Embrace our democratic principles, work hard, and participate in building a decent civic society maintained by the institutions of our democracy.  Like all other immigrant groups, Jews did exactly that.

Like other immigrant groups Jews established many institutions to foster their communal development, to transmit their traditions, and to maintain group identification and solidarity.  These institutions, like the institutions of other national, ethnic, and religious groups in our society contribute to the development of a decent civic order.  Among such institutions are synagogues, Jewish community centers, homes for the elderly and the frail, hospitals, schools, and all manner of places where Jews, like their fellow immigrants, gather. 

It must have enraged the Kansas murderer to learn that he killed non-Jews, that non-Jewish people feel utterly comfortable and normal making use of all kinds of Jewish communal buildings and services, such as Jewish community centers and Jewish old-age homes.  The Kansas murderer could not imagine that Christians would feel so comfortable, at ease, and so normal in Jewish community buildings.  He assumed that whoever is in a Jewish building has got to be Jewish.  In other places in the world, let's say Egypt, or Iraq, or Pakistan, people who want to harm Christians know exactly where to go.  They go to a church.  The only people who go to churches in countries like that are Christians.  In other places in the world, people who want to attack Jews know exactly where to go.  In Istanbul they go to the synagogue.  In Buenos Aires they go to the Jewish community center.  In Paris they go to the synagogue. 

In the United States that's no longer true.  All kinds of people are present in all kinds of places.  So many types of non-Jews make use of so many Jewish institutions.  They are indistinguishable from their Jewish friends, neighbors, and citizens. 

This murderer, may he remain nameless, murdered three Christians because he thought they were Jews.  In committing this terrible crime he proved that America is a place unlike any other in the world. 

Tattoos and Jews

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When I was a kid, tattoos, or the people who bore them, were really different.  I didn't actually know anyone who was inked.  Tattoos were the calling card of the Hell's Angels, sailors, 'greasers' and others on the margins. Those folks didn't live in Jewish neighborhoods. Their cultural and educational preferences were somewhat different.  Despite the romanticizing of 1960's gangs by West Side Story, tattoos were alien in most middle class settings. 

That has changed.  The Pew survey - not the one on the Jews, the one on the millennials - tells us that has changed.  The Pew Research Center's study on millennials shows that the silent generation, that is people 65 and over, have a six percent tattoo rate; 15 percent of the boomer generation, those who are now 46-64, have tattoos; of generation X, who are now 30-45, 32 percent have tattoos; and the millennial generation, those who are now 18-29, 38 percent have tattoos.  

The political breakdown on tattooing is really fascinating.  Thirty-one percent of Republicans report that they have a tattoo, while 44 percent of those who identify as Democrat say they have a tattoo.  Or, to put it another way, here is a tattoo distribution across the political spectrum:  Conservatives - 32 percent; Moderates - 37 percent; Liberals - 43 percent.   

Tattoos have clearly risen from one social strata to another in American society.  I don't quite know why that is.  My daughter-in-law, Dr. Shoshana Poupko, a prominent Jewish educator and wise young woman, thinks that tattoos are one of the ways in which people in our society distinguish or brand themselves in an era in which there is much use of the common identifying consumer products: Apple, Banana Republic, JCrew, and the like. Tattoos are a way of saying, "I am an individual." 

What does the Jewish tradition have to say about tats and inking?  Actually, we have an explicit verse in the Torah.  The Torah prohibits it.  Here's the verse:

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise (tattoo) any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD. (Vayikra 19:28)


In this verse the Torah presents two prohibitions.  The second one prohibits making any marks on the body.  This is the prohibition against tattooing.  The first instructs the Jewish people not to make "gashes in your flesh for the dead."  Now, the Torah doesn't have any laws that deal with pink elephants, because there aren't any pink elephants.  The Torah deals with reality.  Tattooing the body is older than recorded history.  And every year on the Day of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet, many Shia Muslims have a practice to flagellate themselves with chains and knives.  The Torah teaches  Jews  not do this.  Why?

This verse is at the heart of a fundamental principle in the Torah and the Jewish tradition.  The body is a sacred trust given to us by God.  We don't own our bodies.  Yes, yes, I know that ever since the Boston Women's Health Book Collective in the 1960's published, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," many people today think they own their  bodies.  That is a feature of modernity.   In contemporary Western culture many believe that the ownership of one's body is the best way to safe guard the integrity and the sanctity of one's body.  Judaism says the opposite.  I don't own my body. 

As the famous prayer reads, "The body is thine and the soul is thine".  And the best way, in classic Jewish thought, to protect everyone's body is for everyone to understand that they don't even own their body.  If you don't own your  own body, and if you can't do what you want with your own body, you surely can't do what you want with someone else's body.  Love and respect for the body begins at home with one's own body.  My body is not mine to do with as I please; surely your body is just as sacred and inviolable.  For Judaism the question is rarely, if ever, what are my rights.  The main question is what are my obligations.  What are my obligations to my body and  my body's obligations to God?  Not what are my rights to my body.  And if I understand my obligations to my body then I respect my obligations to your body.  My obligations to your body are what secures your rights to your body.  So I can't put tattoos on my body.  My body isn't mine.  Yours isn't yours.  They both belong to God.  And when everyone internalizes that then everyone has respect for everyone else's body. 

Sandy Koufax and the Aggies' Jewish Quarterback: A Yom Kippur Tale

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Yom Kippur has come to its annual glorious end in the sound of the shofar and in the deeply rewarding experience that once again, as has been the case year in and year out for thousands and thousands of years, the Lord God of Israel has renewed His relationship with us. We have been forgiven our sins, and we can begin the year with a clean slate. And so in order to get a deeper grasp of this blissful moment, I went to that all-important contemporary Jewish theological text, The Big Lebowski, which reads:

The Dude:  You’re living in the blankety-blank past. 

Walter Sobchak:  Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax…  You’re blankety-blank right I’m living in the blankety-blank past!

And in order to demonstrate that he is faithful in deed to his theology:

Donny: How come you don't roll on Saturday, Walter?

Walter Sobchak: I'm shomer Shabbos.

Donny: What's that?

Walter Sobchak: Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don't work, I don't drive a car, I don't blankety-blank ride in a car, I don't handle money, I don't turn on the oven, and I sure as blankety-blank  don't blankety-blank roll!

Donny: Sheesh.

Walter: Shomer Shabbos!

Walter: Shomer blankety-blank Shabbos.

Breathtaking, this monumental Jewish idea passed down through the ages from Sandy Koufax to Walter Sobchak. Central to the American Jewish experience and the experience of Yom Kippur is that heroic stand for Jewish tradition by Sandy Koufax in front of all America. Sandy – or Sandeleh as his mother would call him – did not play in the World Series, refusing to pitch for the Dodgers against the Twins on October 6, 1965 because it was Yom Kippur.  He refused to play in the baseball stadium, the synagogue to the Great American Pastime, on one of its most sacred days, the World Series, the High Holidays of baseball. He said no because it was the real Yom Kippur. 

And Walter Sobchak is right! Judaism moves between two poles: Moses to Sandy Koufax. And Walter does not roll on Shabbos! As I contemplated the beauty and the depth of meaning of our tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax, I knew how so very right Walter Sobchak was.  If we really want to appreciate our tradition, especially its most sacred day, we have to appreciate what Sandy Koufax did for us. Moses gave us Yom Kippur at Mt. Sinai, and Sandy Koufax stood at Sinai again and gave Yom Kippur to American Jews.  Moses and Sandy are our two great heroes. 

It was this Sobchakian theology that was in my mind while catching up on the news that I missed on Saturday while I was in Shul. I read the story about the football game between Texas A&M University and the University of Alabama, or as they call it down there, Aggies vs. ‘Bama, a game portrayed as one of Biblical proportion that took place on Yom Kippur.

What did the Jewish students on these two campuses do when their game of Biblical proportions clashed with Yom Kippur? Well, I learned that one campus synagogue ended Yom Kippur services around 1:00 p.m. just in time for the 2:30 p.m. game; I read that a Jewish organization on campus showed the game on a big-screen TV; Some more theologically sophisticated Jewish students on campus decided on the one hand to go to the game, but because they were fasting, they decided to break the Aggie tradition of standing throughout the game and so they reserved about 20 seats in the stadium’s handicapped section.

One Jewish Aggie junior, in exquisite theological  reckoning worthy of Abraham arguing with God for justice, decided to resolve this great theological crisis by fasting on Friday instead of on Shabbat. He is quoted as saying, “We figured we’d make a deal with the Lord and do it a day early.” When asked whether or not the Lord agreed to his terms he said, “I sure hope so.  We’ll find out if we beat Alabama.” 

We are indeed a people blessed with wise children. It is worth noting that there was one Jewish organization in Birmingham, Ala. that did follow the tradition of Sandy Koufax and issued a strict rule: “NO FOOTBALL TALK ON YOM KIPPUR.”

Well, I think it’s fair to say that a football game is hardly a turning point in Western civilization, let alone Jewish history. Sandy Koufax, who sanctified the name of God on Yom Kippur 1965, where are you when we need you? 

And as if to add insult to injury, the quarterback for Texas A&M, one Johnny Manziel – a.k.a. Johnny Football – is Jewish! It is altogether possible that Johnny does not know much about American Jewish sports history. Indeed, someone once quipped that one of the world’s shortest books is, “Great Jewish Sports Figures.” But had little Johnny been read bedtime stories about great Jewish sports heroes he might have heard about Sandy Koufax refusing to play in the World Series on Yom HaKippurim.

His decision to play on Yom Kippur is all the more poignant when we learn that his great-grandfather, who emigrated from the Lebanese Jewish community to the United States, changed his first name from Yeshayahu (in English, Isaiah) to Bobby because, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal, he was concerned that people wouldn’t know how to pronounce his name. Now that’s fine. Millions of immigrants who came to the United States did the same. However, had Johnny remembered his great-grandfather’s Hebrew name, then there’s a possibility that he might have known that the words of the prophet Yeshayahu/Isaiah are read in all our synagogues on Yom Kippur. 

Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a ram's horn! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Jacob their sin….  3 "Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?" Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!...6 No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. 7 It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin… 13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, From pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the sabbath "delight," The LORD's holy day "honored"; And if you honor it and go not your ways Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains -- 14 Then you can seek the favor of the LORD. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, And let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob (Isaiah: 58)

Walter Sobchak, you who taught us not to roll on Shabbos, please find young Johnny Football and teach him your Torah: We don’t roll or pass on Shabbos, especially when it is Yom Kippur, to boot. Though I hasten to add, not to punt!  

 

Early High Holidays: Or how I learned to stop hating and love gefilte fish

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As the days go by and the summer matures, I meet more and more desperate, lost and confused Jews. “Rabbi!” they cry out, “why are the High Holidays so early this year!”

Lots of Jews have had the fundamental coordinates of time, space, and reality thrown into utter chaos. Jews are wandering around, looking for their lost Jewish compass. Nothing makes sense. Rosh Hashanah is just a few days after Labor Day. There is no time to return from the summer weather and Lake Michigan beach volleyball and Door County and the eastern Jewish shore, aka Shoreshalom, of Lake Michigan and Ravinia and before one has to fall into synagogue, into the High Holidays, to hear the shofar followed by the incantation of “Who shall live, and who shall die; who by fire and who by water” enveloping us like so much suntan lotion still redolent in our nostrils. At the very least, the Jewish people usually get two or three weeks of summer decompression to do that. Usually we can also count on a Yom Kippur in which the weather has already cooled a bit as autumn takes over from summer

Fear not, all is not lost; the short summer can be put to good use. The next eight weeks, that’s right, just eight weeks until Rosh Hashanah, can be used for intense preparation and practice. Let’s do something classically Jewish; let’s get to the spiritual through the material; let’s repair the world, Tikkun Olam; let’s repair something that really needs fixing, and that requires weeks of summer time.

It’s time to redeem and repair gefilte fish.

That’s right. It’s time to liberate this noble grand exemplar of Jewish cuisine, which the French, in the Alsace, unsurprisingly stole from us and renamed Quenelle. Did you ever see any purveyor of prepared food stuffs dare to take Quenelle and put it in a jar and put it on a shelf or in a can, and market it that way? No one would dare do that to a Quenelle! But look what all those manufactures of Jewish food have done to noble history-hallowed gefilte fish; they have taken white fish, and pike, and carp and have created standardized, fixed manufactured shapes with a consistency that makes them suitable for mortar between bricks and patches to the heat shield of NASA orbiters.

So here’s how it goes, and consider yourself lucky, because I’m willing to let out in public the secret of my grandmother’s gefilte fish. This is a secret, treasured to such a degree, that the NSA has tried to figure out how to get it—even Snowden failed. Now the Chicago Jewish community has a role to play in taking a stand for the gefilte fish, which can only be divine in origin. Indeed, it is all together possible that the reason the Lord God of Israel brought us to Chicago, to the shores of the splitting waters of the Great Lakes, was to be custodians of the sanctity and integrity of gefilte fish, for there is no better fish in the world for gefilte fish than the white fish that swims in the blessed pure waters of the Great Lakes.

Alright, I know, Lake Michigan doesn’t have a lot of white fish, but there is nothing greater than Lake Superior white fish, and along with it, Pike. That’s right; you don’t have to use Carp anymore. Now, if any of you are thinking of using salmon in the gefilte fish, forget it! Salmon is not Jewish. Did anyone ever see salmon swimming in the rivers of Lithuania, Poland, or Ukraine? They don’t even swim in the rivers of Hungary. Salmon are decidedly non-Jewish. In fact, they’re so non-Jewish that the only way salmon can become Jewish, is if they convert. The salmon must convert my immersing itself in the mikveh of salt water brine, and out it comes—lox! Lox, of course, is thoroughly Jewish.

So here’s how you do the gefilte fish. First of all, you go buy a pot that you dedicate by Jewish oath to be used only for the making of gefilte fish. Trust me, once you make gefilte fish in it, you’ll never again be able to make anything else in it. And this has got to be a really fantastic, strong, deep, pot. A pot fit to hold all the tears of the exiled. Go to the store, and I don’t mean the supermarket, and get some white fish and some pike. You want to know how much? That’s sort of like asking Picasso how many ounces of bluish grey paint he used in Guernica, but alright, I’ll tell you, because you, the reader, do not yet qualify as an artistic creator of gefilte fish.

Go to the store and get precut, gross weight, five pounds of fish, approximately three, three and a half pounds of white fish, approximately one and a half to two pound of pike. Great Northern Pike is the best, and since I don’t expect you at this early point in your gefilte fish career to grind it yourself, and it is utterly forbidden to put it in a Cuisinart, which will reduce it to God knows what, ask the fish man (I have yet to meet a fish woman) to grind it for you and also make sure that he gives you the bones and the heads, and also ask him for some more bones and heads from white fish and pike. Take it home, and here’s how you begin:

Put the heads and the bones in the pot, cover them with water, put in two or three onions, not Vidalia, only authentic Jewish onions, the kind that make you weep for the destruction of the Temple and a few other sufferings throughout Jewish history. Put in some celery, a couple of roots of parsnip and a couple of parsley roots and see if you can get the green leafy top to that parsley, because that’s terrific in this pot. Then, of course, carrots: big, thick, whole carrots. And then you put in some salt and pepper.

Do you want to know what this mixture is called? If you speak Ukrainian, or Polish Yiddish, this so-called soup is called Yukh. If you speak Russian or Lithuanian Yiddish, it’s called Yoikh. The original Slavic word, however, recently surfaced in an utterly fascinating movie called I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, who, in the movie is of Russian origin and gets seduced because the young chef, who is a friend of her son in Milan, prepares great Ukha, the Russian fish soup of her youth. In Russian and Ukrainian, that fish soup is called Ukha, from whence we get the various Yiddish forms.

So you have now prepared this Yoikh. It should boil vigorously like the cauldrons of water in which the Egyptians drowned when the Sea of Reeds was split. It should boil vigorously for about 30 or 40 minutes in this great, sacred pot that you now have. Now, while all that is going on, you have to take the fish that has been ground, and put about four or five eggs into it. Then you have to put in some onions. Alright, for the onions, you can use the Cuisinart, and you should put in two onions, not the biggest onions, not the smallest onions. Put in two onions, do whatever the Cuisinart does, and put that in with the eggs and the fish. Then you have to put in some salt and some pepper. Here I will compromise my principles and give you some measurements. Two heaping tablespoons salt, one heaping teaspoon of pepper.

And now, listen very carefully, especially if you are from Russian and Lithuanian Jewish descent. If you’re from Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, or Ukrainian descent, who dare to put sugar in fish, you can stop reading right now. Take a couple of carrots and throw them in the Cuisinart as well, and mix the pulverized carrots into the fish mixture. This is what authentic Lithuanian and Russian Jews do. Don’t ask why, it’s just the way it is, and be thankful that this secret has been made available to you. Now, mix it all up, preferably with your hands; as Julia Childs said, hands are the most important kitchen implement. Then let it sit, because you’ve got to wait for the cauldron of Yoikh to get ready. When the Yoikh is ready, take out the carrots and save them. Everything else should be strained out, and tossed; all you’re left with is the Yoikh.

Now sometimes it may be necessary before you make the pieces of fish to mix it in a little water. You make that judgment call based on how well the fish hangs together in your hands. Secondly—and this is an absolute necessity—you have to taste the fish. Forget what all the food tyrants out there say about tasting raw fish; you have to taste it to make sure you can taste salt and pepper. And then you should begin to form oddly shaped, roundish, elliptical pieces of gefilte fish, whose geometry is reminiscent of Koepler’s drawing of the planetary orbits, to put into the Yoikh.

As you put the fish in, the Yoikh should be boiling. After all the pieces of fish are in, slice an onion, in fact, a lot of onion, and place it on top. Put the carrots back in, and after you put all the pieces in, wait until it starts boiling again, then turn down the fire to low. The fish should cook for only one hour since the time the first piece went in.

And now it’s time to listen very carefully, to lend me that old capturing Jewish faculty for listening and hearing, for here comes the transmission of a great tradition. This is the tradition of eating warm, hot, fragrant, swimming, bubbling, gefilte fish right out of the pot. This is an experience of such ethereality that in the past, only the most exalted of mystics could partake of it. Alas alack, we live in frightfully egalitarian and democratic times, in which that kind of spiritual stratification is no longer practiced. With thanks  giving to the Lord God of Israel upon your lips, ever so delicately take one piece of fish out along with a piece of carrot, and ladle some Yoikh upon it. Bring it upward, ever so slowly, to your blessed Jewish nostrils into which the Lord God of Israel has breathed the breath of life. And slowly, let it renew your ancient soul. Having done that, without at this point using any khrein (that’s horse radish for those of you who have lost facility with the Yiddish language) and taste it, in all its purity. Be careful, many a holy Jew has experienced an ascent of the soul at this point.

Now, I would very much like to establish a gefilte fish hotline and a gefilte fish test kitchen here at the Jewish Federation, so that each week, for the next eight weeks, you can, on Thursday evenings or Friday morning, prepare gefilte fish for Shabbat. Thus when you arrive at Rosh Hashanah, you will have had the benefit of eight weeks of gefilte fish practice. However, alas alack, in these difficult budgetary times, we were not able to find the funds needed to establish the gefilte fish test kitchens, as well as the gefilte fish hotline.

So now, if you quite literally immerse yourself in the great white fish swimming waters of the Great Lakes, and begin to work on your gefilte fish skills, no matter how early Rosh Hashanah comes, you will be prepared and you will be in sync. And you will have found your Jewish true north to lead you to Rosh Hashanah, calm and sure of fins and scale

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