Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ahmadinejad is a Sukkah!

(Should be pronounced in the Mr. T pronounciation, not the impending holiday, though that's the reason I used said title)

So I have received maybe 200 e-mails in the past week and a half about Mahmud Ahmadinejad (first spellcheck suggestion in Firefox, BTW: "Shadiness"; how appropriate...). He came, on Monday, to my Alma Mater, Columbia University. Why does columbia continually do this? Anyway, I sent a number of e-mails to the VBS listserv this week and I want to share them with you. Note that I have not included other peoples' e-mails to protect their privacy so they might be out of context:

Sep 21, 2007 9:36 AM

Re: Ahmadinejad

As an alumnus and as a member of LionPAC, Columbia's AIPAC arm, I want you to be assured that he's going to have a little welcoming committee when he comes. He was supposed to come speak last year but cancelled at the last minute. Perhaps he will rethink once again speaking on a campus on which a third of the students are Jewish and a good portion are Israelis.

Gmar Tov and a meaningful fast,

Sep 23, 2007 10:27 PM

Re: Ahmadinejad

It's funny, in the last week I have gotten over 100 e-mails regarding the Ahmadinejad situation; the last 11 consecutive e-mails have had the word Ahmadinejad in the header. I have been invited to protests through the Columbia Political Union, Columbia/Barnard Hillel, AIPAC, IsraelCampusBeat, StandWithUsCampus, a chevruta (study partners) program I used to be affiliated with, and various students of Columbia, Barnard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as invitations to seminars about Iran and Ahmadinejad, and a friendly reminder from the Columbia Democrats to protest nicely.

I turned on FOX News this morning and it was the top story. Sure, Columbia is no stranger to controversy. On IsraelCampusBeat, which reports on Israel and Jewish-related "issues" on universities worldwide, there are usually at least two articles with the little blue Roary The Lion icon, signifying that there is yet another example of Israel getting somehow disparaged in a Columbia classroom/Anti-Iraq War protest, so it comes as no surprise to me that a campus which two years ago rejected the obvious academic intimidation perpetrated by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic (and when I say Semitic, I mean anti-Jewish, nobody ever refers to the other descendants of Shem by this moniker, so please don't counter with the semantics as Professor Hamid Dabashi did when he called a Jewish student with blue eyes "not Semitic") professors not allowing any pro-Israeli opinions within their classrooms. Indeed, nothing surprises me anymore about some of the enterprising (read: incredibly idiotic and embarrassing) programs which my fair Alma Mater and President Lee Bollinger comes up with.

So, yes it was stupid to invite the President of Iran, but at the same time it the opportunity of a lifetime to hear the Hitler of our times on our own home turf. I would not want to be the Jew in the crowd at a Nazi Rally in 1935 Berlin, but the fact is that Ahmadinijad is going to "Columbia JEWniversity of JEW York City" (as we so belovedly call it), where he will be preaching to a whole bunch of Jews. He's not going to win anyone over with his ranting propaganda. He's not in Tehran where they eat up his every anti-Semitic word, but in a room filled with headstrong intellectuals who won't take any of his crap. I just fear that he will be heckled as my fellow students heckled John Ashcroft a couple of years ago... that was just embarrassing.

Count on this not to end pretty. I cringe in advance.

Shana Tova,

Sep 24, 2007 6:11 PM

Re: Fw: Columbia President's Statement About President Ahmadinejad's Appearance

Yes indeed, I am proud of President Bollinger who couldn't have handled it any better. As for the statement, it is actually much longer and much juicier. The transcript of his introduction can be found at

One of the best lines: "Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

I found these other lines in an article on Breitbart:

"Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?" he asked, challenging the leader of the Islamic republic to explain his comments downplaying the Holocaust.

"Frankly, in all candor Mr President, I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," he added.

"When you come to a place like this, this makes you quite simply ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," he said.

The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history." (as found on a Fox News Article,2933,297823,00.html)

As for President Ahmadinejad, he once again proved himself a fool. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you that we have it." He was evasive on the simplest of questions regarding his basest policies.

I am yet to watch the speech but I am currently instant messaging friends who saw it live so I will update you when I hear more. As of now, I feel good that my worst fears weren't realized -- that Columbians didn't make fools of the United States by heckling and not hearing him out, however stupid he sounds. And as for President Bollinger, I am proud of his ability to not sugarcoat (which I feared he would) but instead attacked where it hurts, even if Ahmadinejad was completely evasive or ridiculous at points. I don't think Iran's president expected it to go like this at all, broadsided as he was, and I think he will rethink how he talks to outside media in the future.


As of press I am both proud of and ashamed of Columbia. I am proud that President Bollinger broadsided the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and made him look like a complete fool and liar. I am proud of the Hillel, LionPAC, and other groups and decent individuals who peacefully protested against the Hitler of today from the actual Aryan country (Aryan people originally migrated from Iran. However, I am ashamed and horrified that students cheered when Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of the State of Israel. Having attended Columbia for four and a half years I know that there is a lot of Israel-hating that goes on there. But cheering a murderous terrorist who calls on it's destruction?! I don't separate Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitism. Also self-hating Jews can also be anti-Semites. I consider members of the Jewish sect of Netueri Karta to be anti-Semites. I also consider former acquaintances who have fallen in with the socialist crowd and have become anti-Israel... well you can see why they are not current friends... The great irony in the socialist crowd is that the socialists seem to support the dictator-run countries while denouncing Israel, the only country in the world where socialism has remotely worked. The country was formed by socialists and social Zionism and the Kibbutz system is the best example of social communism at work. Not that I support communism or socialism, but I just find it funny that most of these socialists seem to support fascism over socialism.

Yom Tov is coming, but I don't think I'm done with this one. Gut Yontif and as we celebrate the festival in which we traditionally advocate for all of the other nations of the world, may I advocate that the residents of nations that are forcibly suppressed by evil dictators overthrow their captors. As it is written in the Uvchen prayers of the High Holidays which have just passed, "ki taavir mimshelet zadon min haaretz", "for You shall cause to be removed wicked governments from the world".

Gut Yontif.

DVAR TORAH S2: Sukkot (Jewish Thanksgiving)

On Win Ben Stein's Money, a show which I hugely loved a decade ago (during the Jimmy Kimmel era) a question was asked to the contestants (one of which I think was a redheaded Rabbi with a kippa) of "What is the Jewish Thanksgiving?" Even the Rabbi didn't get the answer: "Sukkot". The truth is that most of our holidays are of thanksgiving. Hallel is said on many of these occasions, sacrifices in the temple are designated as Thanksgiving Offerings, Al HaNisim is even said on the minor festivals, we have three Pilgrimage Festivals, any of which could be legitimately designated "Jewish Thanksgiving".

Yet I further pondered this and realized that Thanksgiving, viewed in the sense of American Thanksgiving, does most strongly parallel the Festival of Booths. For one, both are Harvest festivals. Yes, both Pesach and Shavuot are also Harvest festivals as well, but Sukkot is the only Fall Harvest holiday in Judaism, and therefore the produce is comparable. Both holidays celebrate survival in difficult conditions, the Pilgrim survival in harsh New England cold and the Israelite survival in the unbearable steppes of Sinai, and yet both claim divine providence. Both are celebrated by inviting guests to partake in a feast (and even if the Jews don't have physical guests, we invite seven biblical characters and invoke God's name in prayer; likewise traditional Thanksgiving observance includes opening prayers with biblical references). Both are holidays of selflessness. In the Holy Temple, 70 bulls were sacrificed on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. People are increasingly charitable leading up to Thanksgiving, and food drives are the order of the day. Centerpieces and decorations celebrating God's bountiful gifts further increase the beauty of the holiday tables, in the form of cornucopias and lulav/etrog, both also symbols of fertility, as well as hanging fruit usually of the plastic variety for both holidays.

Well, I'm convinced. Moadim L'Simcha and Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

F'n Dodgers! (AKA 19th Annual Dem Bums)

Well, the Bums have done it again, and the Dodgers have once again turned a first place in the Major Leagues season into total crap, ending up in 4th place in NL West. My one consolation is at least we beat the San Francisco Giants. Well, better luck next year for the 20th annual jubilee without a World Series ring or even advancing in the playoffs to pennant contention (as last year: Chas V'Shalom)...

I guess is still in business...

Friday, September 21, 2007

DVAR TORAH: High Holidays 5768 (Teshuva: Phoning it in)

At least since last year there has been a unique way to gain forgiveness prior to Yom Kippur, a teshuva hotline operated by Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report. The phone number has been variously given as 1 800-KLI-TZEDEK and 1-888-OOPS-JEW. I called the latter and left a message on the hotline, asking for forgiveness for missing the 11:30 PM (8:30 PM on East Coast Feed as I so often watch) show sometimes in attempts to be social; how selfish of me...

If only it were this easy, a one-ended confessional. With no offense to Mr. Colbert (whom I wish not to offend as I now have a clean slate with him). Teshuva is difficult. One really must lower and degrade themselves to ask forgiveness of another person. Ultimately it matters on our scorecard in a certain Book, but on earth it can be a serious blow to one's self-esteem and others' esteem of them to ask forgiveness of someone they may have wronged.

And yet, saying we are sorry is one of the ways the world doesn't devolve into utter primordeal chaos.

I just thought of a comparison to something which we do on the opposite side of the year, when we search for the Chometz, the bread crumbs which have filled our houses for the past year, as well as the rest of the Kashering procedures for Passover. It is an intense process that involves scalding, burning, dunking, feathering, and other strange gerunds (participles?) I could liken sin to bread crumbs. After a sin is committed/a piece of bread is eaten, they quickly spread and proliferate and at the appropriate time of the year we search and destroy, seeking out those sins and bread crumbs and resolving that in the future to be more careful to avoid offending another/to be more careful when eating bread. A note about the bread crumb thing -- apparently the Jews of medieval Europe widely avoided the Black Plague because they had clean homes and not the dirty and rat-infested homes and water-systems of the Christians, mainly because they annually fully cleaned their communities whereas for others the centuries of filth piled up. So getting on your hands and knees to clean the nooks and crannies of those damn bread crumbs or getting on your hands and knees to beg forgiveness of your fellow, are, yes, degrading, but can also save your very life.

May we be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of goodness, health, prosperity, merits, blessing and peace.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rooster's Revenge

Alright, so now for the trauma, as I have promised. Disclaimer that this is not for the faint of heart. You have been warned.

Today I have performed a number of acts that should pretty much secure me in the Book of Life Category. I properly fasted the Fast of Gedaliah, not even experiencing hunger or thirst at its conclusion. I recited the selichot of aforementioned fast as well as that of the Ten Days of Repentence. I ascended Mount Sinai (the cemetery, not the mountain) to visit the graves of my grandparents, aleyhem ha'shalom, braving the two mile freeway backup (no joke) to get into the cemetery today (I guess people are dying to get in... (joke)) . I went to Lake Balboa and performed Tashlich, throwing my sins in the form of breadcrumbs into the living, albeit man-made waters. I had a chicken swung around my head.

Wait, what was that last one?!

I newly have Persian in-laws and it is considered a method of great mazel to the family to perform the ancient ritual of Kapparot, or as we Yiddishists prefer to refer to it, shluggin kapporus. This is probably the closest thing in modern Judaism to the Holy Temple, quite literally a sacrifice. This is also why I am mildly traumatized. I have never performed the ritual, at least never with a living creature, but always with money that I would then donate to charity. But I decided to tag along and so we went to Ohel Moshe in Pico-Robertson this morning and the Rabbi there elevated a rooster by under its wings (so as to not hurt it) over our heads, reciting a formula to transfer our sins onto the rooster. Something like "Though this rooster goes to its death may these people live long lives free of sin". Following this the guy turns aside, massages the neck of the bird, lulling it into a restful state, and takes a special rectangular knife and severed the juggular vein. This is also the first time I have ever experienced shechita. A messy business but that is the only way to have kosher food. The birds will be given, by the way, to poor families as food, thus killing two birds with one stone (pardon the pun), not only somehow ridding us of our sins, but as tzedekah so poor people can have a proper feast on the eve of Yom Kippur.

I must say, as traumatized as this will probably make me, It is also incredibly humbling. This rooster was put to death so that we could somehow be cleansed of our sins. Kinda makes you want to avoid sin at all costs. I finally have an appreciation for the Hebrew term "Yirat Chet" "Fear of Sin". Short of going to a mikvah (something I have yet to do in my life) and being sprinkled by the ashes of the red heifer (something anyone is yet to do in their life in the past 2000 years), I am squeaky clean as I can get. Still, the rooster may get his revenge in my psyche, a la Aornis Hades in the Thursday Next series. I'm not soon going to forget it...

All the same, I think I'll stick to tzedekah next year.

DVAR TORAH S2: Haazinu/Shabat Shuvah

This past week (yeah, I keep releasing these things ex post facto, sorry...) we read the short poetic Parasha known as Haazinu. This is a little disturbing, filled with Israel's impending rejection of God and God's subsequent justified hiding from the people. This has been pretty standard in the Torah but it is rarely written in this poetic a form. Why is it written as a poem? My rabbi and congregants brought up various ideas (which I don't remember due to severe exhaustion from Rosh Hashannah), but I think that it is that a poem is easier to remember than prose, something especially important in a society that is based on oral tradition rather than written histories. Moses probably felt that a poem would hit closer to home and would be more memorable with the dire warnings it gives to Israel, lest they fulfill the conditions leading to their abandonment by God. This Torah portion, and even moreso with the special Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, exhort us to do teshuvah, to turn from wicked paths and return to the Lord.

I'm still trying to process what happened today so will end here. I will write about this event in the near future.

G'mar Chatima Tova

Sunday, September 09, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Nitzavim-Vayelech (lotsa dots)

This Shabbos we read the feel-good Torah portion of the summer, Nitzavim-Vayelech. It contains all the lines essential to make people feel all warm and fuzzy, that the Torah is in our hands, that which is revealed belongs to us, that those that disobey will be blotted out. Well, not so much that last one... but in this week's parasha we have a scribal oddity. Dots appear above key words in a sentence that basically translates (I'm not actually looking up the verse as I'm le tired) "the hidden things are for the Lord our God but that which is revealed is for us and our children forever". Lanu U'lvaneinu Ad Olam (bolded is the letters with dots). What can this possibly mean? I think it could be the method in which one sins: I pose the question of which is worse: a robber or a burglar. A robber steals in broad daylight and therefore shows no fear of other people. A burglar breaks in in the dead of night, fearing people but showing no fear of God. In this example the burglar is worse. The case of a sin is that God only concerns Himself with it if it is bottled inside but the truth shall set you free. In this time of Selichot (which is the reason I am exhausted as I just finished leading it) we are to confess our sins collectively with a formula. But to actually admit to people you have wrong you have sinned, that might help. It could also have serious repercussions but perhaps God ceases to hold it against you.

Conversely perhaps this line is about acquiring knowledge. Whether Torah or cures to diseases the potential is always there, waiting for discovery. Now it is in God's realm but, matter-of-factly, it enters our world once "discovered", leaving the other elements in God's Big Repository of Knowledge. This plays into the section that it is not in Heaven. The Torah has been given to us and now it is ours.

Like Moses I am going to take two tablets but will hit a rock Jacob-style (no, I'm not taking sleeping pills... the former is not true, though the latter meaning is that I'm going to sleep)

If I have wronged anyone in anyway I wholeheartedly apologize. I know that a blog entry doesn't sound sincere for something like that, but in the thousands of unique hits I have received in the last year I can't contact anybody. Well, the sins are out in the open through this confession, right?

Shana Tova,


Sunday, September 02, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Ki Tavo (10% Off!)

Ki Tavo contains some of the least famous words of the most observed holiday: Arami Oved Avi. It also contains the laws of tithing. Let's take a look for a moment at the Jewish calendaring system. One way years are grouped are in cycles of seven, that every seventh year is the Sabbatical year. On the other six years we are commanded to give certain tithes, tithe meaning one-tenth of our produce. On years 1, 2, 4, and 5 we are commanded to give to the Levite, our brothers who have not been assigned a portion in the land of Israel and are dependent on our kindness, an obligatory act known as Maaser Rishon. This is in addition to Trumah, the giving of our produce to a Kohen. On the third and sixth years, the latter of which is the year we are currently ending, we are commanded to give Maaser Sheni, also known as Maaser Oni, Tithe to the Poor. Ten percent of all we make is to go t0 the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Even the poorest person had to give ten percent. How does this work today?

This week in Rabbinical School orientation we studied the social contract an ancient king had with his subjects. The king is described as "great", "awesome" "mighty" "powerful". The king would then follow this with "therefore he has absolute power of life and death over you". This is true of God, the King of kings of kings, but God's description continues instead with "defender of orphans, champion of widows, maker of justice and righteousness". The wealthy must not be satiated just by his wealth, but must literally share the wealth. For so as long as there are hungry people in Israel we cannot stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Give a hoot, give tzedekah.