Tale of Two Corporate Hanukkah Displays

The bank manager at Citibank ran over to me when I came by this week to show-off the company menorah. Each branch received a menorah. Well, they actually were sent two. What had happened? My friend the manager explained. The first one arrived with only one on-off switch to control all the lights. That was replaced a week later by a new menorah that had one on-off switche for each light. While there we noinstructions included, the bank must be relying on the wisdom of the employees to know what to do.

The entire episode prompted another great conversation with my banker. (As one of the only customers at that branch who is a rabbi, we end up discussing every holiday as they arrive in some detail.) When he was early in his career as a banker, he brought in an electric menorah himself to display at the bank. In his native Russia, the thought that you could even have a menorah in a public place was unthinkable. He proceeded to light all the lights at once for the holiday to really promote Hanukkah and his menorah.

The next thing he knew, a Jewish customer approached and castigated him for not lighting them one at a time. This Russian Jewish immigrant, a junior banker trying to make a difference, was being given lessons in menorah lighting at the bank. Yes, we sometimes overlook the good that people are trying to do. Instead we make sure they are doing things the way we want them, ignoring or forgetting to thank them for trying in the first place.

Later in the day I had to go into an adjacent Wells Fargo branch. The Wells Fargo Christmas Tree dwarfed the 4-footer at the Citibank. It was festooned with a myriad of ornaments and candy canes. Arranged around the base were presents, a stuffed fake reindeer and snow, making a real Christmas diorama. I searched for a menorah and didn’t see one. I asked a banker walking by, “Excuse me, is there a menorah too?” She looked around and said they didn’t have one. To which I replied, “well you better catch up with your competition — Citibank has one!”

At Citibank, while the menorah was small, understated, and directionless, it still fared better than Wells Fargo. There may be other branches of Wells Fargo that are doing things differently in Jewish areas. But Citibank made the effort to ship these menorahs to EVERY branch. It didn’t matter if they were in an area with Jewish clients.

I sometimes wonder if my shopping, banking, or car repairing will depend on a company’s decision of how to celebrate the holidays with their customers. Is there some subliminal or outright conscious decision that I make which determines my behavior toward one bank or another? Can a holiday decoration turn me from being a customer to being


Honestly I don’t expect, nor would I want to see, a 7 foot high menorah with golden inflatable driedels — though that could look kind of cool. But I think in this day and age we can expect some kind of token concession to Hanukkah.

Maybe I’ll just leave it to the expensive consultants to offer suggestions to corporate America to tell them if a menorah is a good idea or not.

Or they can take the advice from a Rabbi for free: a menorah of any size or shape is greatly appreciated.


A Rabbi’s Testimony: The Repression and Elimination of OccupyLA

Protester is pinned to the cement by four LAPD officers during non-violent civil disobedience at OccupyLA Nov. 29, 2011. Notice the severity of his treatment after sitting in a circle in the middle of City Hall park after being ordered to leave.

There are many reports, videos and photos online capturing the protests, violence, and arrests as the final, large-scale, Occupy protest in the country came to end. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to tell my story as a clergy witness to the police crackdown on dissident voices and the disappointing conduct of Mayor Villaraigosa and the leadership of the Los Angeles Police Department.It’s difficult to describe the entirety of events which took place as OccupyLA was raided and dismantled late Tuesday night, November 29th, into the early morning hours on November 30th. The protest had persevered for two months camped out at the foot of LA City Hall through torrential rains and heat. OccupyLA was unlike anything the city has ever seen. (See my article “Don’t be Afraid of People in Tents, Learn From Them,” in the HuffingtonPost.com) As I write these words I am still overwhelmed with emotion thinking of the amazing community of righteousness, giving, and tolerance, crushed in one evening by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Mayor.

When news of the impending eviction of the protest reached me by text message, I rushed downtown wearing a hastily made shirt with “CLERGY” written in duck tape on the back. I intended to be there when the hammer dropped. Having served as a clergy witness at the Bank of America civil-disobedience on November 17th, I was intent on bearing witness to the end of OccupyLA.

Police had posted temporary no-parking signs on every street within three blocks of city hall. I found an all-night parking lot a half-mile away, and walked quickly to the park. People streamed in from every direction. People were already marching around the park waving signs, swelling the number of suporters of OccupyLA to what seemed like a thousand..  Starting around eight o’clock that evening, I stood with other clergy in the center of the park in a circle hoping and praying for a peaceful resolution of the impending conflict. We also offered hugs and spiritual support to those who needed it. We were a mixed interfaith group of clergy – Christians, Muslims and Jews — many who were familiar with one another from other social justice campaigns.
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Matisyahu Beard Goes Missing, Jewish World in a Panic and Rushing to Judgment

The Jewish world is in spasms over Matisyahu’s facial hair.

Even before I awoke in Los Angeles, text messages were lining up like Hanukkah cards from the East Coast asking “is it true?” The blogs are on fire with questions like “Did he stop being religious?” “Is this a publicity stunt?” and much more. As my witty blogging friend Esther Kustanowitz put it, this was “the beard heard round the world.”

Never before in the history of our ancient people has one man’s beard cause so much panic. In fact, I am not sure in the entire history of beards, if one beard has created so much commotion.

In our world obsessed with looks and stardom, his decision to go beardless now warrants news alerts.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency alert yesterday was“ Gingrich sticks by Palestinian comment, draws GOP rebukes.”

Today the alert is about our beloved singer’s decision to shave off his signature bristles, “Matisyahu Shaves off Beard.”

Tens of thousands of people have looked at the photos on Twitter, thousands are commenting on his website and Facebook. Even national gossip media sites are chiming in with their own opinions. But all one needs to do it look at what he himself wrote on his blog:

No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias…. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.

It seems that his own words were not enough. Everyone has an opinion. Rushing to judgement is a national pastime.

There is no obligation in Judaism to wear a beard. It’s not a mitzvah. Facial hair is meant to be an adornment for the face, say the rabbis. The Torah instructs us about how to cut the beard – no razors allowed, leave the upper part of the sideburns – but doesn’t require a man to have a beard. While some associate taking off the beard with a lapse in religious observance, that is simply not the case.

Historically, Jews have gone without beards before. Over the ages, Jewish men have used depilatory creams and powders made from nasty stuff that took off the beard. At the most famous yeshiva in pre-war Europe, most men studied bare-faced. The invention of the electric shaver created the opportunity for even more observant Jewish men to go beardless without killing their faces.

I remember when i started growing my beard sixteen years ago, much to the surprise of my fiance. It had everything to do with my displeasure at shaving, and nothing to do with a fashion of religious statement. My skin is super sensitive, and no matter what kind of electric shaver, creams, treatments I used, my skin could not bear it. With my marital future in place, I took the risk and grew one leading up to my wedding. My grandmother, of blessed memory, was distraught that all the wedding pictures would have me in a beard.

A beard does not make a man make. I am sure some famous bard centuries ago wrote something along those lines. Matisyahu’s talent as a singer and performer have little to do with what clothes he wears and what kind of facial hair he prefers. While it might have been his signature look for a part of his career, it isn’t any longer. Let’s not rush to judgement and let him speak — and sing — for himself.