Who Is A Jew?

I was on a panel recently with a representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. In front of us sat 300 teenagers and their parents. We were to answer several fundamental questions. 1) What happened on Mt. Sinai? and 2) Who is a Jew? You can guess what everyone said about Sinai. “If the Jews were ever in the desert – not certain that is true – then they had some kind of mass transcendent experience which they must have thought was revelation. However revelation did not occur.” (I mused, maybe they had all drank psychedelic tea, but could not say that in front of the teens’ parents.) Next who is a Jew? I said, “Adam Sandler…Jewish. Madonna…not Jewish!” I sat down. Then I said in a more serious tone that “a Jew is anyone that has a Jewish neshama (soul).”

Some angry parents came up to me afterwards. “I thought you said you were an Orthodox Rabbi! How can you say this?”

I explained that his was the most fundamental answer to the question. It was not “How to become a Jew?” but “WHO” is a Jew right now.

One of the things I learned on this panel shocked me. The other participants naturally answered the question of “Who is a Jew?â€? by telling how they convert people, and that Reform _accept_ patrilineal descent. A person in the audience asked, “I know someone who was born Jewish, but was not raised Jewishly, but rather as a Christian. They grew up going to church, and even studied to be a priest. Are they Jewish and how can they become Jewish?â€? The Conservative Rabbi answered that they would have to undergo a conversion to Judaism, to see hat they had accepted Jewish beliefs. The Reform said that they would need to go to classes and have a conversion too. I answered that if this man were to show up in my synagogue I would give him an aliyah on the spot. He doesn’t need to do anything to BECOME Jewish, he is a Jew.

Pardon my naivite, but this was a major moment in my understanding where Reform and Conservative have gone wrong. If a Jew, born to Jewish parents, but raised as a gentile, needs conversion, then they have made Judaism into a something closer to another religion.

In Poland where I worked in the Jewish community for much of the 1990’s we had people in their 60’s who discovered when their parents were dying that they were not really their parents. On the deathbed the parents confessed that he/she was the child of Jewish neighbors. “We took you when you were only a few months old in order to save you until your Jewish parents could return. But they never came back…â€? The child grew up, married, had kids, all the while thinking they were a Catholic. Some of these kids, called Dzieci Holocaustu, Children of the Holocaust, became priests. They came to us wanting to learn about being Jewish. We helped them pick Jewish names, have bar/bat mitzvahs, learn Hebrew, etc. Some of them decided never to tell their spouses, out of fear. Some brave ones told decided to start observing Jewish tradition, stopped going to church….

Can you imagine, that a Reform Rabbi would tell them you are not Jewish? This person is as Jewish as I am. Their parents were burnt in Auschwitz. They didn’t even make a decision to leave the Jewish people. They are a “tinok she nishbarâ€? an abducted child. They have no guilt because they made no choice. And I will take this discussion about Jewishness to another level. Even if they HAD a choice as a young child or adult, and decided to hide their Jewishness, and stay undercover. THEY ARE STILL JEWISH. You cannot erase this. Because being Jewish is soul thing. It has to do with you and your connection to God and the entire Jewish people. You can go to your ashram, to your mosque, to the church, or a cult. And you are still a Jew.

For Reform and Conservative, being Jewish is a conscious decision that a person makes. It is a commitment. If you leave us, or never made the commitment, then you are not Jewish. This is part of the reason so many Jews decide to marry non-Jews, and live lives isolated from Jewish practice and tradition. ‘Because if being Jewish is just a commitment, and I never really made the commitment, I feel that I am not really a good Jew. I am somehow lacking in my Jewishness.’

That is why Reform

have Commitment ceremonies. Who invented this? Why? Because reform as it originated in Germany wanted to make Judaism look like Christianity. Christians have confirmation, so Jews made one up. There are no historic models for this, it was copied. But this is a new definition of being Jewish. This is not the definition that has gotten us through 2000 years of exile, and 3800 years since Abraham.

Rabbis do not make Jews. Rabbis do not really convert people. Rabbis on a beit din are trying to establish, has this person taken on the yoke of Torah, the mitzvahs, does she see her fate and life inseparable from the Jewish world. She/he goes into the Waters of Life, the mikvah, and comes out with a Jewish soul. It is metaphysical friends. It is transcendent, and it is awesome, as in awe inspiring. It is not a commitment ceremony, it is a birthday.

Practical Ways of Defending Chanukah

I remember as a child the inundation of X-Mas Spirit after Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Already in the parade, an air of X-Mas was apparent. But no one dared to declare the start of X-Mas marketing till the gravy had congealed, and the stuffing demolished. Sadly those days are gone. As I walked into a local Starbucks for a meeting, I was struck in the face by a large, white, X-Mas decoration hanging from the door. Once inside, my familiar Starbuck experience was replaced by winter-wonderland, replete with wreathes and reindeer. I began to reel and waver, the room was spinning, I just about passed out, only to be supported by my friend. Oh, to be Jewish in the Diaspora, in Golus. Just when you think that you have been immunized, the whole monster virus mutates, once again overcoming your self-defenses.

This year X-Mas began November 1st, just after Halloween (based on the pagan Celtic day of the dead) was cleared from the streets. The candy not yet consumed—advertisers, retailers, propagandists, were already hawking X-Mas . Mass materialism, consumer addition, how long can people continue to replace meaning with tchachkes? And what of Thanksgiving, a truly universal holiday that Jews can celebrate in tandem with their gentile neighbors. A holiday which actually can carry meaning and good-will to our fellow humans. A holiday which does not require expensive credit card bills spent on narrishkeit (nonesence). A time to volunteer at the soup-kitchen, a food drive, or another civic event aimed at sharing the wealth. It seems that Santa has run his sled over the turkey. The pine needles are sticking into the pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is just a day of football and shopping for X-Mas presents.

To nag, alas, is very Jewish. Yes, there is what to complain about. However, there is a silver ling, so to speak. An opportunity to reflect upon the nature of being Jewish in exile, a Jew in golus.

Once upon a time, gentiles victimized Jews during the holiday season. X-Mas , New Years, and Easter, offered kick-the-Jew season. This kicking sometimes escalated into full-blown pogroms. It was evident that we were less than wanted. And since the gentiles didn’t want us, we didn’t want them. North America 2004 presents a radically different model for being Jewish vis-avis this gentile world . They love us to death. Menorah’s and Chanukah decorations coexist with X-Mas decorations. Small Jewish retail-ghettos in stores offer random and silly Chanukah tzachkes, like small unisex bears with tallesim and kippahs. Chanukah retailing, marketing, tzachka-ing blazes new and creative ways to separate Jews from their gelt, and Chanukah from its meaning. The brilliant scene at the end of the Hebrew Hammer where the villain asks “What is the meaning of Chanukah?â€? The Jewish hero stumbles, falters, stutters. This bold-biblical brother, defending the Jews from the goyim in the chood, cannot come up with the meaning of Chanukah, though he risks his tuches to save it.

Since I lack the purchasing power to alter the marketing strategies of the major retailers and advertisers, it is unlikely that I can have any major affect on the current trend to make X-Mas a season starting after Labor day. Therefore I must suggest other ways of dealing with this maniacal nuisance, this nemeses of Jewdom, this killer of Thanksgiving, this false messiah of credit.

Besides the obvious alternatives, like living in Monsey, New York (which we tried), or moving to Israel, I want to offer some practical ways of dealing with this mega-trend without relocation. Mind you, these are only cures to the symptoms and not the cause. They are inoculations against the virus, but offer no cure, and are not 100% effective. True insulation from the juggernaut is simply not possible without retreat to a mountain survival bunker in Idaho.

1) By Chanukah CD’s and play them while you drive, study, or cook.
2) Study about the deeper meanings of Chanukah in The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov, Feldheim Publishers.
3) Plan many Chanukah parties.
4) Attend many Chanukah parties.
5) Have a HUGE shabbaton (this year X-Mas starts Friday Night).
6) Start building a Monster Menorah (see BeachHillel.com for contest details)
7) Infuse your life with Maccabee energy, by unleashing the inner Maccabee and learn about Israel Advocay.
8) Paint a large Menorah on your house.
9) Buy dozens of electric menorahs and place them in every room, in the window.
10) Inform your friends and family that Chanukah is your spiritual home.

Happy Chanukah!

Don’t Let The JuBu’s Fool Ya…Buddhism is Treif

Recently the Forward published at article called “The Buddha From Brooklyn,” about Jeff Miller, AKA Surya Das. The article’s author wrote: “In a way, Surya Das’s Buddhist teaching is actually very Jewish.â€? And with that, I had to break my silence about Buddhism.

In discussions about the nature of Jewish life at the turn of this century, the Jubu phenomenon, deserves our attention. But don’t believe the hype, as it offers no solutions, only deeper problems.

Jews in large numbers have studied and adopted Buddhist practices. Some have become leading practitioners. In mainstream Jewish life, among Reform and Conservative congregations, one can hear references to Buddhism or Buddhists in sermons. Even my mother, from a traditional home, has offered to send me books that meld Jewish and Buddhist teachings, that tell Jews how many positive lessons Buddhism has for Jews to learn from.

Who are the JuBu’s?
Most Jews who do Buddhism— Buddhist meditation, tantras and other stuff —know next to nothing about the faith and law of their ancestors. As Jeff Miller said “Judaism never really answered my questions when I was growing up. I asked questions, they said: “Be quiet. Stop with the questions. What’s wrong with you?” So I sought elsewhere.â€? The Judaism they encountered in horrific after-school programs vaccinated them against continued Jewish knowledge as they encountered adulthood. Justifiably uninspired by what they saw, Jews searched elsewhere to find peace, answers, and spirituality. No one can blame them for pursuing spirituality elsewhere, when their Jewish upbringing was based on material pursuits and juvenile explanations. The generations of Jews that annihilated tradition, knowledge, and meaning, bear responsibility for Jews today who are totally ignorant of their own culture and heritage.

So while we cannot condemn, we still cannot condone. Buddhism is antithetical to Jewish practice and belief. A basic understanding of the Torah’s prohibitions of idolatry, deism, and asceticism rule out any kosher involvement with Buddhism, its teachers, proponents, and practice. Those practitioners that claim no inherent conflict are simply ignorant.

What attracts Jews to Buddhism are kernels of wisdom that G-d planted there. Why did G-d do this? Hashem planted those kernels in order to test us. The popularity of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist tchachkes, challenge each and every Jew to learn about their own heritage. Torah, Kabbalah, ancient Jewish prayer and meditation, represent the most unbelievably deep wisdom. Torah teaches how to engage life, the Godly sparks in each person, the nobility of each breath, and the humility to know our place in creation.

Though tempting, and seemingly benign, we must avoid Buddhist idols, symbols, altars, incense, offerings of food and water that are placed for ritual purposes. And since the main thrust of Buddhist teachings in North American are intertwined with meditation techniques, the conflicts inherent are not self-evident. Nonetheless, we must turn away from Buddhism, its JuBu practitioners, and return to Jewish practices and belief.

In words that are best known by the poet John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself…â€?. What a Jew does anywhere in the world has a powerful effect on the rest of the Jewish people. Each Jew is part of a great web of souls with a common root. Every sanctification of Hashem, every Shma Yisrael, every Sabbath candle, resonates in the life of the Jewish people.

We did not survive through history by chance or by fluke. We are here to carry on a crucial mission, Tikkun Olam. Repairing the world, bringing holiness into the world, bringing blessing to the world.

Don’t let the light go out, it has shined for so many years.


Rabbi Yonah can be reached at rabbi@beachhillel.com

Adkins An Anti-Semite?

It seems that American’s love affair with the Bagel are over. Low-carb diet fettish has proven that people want skinny legs and not skinny onion sticks. They want flat abs, not round everything’s. What will become of an America denuded of bagels? Where will hungry Jews have brunch? Could it be that this is the sign of the impending implosion of Jewish culture, or is it just a phase in the muti-faceted evolution of Jewish life in America? After 350 years here, are we finally losing our grip on the American palate? Is this perhaps a sign that Atkins was an anti-Semite?

Well I am sad to say that I don’t think we can pin this decline on anything so insidious, much as I would love to. It is not just an inconvenience that is being literally taken away from Jewish communities nation-wide, but a whole generation of youngsters are growing up with bagel-free brunches, G-d forbid. They serve low-carb bagel alternatives like wraps, heaven help us! Can you imagine a child who thinks that Bubie and Zayde came over from the old world packing lox and cream-cheese wraps?

I am more than nostalgic. I am a freaking bagel lover, and this watershed in Jewish history should not go unnoticed. Is it a coincidence that declining bagel sales correspond to the rise in inter-marriage? That Birthright was born at a time of declining bagel sales?

It all started when bagelers, Noah, Einstein, and other’s sold their homemade bagel chains to multi nationals. The chains introduced such soft fluffy sickening flavored bagels, that it is no wonder that American is rejecting them! The bagels became glamorous buns with little taste or chew. The whole was filled up to make them more sandwich=friendly. They were being sold with meat and cheese fillings, by mega-corps, looking to squeeze every last dime our of the biz, without regard for product quality or customer satisfaction.

This Rise and Fall of the Bagel Empire is a tragic occurrence, to those sensitive enough to feel the reverberations throughout the Jewish world. America will never be the same. And either will my brunch.

– – – – – – – –

Bagels are big biz. America ate over a half-billion dollars worth of just the top five market brands. That does not include retail bagels and in-house bagels. The numbers reached over a billion dollars in bagels.

Now the decline of the bagel is underway.

In the 1990’s Bageling was still a great investment. “Building a better bagel” by Margaret Littman in Bakery Production and Marketing, Vol. 32, No. 2 (February 15, 1997), quotes industry experts, that the bagel market is not near its saturation point. “According to the American Bagel Association, bagel consumption was 26 bagels per person in 1996. This is an increase from 1993 consumption figures of 14.2 bagels per yearâ€?

Bagel Statistics for 2004

2004 Bagel Statistics
Top Ten Fresh Bagel Brands
Brand Dollar Sales Pounds
1)Thomas 161,591,648 55,901,992
2)Sarah Lee 84,156,336 29,923,414
3)Private Label 63,504,364 34,907,744
4)Lenders 31,613,710 11,794,987
5)Earth Grains 24,357,704 9,232,786

Top Ten Frozen Bagel Brands
Brand Dollar Sales Unit Sales
1)Lenders $95,695,872 73,441,976
2)Lenders other 23,950,2244 15,506,581
3)Private Label 15,481,805 14,108,963
4)Pepperidge 3,832,686 1,338,521
5)Bagels Forever 2,370,845 2,911,556

Top Five Bagel Brands
Category sales of $447.2 (million)
2)Sara Lee
3)Private Label
4)Lenders Bagel Shop
5) Earth Grains