“Rosh Hashanah is an epic fail.”

That was the gist of a provocative column by Jay Michaelson published earlier this month in the Forward.

jay-michaelsonMichaelson, who writes on religion and progressive politics and is the author of a half dozen books, including “Everything is God,” wasn’t talking about whether Rosh Hashanah should or should not be observed but rather how it is practiced, particularly in the large non-Orthodox synagogues of America where the Forward’s main readership is.

The solemn responsive readings and monotone formality, contrasted with the fashion show frivolity in the pews, make Rosh Hashanah just about the worst interface for Jews who only visit a synagogue one or two days a year, Michaelson says.

While Michaelson was writing specifically about Jewish life in the U.S., his message applies to Israel too, where the synagogues are similarly packed on Rosh Hashanah with less than regular, shofar-seeking worshipers.

Michaelson’s column, not unexpectedly, elicited major pushback with commenters resorting to some ferocious name-calling.

But the thing is: he’s not wrong – if you’re willing to think outside of the four walls of the shul box.

Rosh Hashanah has some great messages, to be sure. Celebrating symbolic renewal on this “birthday of the world” – on both the national and personal levels – gives us a proscribed framework for expressing gratitude for what we have and a safe space to acknowledge the beauty and blessing that exists if we are willing to push past the cynical.

Seeking forgiveness from our family, friends and neighbors and – more importantly – from ourselves for not living up to the unreachable expectations we so often set, is an important step towards living a more mindful life. There is great communal value in looking back at the year and tallying up our accomplishments (and shortcomings) as if our lives depended on it.

It’s just that we’re doing it in the wrong location.

The synagogue is no place for Rosh Hashanah. The brick-heavy machzor (the holiday prayer book) has become, over the years, more akin to a never-ending Wikipedia entry, containing every prayer and piyut that was ever written, than a guidebook for spiritual connection.

Trying to find the meaningful messages in the morass is possible, but one is just as likely to nod off or go numb as the day stretches on for 4 or 5 hours. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.

Michaelson’s prescription for the High Holy Day dilemma? Skip Rosh Hashanah entirely and commit to a different day on the Jewish calendar. Michaelson recommends Sukkot – a holiday of “harvest, joy, environmentalism [and] companionship” that is everything Rosh Hashanah isn’t: interactive, kinesthetic and engaging.

I’m a big fan of Sukkot, too. But I’m not ready to dump Rosh Hashanah just yet. There are other ways to rehabilitate the day.

Why not get together with family and friends, whether for a meal or a hike or a game of cards, and use the themes of Rosh Hashanah as triggers for deep discussions on repentance or how to build a better, safer and more just society.

The Unetanneh Tokef prayer is a good place to start. It sensitizes us to the fragility of life in a world filled with terror.

“Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague.”

There’s even a bonus prompt to spur discussion on privilege and class.

“Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched?”

Or combine a debate about Rosh Hashanah’s ancient emphasis on “kingship” with a comparison to Game of Thrones. Has the world gotten any better since that admittedly mythical time? Or do misogyny, sexism and battle-hardened testosterone still loom large in our supposedly enlightened age? (At least we don’t have dragons.)

Do all this even if you do go to synagogue.

Every year before the High Holy Days, the Jewish non-profit organization Reboot offers a tool called “10Q.”

10q10Q is a website that presents you with ten questions that you answer online. You then click “Send to Vault” and the site locks your answers away until the following year, when you receive an email inviting you to review what you wrote and to reflect on the year just passed.

The questions are meant for private introspection but they work well in a Rosh Hashanah group too.

“Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?”

“Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year?”

“What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?”

“Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?”

The final 10Q section allows you to write down predictions for the coming year. Do that communally – and open the list from last year to see how you did. (I predicted another summer war with Hamas, about which I’m very pleased to have been wrong.)

Spend at least some of Rosh Hashanah contemplating these questions and you’ll be much closer to the true spirit of the holiday.

As Michaelson writes at the conclusion of his piece, you can “go to synagogue some other time.”

I first wrote about how to make Rosh Hashanah better at The Jerusalem Post


What if there were an “end date” to life?

by Brian on October 2, 2016

in Health

brian-blum-profile-pictureIt was my birthday last week. I turned 56. That means I have another 19 years left on this planet.

No, I don’t have a crystal ball predicting when I’ll die. But I have been very much taken with the end-of-life prescription laid out by medical ethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, who wrote in a much-cited 2014 essay about why 75 years is long enough for him.

Emmanuel’s reasoning goes like this: Medicine may have prolonged life expectancy, but not quality of life. Once we hit 75 (on average), we start to slow down. We get sick more often. We suffer through chemo and broken bones. Dementia becomes increasingly common.

Emanuel wants to go before he deteriorates both mentally and physically.

“I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either,” he vows in his Atlantic Magazine article. By age 75, “I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. I will have…made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.”

I haven’t decided if I will adopt Emmanuel’s recommendations for no more cancer screenings and no more cardiac stress tests after age 75, but the idea of an “end date” for life is something worth considering.

It is at once terrifying and oddly comforting.

Terrifying because in the last year and a half, a litany of new pains and aches and anatomical malfunctions that I didn’t have in my first 55 years have set in. They aren’t enough to do me in (at least that’s why my doctor says), but they do add a daily discomfort that, if I let my mind go wild, I can envision increasing in intensity, allowing me to more easily imagine what I’ve always been so afraid of.

I should know better than to dwell in an imagined future. My mindfulness practice has taught me that.

Author Eckhart Tolle summarizes the sentiment in his book The Power of Now. “The future does not exist,” he says, “because nobody has ever experienced it. You can only ever experience a present moment.”

Stumbling on Happiness author, the social psychologist Dan Gilbert, disagrees.

While “the past and the future are both real,” he explains on the TED Radio Hour, “the present is a psychological illusion.”

Gilbert relates it to going to the beach. “You see water and you see sand, and it looks like there’s a line between them, but that line is not a third thing. There’s only water, and there’s only sand. Similarly, all moments in time are either in the past or in the future.”

Gilbert’s thought experiment doesn’t negate the benefits of a life lived more mindfully. But it does give some credence to those of us who can’t help keeping one foot forever in the future.

And that can, paradoxically, enhance the present moment.

If I embrace the possibility that I might only have 19 years left, I am forced to ask myself how will I make that time meaningful.

I’m currently writing a book. It will have taken me just over three years from start to finish. How many more books do I have in me before my 19 (hopefully productive) years are up? I don’t have time to waste on writing something frivolous.

I love to travel. But I won’t be able to see the whole world in 19 years. So I’d better prioritize where to spend my time and money. Does Cambodia call more than Costa Rica? Is it ever worth going back to someplace I’ve already been?

Do I even want to travel? Or is the best allocation of my non-working time spent with family and friends closer to home?

I should certainly complain less. After all, what could be a worse use of time? That’s easier said than done for a life long kvetcher like me. Physical distress can take over even the most optimistic affirmations and the depression that lingers after illness is not always in our control.

I’ll have to accept that too.

Philosophers and fantasy writers have long been fascinated by the question of whether, if you could know the date of your death, would you want to? The exact date – no, I don’t think so. But I’m open to some general parameters.

My kids hate it when I talk this way.

“You’re going to live forever,” one said to me when I was feeling particularly bleak. “You have to – you’re my Abba!”

My meditation teacher Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels once shared the story of how he used to suffer from overwhelming anxiety. His teacher Amita Schmidt posed a provocative question.

“If you were like this for the rest of your life, could you be OK?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied. Because, really, what’s the alternative?

When you’re young, you’re convinced that you’re invincible. You’ll do everything, visit everywhere; there’s no need to make lists.

I’d like to think of myself as still young. I don’t know a lot of people my age seriously contemplating their mortality, especially when there’s nothing life threatening on the horizon. And of course no one can ever know how long he or she will really live. A terror attack, a traffic accident, a natural disaster or a sudden tumor could come at any time.

Still, my body’s diffident if infuriating rebellion has given me an unexpected opportunity. I will do my best to be OK with it, too.

I first wrote about turning 56 at The Jerusalem Post.


microwave“I know my husband uses the microwave on Shabbat,” a friend told me, after I shared my story of being in a mixed secular-religious marriage, “but he makes sure to do it while I’m out of the house at shul.”

While this bifurcated approach may work in the short term, where the less observant partner does his or her own thing in private while the more observant one pretends to look the other way, I think it’s a recipe for resentment.

The better solution – and the one that’s worked for my marriage – has paradoxically put the onus more on me: to find secular meaning in traditional Jewish rituals. Then we can share the same religious activities while interpreting their significance differently.

The big three are taharat mishpacha (the laws of family purity), kashrut (keeping kosher) and Shabbat.

Family purity might seem like a deal breaker: why would a now non-observant person like me agree to forgo sex for half of every month until after my wife has visited the ritual bath?

When we were newly married and both religious, it was just what you did. It wasn’t until years later, when I was questioning everything, that we realized that the externally mandated ebbs and flows of menstruation and mikveh enriched our sex life. It gave us a fresh start every month, a moment to anticipate, and a structure that we chose to adhere to even when I no longer believed in the halachic (Jewish legal) imperative.

Keeping kosher is a tougher one. The way I’ve come to understand it, the underlying purpose of the laws of kashrut is less about holiness and more about keeping Jews and gentiles apart. The Torah gives no reason why certain animals are kosher and others aren’t. Rather, it’s a test of faith.

Kashrut has done an excellent job achieving its goal over the years but that mission – particularly in Israel where I live – seems less relevant today. (It has also gotten so mired in politics as to drive people away.)

Still, it’s important to our community and friends and it’s not that hard to keep a kosher home. While traveling or eating out we are more flexible. In any case, my wife Jody is a vegan, which has become a sort of secular kashrut for many people with a modern meaning we can both get behind: not harming animals and inflicting less damage on the planet.

Coming every week without fail, Shabbat is probably the biggest topic of potential friction in a mixed marriage but I love how Jewish tradition marks the weekend as a “day of distinction.” I don’t need Jewish law to tell me that (mostly) turning off electronics for 25 hours brings enormous benefit.

You just have to compare a weekday meal with Friday night.

During the week, the phones are out and, even though we have a “no screens at the table” policy during family dinner, the dopamine demand of each pocket vibration or the hypnotic pull of a far off ding often proves to be too much – even for me.

On a Shabbat at home, though, we can spend hours just talking, eating and having fun together. The kids play card games, while Jody and I catch up on reading. Friends drop by and we spend quality time together. We walk the dog without being plugged into a podcast obsessing over whether Adnan did it or why Bowe walked off his base.

In this respect, I find comfort in the writing of Judith Shulevitz, who described her ambivalent relationship to Shabbat in the book The Sabbath World, or the secular-friendly National Day of Unplugging.

I don’t go to synagogue much anymore and I sit quietly at the table if others want to say the grace after meals, but I wouldn’t give up the peace that a traditional Shabbat provides for anything.

I may pull out my iPad to read one of the dozens of eBooks I’ve downloaded, but at least for now, I’ll do that in private, not because I’m fearful or afraid of offending, but because I’m choosing to.

I’m grateful and don’t take for granted that Jody values my post-modern quest for Jewish authenticity. That’s her part of the compromise, too, and it’s no less significant.

Making a mixed marriage work means moving past the binary and eschewing either-or declarations. It means embracing change and not knowing precisely where you’ll end up. A successful mixed marriage may very well be the truest demonstration of love. I know it is for me.

This piece is the third in a series on mixed marriages. It follows my original column and the second piece that appeared in the Forward. This article also appeared first in the Forward.


mixed-marriage-forward-1I have a confession to make: I’m in a mixed marriage. But not the kind you usually think of when you hear the term, which conjures up images of countless Tevyes sitting shiva.

These days – and in Israel, in particular – “mixed marriage” refers not so much to two people of different religions, but of different religious outlooks, where one person in the couple is observant and the other is not.

Modern mixed marriages comprise couples where one person discretely starts the air conditioner on Shabbat while the other pretends to look the other way, to full-blown atheists married to ultra-Orthodox believers.

Sometimes a couple knows what they’re getting into.

Shmuel and Devorah were not on the same page religiously when they got married – and they’re still not. Devorah drives on Friday night after dinner to see her mother while Shmuel stays at home. He fasts on Yom Kippur; she has a bagel after he’s left for morning prayers.

In other cases, that’s not the way the relationship started out. When my wife Jody and I first met, we were both newly religious. We were attracted to each other’s passion for Torah and a vision of how we’d raise our children.

A dozen years in, though, I began to change. Observance and belief dropped off as I grappled with finding – or rather reconnecting to – a more authentic version of my secular self.

For many years, I kept our status as a mixed marriage a secret. I didn’t want to confuse the kids who were attending religious schools. And Jody was afraid that our observant friends would stop eating in our home.

Eventually, I began to slowly “come out.”

I soon discovered we’re not alone. Other people in mixed marriages reached out to me, eager to share their own stories.

Penina has been married for nearly 30 years. It started simply, she told me, with writing down notes during Shabbat “I justified it by telling myself that it was a stress reduction technique, a way of silencing the frantic demands bouncing around in my brain to ‘remember this’ or ‘remember that’ for the next 24 hours.”

Later it was the “iPhone in the bathroom” trick. “It’s easier on my middle aged eyes with the large fonts and the brightly lit screen than reading a book,” she explained. But she would never pull out her phone on Shabbat in public – or in front of her husband at home. “He still doesn’t know. We live in a small religious community and it would have a big impact. I don’t know if our marriage would survive.”

So how do people in mixed marriages make it work?

For Miriam, whose husband (but not her community) knows she no longer keeps the Sabbath, it’s all about family rules. “We have an agreement that when one of the boys walks out of the house, I’ll make sure he’s wearing a kippa, even though personally it doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “It’s no different than getting them to clean up their room.”

I asked Miriam if she ever feels trapped – that she can’t drive to the beach or watch a movie on Shabbat if she wants to. “With three little kids, by the end of the week, I’m so exhausted, I just want to chill and spend time with my family at home,” she said.

There is one thing Miriam wants. “A tattoo. But that’s such a secular thing to do. My husband begged me not to, so I said, OK. I really don’t need one.”

For me, the key has been being able to differentiate between “core values” and “external actions.” Because the latter – like everything in life – are always going to change, sometimes radically.

If you get too attached to the outside identity – which includes religious behaviors – that can precipitate a crisis. But if you know going into the marriage that many, maybe even most of the “actions” are going to change, you can focus on the personal qualities that brought you together in the first place.

Jewish writer and philosopher Alain de Botton (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” and “Religion for Atheists”) was interviewed about the nature of marriage on the public radio program This American Life.

“Many of the hopes you take into a marriage have to die in order for the marriage to continue,” he told host Ira Glass.

De Botton’s point is that, given how complex a marriage is – where you’re looking for a best friend, a co-parent and a compatible sexual partner all in the same person – “we’re not going to be able to get it all right. There will be many areas of misunderstanding and failure [and] you will often be in despair.”

That doesn’t mean your marriage has gone wrong. “It’s a sign that it’s normal and on track,” De Botton said. “A certain amount of sober melancholy [can be] a real asset.”

Jerusalem-based couples counselor Nomi Raz put that in more practical terms. “Dropping expectations and learning how to compromise is essential for a healthy relationship.” And for a mixed marriage, she added, “the one who’s more religious becomes a bit less. The one who’s less observant needs to be more tolerant.”

Jody and I have been able to find a balance between self-actualization and accommodation. We both bend but not to the breaking point. By being honest and respectful, we’ve made it work.

And most important: people still eat in our home.

This piece, a follow up to my original Mixed Marriage column, appeared in the Forward.


Snub from Cairo

by Brian on September 16, 2016

in In the News,Politics

or-sasson-islam-el-shehabyWhen Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shehaby lost to Or Sasson in the 100-kg judo contest at the recent Rio Olympics, Shehaby demonstrably snubbed his Israeli opponent by refusing to shake hands, as is Olympics protocol (not to mention just plain good manners).

This prompted outrage – not only in Israel, but at the International Olympics Committee, which reprimanded Shehaby, as well as by Egypt, which sent him home.

Shehaby tried to spin the mess he’d created by saying he had “no problem with Jewish people or any other religion or different beliefs.” Rather it was the fact that Sasson was an “Israeli athlete” and not a “friend whom I must greet.”

The slight highlights the gap that frequently exists between official diplomatic relations – Israel and Egypt have a peace treaty, after all – and the sadly less favorable opinions held by many individual citizens.

As Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was killed in a terrorist bus bombing in 1995, wrote in the Times of Israel, a ceasefire is “much better than gunfire. But a ceasefire is a fragile thing. If it’s not backed by deep, wide-ranging societal support for peace, then it could be broken at any time.”

It goes both ways, of course, and it’s not my intention to make a blanket statement about all Egyptians (or all Israelis for that matter).

Still, the incident in Rio wasn’t entirely surprising to me. Eleven years ago, our family spent a week touring Egypt and had a similar experience.

achmed31Ahmed, our tour guide, clearly didn’t know what to make of us. He definitely realized that something about this typical “American” family was odd.

We showed a surprising amount of interest in Cairo’s Ben-Ezra synagogue, where our kids read the inscriptions in fluent Hebrew. Our strictly vegetarian diet (our way of keeping kosher while on the road) was way off the beaten track in meat loving Egypt.

Most of all, our oldest son’s name was highly unusual.

“Amir – that means ‘prince’ in Arabic,” Ahmed said. “Is that, um, a common name in America?”

We hadn’t concealed the fact that we were Jewish. But we nevertheless decided that we would travel on our U.S. rather than our Israeli passports, and when asked where we were from, we would answer “California” (not entirely untrue since we moved to Israel from the San Francisco Bay Area).

Before our trip, an Egyptian friend – a software developer I have worked with in the past – assured us that Egypt was safe. “Just don’t go around with a big sign reading ‘Hi, I’m an Israeli,’” he said.

We decided to heed his advice.

Together with Ahmed, we climbed the pyramids, ogled the Sphinx, marveled at the mummies in the Egyptian Museum and caught a glimpse of Tahrir Square, which had yet to become famous as an international flashpoint.

Ahmed was knowledgeable, personable, took a real interest in the children and, when he wasn’t smoking like a chimney, demonstrated a casual worldliness that made us feel like maybe we could trust him with our “secret.”

As we crossed the “6th of October” Bridge, commemorating Egypt’s perspective on the Yom Kippur War, Ahmed decried violence of all kinds, stressing there were only losers in conflict. We were ready to open up.

That is, until he addressed the elephant in the room.

“You know, we Egyptians have no problems with American Jews like you,” he said unprompted. “But we really hate Israelis.”

Not “dislike” or “”not fond of,” but “hate.”

We decided we’d remain closeted until the end of the trip.

Upon our return to Israel, though, I was unsettled. I felt we had truly enjoyed each other’s company; that we could have become friends and not just customers given a bit more time. But that would require honesty.

Ahmed had given us his email address; I decided to write to him and “confess.”

“What would you say if I told you we were not only American but Israeli citizens as well?” I wrote.

A full week went by without a reply. I fretted. Maybe he was leading a tour down the Nile without good cell phone coverage, I comforted myself. Or maybe the time was not yet ripe to be so forthcoming.

Finally, a message appeared in my Inbox. The subject line read “Warm regards.” I was momentarily buoyed.

“In answer to your question,” Ahmed wrote, “my feeling for you and your family was very good.” But then he added, “even though you are from Israel.”

My hopes crashed as Ahmed continued. “And even though we got to know each other, this doesn’t change my position.”

But I was not willing to let it end there. I wrote back, attaching several photos from our trip.

This time, Ahmed’s response came the next day.

“The photos are excellent. Your children are beautiful. Greetings to your wife and Happy New Year. I hope it is a peaceful one for all.”

There was a P.S. “Could I use these photos on my website?”

And another P.S. “If you know anyone else coming to Egypt from Israel, please tell them to bring some Israeli cigarettes. I collect them and I’ve always wanted a box with Hebrew on it.”

I wrote about Ahmed originally at The Jerusalem Post.


Keeping kosher “in my own way”

September 16, 2016

Dennis Prager has a radical proposal. In a column published earlier this month in the Jewish Journal, he makes the argument that “if you don’t eat bacon or shellfish because you are a Jew” – even if you eat beef or chicken that hasn’t been slaughtered according to Jewish Law or you eat out in […]

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Abolish the rabbis

August 15, 2016

A radio campaign called Hatuna Shava – a play on the Hebrew for a wedding that is both egalitarian and “worthwhile” – has been running over the past month in Israel. The radio spot urges young couples to get married, but to keep the Israeli Chief Rabbinate out of it. Hatuna Shava is a collaboration […]

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Crowdfunded shnitzel without killing coming to your kitchen

August 2, 2016

Shir Friedman calls me a care-nivore. “You’re someone who cares about not harming animals…but you still eat them,” she says with a smile. Friedman wants to change all that. If Friedman’s new company takes off – and judging by the rapid response to their Indiegogo campaign, I have every expectation that it will – I […]

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Electro shock therapy meets the iPhone

August 2, 2016

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been zapping my brain with small jolts of electricity. Does the new Thync device work? Or is it placebo?

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Mixed marriage

June 25, 2016

“Can I ask your advice?” Shraga said on a sunny Shabbat afternoon a couple of weeks ago. “How do you make it work, religiously? You know, being in a mixed marriage?” I was taken aback momentarily. I had never heard my marriage described that way although, on consideration, it was in fact accurate. For years, […]

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