December 22, 2008

Who is Tamar? Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks comments on your Biblical “date”

Tamar (Hebrew: date palm tree, date fruit) at
Tel Aviv University campus date palm sculpture
Weekly, I eagerly await the Covenant and Conversation commentary on the weekly Torah reading. Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, examines (via web, email, and podcast) the Torah as it unfolds along the annual cycle of Torah portion readings. Last Shabbat, Genesis 37:1-40:23 features my namesake, Tamar, among other developments. In this blog post, Torah translations are from Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. 

We know little except her name, Tamar
Judah, fourth of Jacob's twelve sons, had "gone down" — a spiritual and physical decline after proposing to his brothers that they sell into slavery Jacob's showoff favored son, Joseph. Judah is now married to a Canaanite woman who bore him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er grows up, Judah finds him a wife, Tamar.

Tragedy strikes
Er "was evil in the eyes of the Lord" and dies. (The text does not describe the evil.) Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to marry Er's widow, Tamar, in a levirate marriage in which a widow's brother-in-law must marry her if the brother died childless. Onan, who "would waste his seed on the ground" rather than fulfill the obligation, is punished by death.

Judah, fearing that his third son might die, too, if given in marriage to Tamar, sends her to "stay as a widow" with her father until Shelah is old enough to marry her. There, Tamar remains a "living widow" unable to marry while bound to her remaining brother-in-law.

Taking destiny in her hands
When Tamar learns that Judah is approaching nearby Timnah for the sheep shearing, she veils her face, dresses as a prostitute, and stands on the road he will take. Judah approaches and sleeps with her, and she becomes pregnant and returns home. Three months later, her disguise long removed and condition apparent, people inform Judah. Indignant, he reasons that she is guilty of adultery because she is bound to Shelah. "Take her out to be burned," he orders.

A significant detail
In Tamar's ruse, before performing services for Judah, she negotiated payment and insisted on a pledge — his seal, cord, and staff.

When he sends a messenger to pay Tamar and reclaim the pledge, she cannot be found in her masquerade costume. Appearing as herself, she returns the pledge items with the message, "By the man to whom these belong I have conceived." In this masterly stroke, Tamar has established her innocence without shaming Judah who alone understands the course of events. Her discretion inspired the Sages to claim that one willingly be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than shame someone in public.

What was Tamar up to?
According to the Midrash of Nahmanides and of Hizkuni, Tamar was following the levirate marriage custom in which absent the possibility of the deceased husband's brother marrying his widow the father-in-law or a close relative can take his place. Tamar's piety ensured that her husband Er's name and family line would continue.

Ruth's story told in the Book of Ruth is similar to Tamar's. Both begin with a father-in-law's descent. In both stories, marriageable sons die: Judah's sons Er and Onan; Elimelech's Machlon and Chilyon. In both, a widowed woman is childless, and a woman's bold act triggers the denouement. Tamar poses as a prostitute, and Ruth lies at the feet (a euphemism!) of Boaz. In neither case are the men next in line in the levirate marriage (for Tamar, it was Shelah; for Ruth, the anonymous Peloni-Almoni, whose claim Boaz asks to forego).

Why mention Tamar and Judah in the Book of Ruth?
The Book of Ruth states explicitly the connection between the women. When the elders permit Boaz to buy Naomi's field and marry Ruth, they pronounce, "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah who together built up the house of Israel . . . May your family be like Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah."

This Book ends with a genealogy that counts ten generations from Peretz to King David whose family tree begins with Peretz, born to Judah and Tamar, and, the seventh generation son Obed, born to Ruth and Boaz. Thus, the family tree of Israel's great and future King includes Tamar and Ruth whose virtue, loyalty, kindness, and discretion contributed to David's greatness.

Heroines at the extreme 
margins of Israelite society
Ruth is a Moabite; we are not told Tamar's family origins. The Sages say she was descended from Shem; Philo ((20 BCE - 50 CE), that she was the child of idolaters. Yet, says Boaz of Ruth, both women bear children "to maintain the name of the dead . . . so that his [deceased husband's] name will not disappear." And both are sensitive to the living — Tamar by not shaming Judah, Ruth by not letting her mother-in-law, Naomi, return home alone.

The stories of both women, childless widows and outsiders move me deeply. Tamar and Ruth, powerless yet of moral courage, wrote their names into Jewish history as role models who gave birth to kings, reminding us that true royalty lies in love and faithfulness, and that greatness often exists where we expect it least.

November 23, 2008

Josh Gomes is scoring points for Israel

We are family. Yup.
Looking at the photo, you might wonder, Huh? Family? What’s up with that?

Watch the video (7.5 minutes). Then, "listen" to more of Josh's unique voice in his email below the link.

On Feb 20, 2008, at 9:37 PM, Josh Gomes wrote: 

I just got home [to Binyamina] from the Jerusalem trip! Wow, it was the best. ... I have things on my phone like the Western Wall (where people put their prayers to Jesus or God in cracks between the stones), Mt. Zion where King David was buried, Mt. of Olives, and the walk that Jesus made to Calvary on the Cross (aka Via Dolorosa). I will show you in time.

But yeah, after that we went to The Holocaust Museum [Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority]. 6 million Jews and more died, and over 3 million of them were from Poland! We had a 3-hour tour lady, and she was the best. The sights I saw I will never forget. The devil had to be full force in Hitler for him to get an entire country to abide through all this.

The most interesting fact about the gas chambers in Germany is that only 30-40 Nazis ran each camp. And over an entire year, well 13 months, 900,000 Jews died in one camp through just 30-40 men's doing. Also, I didn't know that Americans knew what was going on, not from the beginning, but they knew during the stages of this and did nothing besides a few bombs in not effective areas. All they had to do was bomb Auschwitz and the railroads that took the Jews to the gas chambers. They came when it was all said and done, and acted like they were shocked! I mean, I am sure some were, but still.

I didn't really know how much Poland was hit. The towns they did it in... I saw those towns every road game and not knowing history was there 60-65 years ago. They had the "Ghetto" in Warsaw. How they did those people I will never forget. When the people were dead, they had a bulldozer like they do snow and just piled and pushed the dead people into these caves that they made. Aw, man, that time had to be one of the worst periods ever.

The tour lady made sure we knew everything so we can continue the story for generations to come! I'm glad I took the opportunity.

Related posts

November 05, 2008

בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי; וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה | Psalm 30:6

At evening, one beds down weeping, / and in the morning, glad song.

The scholar Robert Alter, in his notes from The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, writes on his English-rendering of the Hebrew verse, "This upbeat vision of life has, of course, been manifested in the recent experience of the speaker." Further, it precedes a thanksgiving for having been rescued from death.

On November 4, within hours after the epoch-making rescue of America from its death and dying, I heard the speaker-psalmist's Hebrew voice.

The death? Of historic fears, of democracy run aground, of cynicism.

The rescue?
The tectonic-like shift from nearly three hundred years of poisonous racism on the body politic to reason, plans, strategies, and passion for hope and change for all Americans.

. . . the dream of our Founders is alive in our time . . .

. . . lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, . . . [of] people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.

. . . [wisdom] spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states; we are and always will be the United States of America.

. . . It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.
— From a transcript of Senator Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago, November 5, 2008

My tears of joy, sobs of gratitude are for the greatness which is the human spirit, for our country, and for the trust we have put in Barack Hussein (a name that does not mean a terrorist or an assassin) Obama. Our president-elect, an American just like the rest of us — a mortal, not a deity, not a rock star, as someone viciously described him (really, revealed his own cynicism and envy) in his email among the genuine congratulations Skyped, called, and emailed to me from abroad.

בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי; וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה | At evening, one beds down weeping, / and in the morning, glad song.

Voting today in DeKalb County, Georgia

I waited in line only 40 minutes,
thanks to early voting nationwide

39 percent of DeKalb County voters
cast their ballots before today).

The wait in line was easy and fun. As with all elections the past ten years, I met many neighbors, fellow synagogue members, and friends — all in my district.

It's a five-minute walk from my front door
to my polling place, Briar Vista Elementary School.

The line waiting to vote snaked along halls
covered with children's work. Here,
the life cycle of . . . pumpkins!

A Venn diagram using Goldilocks and
the Three Bears
and the Three Billy Goats
to learn, it appears, size (big, small
medium) and number (3).

Goldilocks and the Three Bears
this time in a lesson on charting
narrative elements (characters, setting,
problem, solution), methinks.

The grand finale: the state of Georgia!
A map showing Native American Cherokee
and Cree tribe areas, and a note: "The men
went hunting and the women harvested."

November 03, 2008

Ramaz School e-reminder: Vote on Election Day, November 4

With Election Day on Tuesday, our current students are eagerly anticipating the result of this historic vote on the national level, and already understand that voting is both a privilege and a responsibility.

We hope that you share their enthusiasm and interest, and we encourage all registered voters in the Ramaz family to vote on Tuesday, November 4.

° ° °

When I was growing up in New York City, my father, of blessed memory, a pioneer American Jewish educator, enrolled me in the Ramaz School family. There, with a double curriculum (religious and secular studies), by eighth grade, I was taking 17 subjects!

Since its beginning, in 1937, Ramaz has been widely recognized for its academic excellence, reflecting the vision of founder Rabbi Joseph Lookstein: ". . . an integrated program of religious studies combined with general studies — a school in which the culture of America would blend with the heritage of Judaism." In this yeshiva day school, "a child would not experience an intellectual or emotional clash between being a Jew and an American."

Between growing up in a traditional Jewish home and attending Ramaz, where I learned Torah, Mishna, Talmud, and cantillation, among other religious subjects, I began to acquire basic tools and confidence to participate as an active member of the Jewish community. Since those early years, followed by continuing studies and experiences, I have been at home anywhere in the Jewish world. Whether I participate in a worship or life cycle service in an orthodox, post-denominational, or secular setting, I am at home. Whether the language is Hebrew or English, I am at home.

My Jewish education and the values that I inherited are liberalizing and universalizing influences in my life. And while my Jewishness plays into my identity, ideas, and activities, no rabbi, political party, lobby group, nation, or Jewish civil law necessarily determines my choices or decisions. I am neither a captive of my greater community nor am I a renegade. The tradition is rich; the tent is wide.

Bottom lines:
  • Daddy, your love and legacy are my strengths.
  • Ramaz School, your continuing education informs my choices.
  • Every American registered voter, if you haven't already done so, cast your ballot tomorrow, and vote!

October 15, 2008

Giving good help: IsraMac and One to One training with Bill Huber

WIth One to One Creative Trainer Bill Huber
at the Atlanta Apple Store in Lenox Mall

As a dual citizen of the USA and Israel who pecks away at her Apple MacBook in both countries, my non-tekky skills (and confidence) get enormous boosts from sage sources on both sides of the pond. Thanks to my dual help systems, IsraMac and to Bill Huber, I can do much more than check email, surf the 'net, and manage myriad aspects of my life electronically.

IsraMac (Israeli Macintosh users discussion list)

This critical first line of defense and troubleshooting is a prized free information source for hundreds of subscribers (not just Israelis or locals!) on most things Macintosh. Almost daily, I get an emailed digest of Q&As on topics ranging from Mac OS tips and tricks to software updates (and crises), items for sale, and requests for service technicians, tutors, and translators. This Yahoo Group's special focus on issues specific to Israeli Macintosh users covers, for instance, Hebrew language compatibility and Mac-friendly (and -hostile) Israel organizations, companies, banks, government offices, and Internet Service Providers (with workarounds, if available).

The IsraMac community of newbies-to-gurus posts questions and answers. For example, guru Tzvi Fabian recently shared a link to Hebrew-English silicone removable keyboard KB Covers! Now solved: my dilemma on "converting" my keyboard from English to Hebrew characters, and back (avoiding cumbersome and inelegant individual Hebrew-letter stickers (they don't stick well) or opening the onscreen Keyboard Viewer (cumbersome)!

To subscribe, send an email to

Atlanta Apple Store superhero

More than five years ago, at Atlanta's Lenox Mall, I brought a sick Mac to Bill Huber who then held the brainiac title, Apple Store Mac Genius — Apple-selected and -trained to know Mac tools, systems, and products. And because not all Geniuses are equal, when the One to One membership program was born, I knew instantly which former Genius would be my One to One Creative Trainer. So when I am in the USA, Bill guides weekly customized training sessions to suit my learning needs. While he remains his signature kind, patient, good humored, respectful, and keenly intelligent self, it is Bill's patience that most boggles my impatient self.

Bill has helped me manage electronic data, streamline backup procedures, and enhance my blogging "chops." I have learned to use Mac applications that I would not have attempted alone, among them Keynote for presentations (such as setting up text and images for my video, Coexistence Kindergarten), iMovie for video production, and GarageBand to manage audio files of interviews I conduct. (Watch Scoring Points for Israel, my interview of Josh Gomes, American shooting guard on Israel's Ramat Gan basketball team.) 

October 08, 2008

Yom Kippur 5769: "Tamar, Why do Jewish people vote Democratic?"

Sharing a meal with hungry people and
engaging with them in loving ways at
Open Door Community, Atlanta, Georgia
Yesterday, coincidentally(?) two days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, my neighbor Judy and I had a lively two-hour rambling chat on all manner of subjects, save one. Years ago, we had decided to steer clear of politics. Yet in 28 days, we would be voting in the national election for US President and on issues and representatives, hot topics on our minds.

And so Judy confessed, "I cannot resist asking you one question." "Fire away," I encouraged.

"I've long wondered," Judy probed, Why do Jewish people vote Democratic, especially after George W. Bush and the Republican party have been such great friends of Israel?" "Great question, and a fair one," I replied.

Core messages 

Neither presidents nor kings, pundits, bosses, rabbis, nor specific groups decide who earns my vote. For many Jews and others, the Hebrew Bible, especially the books of the prophets inform our core values and visions of a just and decent society, our individual and communal responsibilities to bringing it about, and requirements for leadership. The Democratic party principles, platforms, and policies more than those of the Republican party align with these core messages. On Yom Kippur, we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah verses that encapsulate these messages.

Isaiah 57:14 - 58:14

Later, searching to share with Judy Isaiah's teaching, I stumbled on this creative translation/interpretation by Rabbi Shefa Gold.

... those greedy corporate warmongers!
They are like the troubled sea,
Whose waters stir up filth that pollutes the land,
For them there is no safety, there will be no peace.
... Oh sure, I hear their prayers every day,
They say they want to learn my ways. Hah!
As if you were a people doing righteousness,
Who has not abandoned decency and compassion!
... They say, "Don't you see we're fasting?
Don't you see how holy we have become?"
But on your fast day you wear clothes
that were made by Chinese prisoners,
And shoes that were cried over
by terrified children in loathsome sweatshops,
And the books you hold in your hands,
are filthy with the tears of dying forests...
And your investments fatten the rich,
who are destroying this land.
You think this is the kind of fast I want?
A day that will feed your self-righteousness?
You call this a fast?
... Well, I'll tell you what kind of fast I would desire from you...
Unlock the chains of your greed and habit,
Free you from slavery of being blind consumers,
Let the oppressed worker go free
by raising the minimum wage.
It's a disgrace I tell you!
The fast I want is one that will inspire you
to share your food with the hungry,
To redistribute the wealth of this land fairly,
To build affordable housing for the homeless,
And to welcome back the people you have thrown out of your hearts,
Even the ones in your own family.
... If you banish corruption, hatred and apathy
from the innermost places of your heart,
If you stop blaming everyone else,
And instead extend your hand to the hungry,
And lift up the ones who have been beaten down
by this unjust system,
Then your light will shine forth, even in the darkness.
... From your inspiration people will reestablish
the values that have been desecrated,
And restore the foundations of decency
that have been laid by your ancestors,
And you shall be called 'Repairer of Brokenness,'
'Restorer of the Way'...

May we merit a sweet year, join in repairing our broken world, and elect a just and wise President on November 4.

My related post
5768 (2007) Yom Kippur thoughts: Our choices do matter

September 30, 2008

L'Shanah Tovah, Have a Happy New Year: May we all be like a head and not a tail.

With cousin Gila and Tal-Or, her eldest grandchild,
at a family wedding in Jerusalem (March 2006)
Meet first grader Tal-Or who lives in the West Bank settlement Tekoa with her parents, sister, and brother. Tal-Or loves arts and crafts, playing with her friends, helping her mother set the table, and cutting salad. Rosh Hashanah begins this evening and it has been on Tal-Or's mind, as her email message to Gila shows. My English translation follows the Hebrew.

שלום לכולם,
צירפתי סיפור לברכה של ראש השנה.
שכולנו נהיה לראש ולא לזנב ושתהיה לנו שנה מתוקה
סיפור לראש השנה
כתבה: טלאור-מאירסון

בראש השנה היתי אצל סבתא. אמא הסיעה אותי ראשון והלכה לקחת את אבא. ראיתי איך סבתא עורכת שולחן. ראיתי איך היא מניחה תפוח. ראיתי איך היא מניחה דבש. ושסבתא רצתה לשים צלחות היא אמרה, דניאל רוצה לעזור לי לשים צלחות. אמרתי לא. אז סבתא באה אלי ואמרה, דניאל צריך לעשות מצוות לפני ראש השנה. שאלתי למה? אמרה סבתא שתהיה שנה טובה-ו-מתוקה. בסדר אמרתי. וסבתא אמרה, ילד-טוב הביא לי צלחות עוד הרבה דברים. ואז שגמרתי אמרתי גמרתי וסבתא באה ואמרה, איזה יופי דניאל. ערכת ממש יפה. ואז שמעתי דפיקה טוק-טוק. רצתי לפתוח את הדלת ומי עמד בפתח? אבא ואמא. נתתי להם חיבוק חזק ואז אמא שאלה, מי ערך את השולחן? עניתי, אני-אני בעצמי. אבא אמר לא יאומן וסבתא אמרה, יהיה לנו שנה-טובה ומתוקה.

Shalom all,
I attached a story as a Rosh Hashana greeting.
May we all be like a head and not a tail, and may we have a sweet year.
A Story for Rosh Hashana
by Tal-Or Mayerson

On Rosh Hashana I was at Grandma's. Mommy drove me there and then went to get Daddy. I saw how Grandma sets the table, how she places an apple, how she places honey. And when Grandma wanted to set the plates she said, Daniel wants to help me set the plates. I said, No. Then Grandma came over to me and said, Daniel needs to do Mitzvot [good deeds] before Rosh Hashana. I asked, Why? Grandma said, That we might have a good and sweet year. OK, I said. And Grandma said, A good boy brought me plates and many more things. When I finished I said, I finished. And Grandma came and said, Terrific Daniel, you really set the table nicely. And then I heard a knock-knock. I ran to open the door and who stood in the entrance? Daddy and Mommy. I gave them a big hug and then Mommy asked, Who set the table? I answered, I did, I did it by myself. Daddy said, Unbelievable, and Grandma said, May we have a good and sweet year.

NOTE: Gila later called Tal-Or, and learned that Daniel is just a name, no one in particular. As to the story itself, Gila said to me, I think that whatever we want to read into it is fine.

My previous Rosh Hashana posts

September 29, 2008

Israelis for Obama

In this three-minute video, among the talking heads — the woman at the Wall I have worked with; the former deputy speaker of the knesset I went to grade school with. Israelis for Obama: Seeking peace and pursuing it vigorously, within and without.

Love from me,
an Israeli-American for Obama

Update | Bearing in mind the video message and target audience, in the interest of discussion, see Israelis for Obama - Now, the Movie and Israeli generals duped into supporting Obama. Check out the comments following each post, too.

September 28, 2008

My lunch special at Atlanta’s Mediterranean Grille

David and Luther hugging gladdens Helen

Because I just missed the bus to reach a meticulously planned lunch date, I broke my rule on not hitchhiking and flagged a shiny black pickup truck. My designated driver? A thirty-something Hispanic man, dad to a preschooler (which I surmised from the Little Mermaid sticker smiling from the dashboard).

Me:  “How far up Briarcliff Road are you going?”
He:  “Buford Highway, to pick up my three-year-old daughter from school.”

When papi learned that I was headed past his turn, he insisted on first taking me to my destination so that I reach it on time. Good deeds. Grace. Gracias.

A long, growing friendship with interfaith roots
Atlanta's Mediterranean Grille was the venue for the basic recipe: good friends reconnecting over lunch to share laughter, ideas, updates, and more questions than answers. Luther called it "table fellowship" (a religious meal tradition derived from the ancient Mediterranean Essenes and early Christian cultures of community in which worship and ordinary daily living were integrated).

David's family and I met Rev. Dr. Luther E. Smith Jr. and his wife, Rev. Helen Pearson Smith, nearly a decade ago when our faith communities met at Central Congregational United Church of Christ. In dialogs, short courses (for instance, on theologians Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Howard Thurman), potluck dinners, and co-planned and -led New Year's and Thanksgiving services, we inched toward wider scopes, deeper visions, and more wholesome communities.

Meeting my cousin, my neighbor
At my turn in the long line to place orders, I asked the genial fellow Semite for lentil soup and dolmas (rice and lamb-stuffed grape leaves) with marinated salad.

I then pushed through my hesitation to ask, "What country are you from?" "Palestine," his answer.

Hmmm, methinks. Is he among the Israeli-Arabs and others for whom the State of Israel is a temporary aberration, its denizens slated to be obliterated, and the land appropriated to become Greater Palestine under Islamist rule? Or, does my cousin/my neighbor mean that he is from the Territories — the West Bank, Gaza, or one of the many Arab towns and villages, parts of a future Palestine?

"Where in Palestine?" I gently pressed.
"Gaza," he said.
Me (relieved, sort of): "Oh. Uh, I sometimes live in Tel Aviv."
He (enthusiastically): "I worked in Tel Aviv, in the 1970's."
Me: “Nice. In food?"
He: "No, I worked in the hotels."

And there ended our friendly chat; it was all I could manage. I had plenty to chew on, and mercifully, behind me someone was waiting to place a lunch order.

My community is multiracial, multicultural, multilingual, multi-everything
Such encounters — papi, David, the Smiths, and the Gazan remind me that suspending initial judgment of others and remaining open to the possibilities of engagement often returns interesting, rewarding outcomes.

Next month, our group will rejoin for table fellowship. I will probably re-order the dolmas, and speak a bit more w my Gazan cousin, if he is willing. And, because he worked in Tel Aviv, his Hebrew surely is a lot better than my Arabic.

August 31, 2008

Joe Franco (1909-2008): Celebrating a long, loving life

Joe Franco flanked by granddaughter Eliana Franco Gilbert
and her parents, Rita Franco and Craig Gilbert
(Probably at Joe’s grandson's Eli Joseph Franco's
Bar Mitzva, May 2005, when Joe was age 95.)

Meet Craig Gilbert, guest blogger and dear friend since 1993 when we met at Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia. A manager of financial software, Craig was a principal of Front Row Systems, Inc, a software firm he co-founded, and operated 25 years. Craig is an active organic gardener, has written on ethics, and participates in the Dances of Universal Peace.

Soon after Craig's father-on-law, Joe Franco,
died last spring at age 98, Craig sent me an email while I was living in Tel Aviv "to share the special life of Joe Franco who meant so much to me." Craig has agreed to publish here his tender reflections on this giant person (of short physical stature). He adds, "for Joe's family, thanks to everyone for the outpouring of love we felt since his passing and that you gave him throughout his life."


I know you heard from David Soloway that Joe Franco passed away. I wanted to share a few words with you because you knew him, and like all special people, you immediately connected and saw beneath the covers. We spoke of him often.

I believe you first met Joe at our daughter’s baby naming at Bet Haverim where proud grandpa Joe was happy to offer the celebrants an impromptu singing of Verde’s "The Hebrews' Chorus (Va’ Piensero)." [In Verdi's opera Nabucco, the chorus sings of the Jews' longing for Israel following their expulsion from their homeland to Babylon by Babylonian King Nabucco.]

I enjoyed every minute with Joe. The years that I accompanied him to Congregation Or VeShalom [a Sephardic synagogue in Atlanta], I felt as though I was going with Mick Jagger. He was a rock star. People would gather round, and he would always have a word to say about their parents or grandparents.

After Joe passed away, I felt the need to tell you many things, how deeply touched I was by him and his passing so that you could savor the beauty of his life. Please indulge a few random thoughts.

Stories and songs in seven languages
When Joe passed away, it left a large empty feeling in me. I needed his stories, his songs, his sharing his life experiences. In ten minutes he could tell dozens of intertwined stories involving Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Mussolini, Kamal Ataturk, and Suleiman Ha’Gadol [Suleiman (Solomon) the Magnificent, who invited the Sephardic Jews to Rhodes, where they called him Ha'Gadol, Hebrew for the Great].

Joe would spontaneously recite Adlai Stevenson’s acceptance speech for the presidential nomination or Churchill’s speech to Europe to “fight on brave Norwegians.” Always on Joe's lips was a song in any of seven languages. I can’t tell you how much I miss Besame Mucho, O Solo Mia, or his Spanish translation of "God Bless America" or a French rendition of "Carolina Moon."

Humble beginning in the Aegean Sea
Joe was born in 1909 in Rhodes, a Greek island southwest of Turkey in the eastern Aegean Sea. He grew up in a three-story six-room house where two families (about 18 people) lived. No running water, no electricity. He slept on a bed of straw, which he shared with his brother Jack.

In Rhodes, if Joe earned a few dimes or quarters from the American sailors who docked there before or during World War I, it was more money than his father would earn in a whole month. In Joe's youth, when the sailors gave him dimes, he was amazed that the USA currency was made of real silver. He could not imagine how great a country it must be to use silver for coins.

He learned operas by standing outside a bistro, in Rhodes, which had a crank phonograph, and he picked up dozens of arias that way. He had a great talent for music and knew hundreds of songs in many languages. He often translated popular songs into various languages, and his translations were often (in his opinion) “better than the originals.” He was always singing and entertaining people.

Four continents and multiple talents
Joe lived on four continents and spoke seven languages: Ladino, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. He also knew a good deal of Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, and Swahili. He could hold three conversations simultaneously in three languages, well into his 90's. Joe's wide-ranging career spanned sales, insurance, real estate, and retail.

The valedictorian of his high school class, Joe traveled to Belgium seeking work. There, he accepted an offer to be an accountant for the railroad in the Belgian Congo [present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo], in Central Africa, where he lived two years.

In 1929, Joe joined his four brothers in Atlanta, where he graduated from Emory University in 1934. During World War II, Joe served as a financial attaché with the USA embassy in Bogotá, Columbia, where he acquired materials (principally rubber and cinchona bark to fight malaria) for the war.

Boiled prunes from a mayonnaise jar
I met Joe when he was 80. He was allowing a homeless man to live in the basement of his home. Not one to put on pretenses, he offered me boiled prunes from a mayonnaise jar. When I married his daughter Rita, I immediately felt comfortable calling him Dad, and his wife, Rae, Mom.

His grandson Lewis recently published a CD, “Swingin’ in Daddyland,” about feeling great to be a good daddy. It is no coincidence. Joe’s whole family has been living in Daddyland [a term from the CD title], striving to emulate Joe’s values and instilling them in their children.

I never heard Joe say a bad word about anyone, save for the Nazis and other enemies of "our people." He achieved great success in life in the areas of family, friends, education, business, and love. Even at 98, I can't believe Joe is gone, and it seems it all ended too quickly.

— Craig

Installation dinner for Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla,
Congregation Or VeShalom (February 2005)
Front, left to right: Joe Franco (then age 93), Rabbi Kassorla
Back: Arnold Zipperman, Craig Gilbert, Jack Arogeti (great-nephew, great guy)

August 10, 2008

Knowing Hebrew is no help in learning Arabic

This gorgeous calligraphy spells "al Arabiya" — which means "Arabic" in English; at least I think it does.

Six weeks' learning to write and pronounce the Arabic alphabet, I'm feeling like a child. An illiterate one. And the feeling is lousy.

In Israeli-Arab towns and cities that I passed on frequent trips to the Lower Galilee last spring, the signage is in Arabic only. That's it, I decided somewhere between Tamra, Daburiyya, and Mount Tabor. I will learn Arabic basics, at least.

Now, between my Arabic 101 class at Evening at Emory and lessons on YouTube, I'm off to a great start. Here's what I mean.

I dream of watching Sesame Street in Arabic (5 days a week, with frequent repeats of each show). This way (I continue dreaming), I would painlessly learn not only the alphabet, numbers, and colors but also basic lessons in human relations: fairness, kindness, and respect for self and others.

Karen Armstrong writes (The Bible: A Biography), "... Modern philosophers of language have argued that 'the principle of charity' is essential for any form of communication... Even though [others'] beliefs may be very different from your own, 'you have to assume that [they are] very much the same as you are,' otherwise you are in danger of denying their humanity."

A core lesson that Sesame Street has been broadcasting nearly forty years.

July 04, 2008

July 4, 2008, celebrating in Tel Aviv

[Hebrew sign]
The lemonade of Li and Nadav
buy it for four shekels [about $1.50]

Friends, I am feeling the heat and humidity. On Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, children are selling relief (fast and temporary) from their park bench lemonade stands. Although I am scantily clad, sweat pours over my face, my neck — everywhere.

Yet, neither heat nor humidity can spoil this day. It is the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States of America today celebrating its 232nd birthday. Gratitude for America fills me just as gratitude for Israel on its 60th Independence Day filled me two months ago. I am a citizen of both democracies where I live, one country at a time.

It's the first time in years that I am not in America celebrating Independence Day... yet. My plane from Tel Aviv lands there this evening, ending a five-month adventure here.

It's also my second blogging birthday today. Two years ago, I published my first post, July 4, 2006, at Atlanta's Open Door Community picnic for more than 500 guests who live on the streets.

Thank you, framers of America's Declaration of Independence. Thank you, champions of independence everywhere.

Sold out: bottled water from a rolling stand
in Jerusalem's Old City last week

June 30, 2008

Tel Aviv: learning from elders

German-born Ute and Romanian-born Leah sharing girl-talk

At the corner of Tel Aviv's Allenby and Yavne Streets, in the public Beit Avot (Home for the Aged), the stories flow and I discover worlds. So when my globe-trotting friend Ute came from Frankfurt on her first trip to Israel, visiting the Beit Avot was a first stop.

Speaking pidgin German
Sitting on a bench in front of the Beit Avot, Leah was the first to greet us. They quickly established rapport, and howled in delight as Romanian-born Leah recounted, in pidgin German cobbled from her scant Yiddish, how she overcame bridal shyness on her wedding night.

Inside, we headed to Moshe's room for answers to Susanne's questions. She visits him weekly, and recently sent me this e-mail from the USA  —

... Is Moshe OK?... He had that eye surgery before I left and I am wondering if it left him impaired... I just hope he is doing all right. Also, he asked me to find a book and I need more information.

How did the eye surgery go?
Perfect, Moshe's reply.

Were you scared? Ute and I asked, in unison.

I've fought in four wars, killed many people on command, and was a captain in the paratrooper's brigade. Children are starving all over the world. What's a five-minute zapping with a laser beam? Moshe's bad-news-good-news answer.

Tell Susanne, thank you for asking, and to forget about the book, he added.

And so ended the Q&A and began Moshe's freestyle discourse on history, Jesus, opera, Greenwich Village, angst, and Israeli documentary film.

Ben-Gurion Remembers (the movie)
Among Moshe's myriad accomplishments and adventures, he was the chief cameraman for Ben-Gurion Remembers (1972), a tribute to Israel's first Prime Minister that scans this nation's history. Moshe told us about his first conversation with the elder statesman when the film's producer introduced them before the filming that lasted more than forty days. 

Our interest in the film having been piqued, the next day Ute and I sat in a carrel at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque Library and watched it, weeping, horrified, and ashamed as newsreel footage showed killing, maiming, and destruction. And, we cheered listening to Ben Gurion, world leaders, pre-State pioneers, and other courageous ingenious actors who helped trump the mad men and mad women and their death machines.

When we returned to the Beit Avot to thank Moshe for his camera work, his joyous shouts and gasps — that we sought, found, and watched the film thrilled us. Suddenly, he rose from his chair and went to the closet where he rummaged among his few possessions in the small room he calls home. And he retrieved a small photograph (shown in the photo on the left) of himself when he worked on that film project (in the photo, his assistant is on the left).

The twinkling eyes, the hair-framed smiling face in the photo still his, intact and unchanged since those glorious forty days' filming more than three decades ago.

My related posts on the Beit Avot

June 19, 2008

On the Face: Lisa's very cool interview with Stephanie

My photo with Stephanie — treasured friend and colleague since 1994 when we met, in Atlanta, at A.D.A.M. Software, Inc. (now, A.D.A.M., Inc.) interactive anatomy and multimedia products. And, since 2006, when her persistence trumped my excuses, my blog mother.

"Your blog's name is well chosen," Jeff commented on an earlier post. "Connecting with people, reaching out to them... that's a good thing. You're one of the people who lowers the degrees of separation."

Which partially explains how Stephanie, who blogs at Cool People I Know, "met" and interviewed uber blogger Lisa last week on my MacBook, with a little coordination and much magic.

My photo with Lisa — whose depictions of life in Tel Aviv and in neighboring areas (Palestinian territories and Lebanon, among others) induced me to email her last year ("Can we meet?"), turning a virtual friendship into the real kind.

Lisa's authentic approach to reporting on life that no mere visitor (whether reporter, politico, or tourist) could possibly know, and her friendships with Lebanese bloggers and on-the-ground coverage during the Second Lebanon War, drew attentions of CNN, BBC, and The Washington Post, among others — and a burgeoning global audience.

Lisa (in my Tel Aviv flat) told Stephanie (on a cattle farm in Georgia) why she started her On the Face blog (and how she chose the name). Responding to astute questions, Lisa shared some of the art of crafting blog posts while maintaining a collegial community with up to hundreds of daily visitors and commenters from diverse, often opposing perspectives and bitter feuds across political, faith, and geographical boundaries.

Stephanie captured the fast paced, upbeat, low-touch, high-tech interview in this 30-minute podcast: Uncovering Tel Aviv: An Interview with Journalist/Blogger Lisa Goldman.

Locally. Globally. Only connect.

June 09, 2008

(Israeli) boy and his (friend's) dog on Shavuot

Or (in Hebrew, "visible light, source of illumination")
cuddles Sheer-li (in Hebrew, "my song")

To celebrate the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, my lovely friend Eilat invited several friends, including lucky me, to her home in Tel Aviv last night.

We dined on elegant dairy-infused culinary creations (none mine — the sole health-conscious, low-salt-and-fat, taste-free contribution).

In following the customary exception to the talmudic rule, that "holiday joy requires meat and wine," the table was a riot of cheese blintzes, yogurt with honey, cheesecake, lasagna — even a box of honey-laced, milky-white Toblerone chocolates!

Why eat dairy products on Shavuot?
Delicious reasons and sacred texts inform. Among them, Song of Songs (4:11) hints that the Torah nourishes "... like honey and milk under your tongue."

Children as guarantors
Before God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, the tradition teaches that God required agents who would assure the Torah’s continuity and transmission over the ages.

So the people suggested the patriarchs and the prophets, among others; to no avail. Only when they offered children as the guarantors, did the Jewish people receive the Torah.

Every Shavuot, I feel especially nourished by children's sweet optimism and earnest dedication — ideal qualities to guarantee the Torah's eternal life.

While native Israeli Or's attentions to his host's dog (shown in the photos) touched me deeply, I began to imagine him pleading (unsuccessfully) with his Moroccan-born mother and Russian-born father for such a pet. I projected, "Seems you want your own dog, yes?"

Relieved by Or's quick, "I have one!" I reflected on the blessings that beloved pets bring. Among them, loving (at least treating respectfully) others' pets, ultimately protecting all creation.

Shavout: celebrating revelation at Sinai and giving the Torah.

Children: guarantying the Torah — "tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18).

Chag sameach. Happy holiday.

May 26, 2008

Memorial Day Video: A Soldier Remembers

This video Op-Ed (4:31 minutes) features a veteran of the Iraq war who finds new meaning in Memorial Day.

Update | For my Memorial Day 2009 post, Do we find the cost of freedom/Buried in the ground? I borrowed the title from the Crosby, Stills & Nash song by Steven Stills that I first heard in the early 1970s during the Vietnam War. I included the lyrics of the group's classic antiwar anthem and a link to a video (4:32 minutes) of their singing it, with a collage of original photos by a photographer who writes, "one day we will get to the place where there is no more war... of this I am certain."

May 11, 2008

A Mother's Day blog series

When Ronni Bennett launched a Mother’s Day series at The Elder Storytelling Place, an adjunct to her blog, Time Goes By, she posted a new story each day, and today, Mother's Day, she has posted mine!

You can read my story, Happy birthday mother. Where are you? and from there link to the other six in the series.

As I approach my two-year blogging anniversary, I look to this story as the one that most reveals who I am. I have struggled with concerns, probably all excuses, about writing anything private or personal in my blog. Well, not too private or too personal. Yet those concerns vanished as I wrote about my mother, now in her ninth decade.

My mother's astonishing life has been marked by prodigious talents, extraordinary adventures, and exceptional accomplishments. Yet devastating tragedies and losses tripped her soul on her long, long journey to today.

Years ago, while she was fully present in spirit, she told me that she felt like an ancient tortoise.

Happy Mother's Day, mother, and to the many women and men who have mothered me along the way.

Update | May 14, 2010
This year, when Margalit Bernstein...  Brill... Chipkin... Balin would have turned 99, it is instead the day of her funeral. Today, at the funeral, my oldest childhood friend and another dear friend since high school are reading this story, which has become my eulogy for my mother: Happy Birthday, eema. Where are you?

May 08, 2008

Donating Israeli flags to honor elders, country, and faith

For months, Yehudit and her husband, Yisrael, owners of the Weizman-Liman Flag Store and small factory on Tel Aviv’s Brenner Street, have been working nonstop (except during Shabbat, Passover, and the brit milah [Hebrew: covenant of circumcision] of their first great-grandchild). They have been producing flags to fill orders during the seasonal heightened demand in Israel marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day.

The couple loves their country of 7 million people, and exudes a sense of good fortune and privilege to be part of the historic process of the rebirth of the state of Israel in its ancient homeland, the land of Israel.

Last Friday, amid steadily mounting pressures to meet customers' deadlines, Yehudit called me about a commitment I had made to her last month.

Tamar, when are you coming to pick up the flags you promised to bring to the Beit Avot [Home for the Aged] where you volunteer? I want each resident to have a flag and for the Home to have flags everywhere on Yom Haatzmaut [Independence Day].

Not a little ashamed that I forgot and grateful to call such a woman, friend, I hurried to pick up the bundle of gifts.

At the Beit Avot on nearby Yavne Street, I pressed it into Ada's hands. As this director of programs and services gasped and shouted out, we laughed and wept, her expression (captured in the photo) saying everything.

Question: How do I know such righteous people?

Answer: By hanging out with their emissaries.

Yedidia, an Atlanta Torah MiTzion program havruta [Aramaic, study partner], instructed me to visit his maternal grandparents when I returned to Tel Aviv.

Just go to Allenby Street and slightly past the Carmel Market on your right, turn left onto Brenner Street. I forgot the number but go to the first or second building on the right and look for Weizman-Liman Flag Store on the mailbox. Up one flight, and you are there.

Weizman-Liman Flags
Brenner 2 (corner of Allenby)
Tel Aviv, Israel
Tel. 03/528-5385

My related posts
Israeli-made Bhutanese flags for Bhutanese refugees

May 07, 2008

Israel's Independence Day: From grief to celebration

From Holocaust Day to Memorial Day one week later is not a happy time around here, and the sadness is intensified by the mess our leaders are in.  — Karen Alkalay-Gut, Tel Aviv Diary 

During these days approaching Israel's birthday —
  • I broke my silent reflection on Holocaust Martyrs' and Heros' Remembrance Day, and accepted Stephanie’s sensitive, thoughtful invitation to join her, in Atlanta, in a Skype-recorded conversation with me, now in Israel. My hope is that listeners would reflect on the gruesome realities of the past that threaten everyone, everywhere, always, and resolve to act in ways to help prevent genocide of any people.
  • I remember my cousin Noam Yaakov Mayerson on this Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. His parents will be arriving soon at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, joining other families and friends at the graves of their loved ones. On August 7, 2006, Noam was killed when Hezbollah terrorists opened fire on an Israel Defense Forces unit in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil.
  • will join Shimon in one of hundreds of ceremonies nationwide this evening when Israeli flags will be raised from their half-mast positions marking the transition from grief of Memorial Day to celebration of Independence. After sunset, the start of a new day, we are commemorating sixty years since the birth of the modern State of Israel in its ancient homeland, the land of Israel.
Tonight, we celebrate what is easy to overlook, scorn, and despise in this dazzling country bursting with the bitter and the sweet.

Happy birthday, Israel. And endless more. Never ending. Everlasting. For eternity.

!יום עצמאות שמח

May 02, 2008

Holocaust Remembrance Day and Vivi's elementary school project

Dear Tamar -- Hi! How are you? Is Tel Aviv nice? In school, we are doing a historical fiction novel. I'm doing mine in WWII. It's about a girl and her family who take in a Jewish family. I would like to use your name as the mother in the Jewish family. If that is okay, please say yes. I can't wait for your response. See you soon. Love, Vivi

Dear Author Vivi!
— I love you, and I love your letter and question. I am THRILLED to be the mother in the Jewish family. I hope "we" are taken into a family as loving as yours. Did I ever tell you that a Catholic convent in Turin, Italy, took in my mother's Italian cousins Miriam and Aviva during World War II? As Jews, their lives were in mortal danger especially during that period. Both girls were almost swayed into the Catholic faith because they were at an age (around yours) when fitting in is s-o-o-o-o important. After the war, they came out of hiding and were returned to their parents. They slowly adjusted to who they were before the war (not that you can ever undo life experiences and be who you once were). In their later years, they both moved to Israel. Oh, I am doing great and Tel Aviv is a really fabulous place. Kisses, Tamar

Dear Tamar -- Thanks so much for being in my book. It's really cool that your relations were taken in by a Catholic convent. But it must have been sort of awkward. And speaking of awkward, I forgot to tell you some big news: Kramers is dead. It's very sad, isn't it? I don't know how he died, but he was at least 14. That's pretty old, for a cat. Anyway, we can't wait until you get back. Love, Vivi

NOTE: Ten-year-old Vivienne is a honors student at a public elementary school for high achievers in Atlanta, Georgia. We have been friends about ten years. Vivi plays piano and flute, is an active Girl Scout, studies ballet, and has performed in the Cherub Choir and Junior Choir at Trinity Presbyterian Church. An adoring younger sister to Caroline, Vivi appears regularly on this blog. Previous posts include —

April 29, 2008

Why I blog

On my blog reading rounds this morning, I came across an interesting musing here, on Mining Nuggets. Tamar (yes, there is at least one other blogging Tamar) writes, "Once again, I question why I blog." She then explores myriad possible answers, and concludes not with an answer but with a question: "... should I just ... well ... kick the habit?"

In reply to her intriguing question, why blog? I simply opened a vein, and out flowed this comment, almost verbatim.
I blog to process my busy life and mind. With all that draws me to explore, challenge, change, consider, and do, I look forward to the discipline of sorting through the myriad inputs and my responses and to make sense of the mix. In identifying the parts and arranging them in a coherent order or design, I can put the experience into a usable, even more interesting shape. For me and for anyone else.

And I love the connections that happen through my blog. Meeting fellow bloggers or commenters offers me amazing company — classmates, colleagues, rich content — here, in my school without walls in a universe-ity of infinite links. I don't like walls, and schools are not buildings where someone else decides what's good for me to learn, and when.

So, why do you blog? Or, why not?

April 17, 2008

The orange on the Passover seder plate

Professor Susannah Heschel, a leading Jewish feminist scholar, explains the origin of this modern custom. Her father, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was a prominent scholar of Jewish ethics and a civil rights leader who participated with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Selma Civil Rights March (1965).

“In the early 1980s, the Hillel Foundation invited me to speak on a panel at Oberlin College. While on campus, I came across a Haggada that had been written by some Oberlin students to express feminist concerns. One ritual they devised was placing a crust of bread on the Seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (there's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate).

“At the next Passover, I placed an orange on our family's Seder plate. During the first part of the Seder, I asked everyone to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community (I mentioned widows in particular).

“Bread on the Seder plate brings an end to Pesach — it renders everything chometz [leavened bread]. And it suggests that being lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism. I felt that an orange was suggestive of something else: the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out — a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism.”

Source: Miriam's Cup

Update | April 1, 2012  Visit my related post, In Tel Aviv: The orange on the Passover seder plate, which describes the Joint Passover Seder for Israelis and African Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel that I attended. There, “see” oranges on dozens of seder plates, “meet” some participants, and “listen” to excerpts from their Exodus stories, gripping all.

April 09, 2008

In Israel: sirens wail nationwide

Woman with Dead Child (1903) by Kathe Kollwitz,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

(in the public domain in the USA)

Every war already carries within it the war that will answer it.
— Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Artist and Social Activist

This morning, in the largest civil defense drill in Israel's history, an air-raid siren sounded a loud dull wail at 10 a.m. nationwide (except in Sderot, Ashkelon, and other communities along the Gaza border). five-day exercise was launched Sunday in the face of increased tensions with Syria, Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon, and possible chemical and biological attacks. Charming possibilities. 

Scenarios and simulations were enacted — among them, children carried "wounded" classmates to bomb shelters and emergency personnel rescued "injured" trapped in rubble. The public was asked to use the practice to locate the closest bomb shelter or protected room.

While Israel authorities insist the drill does
not mean that war is anticipated in the near future, hearing the siren's wail immediately brought a flow of tears and associations of pain, horror, fear, memories, anxieties. First to my mind leaped images of Noam Mayerson, my cousin — killed in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006. Next, I thought about my relatives (whom I never met) in Europe before, during, and after the reigns of terror of World War II.

my dear friend Shimon and his family in Ashkelon and fellow civilians in Sderot flash into focus. There, in Israel's southern region, within fifteen seconds of real warning sirens, real rockets land. Fifteen seconds to absorb the information, manage the terror, and seek and then find and enter a safe place.

While politicians and talking heads with jobs and leisure and 
without accountability pontificate and analyze other people’s experiences, these terse lines capture my attention:

What comes first, peace or security? Ostensibly this is the crux of the debate between the two and is like the question: whom do you love more, Mom or Dad? Peace without security is a lie. Security without peace is nonsense.
— Akiva Eldar, The lie of peace and the nonsense of security, Haaretz