Cantor Abraham Wolkin z”l

On my interview Shabbat in Jericho last January, I was blessed to meet a great man-Cantor Wolkin. I quickly learned that Cantor Wolkin had led holiday services at Browns in the Catskills for almost 40 years and that he had preformed over 1,000 marriages. This past summer, Cantor Wolkin attended services almost every Shabbat with his daughter Barbara Smiler (who along with her husband Dennis are active members of our synagogue) and his attendant Rex. Barbara was very close to her father and devoted to his needs. Cantor Wolkin also was great friends with congregant Judy Solomon, who was devoted to his well-being and care. He had a face that would light up a room, and a voice that even at 96 years of age would blow people away.

Cantor Wolkin joined us for Shabbat on the Beach in August and for Tashlikh services. Seeing him there in his wheelchair and with a big smile on his face was inspiring. It was not so easy for him to attend, and I thank Barbara Smiler and Judy Solomon for bringing him.

My first time visiting Cantor Wolkin at his house was very memorable. Cantor shared memories of his career, played a recording and gave me a copy of his book Shalom Aleichem! Reading the book helped me learn about his childhood in Brooklyn, his marriage to Louise his career as a Cantor and his 6 children, as well as his concerts and interactions with Yossele Rosenblatt, Jan Pierce and Moshe Koussevitsky. Some of Cantor Wolkin’s recordings are available on YouTube.

Hearing recordings of Cantor Wolkin singing V’chol Maaminim at R’tzeh helped me imagine what it was like to be in the Borsht Belt 50 years ago listening to powerful Hazzanut. You could hear his neshama (soul) through every word.

The most touching moment in my short time of knowing Cantor Wolkin was the last time he made it to Saturday services-Thanksgiving Weekend. After the Musaf Amidah, Cantor Black along with Mark Perlson, Howard Gendel and Bob Hordos went over to Cantor Wolkin and sang “she’yibaneh beit hamikdash,” one of Cantor Wolkin’s favorite songs. It was such a touching moment and symbolized everything that Cantor Wolkin has meant to our congregation.

The last time I saw Cantor Wolkin was on Hanukkah. I was dismayed that he did not respond when I talked to him. When I began singing Hanukkah songs, however, his face lit up and he began to speak. I said “It’s Hanukkah” and he replied “Wonderful!” I was happy to know that I was able to leave him with a smile.

Zichrono L’vracha-Cantor Wolkin’s memory is for blessing.

Joseph and Self-Restraint

What are the top qualities of a leader? In Developing the Leader within You, Reverand John Maxwell writes that one of the chief characteristics of a leader is self-restraint. Self-restraint?! Aren’t leaders people of action, decision makers? Maxwell says yes, but that in addition to leaders knowing when to act, they also need to know when to restrain themselves. Knowing the difference between when to restrain oneself and when to speak or act is a hallmark of true leadership.

The Hebrew word for self-restraint is להתאפק. The word appears twice in the Humash, both times referring to Joseph. One is in this week’s portion, when Joseph first sees Benjamin, and the other is in this week’s portion, after Judah’s plea to Joseph to let Benjamin stay with the other brothers. In the former, Joseph is overcome with emotion, having not seen Benjamin since childhood. He blesses Benjamin and then quickly leaves the room to cry, wash his face and return in control of his emotions. This ensured that Joseph could to hide his identity from his brothers and hide his emotions from his Egyptian underlings. As second-in-command, Joseph has to uphold his image as the grand vizier, and an emotional outburst might have shown weakness to the Egyptians.

In next week’s portion, however, Joseph is no longer able to restrain himself. Judah has an impassioned plea on behalf of the brothers to save Benjamin’s life as well as Jacob’s; for if Benjamin does not return, Jacob will die. Joseph is so moved by the plea for Benjamin’s life that he cries out “Have everyone withdraw from me!” at which point he reveals his identity to his brothers. He makes an attempt to hide his emotions from the Egyptian attendants while simultaneously removing his mask as the Egyptian grand vizier. Joseph as the stern, distrusting Egyptian taskmaster disappears and is replaced by an emotional, benevolent brother.

What lesson does this portion teach us? A true leader needs to know the circumstances when to restrain himself/herself from speaking or acting out yet also when words and action are required. At times a leader must be an actor,  yet at other times s/he must directly respond to the situation at hand. This is of course easier said than done, which is why I believe Reverend Maxwell holds self-restraint as one of his pillars of leadership. Self-restraint is something each of us can do: after all, even the villainous Haman restrained himself from going after Mordecai in Chapter 6 of the Book of Esther! May each of us do what we can to emulate Joseph in having the wisdom to know the difference between when to respond and when to be restrained.

The Meaning of Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah about? Not sure? Well neither were the rabbis. In Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 21b, the rabbis say “What is Hanukkah?” The answer they give is that a jar was found with only enough oil to last one day, yet it lasted for eight days. However, the Book of Maccabees gives a different account-that Hanukkah is about the Maccabees’ improbable victory over the Syrian Greek army, a victory of our ancestors against their foes who wanted them to assimilate into Greek society.

I prefer a third interpretation, connected to Hanukkah’s Hebrew meaning-dedication. Hanukkah was about the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from being a Greek pagan shrine to a place of Jewish worship. The Temple was the holiest Jewish site so its dedication (and the lighting of the Temple Menorah) was of paramount importance.

Since the holiday of Sukkot (the greatest holiday during rabbinic times) had recently passed by, Hanukkah was a delayed celebration of that festival. Now of course Hanukkah and Sukkot serve different purposes: one focuses on the culmination of the fall harvest; the other on standing up for what we believe in and finding light during the darkest moments of the year.

As Hanukkah approaches, I would like us to ask what we want to dedicate ourselves to doing over the course of the coming year. I hope that our dedication to our beliefs and for our causes is as strong as the Maccabees’ dedication to their faith. I wish everyone a Happy, Healthy and Joyous Hanukkah.

When Will the Hatred End?

I read about the attack in Crown Heights with a heavy heart. Another Jew attacked in a place of worship while communicating with God? The attacker said “I will kill the Jew, I want to kill the Jew!”

Why did such an incident occur? Why attacks religiously motivated against Jews? I dont get it and continue to have more questions than answers.

I felt the same way when I asked for a moment of silence this past Shabbat over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I strongly believe that a large part of the excessive use of force against these two armed black men had to do with the color of their skin. Yes the men resisted arrest but they were unarmed, so why was there a shooting and a violent headlock? Police brutality is not a new issue but it is certainly one that has risen to the forefront recently, and unfortunately I believe that without indictments it will continue. Why not be a George Zimmerman, taking the law into ones own hands, when you can get away with it? Why not use force to fatally subdue someone and then argue that it was merely an act of self defense?

If I am to express outrage when a Jew is attacked I strongly believe I need to for any attack, regardless of one’s race, religion or creed. I dont know when this vicious cycle of hatred will end, but I pray for an end to the violence and for more diversity training in schools so that we can learn to respect “the other”-for one will not murder someone who s/he respects.

The Birth of Israel

This week’s Torah reading features the origin of the name Israel.  Jacob is encamped on the ford of Jabbok, awaiting an encounter with his brother Esau.  That night a man wrestles with him, and when he sees that Jacob cannot be overcome, he twists Jacob’s hip out of its socket.  The man then says he needs to go because daylight is approaching.  Despite being in great pain, Jacob will not let go of the man until he receives a blessing from him.  The man blesses Jacob by saying that his new name is Israel, “for you have wrestled (sarita) with God and with people and you have prevailed.”

This story raises many questions for me.  Who is this man fighting with Jacob?   How has Jacob wrestled with God?  Why does the man need to leave at the approach of daylight?  Why does Jacob ask for another blessing?

It is interesting that none of the commentators I found believe that this was a man wrestling with Jacob.  Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, quotes a Midrash from Bereshit Rabbah which says that the man is Esau’s minister, the evil angel Samael, also known as the angel of death.  According to another Midrash, Samael was the one who seduced Eve.  Sforno, a 15th century Italian commentator, does not necessarily agree that the man is Samael but does believe that it is an angel who is sent to fight Jacob by a command from God.  It is strange to me that a text which clearly says a man wrestled with Jacob is readily interpreted as an angel, just like the text about 3 men visiting Abraham being interpreted as 3 angels.  Perhaps our medieval commentators had a fascination with angels, so much so that they read them in, whereas our modern rationalism tends to read them out.  In any event, reading the wrestler as an angel helps make sense of the 2nd question, where do we get that Jacob wrestled with God, as angels were considered to be divine beings, so wrestling with an angel is akin to wrestling with God.

The 3rd question, why does the wrestler have to leave at daylight, is also answerable by viewing the man as an angel.  As Rashi points out from Talmud Hullin 71b, angels sing to God at first daylight while in the heavenly court, and therefore, if this angel is stuck on earth, wrestling with Jacob, he will be unable to fulfill his obligation in singing to God.  The Kli Yakar, a 16th century Polish commentator, has a different reading, stating that Samael saw he could not succeed in getting Jacob to deny God’s existence.  For the Kli Yakar, the wrestling is not a physical act but a metaphorical one, where the angel is arguing that Jacob needs to deny God.  Thus, Jacob’s prevailing becomes an act of affirming monotheism.

The final question, why does Jacob demand a blessing, is in my opinion the most perplexing.  Two weeks ago, in Parshat Toledot, we saw Jacob take Esau’s blessing from Isaac.  In that Torah portion, we saw Isaac bless him with the dew of heaven, the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine, being master over the surrounding nations and over his brother’s descendants, and having those who bless him be blessed and those who curse him be cursed.  What stronger blessing could one receive than that?  Because of this, Rashi states that the blessing Jacob wants is a reaffirmation of the blessing Isaac gave him, as Esau is trying to undermine it.  Rashbam, however, says that Jacob wants a new blessing as compensation for the injury of his hip socket.  A new blessing, this one from a divine source, would ensure that Jacob was successful in his endeavors.  Therefore, the angel gives Jacob the blessing of a new name based off the word struggle or wrestle, indicating that he will be successful in all his struggles/wrestlings.

Has anyone here ever been given a new name?  Was there a special meaning in the new name that you were given?  How did it feel to be called by something new?

I see great meaning in Jacob’s name being changed to Israel.  As the children of Israel, we have had to wrestle with those around us, both in physical fights for our survival and through debates with those of other religions who claim that Judaism is no longer relevant.  Throughout history our people have been persecuted, just as Israel was pursued by his brother, and like Israel we have had to flee for our survival.  Despite having to flee, Israel was able to become a wealthy shepherd, have 13 children and make up with his brother.  Similarly, despite the children of Israel having to flee, we have prospered in America, reestablished control over Israel and can live today in most countries in the world.  I want to take the analogy one step further, applying it to the Jericho Jewish Center, as despite demographic challenges, we have continued holding twice daily minyanim and spirited Shabbat services, fostering cutting-edge programming and creating a nurturing environment for the perpetuation of Judaism.

Where does this leave us?  I see our examining Israel’s struggle with the angel as being connected to our people’s struggle for survival, both as a nation and as a congregation.  While in this country we are thankfully not being persecuted by people who want to destroy us, to the extent of our brethren in Europe, we are fighting assimilation and demographic shifts and are struggling to enhance people’s Jewish identities.  This is an ongoing struggle, like the struggle of Israel, and hopefully also like Israel’s wrestling, we will prevail and be enriched from our struggle.  May we take the struggle of Israel to heart and may it bring us together as we continue to embrace the challenge of strengthening our congregation.

Hops and Halacha

This morning at the Jericho Jewish Center, 10 people gathered in the Sisterhood kitchen to learn how to brew beer. In 3 hours, we made a pale ale, which is currently in the process of fermenting. We also learned about using beer for ritual ceremonies such as kiddush (when no wine is available) as well as about the kashrut of beer. The next step in to bottle the bear in 7-10 days after the yeast has caused the beer to ferment.

Yasher Koach to Dr. Steve Wishner (second last picture), a physician who in college and medical school developed the hobby of brewing his own beer. Dr. Wishner is well-versed in the chemistry and physics of beer-making and was able to explain it in a way that “common folk” (like myself) could understand. He also brought a number of pale ales for us to taste and explained to us the history of their development (and interesting trivia, such as why the Indian Pale Ale is more acidic than a regular pale ale). He also explained how different people add the malt and hops at different stages of the process to get different flavors as well as diverse strains of yeast. In addition, Dr. Wishner taught us how to properly taste a beer to get the full effect of its flavors.

I am interested in doing future programs cenetered on congregants and their hobbies. When I was a rabbinic intern in South Bend, I had a congregant who was a beekeeper, who showed me how he produces honey. In Tucson I had the opportunity to meet a congregant who was a pilot (allowing me to fly the plane in unrestricted air space!) There are so many people with such great wealth of information and fascinating hobbies that we can all learn from.

Latkes and Vodka

On Saturday December 6, 70 people attended Jericho Jewish Center’s first ever Latkes and Vodka. We ate latkes of many flavors (potato leak, sweet potato and cranberry apple, among others), drank an assortment of flavored and regular vodkas (including raspberry, vanilla and citrus), socialized  and listened to the music of jazz pianist Greg Shleich. It was a wonderful way to build community and celebrate the upcoming Festival of Lights that is Hanukkah.

Latkes and Vodka was an event that I first discovered in the 20s and 30s group in Milwaukee and then at Congregation Anshei Israel in Tucson. It has great appeal-people socializing over food and drink in a casual, relaxed atmosphere. It was also a great prelude for our January 24 Saturday evening concert featuring Mostly Moptop, a Beatles cover band. What a great way to join together with community!

I cant wait for our Hops and Halacha tomorrow, where we will make beer and learn about its kashrut. See you then!