Address to New York Theological Seminary: Answering the Cry in the Middle East






I begin this post with the above image of Jacob and Esau that I found on the web from the artist David Otto  It captures, artistically, one of the questions that the ancient rabbis struggled with in the Midrash – namely, “is the competition between the brothers inherent?”


New York Theological Seminary

October 29, 2014


Spiritual Lessons from Twins:

Jacob and Esau as a Paradigm for Israel and Palestine 

Seventeen years ago, when my wife was in graduate school, we lived two blocks from this building, on 121st street, the section that has now been named after one of my patron saints, the comedian George Carlin. My wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. The physician pointed at the screen and said: Frick and Frack! And this is how we learned that we would become parents of twin boys. Not only twin boys, but identical twin boys. Which is probably why I am obsessed with biblical narratives about twins and why I have come here tonight to tell you that the answer to the question of how we might bring peace to the land of milk and honey is…twins. I speak here of “twins” as a concept, an archetype.  Envision twins in the womb for a second – these are two competing forces, each struggling to obtain nutrients for themselves to survive, and yet they float around in the same fluid and are influenced by the same thoughts, feelings, and hormones of the mother and the broader environment that she lives in. My question tonight is this: What does it mean for twins to co-exist in the womb and beyond it? And how might that spiritual metaphor guide us forward?


For my twins, who are now sixteen, the struggles to co-exist outside the womb have taken place in every corner of our house. Their arguments are fierce and sometimes the boys have needed to be physically restrained. In many of their fights, one says “I am talking about what just happened” and the other says “I am talking about a pattern of things that have happened” and the other says “that is not the pattern!” They do not agree on the facts that make up their shared past and they both see the other as the one in the wrong. They both feel like victims. And they both have their strategies on the verbal and physical battlefield. During their arguments, which can go on for up to three hours, I often find myself yelling “Stop it!!!!! I can’t take it anymore!!!!” – twins can be difficult.


But being the father of identical twins has given me a unique perspective on coexistence – a perspective I bring to my thinking about Israelis and Palestinians – Israel and Palestine.


Two people, one womb. Two people, one land. Two people, one placenta. Two people, one Jerusalem. What does it mean to co-exist?


Before I begin to speak about the Modern State of Israel, I want to start with a few words that describe a historical period a few thousand years long:
















The saga of people – not just Jewish people – but most people on this planet, is a saga of home, exile, despair…and hopefully home again. And sometimes it is saga of finding and building a new home that one never thought would be home but is, for all intents and purposes, home.


I speak as an American –  I am not an Israeli citizen or a Palestinian citizen of Israel, or a Palestinian without citizenship.  But I am someone who is connected, by faith, by family, and by fate, to the Holy Land. A few snapshots that capture that connection:




I’m twenty years old and walking back from the cafeteria, I find myself in the middle of the Middle East conflict. I’m visiting my friends at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We are walking to the dorms which are situated at the top of a hill. A small group of Palestinian teenagers from the bottom of the hill starts throwing rocks at us. A rock whizzes by my head and another one hits my friends’ backpack. We jump to the ground and cover our heads with our arms. Rocks are coming in. One falls right in front of me so I decide to stand up and cock a rock back at them. They run as fast as they can back into the olive tree grove behind them. My heart is racing. The next day my friend and I are at one of the gates of the ancient city. The Israeli police have closed the gates and the Palestinian shopkeepers are upset. A Palestinian shopkeeper throws a rock at a policeman that hits him at the top of his forehead, and I see the blood running down his face. Another policeman comes riding in on horseback, swinging a wooden bat at the crowd. One of the Palestinian shopkeepers who is trying to run away from the horse is hit by the bat and falls to the ground. This is first time in my life I have seen a man kill another man.


Three years later and I am studying Torah in Jerusalem. One of my friends has a huge crush on this young religious woman named Sara who only wears long skirts. She is quiet and lovely and is a vegan – exuding a disposition of gentleness and grace. I’m not sure that she is a match for my friend but they go out for dinner. He thinks there might be a spark there so they go out again. But it doesn’t work out. A few months later, she is riding a bus. A Palestinian man walks onto the bus and explodes a bomb strapped to his chest. She is killed.


The Galilee


I am sitting at the Sulha – a gathering of Palestinians and Israelis that is a music festival and people are camping together in a national park. There are many religious people and secular people of all traditions.  My twins and their younger sister are in the playground with my wife and they are playing with Palestinian and Israeli children – it is like a dream to see children playing together. I sit in a tent drinking tea with a circle of bereaved parents, all parents who have lost children in the conflict. Most of them are Palestinians. They go around and share their stories.


I spend a few days with Wassim Bashara and Pablo Ariel – Wassim is a Palestinian violinist and Pablo an Israeli puppeteer and they work together to create shows for children and adults in the Galilee region about the conflict. I watch them build a micro-culture of peace in Maalot and Tarshisha, two towns, one Jewish, one Arab, on the opposite side of a mountain road.


Tel Aviv


I am with my cousin Noga who is working to help Darfurian refugees who have sought political asylum in Israel. She and her colleagues are putting pressure on the government to accept these refugees and she helps stage a Passover Seder where the refugees can tell their stories of Exodus – of literal escape from Egyptian bondage.


I am with the kids on the beach as my wife and a friend of hers who is a professor of theater at Tel Aviv University go to the Ramle prison to watch a play produced directed and acted in by the inmates that tells the stories of their lives.  Most of the inmates are Muslim or Christian Arabs or Jews from Arab lands. My wife comes home and tells me a little about every story, riveted by the power of the narratives, realizing the many layers of trauma that have been visited on the inmates.


And one last snapshot about Israel/Palestine that is about something that happened to me here in New York at the summer camp Face to Face/Faith to Faith of Auburn Seminary.


After staff training, I am speaking with a young Palestinian woman from Gaza, 19 years old, as she tells me about her little brother who is five years old. Her words strike me: My little brother says “if they can shoot their guns straight out like this and kill us, can they shoot their guns straight up like this and kill God?”


And that thought hits me in the gut. How can a child grow up in such conditions?


I share these stories to point out that Israel is an incredibly complicated place. It is a place that for me that is connected to incredible acts of bravery and hope and incredulous acts of brutality and despair. It is a mess.


Sometimes I ask myself: Why Israel? Why is so much of the world’s attention on a country that is the barely the size of New Jersey? Wouldn’t it be better if we focused that attention on New Jersey? From a historical or scientific point of view Israel is at the crossroads of a number of the early great civilizations. It is the meeting point between Egypt, Greece and Babylon. The land itself is on the sea and runs along the Syro-African rift. It is a migratory path for birds and it is the human migratory path between continents.


From a religious point of view, my teacher of blessed memory Dr. Tikveh Frymer-Kensky called it the axis mundi – the bellybutton of the world – the umbilical cord connection to the cosmic realm. It is the place where a ladder of angels enters and exits the world. It is the portal. The heavenly gate. It is the spot of the holiest site on earth, a site that one day will unite people of all seventy nations to live together in peace. And I should add that for Christians it is the place where G-d walked on earth.

Israel is intense. Five years ago I had the great adventure of traveling through Israel and the Palestinian Authority with two friends from my days as a counselor for the Fresh Air Fund, one, a biracial Cherokee and African American whose predominant spiritual practice was singing tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar, and the other a former Mormon who does not connect to Church but connects deeply to a higher power. We went to the waterfall in the Negev desert where the psalmist, David ran away from King Saul. We jumped in and were swimming underneath the falls and my friend says, “Wow, this is like really Biblical!” And we all started laughing. Israel is that kind of place, a place where you feel connected to the vast sweep of human history, to the patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets, psalmists, priests, and mystics. It is not a normal place.

And yet it is a normal place. A flawed nation-state like every other nation-state. A nation state with a history of citizenship laws based on prejudice, like every other nation state. A place with contested borders, oppressed minorities, corrupt officials…like every other nation state. And a state with some unique problems that it has inherited from the United Nations, from multiple wars, and from international actors who try to influence the region.

Israel is somehow the center of gravity, and by that I mean that, symbolically, two billion people on this planet believe that peace can’t happen on earth until peace happens there. Israel needs to be in balance. And we all like to point fingers at who is to blame for throwing it off balance.

Israel, in my understanding, is complicated because it doesn’t fall into a neat category. It is fairly easy to make sense of the many lands around the globe that were colonized by Europeans – lands where Natives were wiped out by war, disease, or genocide – and to feel solidarity to those who have inherited the legacy of that oppression. But what do you do in places where there are two indigenous peoples? What do you when two native tribes are battling for the same native land? What do you do when there are twins in the womb?

For those of you who may doubt that Israelis and Palestinians are twins, I would point you to the multiple genetic studies that trace Jewish and Palestinian Y-haplotypes back over four thousand years. Racists among us may try to deny it, but we are, literally blood brothers.

What that means is that you could dig into the soil around Jerusalem and find the bones of my ancestors and the bones of Wassim’s ancestors and cull a DNA sample and they would match up.

So what do you do about twins?

Twins disrupt the natural order of patriarchy. It should be noted that Patriarchy is a human invention – with our primate cousins, chimps or gorillas or bonobos or orangutans, fathers do not have specific relationships with sons who they feel will take over when they move on – they just relate to all young as part of the wider troop of young ones. Human males developed a system in which fathers protect particular children and develop first-born privilege. But with twins…Who is favored? Who gets the birthright? Who gets the blessing? Who inherits the farm?

The first story about twins in the Torah is a warning story of what can go wrong. It is the story of Cain and Abel, which most rabbinic commentators view as a story of twins.

Cain is a farmer and he offers a sacrifice of produce. The first sacrifice in human history. His brother Abel offers an animal sacrifice.

Apparently G-d likes BBQ because Cain gets the second place trophy.


Cain is dejected. He is in the field.

Abel says something to Cain in the field.

Cain picks up a rock and kills his brother.


What was said in the field? Here is the Midrash the ancient rabbis offer us:

The brothers divided the world, one taking the land, the other the farm animals. One day they crossed paths. One said: That sheepskin jacket, that is mine! One said: That ground you are standing on, that’s mine! Well — Strip! Well — Fly!

The ancient rabbis give two other explanations: Maybe it was spiritual “I wanna build the temple here, no over here.” Other rabbis say: they were arguing over which sister they would get to shack up with. Very limited romantic possibilities at the time.

The first twins are a disaster in turns of reconciliation. A tragedy. But maybe we can learn to get beyond it with the second great story of twins.

Isaac and Esau in the birth canal, Isaac trying to hold back his hairy brother. A hunter and a mamma’s boy. A birthright sold for lentil soup. A clever mother and a costume and a blessing stolen. Under threat of violence the Momma’s boy has to run away to a crazy uncle. Years later, a tense meeting.

The ancient Rabbis argued about how to view the story.

Is the difference between twins inherent, or is the difference something that evolved later on?

One rabbi writes: When Rebecca passed a house of learning Yakov kicked in her womb to try to run to the house. When she passed a house of ill repute, Esau kicked!

But our greatest sage, Rashi, comments:

“When Jacob and Esau were boys, their actions were not different and no one could see a difference in nature between the twins. As soon as they turned thirteen, one went off to the house of study and one went off to drunken pagan rites.”


And what do they make of the meeting that comes as both men are now adults, with children of their own.

Genesis 33

But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. He lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, “Who are these with you?” So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”…

The rabbis argue again:

In Genesis Rabbah 78:9 we read

וירץ עשו לקראתו וישקהו נקוד עליו אר”ש בן אלעזר מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה ונשקו בכל לבו, אמר לו ר’ ינאי אם כן למה נקוד עליו אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע ומה ת”ל ויבכו אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו

Esau ran to greet him. [He embraced Jacob and, falling on his neck,] he kissed him; [and they wept.] (Gen. 33:4). [The word] ‘kissed’ is dotted [above each letter in the Torah's writing]. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said . . . it teaches that [Esau] felt compassion in that moment and kissed [Jacob] with all his heart.

Rabbi Yannai said to him: If so, why is ['kissed'] dotted? On the contrary, it teaches that [Esau] came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him, but our ancestor Jacob’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Jacob] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.

The hermeneutics we bring to this story of twins will determine if we can live together. Luckily, there is one last part of the Jacob and Esua story that is unquestionably about a reconciliation. Genesis 35.

Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.Genesis 35:19

What I learn from this is that when the death of the father has sunk in, then the brothers can come together. Then the brothers can reconcile. So who is the father, metaphorically, in our current day situation? What has to die for reconciliation to take place?

I want to suggest that the father, symbolically, is the old narrative. It is the narrative of “I’m the victim. I’m the one being oppressed. It’s his fault.” It is the narrative of Cain – a narrative of scarcity, of despair, of revenge.

Maybe there is something to the fact that the father, Isaac, himself is a survivor of trauma. He watched his own father lift a knife into the air to slit his throat. So the death of this trauma may make way for some new possibilities.


But collective trauma does not die easily. And the place we are in now in this conflict is very troubling. I want to share a few words from my favorite Israeli writer, Etgar Keret that he wrote this week to his Palestinian friend Sayid Kusha. He is writing about the way that the Israel public responded to missile fire from Hamas.


…the collective desire to prevail through violence was inspired by the same urge that makes people kick a vending machine that swallowed their money without dropping a can of soda: not because they think it’ll help bring the refreshing liquid closer to their dry lips but because they can’t think of anything else to do.

The explanations I hear from so many of the people I know are: Islamic fundamentalism is growing stronger all over the world, the governments in the region are unstable, and all negotiations will end in the loss of territory without compensation, anyway, because there’s no one in charge there. And that’s only what I hear from people who are trying to be rational. Many others just reject any new idea or initiative by saying something like, “The Arabs don’t want peace, and they won’t stop fighting us until they get Tel Aviv and Jaffa, too.” But all of those dubious claims can’t hide one feeling: despair. And despair is a much more dangerous feeling than fear, because fear is an intense feeling and, even if it can be momentarily paralyzing, in the end it calls for action, and, surprisingly, it can also create solutions. But despair is a feeling that calls for passivity and acceptance of reality even if it is unbearable, and it sees every spark of hope, every desire for change as a cunning enemy.

After this past summer’s Gaza War there is a lot of despair, but there is also hope – there is a desire for change emerging.

Three weeks ago I met Ali Abu Awad, A Palestinian peace activist. He himself was once a militant and served time in Israeli prison. His brother was killed in the conflict. He spent many years in despair until he became active with his mother in the bereaved parents group.

He said two things about letting go of the old narrative: First, he said that both sides need to give up on the competition to win the world’s sympathy for their suffering. And second, both sides need to give up on revenge. He said that when he was a teenager he thought to himself:

How many Israelis do I have to kill to make up for my brother? But as an adult he realized that revenge would never bring back his brother. Kicking the soda machine isn’t getting you anything more than a sore foot. So he breaks bread with settlers, and he risks his life to forge a third way – a new narrative.

For the modern Israeli state, a state that began in response to pogroms, massacres in the 1870s and 80s in Ukraine, and then was flooded with refugees after WWII, it is hard to let go of a narrative of victimhood.

Putting aside the old narrative is a difficult, painful process, which is why in doing so, it is important to have the right metaphor for a vision forward. For me, that metaphor is the metaphor of twins. A twin narrative, particularly an identical twin narrative, begins in the same place. It starts with the premise that we were once one being. We were once in one womb. That womb sustained us and we kept each other company – we sensed each other – we were not alone. And now we need to learn to care for the new eco-system that we are both in so that we both can live. For this reason, one of my favorite organizations in Israel is the Arava Environmental Institute, a project that unites Israelis and Arabs in the region on issues related to water and sustainability.

Do the twins need to live together in one land with some equity or can they dwell in two lands with a clear border? The politicians will have to work that one out. I, like Abu Awad, like the idea of co-joined twins. Separate entities with separate borders but economic and social limbs connected for the benefit of both parties. But whatever the diplomatic solution, the two peoples need to live together in the same womb, the same eco-system, the same tiny corner of the world.

There is one more set of twins in the Torah that are worth mentioning – Tamar, a women who suffers widowhood twice and must cleverly trick her Father-in-law in order to fulfill her desire to be a mother, gives birth to Perez and Zerah. In the Book of Ruth – that incredible tale of redemption, we learn that a descendent of those twins will bring peace to our planet.

I’m not expecting to celebrate any peace treaty anytime soon. I’m a realist. But being a religious person, in my spiritual practice, means believing that humans are capable of repairing the world and that a new narrative can emerge. I pray that the pain we feel with every bit of bad news from the Middle East is the internal kicking that heralds the birth of a new narrative.

The Gaza War: A Poem

The Gaza War


First the enemy dug under my heart and filled in my arteries with cement.


My mind plays back the aerial footage,


my international center for compassion

bombed into a billion bits of dust.


Every day I erect protective edges.



When the dust clears there is:

A hole.

And buried under the hole? Missiles.

And buried under the missiles?



My ears have been hit by two thousand missiles.

The missile of ‘they could have built a hospital!’

The missile of ‘they kill children!’

The missile of ‘genocide’! The missile of, ‘hey, look at the other genocide!’

And, finally, the long-range missile of ‘why are you mentioning that genocide???’


My eyes hurt from darting back and forth. All around me people are running to shelters. And when they come out they look up to the sky.

To the heavens.

To the scoreboard.

And then they run back again. But I stay up here on the roof, watching the fireworks, listening to the song of shrapnel.


In my veins I can feel the Ebola virus start to spread.

God said it was o.k. to kill them all.

Throw them into the sea.

And the worst of all: You all have to think the way we think or we will hurt you.


I feel dead.

Some vital organ has been kidnapped.

And there isn’t enough room at the morgue.

Because, really, who builds morgues for war?


My skin is on fire.

I mourn for Jerusalem. But more than that I mourn for the dead dreams.

Those dead, baklava-sweet dreams. Cardamom dreams.


And yet, I don’t let go of them.


I cling to them like a human shield.

I wrap my arms around them and crouch down to child’s pose.


O Land of Milk and Honey,

I mourn for your young people.

But most of all I mourn for the folks old enough to remember what could have been.


For in each of them is a dream, a dove ready to fly high above this iron dome.


Contraception and Religious Freedom

One of the great things about writing for the Huffington Post is that people read what you write. My piece on religious freedom, contraception, and the Hobby Lobby decision went up two weeks ago and already there are  2,300 likes on Facebook and over a hundred comments written on the piece.

When Will the U.S. Supreme Court Protect the Freedoms of Religious People Who Use Contraceptives?

Posted: 06/30/2014 1:41 pm

I must admit that I was shocked to read about today’s 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the claims made by the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties corporations. Their argument, that a health care mandate that requires them to provide contraception to their employees is in violation of their religious rights, seemed out-of-step with reality on multiple levels. Corporations don’t have religious rights, for one, or at least that is what I thought. And it seemed like the case was more about the current political tension over Obamacare — a debate that pits small government and big government advocates against one another — than a legitimate religious rights issue. But now that I have read the decision, I have to wonder: Was the court so overly-focused on the potential indirect violation of religious freedoms of one set of Americans that they forgot to consider the actual religious freedoms of millions of others?

Did the court consider that there are some people of faith who believe that there are times when we are morally and religiously compelled to provide contraceptives to those whose physical or mental health is at risk? As a rabbi and a Jew, I am one of those people. And I know that there are millions of others, of various faiths, who share this view.

Jewish ethics on contraceptive use are rooted in our earliest religious texts. If you can think back to your earliest childhood encounters with the Book of Genesis, you might recall the first divine command — Genesis 9:1 — “be fruitful and multiply!” The rabbinic sages of the fifth and sixth century looked closely at that passage and raised a compelling question, “Was the Holy One speaking only with the ‘sons of Noah’ or with women and men?” The conclusion of the great rabbis? Only men are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Later rabbis clarified that being “fruitful” meant that men are obligated to have a male and a female child. The command to have a son and a daughter is a moment of indirect gender equity in a narrative that is often focused on gender difference and strict gender codes based on dress, religious duties, legal witnessing, and a host of other categories.

The rabbis of the Talmud concluded that men were commanded to have children, so any man who engages in a sexual act with a woman and uses a type of birth control that prevents him from fulfilling this command is, according to the ancient rabbis, going against divine law. (Some contemporary rabbis have allowed and encouraged condom use to prevent disease — but this is a relatively modern position.) The classic example from the Torah is the story of Onan — who spills his seed on the floor rather than impregnate his wife. Medieval rabbis explained that his act was an act of vanity — he was obsessed with his wife’s thin body and thought that pregnancy would ruin her. Their comments prove that even 1,500 years ago rabbis were worried about the objectification of women by men.

Since women are not, according to the rabbis, commanded to have children, then birth control, in some cases, is permitted by divine law. Fifteen hundred years ago the specific type of birth control, a vaginal sponge, was deployed during times when the health of the woman would be impacted adversely by pregnancy. The Talmud outlined three particular categories for birth control and even discussed herbal concoctions for women who had particularly difficult pregnancies and wanted a more permanent method of birth control. In the 12th Century, the great sage and leading legal scholar of his era, Rabbenu Tam, argued that religious men were morally obligated to provide women at risk with the contraception that they needed.

Today, even strictly traditional Orthodox women have the option to use a variety of birth control devices under the guidance of physicians and rabbis who consult on matters of medical ethics. (In some cases, this includes RU-486, the morning-after pill that was a focus of the Hobby Lobby case.) In Liberal Jewish communities both women and men choose birth control as a path to strengthen a healthy family life.

Sadly, the Supreme Court ruling is going to make it more difficult for many people to exercise religious freedom in America. If other closely held corporations follow suit, we may have hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who will not have access to basic health coverage that helps them to uphold the religious and ethical principles that guide them in building their families.

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Jewish Televangelism of the 1970s

Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina during the height of the PTL Network – Jim and Tammy Faye Baker’s Megachurch – I always wanted my chance to get equal airtime on the T.V.

Through our local PBS affiliate and the work of Chabad I finally got my chance. I’m the shy boy (wink) in this staged family…it is number 3 on the playlist.


Katy Perry’s Racism

imagesKaty Perry’s Birthday video is a classic example of “acceptable” racism. I’ve got a piece running in the Huffington Post on the surprisingly one-dimensional anti-Jewish caricature in the video of the pop superstar which can also be read below:

Earlier this week, the hip-hop wunderkind Macklemore was called to task for a performance at an event in which he wore a bad wig, beard and large beak-like nose — what Gawker and others labeled as an offensive Jewish caricature. Macklemore was quick to respond to the accusations — not only clarifying that the character was not intended as a Jewish caricature but that he is opposed to ethnic and racial tropes of all kinds and that he hopes to be a champion of tolerance and diversity. But the world has yet to hear any words from Katy Perry about playing a Jewish caricature in herBirthday video, which debuted last month and now has over 12 million views.

In the eight minute video she cross-dresses to play Yosef Shulem, a DJ at a bar mitzvah party who is portrayed as a nerdy, food-obsessed, and socially awkward Jewish man. Just to be absolutely clear about how disturbing her character is in this video it is helpful to know the context: In the video she plays four other characters: a clown, an elderly stripper (a rip-off of Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa), an animal trainer, and a lazy princess. The Jew is the only ethnic or race-based character. The overall message of the video? Clowns and elderly strippers and lazy princesses and weird animal trainers and Jewish men are really fun to laugh at.

In the first part of the video Shulem says:

I do bar mitzvahs. I do weddings. I don’t do funerals… but for a price I’ll do your funeral.

Ha! Jews will do anything for money! That is so funny. Then Shulem makes a circumcision joke. One can only watch this video and wonder how many millions of her fans will come away with a warped view of Jewish men.

Just to be clear, perceived Jewish nerdiness is not off-limits in terms of comedy. Another woman who cross-dresses to play a Jewish man — Vanessa Bayer ofSaturday Night Live – riffs on the intellectualism of Jewish men in her act Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy. Bayer portrays a young Jewish man with an insider’s comic sensibility — mixing in a critique of class and family bonding with a sweet nod to Jewish values of critical thinking. Perry’s caricatured Jewish man, on the other hand, is ridiculed for his horrible beat boxing. It makes me cringe — and wonder — has she heard the Beastie Boys or Mattisyahu? Does she know Yuri Lane or Jay Stone? Or is the world just supposed to laugh at the thought of a Jewish man beat-boxing?

When the video was released, Daniel D’Addario of Salon pointed out the Jewish stereotype as did Nolan Freeman of TIME and Ariana Bacle of Entertainment Weekly. Those voices need to be amplified.

Years from now, Americans will look back on this video and be reminded of a time when it was still acceptable to ridicule Jews in public. Perry’s video will be placed alongside Asian caricatures like Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles and gay caricatures like those in Damon Wayans’ Mo’ Money. She’ll probably wish that she never made this video.

As for now, I hope that Perry offers an apology along the lines of Mackelmore and pulls the video off the web. It belongs as part of history — but has no place in a society that values cultural and ethnic diversity.



A Passover Redemption Song

This is not your typical Passover song.

“Goodbye Egyptland”

Words and Music by Daniel Brenner



This song is written from the perspective of one of the “mixed multitude” – an Egyptian who watches the destruction of the plagues and chooses to join the Hebrews in their escape from Egypt. I wanted to counter the “silly songs” about the plagues that I’ve heard over the years and offer a new perspective on the tale we tell each seder night.

The Passover Egg

What exactly is the egg doing on the seder plate? Why do we serve eggs on Passover?

The roasted orb has been a guest of honor for generations and hardly a word has been spoken in its direction. The matzah, the shank bone, the bitter herbs — they generate the buzz year after year. But what would you say about the egg?

After polling some of my friends, I came up with a list of things we’ve heard about the neglected egg. At the top, of course, was “The egg is a symbol of life.” Other comments: “The egg is symbolic of the Temple sacrifice” (historic), “The egg reminds us that God has no beginning and no end” (theological), “The egg is the food of mourning” (psychological) and “The egg is a symbol of springtime and rebirth” (seasonal).

Then there’s this rather unusual observation: “Eggs are like the Jews — the more time they spend in oppressive heat the tougher they get.”

Where do these references come from? It came as a shock to me that none of these explanations of the egg appear in either the Bible or the Talmud. In fact, the only mention we have from ancient sources is from some rather creative wordplay. In Aramaic — the language of the Talmud — the word for egg, “beya,” is the same word as the word for “please.”

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a suggestion that on Passover the egg be presented together with the shoulder bone: “Please, God, lift us up from slavery!”

What this tells us is that the various observations that I culled from my friends are relatively new. As Jews in Calcutta, Crakow, Chadera, Caracas and Cleveland have placed eggs on their seder plates, they’ve creatively interpreted the meaning of these oval delicacies. Creating new meanings for the foods eaten on Passover night has become an important tradition.

With that historical context in mind, here’s a new ritual for the seder table — one that helps seder participants reflect on eggs and the other foods that aren’t part of the Haggadah’s telling.

Here’s how it’s done:

Ask the people at your seder table to think for a moment about eggs. As you point to the egg, or pass it around, ask your guests to connect their thoughts on eggs to the Passover story. They might say, “Peeling an egg is done to free the egg from its shell –but this peeling is a difficult task, just like the peeling away of the slavery mentality of our ancestors.”

Or someone might say, “An egg, due to its shape, cannot stand without help. From this we learn that our ancestors needed help to stand up against Pharaoh.” Guests might speak of the egg itself or, for example, they might pair the egg with matzah or with the parsley and speak about how these foods are connected.

After that, ask people to suggest connections to any of the other foods your family shares: the rosemary chicken, macaroons, figs or sesame candies. Are there memories of specific family or friends to whom these foods connect you? Can you creatively relate these foods to the themes of the Passover seder?

Asking these questions can certainly be a way to add a dose of spontaneity to your seder. And who knows, maybe in years to come Passover seders will include some of your family’s insights.

Over the years, the Passover seder has grown from a simple meal of meat and herbs on matzah to an elaborate feast. This has happened, in part, because in each generation and in each region, Jews have creatively added on to the set of foods used to tell the story. These new practices were not seen as a challenge to the tradition — they were seen as enhancing it.

That said, I would not be surprised if someday my great-grandchildren’s seder plate has a few extra circles — and maybe even some macaroons. The Haggadah of the future might read: “These coconut treats remind us that what is hard to crack on the outside is often sweet on the inside. Once our ancestors broke free from oppression, they could taste the sweetness of freedom.”

Free Passover Play: A Fun Seder for Kids!


Need a fun play for your seder?

This free Passover Play is a 10 minute script for all ages

I wrote this kid and adult friendly alternative to the Maggid section (the Passover story section) of the Haggadah when my kids were in elementary school. This short play is a contemporary take which makes the story current but stays true to the Exodus narrative. I’ve written it for large crowds — so there are 13 parts, but if you have a smaller gathering you can easily double up the roles. Enjoy!




A short play for the seder


By Rabbi Daniel Brenner







NARRATOR: Our story begins in the land of Egypt where Joseph, once a prisoner, is now the Pharaoh’s chief advisor.

JOSEPH: So how are things back in Israel?

BENJAMIN: Oy! Terrible. Our gardens and crops are dying. There is no rain this year. That is why we had to come down to Egypt!

JOSEPH: Well, don’t in Egypt is fantastic. Xbox One in every house, High Definition 70 inch televisions, Lincoln Navigators in the driveway, This is the most powerful nation on the planet!

BENJAMIN: Did you have rain this year? Are the gardens and crops doing well?

JOSEPH: We don’t have to worry about that. I’ve stored away tons of food in giant warehouses. The Pharaoh will be able to feed the people for three years at least, even if we get no rain.

BENJAMIN: What does the Pharaoh think of us Hebrews?

JOSEPH: He loves me. He welcomes the Hebrews into his land. Bring the entire family, we’ll make a great life here.

Narrator: The Hebrews all moved to Egypt and had many children and lived a successful life. But after many years, after Joseph and his brothers had died, a new Pharaoh rose to power.

PHAROAH: Advisor, bring me the latest census report. I want to know all the people who I rule over!

ADVISOR: Yes, you’re Royal Highness. I have the numbers here.

PHAROAH: Let’s see..Nubians, Midians, yes, very good. Are there really that many Hebrews?

ADVISOR: Oh yes, your highness. They are growing in number. They are very strong workers.

PHAROAH: Do you think that might be a danger? Perhaps they will challenge my rule – make demands. You know how these workers are always complaining about the size of the rocks for the new Pyramids. I am worried that they will use their strength in numbers to rise up against me!

ADVISOR: Yes, you are right, we must do something to break their spirits.

PHAROAH: First, let us begin with something small. We’ll get them to make more bricks each day. If that doesn’t work, we’ll eliminate the fifteen-minute breaks. If that doesn’t break them, then maybe we’ll turn to harsher measures.

Narrator: The Hebrew workers struggled to keep up with Pharaoh’s demands.

HEBREW 1: My hands are killing me. And my back, oy! I can’t take this pace.

HEBREW 2: We can make a thousand bricks a day—but two thousand? No team can work that hard! We’ll fall over!

HEBREW 3: Get back to work, the boss is coming!

BOSS: Efficiency, people! We have got to make 900 more bricks by sundown! Come on, let’s work faster!

HEBREW 1: We are working as fast as we can, boss.

BOSS: Listen, smart aleck, I’ve got a lot of pressure on my shoulders. If Pharaoh doesn’t get his bricks, I’m out of a job. I got a family to feed, too, you know. So get back down in the pit and start working!

HEBREW 2: We haven’t had a break all day!

BOSS: And you are not going to get one! Work!

HEBREW 3: You know what, boss; you have become a real pain in the backside!

BOSS: What’d you say?

HEBREW 3: You heard me.

[The BOSS walks over and pushes Hebrew 3 to the ground]

BOSS: Now get back to work before I get really angry!

Narrator: Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted a young Hebrew child. The child, Moses, was raised with the finest Egypt had to offer.

BAT PHAROAH: Here, sweetheart, eat your honey cakes before your flute lesson.

MOSES: I’m so excited about the party this evening.

BAT PHAROAH: Your new robe looks lovely, dear. I just hope that the Pyramid is finished. Your grandfather has the workers working double time just to get the place finished before the great assembly.

MOSES: I heard that the Hebrews were complaining.

BAT PHAROAH: Complaining? Don’t worry about that. We take care of the needs of all our workers, dear. They are fed, given homes, and we give them a new pair of shoes each year. We are very generous. The only problem is that there are simply too many Hebrews. For that reason, we are cutting down their number. I know that it is sad that we have to kill off their baby boys, but we are really doing it for their own good.

MOSES: I know so little about the world. Someday I’d like to go out of the palace and see how they live.

BAT PHAROAH: They are not clean like us, dear. Especially the Hebrews. They throw garbage on the streets, and the smells are truly horrible.

Narrator: One day Moses decides to sneak out of the palace, and see for himself the plight of the Hebrews.

HEBREW 1: I can’t work, today, I’m sick! And I hurt my arm yesterday lifting stones!

BOSS: I don’t want to hear excuses. This pyramid has got to be finished by Thursday! Today is Wednesday! So get moving!

HEBREW 1: I can’t work. Please, listen to me, have some compassion!

HEBREW 2: Give him a break, boss!

BOSS: Shut up!

HEBREW 3: Don’t get involved!

HEBREW 2: I’m tired of this, boss! My cousin there is hurt. He can’t work today. And he’s not working. So go tell Pharaoh that he’ll have to hire some more workers or this isn’t getting done!

BOSS: Shut up!

[Boss pushes Hebrew 2 to the ground.]

HEBREW 1: Stop it!

BOSS: I’m going to hurt you bad, you whiny Hebrew!

HEBREW 3: Stop! One of Pharaoh’s princes is coming!

MOSES: What is happening?

BOSS: I am going to give this man the beating he deserves, your honor! Watch this!


[Moses hits the Boss, who falls to the ground]

HEBREW 3: Oh no! What did you do to the boss? We’ll be blamed for this! We’ll be punished!

MOSES: What have I done?  What have I done?

Narrator: Moses ran away, far off into the wilderness. Where he is taken in by Yitro, and marries one of Yitro’s daughter’s Zipporah. One day, as Moses is taking care of yitro’s sheep, he stumbles across a burning bush.

GOD: Moses, Moses!

MOSES: Who is that? What is going on? What is happening?

GOD: It is me, the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.

MOSES: You must have the wrong number.

GOD: This is no time for jokes. You must go back to Egypt and stand up to Pharaoh! Then you will lead the people back to their homeland!

MOSES: How will I do that? The people do not know me! I have no power now that I have run away!

GOD: I will be with you. Go to your sister, Miriam, and brother, Aaron, and stand up to Pharaoh!

Narrator: Moses returns to Egypt, with his wife and son, Gershom. Aaron and Moses approach Pharaoh.

PHAROAH: What do you want?

AARON: Our people need a three-day vacation. We need to go outside of the city so that we can pray to God in our own way.

PHAROAH: Why can’t you wait for the festival of the pyramids? Then your people will have a chance to celebrate with everyone.

MOSES: We do not wish to pray to your gods. We have one God, who is mightier than all of your gods.

PHAROAH: You must be joking. The gods have made Egypt a great nation. What has your God done for you?

MOSES: You’ll see what our God can do! And then you’ll give in to our demands!

PHAROAH:  Don’t count on it, Hebrew!

Narrator: Pharaoh was a stubborn man. Even after plagues of blood, frogs, lice, disease, hail, and darkness, he would not let the Hebrews take a day off. It wasn’t until a disease struck and killed the first born of every Egyptian, that the Pharaoh changed his mind.

PHAROAH: Don’t you understand what is happening?

ADVISOR: No, your highness, I don’t know why our gods are not protecting us.

PHAROAH: Everything we did to the Hebrews is now happening to us!!!

ADVISOR: Maybe their God is powerful!

PHAROAH: Tell the police that are surrounding their neighborhood to let them go.

Narrator: That night, Moses, spoke to the people.

MOSES: Put on your sandals, we will not have time to bake the bread for tomorrow! Tonight we will leave Egypt, and set out for a new land! Our children, and our children’s children will remember this night! They will tell the story of how we stood up to Pharaoh, and how God helped us to be free!

AARON: Let all who are hungry come and eat!

Narrator: And thus ends our little play.