Cookie Monster in 2020

Welcome to 2020! I hope you enjoyed the holiday season and perhaps some time off. As we begin the new calendar year, I want to share a few thoughts:

First, when anti-Semitism strikes our community, we stand up and stand together.

As you may know, UJA Federation of New York and other Jewish organizations are sponsoring a Solidarity March this Sunday in response to the recent wave of attacks in the New York metropolitan area. Thousands of Jews will march from Lower Manhattan and cross the Brooklyn Bridge, followed by a rally in Columbus Park.

“In light of the ongoing and persistent attacks against our community, it’s time for us to come together and demonstrate our collective resolve,” the organizers said.

I know people in our community are anxious. Let’s remain vigilant and situationally aware.

Second, I read a very interesting article by Shulamit Magnus, professor of Jewish Studies and History and director of the program of Jewish Studies at Oberlin College, on why we should not use the term anti-Semitism.

“The term ‘anti-Semitism’ was introduced into the lexicon by a Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr, when he founded the “League of Anti-Semites” in Germany, in 1879. Marr was a racialist. He divided groups into racial entities and, in particular, posited a deathly struggle between ‘Judentum’ and ‘Deutschtum;’ between an essential ‘Jewishness,’ and an essential ‘Germanness.’

Jew-haters hate Jews. They propagate ancient stereotypes and allegations that all, one way or the other, left or right, attribute the most malicious, malevolent, demonic evil to Jews.

‘Anti-Semitism’ is a euphemism, at best. A dressed-up term to avoid saying “Jews,” when this is about hatred of Jews. The people assailed and beaten on the streets and subways, whether in London, Paris, or Brooklyn; murdered in Toulouse, Pittsburgh, Poway, or Jersey City, were Jews, attacked for being Jews.”

A very interesting perspective to say the least.

Third, I was inspired this week to join the world’s largest book club.

Daf yomi (literally “a page a day”) is an international program to read the entire Babylonian Talmud — the main text of rabbinic Judaism — in seven and a half years at the rate of one page a day (there are 2,711 pages of text). Tens of thousands of Jews study daf yomi worldwide, and they are all quite literally "on the same page” — following a schedule fixed in 1923 in Poland by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of daf yomi.

On Wednesday, I watched online over 90,000 Jews (several leaders and teens from Portland attended the event and Kesser Israel held a local celebration) gathered at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate Siyum HaShas, the completion of the study of the entire Talmud. The event was the 13th completion of the cycle.

It is amazing to think that with the recent attacks on Jews in the New York area, this event was apolitical. It was not a demonstration or a rally. It was a clear message that our daily Jewish practice continues, no matter the adversity we may face.

Now, let me share I am no Talmud scholar. While at Emory University, I took a special Talmud class when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz began publishing his English translation of the Talmud. Every Wednesday night, I would join three other students invited by Professor David Blumenthal to study at his home. I remember quite well his message on the first day of class – your grade is solely based on participation.

Well, I seemed to take pride in rarely ever speaking in any of my classes. My mindset was to listen to what the professor said, take good notes, and “regurgitate it” back to them on exams. It seemed to work quite well for me.

Each week we would gather at his home (his wife would bake chocolate chip cookies each time) and we would learn line by line in the Talmud. Dr. Blumenthal would ask questions and have us challenge each other based on our interpretations of the text. I, however, would say very little as my focus was to keep eating the cookies so my mouth would always be full.

When it came time for the final exam, each student had to meet with Dr. Blumenthal in his office. You would memorize a piece of Talmud and then you would have to explain its key elements and meaning while Dr. Blumenthal would ask plenty of questions. At the end of my exam, Dr. Blumenthal said to me, “Well, I was unsure if you got anything out of my class. You never said a word and that is what your grade is based upon. But, you did quite well on your exam and, moreover, my wife appreciated you eating all her cookies each week. She liked to refer to you as Cookie Monster.” This gave me hope that I, too, could learn Talmud.

Yesterday, I received an email from inviting me (and, I assume, hundreds of thousands of others) to receive a free daily email that delivers an insight from each page of the first volume of the Talmud. The email said, “Whether you are a Talmud newbie or a seasoned student, whether you have time each day to study the page in depth or are just curious to dip a toe, they will give you a taste of Daf Yomi learning.”

Join me and sign up here to receive a daily email highlighting a stunning argument, pearl of wisdom, beautiful interpretation, spiritual insight, or even an ancient rabbinic joke from that day's Talmud page. Maybe our Jewish community can have the most sign-ups of anywhere in America?

I want to acknowledge the passing of Commissioner Nick Fish, an incredible partner and friend to the Jewish community. His insights and service to our City will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family.

Shabbat shalom and I wish everyone a healthy and happy new year. 2020 is shaping up to be a historical year as the Jewish Federation celebrates its 100th anniversary and we soon announce some very exciting news.



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