8/6/17

Alert! Bad advice all around this week from Philip Galanes in the New York Times' Social Q's - Retractions needed

Dear Philip,

I just read with alarm and dismay the four questions that you answered in your column this week in the Times. 

I'm strongly suggesting that you issue retractions and clarification for your advice. Here is why. In the first you describe hearing a man threaten to beat a person. Makes no difference when, where and how - the only correct advice is to immediately call 911 to protect the well-being of all persons involved. After that one might say calming things to attempt to defuse the situation while at the same time exiting the premises as quickly as possible. I am serious - you need to correct what you said.

Second question about a voracious guest, no the answer is not to buy more food. The solution is to serve portions individually to all guests and make clear that seconds and thirds are not available.

Third question, it is always exceedingly rude not to hold the elevator for someone who asks for that. Put it directly - you must hold the door and wait when asked.

Fourth question. Bringing half a cake to a party is tacky. But if you cut the cake into slices and arrange them symmetrically on a plate, that would be a nice offering, no?

OK, you only need to publish a retraction for the first advice. But take a look again at your column and you gotta admit you could have done better all around.

Tzvee
Talmudic Advice Columnist for the Jewish Standard


8/4/17

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for August 2017: Seeking a Saner Shabbat, Dreading Deepening Doom and Too Tense in Teaneck

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for August 2017: 
Seeking a Saner Shabbat, Dreading Deepening Doom and Too Tense in Teaneck


Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m having trouble observing Shabbat. Every time I look around I find that more activities that I value are prohibited and additional restrictions are put into place.

I’m told what to wear and what not to wear, and to me it’s not comfortable or restful. I’m told what to play and what not to play on this holy day, and I feel like it’s depriving me of my needed recreation.

Am I imagining that Shabbat is getting more restrictive? And what can I do about this?

Desperately Seeking a Saner Shabbat

Dear Desperate,

Inquiries like yours keep coming up, primarily from Orthodox Jews, especially during the wonderful summer months when there is so much opportunity for recreation and play, and Shabbat rules seem to get in the way. For Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews, Shabbat taboos do not loom as that much of a negative issue.

8/1/17

Free Kinnos Kinnot Lamentations Elucidations for Tisha B'Av

Reuven Brauner wrote to us from Raanana, Israel about his publication on the lamentations (Hebrew: kinnot or kinnos) for Tisha B'Av, "Key Notes for Kinnos." The work is available in PDF format for free downloading at http://www.halakhah.com/:

The Tisha B'Av poems of lament, the Kinnos, like all our Piyyutim and Selichos, were written in a poetic language and style containing hinted references to verses in Tanach, stories in the Talmud and Midrashim, and other historical incidents like the Crusades. They are difficult to comprehend and appreciate by even the most knowledgeable modern speaker or student of Hebrew, not to mention those who are not fluent in the Holy Tongue.

What chance is there for most of us to fully understand the depths of their messages of sadness and despair, prayer and hope?

In a modest attempt to rectify a part of this problem, I have selected a few key words and phrases from each Kinnoh and provided a flash of information regarding their definitions and references in hope that the reader will be able obtain a measure of meaning from and appreciation for what he or she is reading during the services of this day of fasting and repentance.

7/31/17

Shall we fast and mourn on Tisha B'Av? No!

No. I believe we should abolish the practice of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B'Av (falling on August 14 in 2016).

Now before you convene a synod to excommunicate me, know that I am in good company. In the third century CE the greatest Tanna, Rabbi Judah the Prince, tried to abolish Tisha B'Av.

My son Yitz called my attention to this passage below which records the rabbi's action [Soncino Babylonian Talmud (2012-04-25). Megillah and Shekalim (Kindle Locations 739-743). Kindle Edition.] and to Tosafot's glosses (at Megillah 5b) which reject the premise that someone could entertain the notion of abolishing Tisha B'Av.
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Rabbi planted a shoot on Purim, and bathed in the [bathhouse of the] marketplace of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz and sought to abolish the fast of the ninth of Ab, but his colleagues would not consent. R. Abba b. Zabda ventured to remark: Rabbi, this was not the case. What happened was that the fast of Ab [on that year] fell on Sabbath, and they postponed it till after Sabbath, and he said to them, Since it has been postponed, let it be postponed altogether, but the Sages would not agree.
Of course, if Rabbi Judah the Prince (compiler of the Mishnah) once tried to abolish Tisha B'Av but the sages would not agree to it, I do not expect that the sages of our times will agree with me to abolish Tisha B'Av.

Yet here is why they should.

I concur that as a culture we need to remember the calamities of the past so that we can be vigilant and prevent the calamities of the future. But we need effective ritual memories that are clear and unequivocal. Tisha B'Av commemorates that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in it were destroyed.

Because the city has been rebuilt in modern Israel, this befogs the symbolism of the past destruction and renders it less effective.

I have been mulling over this issue for thirty years or more. In 2012 I mused as follows (with a few edits added).

Is Tisha B'Av relevant? No I do not think that the fast of Tisha B'Av is relevant anymore. I need a holiday from Tisha B'Av.

That day was for a long time a commemoration through fasting and prayer over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple. I visited Jerusalem in May of 2011 (ed.: and again in 2013) and can attest that the city is not desolate. It is without reservations, glorious.

Who then wants the bleak story to be told? Archetypally the militant "celebrity" archetype wants to keep recalling defeat, destruction and desolation, to spur team Jews on to fight the foes and to triumph at the end of time. That scheme may work for that archetype as long as the facts of reality do not fly smack in the face of the narrative. And when they do, what then? The narrative loses its force.

I cannot imagine Jerusalem in ruins. Period. And indeed, why should I perpetuate an incendiary story of gloom and doom into a diametrically opposite positive world of building and creativity? The era of desolation has ended.

For over twenty-five years, I've been lamenting the irony of lamenting over a city that is rebuilt. It's more rebuilt now -- way more -- than it was twenty five years ago. What do I do then about Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of lament and mourning? Here is what I said those many years ago.

7/18/17

NYC Triathlon Swim: My Hudson River Diary 2013

New York City Triathlon, July 14, 2013, 6:45 AM

Minute Zero: Coming down the ramp onto the race-start-barge in the Hudson River at 99th Street.

Goggles, check; swim cap, check; stopwatch on zero, check. Interview with the race announcer over the public address, I’m Tzvee from Teaneck, New Jersey. Yes, it’s my first triathlon; yes, I’m on a relay team.

Line up, look into the river. Fourteen other swimmers in my wave and many of them sit down on the barge and jump in at the tone. So do I. It’s four feet from the barge to the water.

Minute One: I’m in the Hudson. It’s dark. I go in much deeper than I thought I would. It’s dark all around me. This was a mistake. I need to get out.

Wow, I now finally understand the psalm, “Out of the depths I cry out to you O Lord.” I do not like this at all. I’m back to the surface. It’s choppy. My heart is racing. My chest is tight. I’m not swimming. I need to swim. But where am I? Not sure. Start to do the breast stroke. Others around me are swimming. It’s cold. What a bad idea this was.

Minute Two: Still not swimming the crawl. Wetsuit. Should have worn one. Would float better. Another real dumb decision. Still doing the breast stroke and my breathing is too shallow. Realize that I am in full panic. Adrenalin starting to pump.

I’m not gonna make it. I see tomorrow’s obituary, “Teaneck Rabbi Drowns in Hudson… He always loved swimming, family recalls.”

I pray, “Shema Yisrael.” “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

Okay, so how do I get out of here? I am dizzy and disoriented. Just in case, I pray some variations, “Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Oh heck, “Hail Mary full of grace.” Hey, you never know. Oh, cover those bases, “Allahu akhbar.”

Minute Three: Still floundering. Tell myself to take deeper breaths. Urge myself to start to do the crawl. You can do this! No I can’t. I will swim over to that kayak and hop on board.

“Put your head down and swim!” That tight chest feeling is just panic. Not a heart attack. You wimp, you have six stents in your coronary arteries. You will be okay. Breathe, just breathe. Stroke, just stroke.

Minute Four: I’m coming back to grips with my reality. Ha! I muse that I will call out to the lifeguard on the surfboard, “I made a pledge to the United Jewish Appeal and haven’t paid it yet.” Old joke. The UJA definitely will make sure I get out alive.

I’m swimming now but going sideways. A guy in another kayak is pointing and waving at me to go in another direction. I am zigging and zagging. I’ve been swimming nearly every day for thirty years but boy, am I sucking at this swim.

Minute Five: I’m starting to get awareness for where I am and where are the other swimmers. “How long O Lord?” I sure haven’t made much progress. A long, long way to go.

Guess I really don’t like open water swimming in the Hudson. A little late to think about that now. Okay. Just stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

Minute Six to the Exit: Okay wow, we are doing this. Holy moly, it is far. No turning every 25 meters at the end of the pool. Can’t see any lane markers on the bottom of the river. No plastic lane dividers to gauge the direction. I am still veering right and left. There are currents and wakes. Salty I don’t mind. But feh. It’s dirty water.

Starting to bump into other swimmers. That’s good. Seems like a very long time. Stroke, breathe. Heart is strong. Breathing is better. Panic is easing.

Seems now like forever. Finally see the exit ramp ahead at 79th Street and a crowd of swimmers in front of it. A New York moment. Traffic jam is slowing us down at the Henry Hudson River off ramp.

Get to the ramp, a strong hand grips my hand and pulls me up. I’m out! Alive. But oh crap, I never started the stop watch. And double crap, now I have to run barefoot on asphalt to the bike transition. It’s long, it’s annoying. I reluctantly jog over half a mile. Hey, I am getting happier anyway.

I give my chip to my teammate, our rally team biker. He rides off.

I am done.

Check off that one.

Halleluyah.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, who lives in Teaneck and writes the monthly Dear Rabbi Zahavy column for the Jewish Standard, was inspired by his triathlete son Yitzhak, who did the entire NYC triathlon and raised money to help victims of terror through Team One Family. Tzvee did the NYC Tri swim leg with help from his two Team One Family teammates, Harvey Lederman and Leiba Rimler, who did the biking and running legs.

Donate here to help the families.

Published in the Jewish Standard, July 26, 2013.

7/7/17

Talmudic Advice from a Swim Addict: Swim 100 laps every day

The Tosefta quotes Rabbi Meir (2nd century CE) saying that everyone should strive to recite 100 blessings each day. It then goes on to explain how one can do this.

Blessings are berakhot ברכות in Hebrew. In modern Hebrew the laps that one swims in a pool are called berechot בריכות.

I playfully and read the Talmud this way: Don't say 100 berakhot, say 100 berechot.
More about Meir from Wikipedia: Meir was buried in a standing position near the Kinneret. Pictured here. It is said that he asked to be buried this way so when the Final Redemption occurs, Rabbi Meir would be spared the trouble of arising from his grave and could just walk out to greet the Jewish Messiah. He requested that he be buried in Israel by the seashore so that the water that washes the shores should also lap his grave (Jerusalem Talmud, Kelaim 9:4).
And so I have my Talmudic encouragement to swim 100 laps a day. On many days each year, I get to that goal.

Here are a few of my past reflections on swimming...

7/6/17

Transgender Kids, Covert Convert Bat Mitzvah and Vintage Necktie Aliyah Quandary - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - Your Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice for July 2017

Dear Rabbi Zahavy Your Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I recently asked my friend how her young grade-school kids — a boy and girl — were doing. She replied that they are fine, and they have new names. The boy now has a girl’s name and the girl has a boy’s name. I asked why? She matter-of-factly replied that they both are transgender.

I was dumbfounded to hear this. I said nothing to her. Should I ask her more about this? Should I discuss this with a responsible authority?

Worried About Trans Kids

Dear Worried,

Yes, you have every right to ask the parent for more details, and to seek out, with sensitivity, more information on this topic from friends or experts or from your own counselors. The mother makes no secret of the facts. She is open and proud of her children and their gender identities.

Gender dysphoria is a seriously hot topic this year in social and political discussions, and in the media. You will find many experts and pundits out there willing to share advice and counsel on the subject.

6/27/17

Yahrzeit of my mother Edith Zahavy

We are observing the 17th Yahrzeit of my mother Edith Zahavy (aleha hashalom).

We miss her so very much. She would have loved to see the progress of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and take pride in all of their accomplishments. She would have loved to read books to her little great-grandchildren and to watch them play and grow.

She was born in NYC and attended the public schools in Washington Heights. She watched from her classroom window as they built the George Washington Bridge.

She graduated from Hunter High School, Hunter College and went on to a career in public service at the OPA and then into the field education. Together with my dad, she founded the Park East Day School when my father was rabbi at the Park East Synagogue, then called Congregation Zichron Ephraim. She subsequently taught in NYC public schools for many years.

She is interred on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem. Her memorial photo site is here.

6/16/17

Is Professor Stephen Jay Greenblatt Jewish?

Yes, Professor Stephen Jay Greenblatt is a Jew.

According to Wikipedia: "Greenblatt self-identifies as an Eastern European Jew, an Ashkenazi, and a Litvak. His observant Jewish grandparents were born in Lithuania; his paternal grandparents were from Kovno and his maternal grandparents were from Vilna. Greenblatt's grandparents immigrated to the United States during the early 1890s in order to escape a Czarist Russification plan to conscript young Jewish men into the Russian army."

Greenblatt's article in the New Yorker discusses "The Invention of Sex" from the perspective of the insights of the theologian Augustine of the 4th century AD - who was not Jewish, rather he was Manichean first and later, a rather well-known Christian. 

See:How St. Augustine Invented Sex - He rescued Adam and Eve from obscurity, devised the doctrine of original sin—and the rest is sexual history.

This I presume, is a selection from Greenblatt's new book which will deal with Adan and Eve narratives in Genesis and the ideas of original sin and so on.

From Amazon: The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve explores the enduring story of humanity’s first parents. Comprising only a few ancient verses, the story of Adam and Eve has served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires, as both a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness.

The biblical origin story, Greenblatt argues, is a model for what the humanities still have to offer: not the scientific nature of things, but rather a deep encounter with problems that have gripped our species for as long as we can recall and that continue to fascinate and trouble us today.
And my books from Amazon may be reached by clicking on the below image.

6/7/17

How did I celebrate 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem when I was stuck here in NYC?

Fifty years since the reunification of Jerusalem.

How did I celebrate today this momentous anniversary in NYC? In meaningful ways.

(1) Went to see the play Oslo at the Lincoln Center Theater. (Hint: enter the lottery and even  if you lose, you get offered $59 tickets.) 
Fantastic play - worthy of best play and six other Tony nominations.

(2) Went to hear author Dara Horn lecture about Jerusalem: Imagination and Historical Consciousness at the Yeshiva University Museum - and took in their exhibit on depictions of Jerusalem. Pictures here of some highlights from the Jerusalem exhibit and the Oxford rare manuscripts exhibit. Nice museum.

The talk was meticulously prepared and full of insight and originality.

The talk was inspired by City of Gold, Bronze and Light: Jerusalem between Word and Image, the timely and beautiful exhibition on view at Yeshiva University Museum.