Finding Treasures I thought Were Lost

(ABOVE: MyKiddush cup from 2016 and my tennis trophy from 1966)

There is a special joy in finding treasures I thought I’d lost. 

Yesterday Vickie and I returned to Sanibel to check on our house and get a sense of how the restoration was proceeding. Landscapers were hard at work with a promise that our ravaged front yard would be beautiful once again. We also met with an air-conditioning professional to arrange for a unit on our lanai.

Crowded into the two upstairs bedrooms were things salvaged and deemed save able from the lower floor. To my delight my eyes lit on two treasures I thought I would never see again.

I received them 50 years apart.

One was the Kiddush cup given me as a gift when, in 2016 I conducted the first Jewish service in the city of Friedrichsstadt, Germany, since Kristallnacht. On that night, November 9, 1938, the Nazis instituted an organized pogrom across Germany against the Jewish community. The burned many synagogues to the ground, but they did not torch the one in Friedrichsstadt. Instead, they commandeered it as a headquarters for Nazi soldiers in that city.  In recent years the German government restored it to the Friedrichsstadt Jewish community.

Unfortunately, very few Jews live in the vicinity of Friedrichsstadt today. Nevertheless, the Christian community gathered every Jew they could find from the surrounding area and joined them for a Shabbat service commemorating the return of the synagogue. It was a great privilege for me to conduct that service.

Tonight, Vickie and I will use that Kiddush cup at Shabbat dinner. For us it joyfully symbolizes the renewal of Jewish life in the country of our ancestry, a place that tried and failed to uproot Jewish life completely.

The second treasure from 50 years before is a very different one. It is the championship trophy from the 1966 Eastern College Athletic Conference Draw II Fall Tennis Tournament held at Rider University in Trenton, NJ. Fred Vanderbilt was representing Hamilton College in the Draw I division, and I in Draw II.

I am sure our Coach, Mox Weber, thought Fred, who was a finalist the previous year, had an excellent chance to win his division and that Steve “would try his best.”

Unfortunately, Fred – in large measure because he had to play three matches in one day – fell in the quarter finals. That left me.

56 years later I look back with pride on five of the best matches I ever played to win my division. In the finals I lost the first set to Bob Mendel of Franklin and Marshall College but won the second 6-4. I jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the deciding set, but I could feel panic setting in as Mendel won the next three games to tie the score.

I stole a glance at Fred and his wife sitting on the sidelines and tried to keep my head together. “Don’t worry about the last three games, Steve” I told myself. “Just play one point at a time.”  There was nothing profound or new in the advice I gave myself, but somehow it worked. I won the next two games to take the title for Hamilton.

Each of these treasures is a precious symbol to me. Judaism and tennis have both taught me so much about life, and the importance of trying my best and perseverance. Each is a special blessing and retrieving them gives me hope that there are many blessings yet ahead for Vickie and me.

My Mantras

2022 was a rough year. 

Hurricane Ian devastated our home and disabled our worship space. My wife, Vickie, is fighting and –thank God—winning a valiant battle against Stage Three Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Dealing with these challenges has been -to say the least- not easy. To cope I have come to rely on my mantras.

The first is the traditional Jewish prayer upon awakening.  “I thank You, Eternal and Enduring Ruler, that you have restored my soul to me with graciousness.  Great is your faithfulness.”

These words set the tone for my day. They remind me that being able to awaken each day is a gift from God, and God wants me to use it productively.

Next, I recite the Sh’ma, the words from the Book of Deuteronomy, “Hear O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God Alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) 

These words lie at the heart of Jewish prayer and are the central affirmation of our Jewish heritage.

My mantras also include three verses from Psalms, included in Jewish prayer services, that remind me of the enormous power for good or for ill that lies in the words I speak.  As one who has made his living with words these three verses are vital reminders:

“Eternal One, open my lips that my mouth may declare Your glory.” (Psalm 51:17)

“My God, keep my tongue from speaking evil, and my lips from speaking deceitfully.” (Psalm 34:14) In the Psalm this verse is stated in the second person, but our prayer book and my personal prayers instruct me to apply it to myself.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, O God, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19: 15)

 Interspersed among these three verses in my ritual are two more exhortations from Psalms:

“Cease from anger and forsake wrath.” (Psalm 37:8) This verse reminds me not to let little things bother me or to permit anger to cloud my judgment. How often I need this reminder, especially when someone cuts me off when I am driving.

“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”  (Psalm 61:2) This verse encourages me to strive each day to be a better person than I was the day before.

My mantras set a very lofty set of goals before me. Admittedly, I often fall short of them, but they help me start my day with a vision of my better self, a vison of the person I would like to be. 

I believe all of us could profit from some time each day to meditate on the goals for our lives. In his best-selling book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson prescribes a simple four-step process to quiet our minds that I find very helpful:

  • A quiet atmosphere
  • A comfortable position
  • A mental device
  • A passive attitude

My mantras are my “mental device.” They speak to me because of my studies in biblical interpretation that underlie my life’s work. Each of us can benefit from choosing a mantra or mantras that relate to our own life circumstances. Incorporating them into a simple meditation ritual can help us deal with the challenges we each must face.

Joseph Reveals Himself

The magnificent oil pointing above of Joseph’s brothers bowing before him is the work of my (no 101-year-old mother-in-law, Stefanie Steinberg.

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Parashat Va-yigash.

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back.

Even W. Gunther Plaut in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love. (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284)

If, however, revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him away into slavery. With Joseph gone, Benjamin became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake. In one of literature’s most stirring speeches (Genesis 44:18-34), he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph-who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence-needs to hear to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story discusses his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are derived from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past.

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.

We Never Know

One of the Platters lesser-known songs, but one of my favorites is: “You’ll Never Know.” What makes this song special to me is the richly melodic repetition of the title by the group’s late bass man Herb Reed.

The song speaks to me because in life we sometimes never know the impact for good or for ill our words and actions have on others.

As a Rabbi, I have spoken in front of many people over the last half century. Sometimes, I confess, I wonder what if any impact my words have. I am sure many of you occasionally ask, as I do, “What’ the point?”  What’s the point of all the time, the blood sweat and tears we put into our work?

It doesn’t matter what line of work you pursue. At times it all seems meaningless, and we harbor thoughts akin to those that begin and permeate the Book of Ecclesiastes:  Vanity of vanities …Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. Of what useful purpose is all the work that we do under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

My thinking on this question has been enriched by an observation our son Leo recently shared with me. After a successful career as an Educator and Principal of an inner-city elementary school that he founded, Leo made the decision to undertake the arduous five-year course of full-time study at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles to become a Rabbi. It was not an easy decision, and only the love and support of his wife, Liz, and his two sons made it possible. 

Leo and I frequently debate the merits of Abraham, and often we must agree to disagree. But this year Leo shared an insight from the writings of the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, that sheds new light for me on the “Vanity of vanities…” question.

Abraham is renowned for his faith in God. But what makes his faith so special is that he had faith even when the outcome of his journey was far from certain.

Specifically, when God instructed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, he was uncertain of what the outcome would be. And yet he found the courage to go on. In so doing he in partnership with the Eternal One taught the world of the horror of human sacrifice (a lesson, as I have written elsewhere, we still struggle to learn).

Viewing Abraham’ and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah this way, comforts me on my journey through life, and I hope it will comfort you.

We “never know” what the outcome of our efforts will ultimately be. But if, despite that uncertainty, we walk the path we believe God wants us to pursue, we have the best chance to fill our lives with purpose and meaning.

The Chanukah Lamp is Full…

TheChanukah lamp is full

The Chanukah lamp will be full tonight as much of the world enjoys their Christmas dinner.

The eighth night of Chanukah has always been special to me. The full Chanukiah gives off its maximum glow and has always conveyed to me a sense of completion. The fully lit chanukiah speaks to me of dreams fulfilled and not the aspiration of the previous days with their latent message, “There’s more.”

And yet the Chanukah candles burn quickly to remind us that the moments of fulfilled visions and dreams are fleeting indeed.

So, it is with life.  We strive and occasionally, if we are fortunate, we achieve a milestone.  It doesn’t matter which milestone It could be a victory in a game or even a championship.  Maybe it is an aced test or an academic degree. Perhaps it is a new job or a big promotion.  It might even be achieving the most important goal to which we can aspire: winning the person of your dreams as a life partner.

It doesn’t matter if it is a big dream or a small one. The feeling of triumph and completion never lasts. Soon we look for a new challenge. No matter what we achieve we continually ask, as Peggy Lee does in her signature song, “Is that all there is?”

Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma asked two thousand years ago: “Who is rich?” And he answered, “Those who are content with what they have.”

Maybe it is human nature that contentment is an ephemeral feeling. 

But as I savor the beauty of the full Chanukah lamp and envision many others at their Christmas dinners, I can’t help but think: Wouldn’t it be nice if people of whatever religion spent more time celebrating and appreciating one another? Wouldn’t it be great if we could savor our joys a bit longer before turning the page and looking for our next challenge?

From Darkness to Light

Joseph with his brothers bowing before him (oil painting by Stefanie Steinberg)

Our Sages firmly believed that it was more than a coincidence that the Torah portion in which Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams is the portion read in synagogues around the world on the Shabbat that falls during Chanukah.

The most common explanation connects the lights of Chanukah which illumine the winter darkness to the emergence of Joseph from the darkness of prison to the light of freedom and the status he achieves as second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt.

For me there is another more personally meaningful explanation. In this portion Joseph emerges from the darkness of his own self-centeredness to the light of humility he has learned during his two years in prison.

At the beginning of the story Joseph flaunts his dreams and their interpretations in the face of his older brothers. Even though he is their father’s favorite son, and even though he and he alone receives the famous, “coat of many colors,” he makes matters worse by tattling to his father about whatever he observes the brothers are doing wrong.  To rub salt in an already chafing relationship he flaunts his grandiose dreams of superiority and dominion in his brothers’ and his father’s faces.

But after two years in prison, he emerges with the light of a different perspective.  When Pharaoh references Joseph’s skill as a dream interpreter, he responds with hard-learned humility: “Not I but God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”

This understanding of the connection between Chanukah and this part of the Joseph story makes Chanukah not just a historical remembrance or a time to show pride in our Jewish heritage.  Rather the Festival of Lights becomes a catalyst for our personal journeys from the darkness of self-absorption to the light of selflessness.  

The word. “Chanukah,” means, “Dedication.” The festival becomes so much more meaningful when it inspires us to “dedicate” our efforts less t our own self-interest and more  to the well-being of those around us and the world at large.

Ten Years Later

First meeting with Vickie and our children, Leo, Sarah and Ben after my second open heart surgery

As we celebrate Chanukah in the Hebrew year 5783, I find myself looking back ten years to November 29, 2012. After a seemingly endless barrage of examinations and tests, hospital staff pushed a gurney with me on it to an operating room at the Cleveland Clinic for my second open heart surgery.

There, Dr. Lars Svensson and his medical team sawed through my chest bone, replaced an inadequately working mechanical aortic valve and sheathed a potentially fatal ascending aortic aneurysm.

I woke up the next day in the Cardiac ICU with a pump morphine drip dispenser and barely enough strength to push the button.

Physically frail and emotionally exhausted after my term as President of the World Union for progressive Judaism had ended only a few weeks earlier, I nevertheless felt strength and connection with the also once fragile State of Israel.  It was on that date, 65 years earlier, that the UN voted for the partition plan that led to the creation of Israel as a Jewish state.  I had often walked on “November 29th Street”, (“Kaf Tet b’November” in Hebrew) in Jerusalem when I studied there. Israel has become strong since that time, and I had faith that I would as well. 

As I began to recover from my heart surgery, and wondered what adventures lay before me, I decided to finally finish the book I had begun to write but never finished, 40 years earlier.  I’ve been writing since and have now published six more!

One of our first post-surgery adventures was being asked to serve as rabbi to congregation Beth Shalom Milano, in Italy from the high holidays through Chanukah, and to help with the Reform Congregation Shir Hadash in Florence, Italy on those Shabbats when Milan could spare me! What warm, welcoming communities they were and are! The President of the congregation there had heard me speak as President of the WUPJ in Amsterdam about the importance of progressive Judaism in Europe, and when I called to inquire about the position, he enthusiastically told me, “I heard you speak in Amsterdam. You’re hired!”

While in Italy, we had a visit from Pastorin Ursula Sieg, whom I had met briefly in West Hartford while she was on sabbatical and studying at the Hartford Seminary. She was determined to bring Vickie and me to northern Germany so that Vickie and I could teach about the Holocaust to German high school students, and so that I could preach in various Lutheran churches and teach at seminars for Lutheran ministers.  We were fortunate to be able to do this work for 6-10 weeks for 5 years, until Covid stopped our visits.  

Another visitor with whom we met in Milan was Rabbi Dr. Walter Homolka who had heard that same speech in Amsterdam, and he subsequently invited me to give the opening lecture at the University of Potsdam’s School of Jewish Theology in 2014, as well as to teach a seminar that year at the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical College in Berlin and each year after that, again until the pandemic set in.  

Our present adventure is also a positive result of my time as President of the WUPJ.  I was sitting in the “sunroom” of our home in Connecticut looking at two feet of snow in February of 2017 when I received a call from the wonderful Rabbi Guershon Kwasniewski in Porto Alegre, Brazil whom we had visited during my tenure with the WUPJ.

He wished to join the CCAR, the Reform Rabbis’ Union in North America, and asked me to write a recommendation for him. He impressed me greatly when we visited his community, so I was happy to recommend him. 

“Where do I send the letter,” I asked?

“To the Placement Director.”

So, for the first time in several years, I rooted around the Placement List looking for the Director’s email address.  Then I saw a position open that said, “Sanibel, seasonal.” It seemed to have blinking lights.

I read the description of a warm, friendly almost exclusively senior congregation, whose duties were light and seemed perfect for a retiree.

I pondered Sanibel’s warm climate as I looked at the two feet of snow piled up outside my window, and I called, “Vickie…. look at this.”

We looked at each other after she read it and decided I would apply to Sanibel. We have so enjoyed living there these past five years and serving as Rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the islands.

As our sixth year here began, Hurricane Ian devastated our home and the church where we share worship space. We are proud of the way our congregation has responded to adversity, and we look forward to returning – though it won’t be soon – to our island home and to our synagogue’s home. 

In the meantime, we have had many services on zoom, and thrillingly have begun to hold in person services, also broadcast on zoom, because the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County graciously offered us their Community Room in Fort Myers as a worship space until our synagogue home, is repaired. 

In all, it has been an enjoyable and fulfilling ten years since doctors ably repaired my damaged heart, and I am forever grateful that modern medicine has enabled me to be so fortunate and to continue to work in small ways to help repair our broken world.  

Ten years later Israel is still strong, I am strong, and with God’s help we shall soon return to live and worship on our island paradise again.

To My Shop Teacher at Ashland School, Mr. L. A. Molinari

Dear Mr. Molinari,

My face still reddens with embarrassment every time I think of our encounter when I was in the sixth grade. You instructed us to come to you individually for directions on finishing our first projects in shop class. I was making a “dog door stop.”

I listened carefully to every word you said. Because shop and making things did not come easily to me, I politely asked you to please repeat the instructions.

You then screamed at me: “You weren’t listening. Pack up your things and sit at your bench. You’re through for the day!”  My classmates snickered, and I fought back tears.

I cannot tell you, Mr. Molinari, how many times over the past 65 years that scene has replayed itself in my mind. But in addition to the pain it evokes, it was one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.

If I say so myself, I was one of the better students in the “upstairs” classes. Reading came easily to me, and I was most often the winner of class spelling bees. But in our weekly shop class in the school’s basement, I was the world’s worst. My work was slow and laborious, and I think I hold the unofficial record for broken hacksaw blades. 

As I plodded along, I noticed that some of the “dumb kids” on whom I looked down “upstairs” worked with confidence, alacrity and skill in shop. I now knew how they felt when teachers “upstairs” were mean to them. A vital lesson began to etch itself into my heart.

Don’t look down on anyone!

People have different skills and talents. As my high school Hockey Coach, Gilbert F. Adams,** whom I met when I was 14 and whom I eulogized at his funeral when he was 94, said on my last visit to him in a nursing home: “We’re all dumb differently.”

And as the wise Sage, Simeon ben Zoma taught 2000 years ago, “We can learn something from everyone.”

** You can search for Mr. Adams eulogy on this blog page.

This Year’s Chanukah Miracle

Our new Chanukah Lamp!

Chanukah is a holiday about miracles.  No, not the familiar “miracle” of the cute story of a little cruse of oil that burned for eight days. Rather it is the miracle of how a small group of Jews somehow resisted the strong forces of assimilation and kept our Jewish faith alive.

This year our family experienced a new miracle.

In the hurry to evacuate our Sanibel home before Hurricane Ian all but demolished it, and in our sure belief that after a couple of days we would return to our undamaged home, we did not rescue the eight or so different Chanukiot (Chanukah lamps) that we have acquired over the years from all over the world.  Not only did we not rescue them; we did not even think about them…until yesterday.  It was then that we realized that the festival will begin the next evening, and we had no candles and no Chanukiah in which to light them.

I scoured neighborhood stores in the non-Jewish area where our temporary home is and finally found a box of Chanukah candles. But there was no Chanukiah in any of the places I looked.

Sarah to the rescue!

When Vickie told our daughter Sarah of our plight she responded simply, “I just ordered one for you.”

“That’s so nice,” I thought, “but it will probably get here about the time the eight-day festival ends.”

A knock on the door, and a delivery from Bed Bath and Beyond (of all places) this afternoon brought a lovely new Chanukiah into our home. We lament the precious and emotionally priceless Chanukiot the storm swept away, but tonight when the festival arrives, a new family tradition with a new Chanukiah will begin.

Wishing all of you a joyful holiday season!