Charlottesville and Skokie 2017

“Oh please, do you really think people are going to jump on the ol’ Nazi bandwagon?”

“You don’t really think the Nazis could attract a following, do you?” “Remember, we didn’t think so last time.”

“You must not have much faith in the American people”

“You get a bunch of neo-Nazi screwballs out there inciting to riot, something’s going to happen.”

“Guns and rifles are not nice. But if the Nazis come with guns and rifles, Jews will come with guns and rifles”

These are not lines from recent newspapers. They are from a play I’ve been in all summer, called God of Isaac. It was written almost 35 years ago, by James Sherman. He and I grew up in Skokie, around the time the Nazis tried to march in our hometown, and the event is supposed to be a back drop for the title character’s exploration into his own Jewish identity. We do four shows a weekend. We’ve had cast conversations back stage and at talk-backs with audiences, about identity and journeys. But since the weekend of Aug 12, our conversation has been about one thing – Charlottesville, and how bizarre and disturbing this secondary story line has become. We talk about it a lot backstage, each actor re-calibrating our lines almost unconsciously, given the lens we see them through lately.

I’ve been waiting to write about the last couple of weeks, waiting for my emotions to settle and my thoughts to start making sense. My worlds are colliding – my day job as a Jewish professional, as an actor in this play, and then there’s my father.

I have a unique connection to the whole marching-Nazis thing. My father was Richard Salzman. He was one of the attorneys for the Village of Skokie. Up until the mid-70s, it was a pretty predictable job, nothing too exciting. Then Frank Collin came to town and the job got a whole lot more interesting. Skokie wanted to keep the Nazis out; the ACLU said they had a right to march. Over two years, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and ultimately, the ordinances that Dad and his colleagues wrote on Skokie’s behalf to keep the Nazis from marching were found to be what Dad knew they were all along: unconstitutional. Free speech won over fighting words and hate speech.

So, for four shows a weekend, I go back to the 70s in the play, and off stage, I see today’s headlines through my father’s eyes. The time-travel is dizzying, and I find so many conflicting thoughts bouncing around in my head.

For example, one of the things I remember my father speaking a lot about is how unfair the Jewish community was to the Jewish ACLU lawyer who took on Collins’ case. Dad told us how his kids were bullied at school, his family experienced death threats, and how the lawyer basically left town. Dad thought it was a “shandah”, an embarrassment; it was simply wrong. That lawyer was doing his job, defending something we rely on to stay strong for all of us. I think about this when I read about the Nazis and white supremacists from Charlottesville who were outed, “doxxed.” The hoods were off, and they were identified; we have read about some of these people being disowned, fired, and who knows what’s coming next. Will some fool decide becoming a vigilante is justified? I’m not expressing sympathies for these individuals, but how is it different from what the Jewish community did? These despicable human beings, as far as we know right now, didn’t do anything illegal. The ACLU lawyers in Skokie were protecting what they were committed to, no matter how contemptible their clients were. The power we have with social media concerns me.

The social media also concerns me about the Nazis and white supremacists themselves. Back in the 70s, there were a couple of handful of Nazis, far outnumbered by the Jewish protesters. There a lot of people jumping on the ol’ Nazi bandwagon, and it’s no secret how the internet magnifies everything, allowing ideas that might otherwise die natural (and welcome) deaths to find others to follow, and followers to multiply.

I am certain that expecting or seeking ideological purity is never a good thing, yet this morning I heard about college graduates returning their degrees because their issuing institution supports Trump. Sooner or later, we will be in a post-Trump time, and what happens then? Have we completely lost the ability to engage in any conversation or relationship with those with whom we disagree? I know we’ve been divided before, and I have not changed my opinion about the current White House occupant and his detrimental effect on discourse, giving permission for racist and hateful opinions and acts to be acceptable now. That’s on him, I firmly believe. But what happens next? We can’t start firing people who hold different opinions. We can’t physically attack people who hold different political beliefs. We have to return to actual, informed civil discourse. We are going to have to rehabilitate the Presidency, and change the model.

I also think about what the court would have ruled if the situation in Charlottesville had happened in Skokie? Would the military garb, assault rifles, vitriolic and hateful speech would finally qualify as “hate speech” and would therefore be unprotected by the First Amendment? I fear it will take another march, more violence and death, and another case to go up the courts to change the ruling, and at the same time I fear this, I think I welcome it, because if what happened in Charlottesville isn’t incitement and fighting words, I don’t know what is.

Last Shabbat, the congregants of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville had to leave by the back door and spirit away their Torahs for safety. Jewish organizations all over the country are on heightened alert, and the current government is paralyzed even more than usual by the inexcusable comments of the President. There is no excuse for his resistance to state the obvious: Nazis are bad. White supremacists are bad. There are no “fine people” marching with torches and AK-47s, spitting out blatant, purely anti-Semitic and horrific words. There is no “other side” here.

Was there “another side” in Skokie decades ago? I wish my father were around, not just for the obvious reason that he died too early, but because I want his insights, and I wish we could talk about this.

My worlds are colliding every day lately. It’s making my head spin, my heart hurt, and my soul ache for the pain and horror that is taking over our communit and our country. Still, I am heartened by the resistance, the organizing, and the support in places like Boston. I am grateful for the non-Jewish supporters stood guard outside Beth Israel while the neo-Nazis shouted their hate, showing their neighbors that they are not alone.

My father fought for the values and rights in our country, both on the battlefield of WWII and the courtrooms in Chicago. That fight can’t be abandoned now. “We still have work to do”, says a character in the play. Indeed we do. Let’s get started.

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Stepping away

balance and lightHello all.
If you’ve noticed, there weren’t any posts the last couple of weeks, and this Shabbat is no different. The last few weeks have been particularly busy, and somehow, it became more important to take something off the schedule for Shabbat, instead of adding one! I am striving for balance.

So, for the next few weeks, until at least the High Holidays, I’ll be stepping away for a bit. I may post when inspired to do so, and I do love the upcoming parashot in Torah (lots is happening now!) but the weekly Divrei Torah will be on “vacation.” There are years of comments about each Parasha, each week. For example, this week’s parasha is Re’eh

Aug 26 – Shoftim

Sept 1 – Ki Tetzei

Sept 9 – Ki Tavo

Along the right side of the home page is an archive. Pick one from around this time of year, and enjoy. Or check out some other weekly commentaries, like one of my favorites, the folks at  Orot Center

Enjoy the rest of the summer, my friends, and may our preparation for the upcoming year 5778 be rewarding.

As always, you are welcome to contact me, comment, at

Shabbat shalom.

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Matot Masei:That’s Ok, I’ll just stay here

(Apologies to how this is formatted. This is the best I could do with the tech environment I’m in)

Standing at the edge of the Land, amassing at the border, and preparing to go in, Moses heard something he never expected to hear, “Do not move us across the Jordan” . The tribal heads of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Menassah stated that they wanted to remain on the east side of the Jordan River, and didn’t want to cross over into the Land.


Moses’ whole purpose on this journey was to move the entire Israelite community into the Land God had promised them. And now, so close, these Israelites didn’t want to go? Moses told them they were repeating the sins of the Spies, when heads of all the tribes went in to do a reconnaissance of the Land. Eight of the ten scouts came back and said the people would never survive; only Caleb and Joshua reassured the people they would be successful. As a reward, out of that original Exodus generation, only Caleb and Joshua survived long enough to see the Land.

But here were people who didn’t want to go in. They said the land on the east side of the river was better for them and their herds. They wanted to build shelters for their animals, build cities for their families. Moses said, “Are your brothers to go to war” (Num 32:6), meaning, are they going to fight for the land, and you’re going to sit out the struggle? The tribes agreed to send in “shock troops” to help fight the battle for the Land, but afterward, they wanted to go back to their families on the east riverbank.
Today, we are on the cusp of another battle, between Jews in Israel and those outside the Land. Recently, non-Orthodox Jews have been attacked again by the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, questioning their actual identity as Jews and restricting access to places like the Kotel, to live their authentic Jewish lives as they see fit. The rift between the ruling ultra-Orthodox rabbis and Jews around the world is getting wider, deeper and far more hurtful. I don’t consider myself in the Diaspora – as the tribal heads of Reuben, Gad and Menasseh said, they liked the land where they were, as do I. But they were asked to fight for those who would go in, and for generations, Jews around the world have done the same. But the East-Side Israelites’ identity wasn’t questioned; in fact, God approved of their actions, blessing them.

Few in the Israeli government are blessing me and my fellow non-Orthodox Jews now. What then, is my real responsibility to Israel? Am I expected to keep supporting, both literally, figuratively, financially and emotionally, a country which questions my own Jewish identity, and works to keep me away from my own Holy Places in a way I see fit? It has become quite a strain, one that pulls on my heart daily.

The East-Side Israelites were blessed for recognizing that, though they weren’t going into the Land, their identity and authenticity as members of the community and their connection to those that were going to live on the west side of the Jordan was just as strong and just as valid. Today, we deserve no less. Or they risk even moreso the deterioration of community ties, and the alienation that will follow. It’s already started.

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Pinchas: Passing the Torch

passing the torchSuccession planning. It’s the mark of a real leader, and Moses is nothing if not a real leader. As Dr. Hal Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute wrote, “Moses sets the standard for all those involved in Jewish communal life. Disappointed and scared as he surely must have been, Moses remained focused on the ultimate objective, getting the Israelites safely to the land of Israel.”

In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, Moses comes face to face with the fact that his leadership role is about to come to an end. “Moses spoke to Adonai, saying, ‘Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai’s communitymay not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’” (Num 27:15-17)

God identifies Joshua as the next leader, telling Moses to have him “stand before the priest and before the whole community….invest him with your authority ….” (Num 27:19-20) The people had to know that Joshua wasn’t just appearing in the corner office, but that there was a reason Joshua was the next leader. In fact, just to be sure, Moses made sure Joshua presented himself to the priest who consulted with the Urim and Thumim. These were sort of instruments of divination that were inside the High Priest’s breastplate, and the priests consulted them to determine God’s will. That, plus Moses’ approval, would ensure that the people saw Joshua as the rightful successor, and that they would follow him into the Land.

Joshua was one of two people still alive from the community that was at Sinai. The other was Caleb, and they were the only two who lived long enough to enter the land. They had been the only two out of 12 who had gone out to survey the Promised Land. Most of the surveyors lost faith and told the people they’d never make it in the Land. Joshua and Caleb disagreed, saying that God was with them and they would be fine. Their reward was that they would live long enough to enter the Land, while the rest of the generation died out.

So, in front of everyone, Moses took Joshua and had him stand before the whole community, transferring the authority to him. We have no indication that Moses ever told the people he wasn’t going into the Land. I can’t even imagine what it took to stand before everyone, knowing on the inside that he would never get there, but his love of the people was greater than his ego.

Anyone who has created a start-up will tell you it takes a different kind of leadership to keep things going that it does to get things going. Few have both sets of skills. Each role is crucial in the life of the start-up, but it takes a rare leader who knows they can’t be the only one to take the enterprise to the next step. Yet every leader who has created something wants that special thing to carry on. And as Dr. Lewis writes, “In the end, his [Moses’] own personal quest, however lofty or honorable, paled in comparison to the long term viability of the nation of Israel.” Succession is part of good leadership. Whether it’s God or the individual who recognizes it, it’s vital for a true leader to know when to pass the torch.


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Balak: A shandah for the neighbors

tsktskA Shanda for the neighbors.

At the end of the parasha Balak, after we read the oddly humorous yet compelling story of Balak and Balaam, and the talking donkey, we get the first nine verses of Chapter 25 in Bamidbar/Numbers. If you ask me, these should really be attached to the next parasha, since its name is Pinchas, and these verses are about a very dramatic moment starring Pinchas himself. But no.

Scenario:  Israelites begin cavorting with Moabite women, and not just cavorting, but engaging in idol worshiping. God gets angry (flared nostrils), tells Moses to take  the ringleaders and impale them publicly, as an example to turn away from this behavior, which isn’t exactly what God said to do. God was after the ringleaders, Moses took out after all the men who were cavorting.  One of the Israelites, Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, and therefore one of the priestly class, sees this whole thing going on, leaves the group, takes a spear, follows an offending couple into a tent/chamber and skewers them through the belly. A plague was averted, after 24,000 people died. For his act of zealousness, in the next parasha, Pinchas is rewarded with God’s “brit shalom”, pact of peace/friendship/favor because he was zealous for God.

Several questions arise of course. Back in Exodus, when the people were cavorting in front of the Golden Calf, Moses’ reaction was to take charge, crush the gold, mix with water, and make the people drink it. Then, he pleads with God not to destroy the people. Here? Moses raises not a peep against the plague, against God, against the violence. Why didn’t Moses speak up?

What was the big difference in sins, between the Golden Calf and here? Both stories began with the people worshiping an idol, challenging or turning their backs on God. Why did it affect Moses differently, or rather, why did he react differently?

With the Golden Calf, it was just “us” – the Israelites were alone in the wilderness, and their behavior was being seen only by God and Moses. Here, with Pinchas, others viewed the behavior, and it was no longer an internal affair. Maybe Moses felt he needed to take a stronger stand when the Israelites were cavorting among others, not just ourselves.

Do we react differently if those around us act poorly, when it’s in the family, or when out in public? Do we feel that a friend or relative’s behavior reflects on us? Remember how we felt judged when our kids melted down in public, as if it were an indictment of us as parents? How many of us grew up hearing “it’s a shandah for the neighbors” (it’s a shame in from of others) ?

I think we are better off when our actions don’t change, depending on whether we are in the public arena or the private. Ethical behavior is ethical behavior; doing the right thing is doing the right thing, regardless of who’s watching. And kal v’chomer, how much more so, is it crucial to know the difference if one is in the public sphere. Kal v’chomer, indeed.

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Chukat: Looking for sweet water

The waters of Meribah, bitter waters. We are drinking from them now.

Miriam dies in this parasha, Chukat, and the Rabbis tell us that all the water that had been available to the people through the wilderness dries up. Naturally, the people complain. God tells Moses to go to a particular place, and speak to a rock, and the people will have water.

Maybe it’s because Moses’ sister just died, maybe he’d just had it with the complaining, maybe he was trying to raise his status to the community. For whatever reason, Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it. Water came out, the people’s thirst was slaked, but there was a penalty Moses had to pay: he would take the people to the edge of the Land, but would never be allowed in.

Harsh. Bitter waters, indeed.

We’re about to celebrate the 4th of July, one of my favorite holidays. I love this country. I hang the flag, I cry at parades, I cheer for fireworks. But boy, this year feels different. I feel like I’m tasting bitter waters. A lot of things are swirling in my head.

I’m in a play that is all about Jewish identity – what should it mean to be Jewish, and how exactly does one live a Jewish life? It all takes place against the backdrop of the Nazi March in Skokie, in the 1970s, which tested, and ultimately came down on the side of, the First Amendment. Just this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu  basically said the ultra-Orthodox community is in charge of the rest of us non-Orthodox Jews, and that rather than follow through with promises he and the Knesset made regarding egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, well…staying in power is more important, so never mind, the deal is off. But please, do come visit, donate, and support us. Just don’t pray here.

Then there was the incident at the Chicago Dyke March last weekend before the Pride Parade. Three women who were carrying a Pride flag with a Jewish star on it were asked to leave, being told that the presence of the Jewish star makes others feel “unsafe” and that it’s a “trigger”, and that the Dyke March is anti-Zionist, so you Jewish lesbians aren’t welcome here. Zionism, they said, is racist, so even though you’re not carrying an actual Israeli flag, well,  please leave. Now. And just yesterday, we are subjected to yet another new low in the Tweeterverse coming out of the White House, attacking  a journalist on her looks, because she dared to criticize the President. I’m afraid to think how much lower this “leader” can sink to, but his venom is poisoning our whole country.  And then there’s Philando Castille, may he rest in peace.  The rest of us can’t rest in any kind of peace, there’s too much to be done.

And the health care legislation? Oy.

I think about the bitter waters we’re all drinking in today’s political environment. Miriam died, the fresh water dried up, the people rose up and violence became an immediate answer, though it turned the waters bitter.

What exactly do we celebrate this Shabbat and July 4, then? Violent speech and deeds that satisfies our immediate thirst for what? Revenge? Tit –for-tat insults? We are sacrificing the deep and satisfying thirst-quenching sweet water of informed, intelligent, civil discourse, for a gulp of muddy, acrimonious uninformed and shallow water.

It is up to each of us to turn aside and not drink from this poisonous well. Stand up. Speak up. Find the sweet water of justice and equality, common sense and compassion. Then we can truly celebrate our independence, and the beauty of this land we call ours.




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Korach: False populism

Populism_commentsRav lachem.  (Num 16:3)

You have gone too far. Or as Rashi (11th c France) translated, “You have too much” Or, as Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) translated, “You have enough.”

Here’s the setting: Korach, a Levite like Moses and Aaron, but from a different branch of the family, rose up against Moses. He had gathered 250 tribal leaders of the Israelites, and stood against Moses and Aaron. Korach said, “rav lachem”, staging a revolt against the very leaders that took the people out of Egypt and has been leading them through the wilderness.

Many have wondered what it was that bothered Korach so much; what was he accusing Moses and Aaron of doing that was so bad, they needed to start a revolution? Moses and Aaron were haughty? They weren’t sharing the leadership roles? After all, Korach said, the whole community is holy, and who made you so special to be ruling over us? Moses, upon hearing this, told Korach the next day, God would make clear who the leader was to be, adding, “rav lachem” – basically, right back atcha, Korach, no you’ve gone too far.

We see the word “rav” in other places, as applied to the people as a whole. In Exodus, (Ex 1:9), Pharoah said that the people were “rav” – there were too many of them, and he was alarmed.  And later in Numbers, King Balak hires a prophet to curse the Israelites because they had become “rav”, which alarmed the King.

Maybe what’s really bothering Korach (and Pharaoh and Balak) is that he was threatened by the number of people that were following Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh and Balak were alarmed by how numerous the people had become. Was Korach alarmed by how popular Moses had become?

Today, there is great store put in a “populist” message. It’s an easy message: Those other people are infringing on our freedom. Those other people are a danger to our freedom. Those people are getting too numerous, and they’ll crowd us out. This country elected a “populist” a few months ago, and he has done nothing but stir up distrust and alarm for the “other” from the time he began his quest for leadership. He thinks he is standing up for the little guy, like Korach was doing. He thinks he is setting himself apart as the voice of the voiceless. And, like the 250 leaders Korach gathered behind him, some people bought the act. But ultimately, Korach’s rebellion was a failure; he and his followers were swallowed up by the earth, and a plague ran through the community until Aaron placed himself between the plague and the people, stopping it in its path.

The populist in office has followers, as did Korach. And on the surface, Korach’s complaint against Moses made sense. But if his motivation was “rav lachem”, and he was sowing distrust and division among the people, then anyone using that same motivation is similarly doomed.



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