Inspiring Writers: Chanan Tigay and Sam Apple

I recently stumbled upon two great first-person articles by guys I know. Reading Newsweek magazine on an elliptical machine last week, I immediately recognized Chanan Tigay’s photo on the My Turn page. Chanan went to the University of Pennsylvania with a close friend of mine, and is the son of a Conservative rabbi, Professor Jeffrey Tigay of Penn. I got to know Chanan in 1998 when he was an administrative assistant in the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was in my first year of the program. Sure enough, in the essay Chanan mentions that he got his professional start at JTS doing clerical work:

Yet I was still having trouble thinking of myself as an actor. I was slogging through my day job as an administrative assistant at a rabbinical school, answering phones, making copies and praying for lunch-time, while those around me prayed for something holier.

Chanan penned a truly inspiring and touching tribute about his former director, Gian-Luigi (“Igi”) Polidoro. He writes, “Igi was funny and sharp, and when I was with him I began to see myself as an adult and an actor.” In 900 words, Chanan paid homage to this eccentric artist in a captivating and beautiful way. Perhaps he’ll consider writing a book or screenplay about Igi’s life.

The next author I stumbled upon was the witty Sam Apple. I first met Sam in an Upper West Side Starbucks on Broadway in 1999. Sam was the editor of New Voices magazine and I was in need of some advertising for a small startup Web company some friends and I were trying to launch (JewishStudent.com never saw the light of day). We later reconnected at Sam’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, where I worked at the Hillel and Sam would visit the executive director with whom he was close. A couple years ago, when the Melton Book Club I led discussed Sam’s wonderful book Schlepping Through the Alps, he was gracious enough to speak to the group by speaker phone. I highly recommend Schlepping Through the Alps — it’s a masterpiece.

Well, it wasn’t until I had read the first few paragraphs of a hilarious article in Parents Magazine titled “What’s It Really Like to Be a Baby?” that I realized it was written by Sam Apple. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Sam wrote it because of how witty it was. When Sam and Jennifer Apple’s son Isaac was six-months-old, Sam wondered about what went through his newborn’s mind. So, in typical Sam Apple fashion he conducted some experiments including pouring “no tears” shampoo in his eyes and having Jennifer swaddle him. Funny stuff.

Since becoming a dad, Sam has written some laugh-out-loud articles about fatherhood. I think his best article was about hunting for a mohel (ritual circumcisor) for Isaac’s bris. This was part of a contest in the LA Times in which a guest columnist had to write a column in the trope of Joel Stein. Sam won the contest with a majority of the votes (I only voted once!). Sam’s also got a great article about being a videotaping-obsessed new dad and putting the home movies on YouTube. I can certainly relate!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ryan Braun Revisited

Since my posting about the decisions that Jewish professional athletes make about whether to play on Yom Kippur, I’ve received many inquiries as to whether Ryan Braun actually played on the Day of Atonement. Yes, he did play, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Braun will play: Third baseman Ryan Braun said he would play during the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur this weekend in Atlanta. Braun’s father is Jewish, but his mother is a Catholic and said he had not observed that holy day in the past.

“I don’t really celebrate the (Jewish) holidays so it won’t be much of an issue with me,” Braun said. “Growing up half-Jewish, half-Catholic, I’ve never really celebrated one holiday over the other.”

Yom Kippur begins at sundown Friday and continues to sundown Saturday, and Jews are supposed to fast during that period, including drinking no water. The Brewers play a night game Friday and an afternoon game Saturday against the Braves.

After my post, however, I realized that the focus is always on famous professional athletes when it comes to the Yom Kippur decision. What about all the Jewish college athletes playing in Yom Kippur football games throughout the NCAA? Does it matter that they’re not getting paid? What about other famous Jews choosing to work on Yom Kippur? Are we as interested in Jewish actors who take the day off from filming their next blockbuster movie? What if Jon Stewart filmed an episode of the Daily Show on Yom Kippur? Does the Jewish community even look to these Jewish celebrities as Jewish role models anyway or should their decisions to not observe Yom Kippur be judged any differently than your average Jew who chooses to work on the holy day?

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from the case of Ryan Braun. Yes, the Jewish world should celebrate his All-Star year, and that he might be the first Jewish player* to win the Rookie of the Year award (even though many will call his Judaism into question because he is not Jewish by matrilineal descent — that is, his mom’s not Jewish). But since he doesn’t make a big deal about Yom Kippur, why should the media cover his decision to play on Yom Kippur as if it’s a big deal to us.

When I met Ryan Braun and some of his Milwaukee Brewers teammates in Phoenix last month, I asked one player on the team if Braun was the only Jewish player on the Brewers (I thought Gabe Gross might be). He told me that he didn’t even know that Braun was Jewish.

*The Rookie of the Year award did not exist when Hank Greenberg played

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Morningside Heights to be Visited by Modern-Day Haman

Mahmoud AhmadinejadThis Monday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will deliver the keynote address at Columbia University‘s World Leaders Forum. The event is co-sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs and will be moderated by John H. Coatsworth, Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs.

The “generous” hatemonger has kindly obliged to take part in a question and answer forum at the conclusion of his anti-semitic talk. The Columbia website announces: “If you were unable to register for the event but would still like to submit a question, please email your question to worldleaders@columbia.edu with the subject line, ‘Question for the President of Iran.’ Due to the large volume of questions, we cannot guarantee that yours will be read at the event. Thank you.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Lee BollingerOf course, like every other citizen of democracy in their right mind, I find this public, academic forum given to a demonic despot to be utterly unacceptable. I have tremendous respect for President Lee Bollinger (pictured at right) and his strong stance on the freedom of speech issue, however, he should have used his authority to keep this travesty from ever taking place. Here is the Zionist Organization of America’s statement on this event.

Perhaps the most shameful part about this event is that it will take place in Alfred Lerner Hall on the Columbia University campus. Alfred Lerner Hall is named for the late Jewish, billionairre philantropist Al Lerner, who was the former owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL football team. Mr. Lerner was successful in real estate and banking, and was chairman and chief executive of the MBNA Corporation. According to his NY Times obituary from 2002, he was born in Brooklyn, the only child of Jewish immigrants from Russia. The family lived in three rooms behind their candy store and sandwich shop. The family only closed the store three days a year, on Jewish holidays.

Al Lerner is certainly rolling in his grave knowing that this “Modern Day Haman” is speaking in a building named for him. What a shame.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Don’t Say Videotape in Your Rosh Hashanah Sermon

An embarrassing event occurred at a Conservative synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts. I’m sure that the synagogue’s rabbi had no idea about the NFL’s New England Patriots‘ videotaping scandal when she sat down to write her Rosh Hashanah sermon. She probably also didn’t know that the Patriots’ owner (and her congregant) Robert Kraft (pictured at right) had said that he didn’t know his team was using a sideline camera that caused a $750,000 fine and the loss of a draft pick. The video camera was confiscated at the beginning of the Patriots’ season opener and Mr. Kraft embarrassingly expressed his displeasure with his head coach.

Jason Schwartz wrote about the awkward shul moment in the Boston Magazine’s blog “Boston Daily”:
After a week of Cameragate, you’d have to imagine that Bob Kraft was looking for that type of escape when he strolled into his Newton temple late this morning. But thanks to a faux-pas from a rabbi who’s apparently had her head stuck in a giant blintz for the last week, no such luck.
I go to the same temple as Kraft, so I’m pleased to report that he did an outstanding job chanting a lengthy haftorah portion (a selection from the prophets) before the congregation today, but things got a little bumpy at the end of the service when our rabbi rose to deliver the sermon.Her main trope was that people should act as as though God is always watching them. Not a bad lesson, except that in making her point she must have made an endless number of references to acting like you’re being videotaped. This was awkward.Somewhere in the middle of the sermon, she somehow managed to stumble onto a story about Cal Ripken, Jr. and what a positive role model he is (why she referenced Cal Ripken of all people, I have no idea–this sermon was all over the place). Her basic point was that Ripken always knew he was being recorded on the field, so he behaved accordingly. This was especially significant, she said, in this modern age where “sports scandal” is so prevalent.

Of course, the rabbi at the Newton synagogue really can’t be blamed for her awkward references in her sermon to videotaping and sports scandals. But the old adage that one must consider the audience is relevant here. The last sermon that she gave that made headlines was a couple years ago when she spoke about gay rights in the Conservative Movement causing the synagogue’s cantor, who objected to the sermon, to resign his position and start a new congregation.

I remember being a guest rabbinical student at a Houston synagogue while I was studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My visit was immediately following the Enron debacle and, knowing there were former Enron executives at this congregation, I recall scrutinizing my sermons for that Shabbat to make sure there was nothing that if taken out of context would be embarrassing.

I also remember choosing my words very carefully when I delivered a sermon this past June about Princess Diana. Having just read an article about her and the upcoming tenth anniversary of her tragic death, I was eager to speak about her life from the pulpit. It so happened that I gave this sermon on the Shabbat that one of Leslie and Abigail Wexner’s sons was celebrating his bar mitzvah at my former Columbus synagogue. I was hesitant to give this sermon because I didn’t want the audience to mistakenly think I was comparing Abigail Wexner to Princess Diana, although there are several striking similarities between the two women including their marriages to older, public figures and their humanitarian and charitable activities. Of course, one man approached me following the prayer service to tell me how brilliant my sermon was and that he understood the hidden comparison I was making. I told him that was not my intention at all, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Perhaps the real lesson of this rabbi’s sermon is that rabbis should choose their words carefully… and watch Sports Center before the High Holidays.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Trees in Israel and the Playboy Mansion… An Odd Mix

Yaacov Agam and Rabbi Jason MillerTwo weeks ago I attended the Jewish National Fund Michigan Region’s annual event at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. To raise money for the JNF and its programs in Israel, works of art by world renowned artist Yaacov Agam (pictured with me at right) were auctioned off. In fact, Agam was a guest at the event and I was thrilled to have the chance to meet him. No one would dispute that it is appropriate for an organization such as the JNF to auction artwork by such a revered Jewish artist as a fundraising mechanism.

However, auctioning off a subscription to Playboy magazine and an all-expenses-paid trip to a VIP party at the legendary Playboy Mansion in California might not be the best idea for a Jewish organization. That is what the Greater New York branch of the JNF planned to do for its “JNF Sports Bonanza,” but in the end they created the “Playboy Scandal” for an institution committed to planting trees in Israel and improving Israel’s water sources.

Of course, Jewish feminist groups and some Israeli officials were none too pleased with this fundraising idea. And so this week the Jewish National Fund decided that it would no longer auction the Playboy package for charity.

The JNF released the following statement:

Thank you for your concern regarding the auction of more than 100 items including the Playboy Mansion golf tournament item at a local New York JNF event. JNF more often than not gets things right, but of course sometimes we don’t. Clearly this is a case of poor judgment. The item in question was donated by local New York lay leaders who were only trying to help raise money. If JNF could reverse its course we would, but since we can’t, we apologize for accepting the donation and have removed the item from the list.

I’m sure in the future JNF will vet its donated auction items a little closer.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rookie Sensation Ryan Braun and Yom Kippur

Every year before Yom Kippur there has to be at least one article about whether a Jewish baseball player will play on the holiest day of the year. The Jewish community seems to get all excited about whether baseball players will suit up on Yom Kippur ever since 1934 when Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg chose to attend Yom Kippur prayer services at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in lieu of playing against the Boston Red Sox in a critical game in the middle of a pennant race.

Shawn Green - JewishThat year Greenberg played on Rosh Hashanah and hit two home runs that won the game, but didn’t play on Yom Kippur. Sandy Koufax made it a point to never play on Yom Kippur, even sitting out a World Series game in 1965 (although he did not go to synagogue). Some Jewish ballplayers like Shawn Green have been less consistent in taking off the Jewish holy day. In 2001, Green (then with the Dodgers) sat out an important pennant race game because of Yom Kippur. That same year Green appeared in more games than any other Dodger (161 of 162 games), and had the longest consecutive-game playing streak in the majors (408 games). That streak, however, came to an end when he didn’t play on Yom Kippur, a decision supported by the team. In more recent years, Shawn Green has opted to play in the night game on Erev Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei) but not play on Yom Kippur day.

In a 2004 article for J, The Jewish news weekly of Northern California, Seth Swirsky explains, “In 2001, I wrote to [Shawn] Green asking him why, in the recent past, he had chosen not to play baseball on Yom Kippur. The letter was included in my book Something to Write Home About. This was Green’s inspiring response:

“Though I didn’t grow up in a religious household, I was raised with a strong sense of identity. I was a huge baseball fan, just like lots of kids. At the time I was growing up, there really weren’t any well-known Jewish players (at least as far as I knew). I was, however, very aware of Greenberg and Koufax and the tremendous role models they were for Jewish people everywhere.

“As my baseball career progressed, I always remembered the decisions that the two greatest Jewish ballplayers made, and I told myself that if I was ever in their position to, in any way, fill that role, I would. Thus, I feel a strong responsibility to make the right choices when it comes to such topics as not playing on Yom Kippur. I’m not trying to be ‘the next Greenberg or Koufax,’ but I am trying to do my part as a Jewish ballplayer.”

Even prominent rabbis like David Wolpe have tried to convince Shawn Green to sit out Yom Kippur. Some other prominent Jewish players in major league baseball like Gabe Kapler and Kevin Youkilis have also made news about their Yom Kippur playing decisions (Kapler usually plays; Youkilis sits it out).

Ryan Braun and Rabbi Jason MillerWell, this year there’s a new Jewish player making news in the big leagues. Ryan (“The Hebrew Hammer”) Braun (pictured at right) is on his way to becoming the first Jewish Rookie of the Year. I met Ryan Braun last month when he was staying with his team at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona during the Milwaukee Brewers’ series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. I found Ryan to be very friendly and I told him how great it is to have a Jewish athlete playing as well as he has been this year. In a very “small world” story, Ryan told me that he lived with his grandfather for a while in the same house that once belonged to Hank Greenberg.

Of course with Ryan Braun making a name for himself with his All-Star season, the JTA recently raised the question of whether he will play on Yom Kippur. Braun was quoted in the Milwaukee Jewish Sentinel saying, “Being Jewish is something I take great pride in. There aren’t too many Jewish athletes who have achieved success at the highest level, so it’s something I’m very proud of.” Hopefully, he’ll make the Jewish community proud and sit this one out even though his team needs him.

The Jewish community’s preoccupation with Jewish baseball players and Yom Kippur is likely due to the pennant races and playoffs at the end of the regular season when Yom Kippur falls. Afterall, if the NFL Superbowl or college bowl games ever overlapped with Yom Kippur, I’m sure we’d hear about more conflicted Jewish football players!
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Baseball in Israel

Israel Baseball LeagueI haven’t posted to my blog since August 5th, the day I left for Israel. Much has happened in the past five weeks that I haven’t blogged about. The two weeks in Israel with the entire family were fantastic with too many highlights to name. However, one of the major highlights of the trip for me was throwing out the first pitch at an Israel Baseball League game.

This was the inaugural season for the IBL, Israel’s professional baseball league with six teams and three stadiums. When I called the IBL ticket office in Boston to order tickets for our synagogue group to see the Netanya Tigers take on the Ra’anana Express at Yarkon Field, I was asked if I would like to throw out the first pitch. Of course, I immediately replied that I would love to. The irony was that I was slated to throw out the opening pitch of a Columbus Clippers minor league game on Sunday, August 5, but since that was the day our group left for Israel I had to say no to the Clippers game. So now I was going to throw out the ceremonial first ball one week later in Petah Tikva. Even better!

Together with my eldest son Josh and about a dozen people from our group, we boarded a charter bus and rushed from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in the middle of rush hour traffic to get to the game in time for my opening pitch. Fortunately, we made it in time and I threw a strike. Unfortunately, Josh had just woken up from a nap and started crying on the pitcher’s mound.

The game was a great experience. The playing field wasn’t much better than your average high school field, but the kosher “Burger Bar” concession stand was a great bonus. The level of play was somewhere between college ball and AA minor league. Most of the game was announced in English by an enthusiastic announcer who used some Hebrew every once in a while.

Justin Prinstein and Rabbi Jason Miller (Israel Baseball League)Proving what a small world it is, the winning pitcher for the Netanya Tigers was Justin Prinstein (pictured at right), who is from Detroit. Justin had a no-hitter going into the 7th and final inning, finally pitching a one-hit 4-0 shutout. We spoke after the game and Justin told me that he graduated from North Farmington High School (where my wife graduated), Farmington Hills Warner Middle School (where he knew my mother-in-law, the librarian), and Shaarey Zedek Religious School (where I taught hebrew school and remember meeting him and his sister Rachel).

Justin PrinsteinHere is the video of my opening pitch along with some other photos from the baseball game. With my official Netanya Tigers jersey, inaugural season baseball signed by Commissioner Daniel Kurtzer (former U.S. ambassador to Israel), and the ball I threw to begin the game, I will long remember this great experience. And with Josh singing the Ra’anana Express fight song every day, how could I forget it. I hope that professional baseball in Israel thrives for many years to come.


Israel Baseball League

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller