Costco Kosher Special Event

Last month, I wrote about Costco’s efforts to attract the kosher consumer by increasing their selection of kosher products, including kosher chicken and kosher meat. They certainly had the best of intentions even if the samples of cooked kosher chicken they were handing out wouldn’t pass even the most lenient of kosher standards.
Now, one of the local Costco warehouses in Michigan is reaching out to synagogue leaders to have Costco’s kosher products publicized to synagogue members before Passover. Unfortunately, once again, it looks like Costco didn’t consult anyone in the Jewish community who would have likely informed Costco’s public relations department not to have their special event take place on Shabbat. Oops!
There are other times for kosher consumers to attend this special three-day event, but most Jewish people will have already completed their Passover shopping at this point. Well, at least the thought is there.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

How Can Lox Not Be Kosher?

Smoked salmon, or lox, has long been known as a staple fare at Sunday brunch in Jewish homes. In fact, Jewish people who claim their Jewish identity as only secular are known as “Bagels and Lox Jews.”

Well, now an ultra-Orthodox group of rabbis, the Chevra Mehadrin of Monsey, New York, have included lox on a list of food items that should no longer be considered kosher. According to these rabbis, a tiny parasitic worm called anisakis that can be found in smoked salmon calls its kosher status in question.

NBC New York interviewed some individuals in the Kosher industry who were less than appreciative for this ruling. “From time to time there are organizations who get a little crazy with these ideas,” said Hal Simon, manager of Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen in midtown Manhattan, who sells lox daily.

When matters like this arise in the world of kosher certification, I usually consult two of my Talmud teachers from the Jewish Theological Seminary for their opinions. However, based on many prior conversations with them I can pretty much guess what their responses will be. Rabbi Joel Roth, who is the highly regarded kashrut expert for the Conservative Movement will say this is narishkeit (foolishness in Yiddish). Prof. David Kraemer, author of Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages, will no doubt have a lot of eye rolling commentary about this latest pronouncement by the ultra-Orthodox kosher police.

In his book about kashrut and Jewish eating as an identity, Prof. Kraemer devoted his entire last chapter to this particular subject. Titled “Bugs in the System,” he opens the chapter by recounting the New York Times article from June 1, 2004, which reported that New York City drinking water had ceased to be kosher because of millimeter-long zooplankton called copepods.  He writes, “How is that water that had been drunk for generations without hesitation or compunction was all of a sudden suspect, and even ‘non-kosher?’ Examined by itself, this chapter in the development of modern kashrut practices is a study in different interpretations of detailed legal sources. But studied in context, the copepod incident is the culmination of a not-so-long history of increasing alarm and accusation over kashrut in the Orthodox community and beyond.”

Indeed, Kraemer goes on to address the relatively new (mid-1980’s) preoccupation the Orthodox have with the potential for bugs rendering vegetables as un-kosher. A year ago, I was interviewed by a Detroit Jewish News reporter for an article she was writing on my kosher certification business, Kosher Michigan. Due to pressure from Detroit’s Orthodox kosher certification group (the Vaad), the article was never published. However, when I asked the reporter what the Vaad’s representative said when she interviewed him, she replied that he didn’t question my knowledge of kashrut law; but suspected that, as a Conservative rabbi and mashgiach (kosher supervisor), I wouldn’t find it necessary to check the vegetables for bugs.

I have no doubt that Kraemer would have included the recent proclamation that lox are no longer kosher in this chapter. It is further evidence of the ultra-Orthodox blurrying the kosher regulations and prioritizing the wrong message. What I find ironic about this is the ultra-Orthodox’s reliance upon new technology to apply further strictures upon the already nuanced system of kashrut. Modern scientific knowlege could be applied by them to reverse the centuries-old ban in the Ashkenazic Jewish world on kitniyot (legumes) including peanuts during Passover, which Kraemer also addresses in the same chapter (“Of course, if Rabbi Moshe Feinstein approved of the kashrut of peanut oil on Passover, there is no question that it is kosher.”). Rather than use new information and scientific innovation to make it easier for Jews to observe the kosher laws, the ultra-Orthodox have used microscopes to render tap water, Brussels sprouts, and smoked salmon unfit for consumption by the kosher observant Jew.

And therein lies the reason that the most common questions I field in the months leading up to Passover all have to do with the acceptability of food items deriving from leguminous plants that techically cannot be chametz (leavened) as they are not derived from the “five grains” (wheat, spelt, barley, oats, or rye).

So, from now on when a secular Jew cites their love of eating lox as their Jewish identity, will you have the heart to let them know that those lox aren’t even kosher anymore?

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

Corey Haim, Son of Israeli is Dead at 38

Corey Haim is not the first Jewish teen actor from the 1980s to die tragically and certainly not the first child actor to overdose. River Phoenix, whose maternal grandparents were Jewish emigrants from Hungary, died of a drug overdose on Halloween morning in 1993. Now, teen heartthrob Corey Haim has died of a drug overdose at 38.

Corey Haim was born to a Jewish mother from Israel and a Jewish father from Canada. The son of Judy and Bernie Haim, Corey Haim became famous following his role in “The Lost Boys.” He also starred in the 1980s movie “License to Drive” and was later part of the reality TV show “The Two Coreys,” alongside Lost Boys co-star Corey Feldman, who is also Jewish.

The Jewish Chronicle reports that “Haim had been open about his battle with prescription drug addiction, including Valium. He was found dead by his mother in his Los Angeles apartment.”

Many celebrities have been victims of teen drug abuse themselves, with some of them never making it out alive.

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

Jon Stewart on Bill O’Reilly

This is a great clip of Jon Stewart being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart rejects O’Reilly’s running mate offer by saying: “I’m not running with you… I’m not gonna be your VP because I know what that’s gonna be. I get one job, and that’s to light the White House menorah…not interested.”

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

Ron Artest Paints Hebrew on Head

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Ron Artest decided to have the word “Defense” shaved and painted on his head for today’s game against the Orlando Magic. However, using the English word “Defense” apparently would have been too, uh, normal for Ron Artest. Maybe he felt that would be something that Dennis Rodman would have done during his time in the NBA. So, Artest decided to go with bleached blonde hair and the word “Defense” shaved and then painted in purple in Hebrew, Japanese, and Hindi characters.

Over the weekend, Artest used Twitter to ask his fans if he got the translations correct. In fact, on his translation page which he uploaded on his Twitpic account, Artest used the Hebrew word “hahagana” for “Defense.” That word actually means “The Defense” and is used in the name of Israel’s army: “Tzva Hahagana L’Yisrael” (The Israel Defense Forces or IDF). Apparently, someone out there told Artest to drop the “The” or the Hebrew “Ha” and just go with “haganah.” Presumably, Jordan Farmar, the LA Lakers’ Jewish player, gave Artest some assistance on the correct Hebrew spelling. But if he wasn’t able to, maybe Artest reached out the only Israeli in the league, Omri Casspi of the Sacramento Kings.

Although, come to think of it, maybe it would have been more appropriate to have “HaHa” included on his head’s message board.

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

Honorable Menschen: Michigan’s Levin Brothers

While living in New Jersey during rabbinical school, I attended a benefit dinner for the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in which Senator Jon Corzine was honored.  Prior to the event, questions were raised as to whether it was wise of JTS to honor a politician while he was serving in office. Honoring Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs Chairman and who after serving as senator became the governor of New Jersey, would bring in a lot of contributions to JTS, but it also upset several donors who saw this as the Seminary engaging in partisan politics.

Now the local region of the Seminary here in Michigan is honoring not one, but two politicians. And yet, there won’t be any objection to this event because of the reputations of the politicians who will be honored. In the Detroit Jewish community, Carl and Sandy Levin have earned their “Favorite Sons” status over a combined sixty-plus years in elected office. The Jewish Theological Seminary will honor the Levin brothers at a brunch on Sunday, April 18, 2010.

The Levin Brothers are making big news today, following yesterday’s decision of House Democrats to make Sandy Levin acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Today’s Detroit Free Press reports that Sandy’s “ascension, taken with his younger brother Carl’s chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, creates what the Christian Science Monitor called ‘one of the most powerful brother acts in Washington since the Kennedys.’ The Office of the House Historian said there have been four instances of brothers serving as chairs of congressional committees at the same time but none since 1881. And there is no precedent for brothers chairing committees as powerful and prestigious as those headed by the Levins.”

A few months ago, PBS aired a documentary about the history of Jewish Detroit in which Sandy and Carl Levin were interviewed together about their beloved neighborhood in the City of Detroit. Their interview was a touching tribute to their upbringing and the city they love. Many described the scene not as two elected officials being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, but as a couple of local Jewish grandfathers waxing nostalgic about their childhood and the old neighborhood.

I first got a sense of Carl Levin’s character when a good friend of mine worked on his re-election campaign as a fundraiser. I would hear her tell people that she works “with Carl” as opposed to “for Senator Levin.” However, that is precisely what the laid back senator wanted his staff to say. While he’s served in the Senate since 1979, there’s no ego there. Both Carl and Sandy are humble, well-respected men who can be aptly characterized by the term “mensch.” I’ve met both men on several occasions and have found them to be warm and friendly, without a hint of that “Inside-the-Beltway Braggadocio.”

Most people don’t know that in addition to all of his accolades and accomplishments in the Senate, Carl Levin also founded a synagogue. A February 11, 1977 article in the Detroit Jewish News reports that when the former synagogue building of Congregation Mogain Abraham in Detroit was about to be demolished, Carl Levin (Detroit Common Council President at the time) and three others salvaged relics from the 63-year-old building to be incorporated in the new synagogue they formed called Congregation T’chiyah. “When Levin became aware that the former synagogue of Mogain Abraham (now Mt. Olive Baptist Church) was to be demolished as part of the Medical Center Rehabilitation Project, he proposed that the group make a bid to the city, which had purchased the structure, for the interior fixtures… the bid was accepted.”

Years later, Carl Levin was walking in Detroit when he saw a pickup truck drive by with a stained-glass window in the back. He immediately recognized it as one of the windows from the synagogue, which was now a church. Even though, Congregation T’chiyah technically owned that stained-glass window, which had apparently been stolen out of the church, Carl stopped the truck and bought the stained-glass window from the man right there on the spot.

Today, I’m proud to be the part-time rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah; probably the only synagogue in the country to be founded by a U.S. Senator. I’m also honored that Sandy Levin’s family is active in the congregation, continuing the Levin legacy at Congregation T’chiyah that began over thirty-three years ago. I’ll be among the many who will come together next month to honor Sandy and Carl Levin, and to support the Jewish Theological Seminary.

With many politicians today, people seem to just be waiting for a scandal to occur. That is not the case with the Levin Brothers. Through their integrity and decades of hard work, they have actually made strides to give politics a good name.  They are just two nice Jewish boys from Detroit who earned law degrees and set out to make a difference by legislating in Washington in a non-politics-as-usual way.

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

Moment Magazine Caption Contest

I am a finalist in the January/February 2010 Moment Magazine caption contest. Please vote for me by clicking here.

This is the cartoon (by Bob Mankoff) and the caption I wrote:

Thanks, Mr. Gates, but I think I’ll just wait for Apple to release its version.

My other submissions for a caption to this cartoon were:

“Is there a charge to download with that? Because I don’t think this people will go for it.”

“Here’s version 2.0, but please don’t throw this one, it’s not under warranty?”

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

Dave Matthews Yom Kippur Concert

No, Dave Matthews isn’t really going to play a Yom Kippur gig in Chicago, but two Dave Matthews Band concerts at Wrigley Field during Shabbat and Yom Kippur this Fall have been approved. According to the JTA, the music from the concert won’t be heard in the three nearby synagogues (Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox), but there will be parking problems.

The Chicago Sun Times reports that it hasn’t been confirmed that the concert is The Dave Matthews Band, and that it could also be either Phish or Paul McCartney. The Cubs are considering providing a parking lot and shuttle buses for worshipers to get to the synagogues.

Because the September 17 concert coincides with Kol Nidre, the start of Yom Kippur, the Cubs have reached out to all three synagogues in the area: Anshe Emet (Conservative), Anshe Sholom (Modern Orthodox), and Temple Sholom (Reform).

The Sun Times quoted Mike Lufrano, Cubs senior vice-president of community affairs, who by the way is Jewish and plans to miss his first Wrigley concert to be in shul. He said, “It’s really parking that they’re most concerned about. You won’t hear it because they’re far enough away. But, it’s fans coming to hear the concert at the same time people are going to worship.” Rabbi Michael Siegel of the Conservative synagogue Anshe Emet reportedly sent a letter to the City Council’s License Committee endorsing the concerts.

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

Good Yichus: Names and Heritage

In Judaism there is a concept called “yichus,” which basically means lineage or pedigree.  In popular parlance “good yichus” is used to describe someone with connections to a distinguished family. I was thinking about this term the other day while reading Time Magazine’s very witty Joel Stein’s column.  Stein decided to research his geneology and see what kind of yichus he has. He did this reluctantly at the urging of Friends star Lisa Kudrow who is the executive-producer of NBC’s upcoming Who Do You Think You Are?

Kudrow tried to convince Stein to care about his own past, even though he believes, “What my great-great-great-grandfather did isn’t any more interesting to me than what your great-great-great-grandfather did, especially since in both cases it was farming.” Somewhere in the article, hidden between Stein’s jokes, he realizes that he’s actually interested in learning more about his family tree including his great-grandfather Reuben who left Russia to avoid army service. In fact, his search to uncover more information about his heritage leads him to reconnect with a cousin, who provided more insight into their yichus.

I read two other articles that day that focused on bad yichus. The first article was about Bernard Madoff’s daughter-in-law who went to court to legally change her last name, along with her children’s last name. To avoid embarrassment and the occasional death threat, Stephanie Madoff filed court papers in Manhattan asking to change her last name to Morgan. As I read this news, I thought of my good friend who was so excited to recently learn that his wife is pregnant with a boy who will carry on his family’s last name into the next generation. Names are so important to us because they are the link to our history; to previous generations of our family. With the Madoff case, here was an example in which Bernie Madoff’s son Mark watched his children be stripped of his last name in order to lose the link to that part of their heritage.

Finally, I read about the upcoming book written by the son of a Hamas leader who reveals that he spied for Israel. Mosab Hassan Yousef, the 32-year-old Palestinian who converted to Christianity, escaped the West Bank in 2007. In his memoir “Son of Hamas,” he discusses his years as one of Israel’s most valued informants inside the Hamas terrorist organization. This is an example in which both father and son are angered and ashamed of their yichus. The JTA reports today that “Sheik Hassan Yousef, who has been held in an Israeli prison since 2005, said in a statement released Monday that he, his wife and other children disown his oldest son (who worked undercover for Israel’s Shin Bet agency for ten years). The statement reportedly was smuggled out of the prison.” And on the flip side, the son has disassociated himself from his terrorist father.

So, yichus can be both positive and negative. Some are proud of their heritage and others are ashamed of it. Either way, however, a family tree tells the narrative.

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