Jewish Kids Get Detroit Tigers Fever

Detroit is enjoying a very exciting sports season this autumn. The Detroit Lions are heading into tonight’s Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears with a 4-0 record (their best since 1980) and the Detroit Tigers are in the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers. The Detroit Red Wings are undefeated so far this season. The University of Michigan football team is 6-0 and Michigan State University’s football team is 4-1 (undefeated in the Big Ten Conference) as the two teams face off against each other this weekend at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

After seeing David Craffey‘s creative photo going around Facebook of a little girl writing her alphabet on a chalkboard in which she writes the ‘D’ as the Olde English ‘D’ of the Detroit Tigers logo, I decided to create the Hebrew School version of the photo in which the Hebrew letter dalet becomes the iconic Detroit Tigers ‘D’. Here’s my attempt:

Inspired by David Craffey Design

Go Tigers!

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

Yom Kippur at Occupy Wall Street

Yesterday, hundreds of young Jews were on a 25-hour hunger strike at Occupy Wall Street. Okay, so it was actually a Yom Kippur fast.

Kol Nidre on Wall Street (photo: Damon Dahlen / AOL)

What was so meaningful about Friday night’s “Occupy Wall Street” Kol Nidrei services in front of Brown Brothers Harriman on Broadway at Liberty Plaza was how it stood in stark contrast to an earlier episode at Occupy Wall Street. Daniel Sieradski explained on his blog that two individuals (he didn’t use “individuals”) “were caught on video at Occupy Wall Street saying profoundly awful, stupid things about Jews, one of whom was consistently heckled and challenged by those around him.” Contrast that act of anti-Semitism to Friday night’s Kol Nidrei service across from Zuccotti Park attended by approximately 1,000 people. It was in the same place where the anti-Semitic comments were made days earlier.

The Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, donated machzorim (High Holiday prayerbooks) for the prayer service. It was led by Avi Fox Rosen (Storahtelling), Sarah Wolf (JTS), and Getzel Davis (Hebrew College), who are being assisted in preparations by Yosef Goldman (JTS) and Rabbi Ezra Weinberg (RRC).

Sieradski correctly complains that more media attention is being paid to the anti-Semitic comments than to the beautiful Yom Kippur prayer experience that took place in the same area. The young Jewish people who attended Kol Nidrei at Occupy Wall Street have been describing it as the most meaningful Jewish experience of their lives.

Here’s video footage from the Kol Nidrei service at Occupy Wall Street:

In his announcement of the Kol Nidrei service, Daniel Sieradski posted the following:

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
–Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This Friday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, Jews around the world refrain from all physical pleasures (eating, bathing and screwing, to name a few), and devote themselves to prayer and supplication, begging the Lord forgiveness of their sins so that they may be written into the Book of Life.

But is fasting and beating our chests really the best we can do to redeem ourselves?

As lower Manhattan erupts with thousands of protesters taking a stand against economic injustice, the words of the prophet Isaiah resonate more truthfully and appropriately than ever:

Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.

Thus rather than spending the holiday safe and warm in our cozy synagogues thinking abstractly about human suffering, perhaps we should truly afflict ourselves and undertake the fast of Isaiah, by joining the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, and holding our Yom Kippur services there amongst the oppressed, hungry, poor and naked.

Not to be cliché, but as Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

Kol Hakavod to all those who organized this so that the Occupy Wall Street participants would still be able to observe Yom Kippur. 

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

The Ryan Braun Yom Kippur Debate

When Hank Greenberg walked down the long aisle of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit on September 20, 1934 on Yom Kippur, he received a standing ovation. That day, the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game late in the season. Despite the pennant race, Greenberg sat out the game and went to synagogue instead. The Tigers lost.

Greenberg had played ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah leading the Tigers to victory with his two home runs, although in his autobiography he describes how he sat out batting practice to mull over the decision. A rabbi gave him the go-ahead leading the Detroit News to run the headline: “Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play.”

After the Rosh Hashanah victory, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that read “Happy New Year, Hank.”

While the Milwaukee Brewers star player Ryan Braun is sometimes referred to as “The Hebrew Hammer” just like Greenberg was and he even lived in a house once inhabited by Hank Greenberg, Braun is going to play in today’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Or to use the language of Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Ryan Braun will not Koufax his teammates today. The game starts at 4:00 PM Central Time, which theoretically would give him a couple hours of playing time before the commencement of Yom Kippur at sunset. However, that is a moot point because Braun was never a synagogue-going guy. His father is Jewish, but Braun wasn’t raised Jewish (his mother is Catholic).

So what’s the debate about? In truth, there are three debates here. The first debate is about Braun playing on Yom Kippur. The second debate is about Braun’s Judaism. And the third debate is about why people care and have made this into a debate.

When I was contacted by NY Times sports reporter Richard Sandomir yesterday on this matter, I explained that the real issue is why Jewish people are so infatuated with Jewish baseball players and Yom Kippur. Professional Jewish athletes in other sports play on Yom Kippur without any fanfare. There’s something inherent in major league baseball that makes this an issue.

Second, I explained that the authenticity of Braun’s Jewishness doesn’t seem to matter to many Jewish people who otherwise wouldn’t consider him Jewish. I agree with that. It shouldn’t matter if only Braun’s father is Jewish or if he wasn’t raised Jewish. What should matter is if Braun considers himself to be Jewish today. No one is saying that he should be counted in a synagogue minyan (prayer quorum), but there is no reason not to feel Jewish pride that the “Hebrew Hammer” has taken his team to the post-season and is a candidate for National League MVP (Braun was NL Rookie of the Year in 2007).

It comes down to the difference between Judaism as a culture and Judaism as a religion. From a religious viewpoint, Ryan Braun is not Jewish. From a cultural viewpoint, he should be considered a Jewish ballplayer, included in sets of Jewish baseball cards, and eligible for induction in the Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here is the article from today’s NY Times:

For Braun, Stadiums Remain His Temple
By Richard Sandomir

If a player with Jewish heritage reaches baseball’s postseason, the inevitable question is: will he play on Yom Kippur or go to synagogue? It is not a query on the level of the Four Questions that are asked during the Passover seder. But it is one of those curious baseball inquiries — maybe on par with, Does a rising fastball really rise? — that pop up sometimes.

Why such interest in whether a ballplayer plays a game or worships on a High Holy Day? Call it the Greenberg-Koufax Yom Kippur Precedent: In 1934, Hank Greenberg went to temple rather than play a game against the Yankees during a pennant race. In 1965, Sandy Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series out of respect for his religion.

They are still heroes to their faith. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green sat out a critical game in 2001 to observe Yom Kippur.

This year, the question has been put to Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who play the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday afternoon in the decisive Game 5 of their National League division series. The game begins just after 4 p.m. Central, and Yom Kippur starts at sunset at 6:23 p.m. In theory, Braun could put in five or six innings, then scoot to temple.

During Rosh Hashana last week, Michael S. asked on Twitter, with some ire: “Why did Ryan Braun even play last night?!?! He better not play on Yom Kippur!”

Except that Braun is not religious. Although his father is Jewish, his mother is Catholic, so he is not a Jew according to religious law. Braun played on Rosh Hashana and will play Friday. Perhaps it should not be an issue, but it has become one in some quarters, particularly on the Internet.

“The Jewish community is always looking for Jewish baseball heroes,” said Rabbi Jason Miller of Farmington Hills, Mich., who blogs about Jews and sports. “Braun is not considered a Jewish player, yet Orthodox Jews would cite him as their Jewish hero.”

Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers also has a Catholic mother but celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays as a child, according to Sports Illustrated. If he felt qualms about playing Saturday, he need not fret. Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. between Texas and the Tigers will not begin until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.

Anticipating what Braun and Kinsler would do, The Tablet, a Jewish publication, said on its Web site recently, “Millions of Jewish boys and their mothers are watching.”

Ron Kaplan, the sports and features editor of New Jersey Jewish News, said he gets requests from readers wondering if a player is Jewish or if he will play on Yom Kippur. One letter he received this week advocated that Kinsler sit out Yom Kippur.

Kaplan said that Jews are excited to see Jewish ballplayers because there are not many of them. “Jews are so underrepresented,” he said, “so whenever there’s somebody who has any tangential relationship to their religion, we claim them as our own.”

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

The Jewish Zen of Steve Jobs

For many years I’ve been writing and speaking about the impact of technology on Jewish life. In 1995 I had the idea to use email (it was still fairly new at the time) to ask random people around the world to wish my brother congratulations on his upcoming bar mitzvah. The response was overwhelming and it got me thinking about the power of the Internet and how it would make the Jewish world smaller. So, as an International Relations major I titled my college thesis “The Globalization of Judaism: How the Internet has Heightened Jewish Religion, Cultural Awareness, and Education on a Global Scale” and tried to predict how technological innovation would change the global Jewish community.

Steve Jobs, a Zen Buddhist follower, is largely responsible for the way we have plugged in to new technology and communication devices. His contributions to technological innovation have indirectly altered Jewish life for the better. We are a more interconnected, organized, and educated people thanks to the genius of Steve Jobs. Like millions of others, when I heard that Steve Jobs had succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer yesterday evening, I immediately began to think about all the ways I’ve used the Apple products that have his visionary imprint on them. While I’ve always favored PCs above Apple computers, I have had my share of Apple products — from Mac desktops to iPods. The role of Steve Jobs at Apple always had less to do with the technology side of the corporation and more to do with the business, marketing, and creative aspects.

Ami Eden, the editor of JTA, asked me to write a reflection of Steve Jobs from a Jewish perspective. At first, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task because Steve Jobs wasn’t Jewish and I couldn’t think what was “Jewish” about his role at Apple. Ultimately, I realized that his contributions to technology have made the world a better place and that embodies the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – improving our world. A genius like Steve Jobs is unique. His revolutionary work will be felt for generations. Here is what I wrote for JTA:

Social networking sites began buzzing immediately after word spread of the death of Apple Computer visionary Steve Jobs Wednesday evening. Rabbis took time out of their busy preparations for Yom Kippur to halt their sermon writing and post personal reflections on what the contributions of Steve Jobs’ creative spark had on them.

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone of Dewitt, N.Y, posted to his Facebook page, “Is Steve Jobs a hero? If someone who has vision, discipline, passion, and love for what he does is a hero, then yes. It was not about the money or the fame for him. It was about changing the world in a million little ways that improved peoples’ lives. And his devices and other inventions have been a major breakthrough in helping people with disabilities communicate and employ the best that technology has to offer.” Earlier on Facebook, Pepperstone recounted the plethora of Apple computers and gadgets he had used since his first Apple IIe in 1984.

Answering the question “Why Is Steve Jobs Important to Me?” Rabbi Eric Linder of Omaha explained how Jobs impacted his professional life. On his blog Linder wrote, “In my rabbinate, I have tried to use technology to make Judaism relevant. For Rosh Hashanah we leveraged the power of social media to crowd source answers to the question, ‘What does the shofar call YOU to do?’ All of the technical stuff was done on Apple technology. And the project brought the congregation closer together. It brought people together.”

Over the past three decades, the technological innovation that was inspired by Steve Jobs’ vision had a significant effect on the Jewish community. His genius was in intuiting what would happen when you “strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple elegant reality remained.” The ways in which Jewish education and Jewish life have been positively affected by the products that Steve Jobs dreamed of and made into a reality are countless. His iPods made Jewish music and Jewish learning more accessible. His computers brought graphic design to new levels for Jewish institutions like synagogues and day schools. His Facetime application on the iPhone allowed Jewish communities separated by continents to come together and communicate. The geographical distances and borders have become irrelevant thanks to the innovative contributions of this genius. The thousands of Jewish themed applications from utilities to resources to games were created specifically for the iPhone and iPad.

Steve Jobs’ understanding of efficiency and connectivity led to the intuitive devices that have changed the way we work and connect with each other. The Jewish high school that has its students learning Talmud and chemistry on the iPad owes a great deal to the work of Steve Jobs. The father who created a slideshow of memories set to music using iMovie for his daughter’s wedding is indebted to the vision of Steve Jobs. The young boy living in a remote area of the country who is preparing for his bar mitzvah by listening to a New York cantor’s podcast on his iTouch is grateful to Steve Jobs.

Did the devotee of Zen Buddhism have a Jewish spark in him? Perhaps he did. There is no doubt that Steve Jobs had a profound effect on the Jewish world. His dynamic legacy will continues to make the world better as we continue to plug in and connect with each other in just the way he envisioned and using the devices he helped design. If the value of Tikkun Olam really means leaving your imprint on the world in a quest to make it a better place for all of us, then Steve Jobs possessed that value a thousand-fold.

May the memory of Steve Jobs be for blessings and may his family be comforted during this difficult time.

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

Ryan Braun’s Yom Kippur and 60 Years Since a Jewish Baseball First

The Arizona D-Backs (managed by my boyhood hero Kirk Gibson) stay alive in their ALDS series against the Milwaukee Brewers after winning last night’s game 8-1 in Phoenix. The hero of the game was Paul Goldschmidt, who hit a grand-slam home run. Despite his Jewish-sounding name, Goldschmidt is not Jewish. D-Backs relief pitcher J.J. Putz, who got the save last night, is also not Jewish even though he has a Yiddish last name (Google it).

The Jewish connection in this Milwaukee-Arizona series is that if the D-Backs win again tonight it will force a fifth and final game Friday evening at Miller Park in Milwaukee. With a 5:00 PM start time, Brewers’ star Ryan Braun won’t have enough time to get to shul for Kol Nidrei. Braun, whose father is Jewish, has played on Yom Kippur in the past and certainly will should the series extend to Friday night. When I met Braun a few years ago (coincidentally in Phoenix), he told me that he never took his Judaism very seriously, but that he is proud to be Jewish. Braun’s interesting connection to Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg is that he lived in his grandfather’s home for a time during his childhood in the house that once belonged to Hank Greenberg.

While I’ll be cheering for Kirk Gibson’s team in this series (another favorite player from my youth, Alan Trammell, is the D-Backs’ bench coach), I’ll also be hoping that the Brewers win tonight so Ryan Braun will be able to take Friday night off — whether he goes to synagogue for Kol Nidrei or not.

While I’m already writing about baseball and Judaism, why not mention that this baseball season marks the 60th anniversary since a first in Major League Baseball. On May 2, 1951 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit (what later became Tiger Stadium), Philadelphia A’s pinch hitter Lou Limmer stepped into the batters box to face the Tigers’ Saul Rogovin who pitched the ball to Tigers’ catcher Joe Ginsberg. Limmer’s pinch hit home run of course made it into the box score for perpetuity, but what the box score for that at-bat doesn’t mention is that it was the only time in Major League Baseball that the pitcher, the catcher, and the hitter were all Jewish.

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

Honey for Rosh Hashanah

The following was published on the HuffingtonPost and on several Patch.com sites before the Rosh Hashanah holiday:

At no time during my experience in a New York City rabbinical school did I think I would ever be donning full beekeeper regalia and watching as thousands of bees made honey on a farm in Michigan’s Amish country. But that is precisely what I found myself doing for the first time this past spring.

In addition to learning about the honey-making process, I’ve also learned about colony collapse disorder, the unexplained phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from hives causing a shortage of bee honey in recent years. I learned this from Don and Carol Ragan, a lovely couple who own the Windmill Hill Farm in Croswell (located in the “thumb” of Michigan). Carol first contacted me in February immediately after reading an article in the Detroit Free Press about Kosher Michigan, the kosher certification agency I started. She wanted to know what was involved in obtaining certification for her bee honey.

I told her that I would have to get back to her because I really wasn’t sure what it took to certify bee honey as kosher. The mere fact that bee honey is kosher is itself odd. After all, it is a product of the non-kosher bee (no insects except for certain locust species are deemed kosher by the Torah). So, how can a product of a non-kosher animal be kosher? It is believed that honey is kosher since it is produced outside of the body of the bee. But that isn’t totally true. In actuality, bees suck nectar from flowers with their proboscis (mouth) and this nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac, where enzymes from the saliva break down the nectar into honey. The nectar is never digested, but rather transformed into honey by the saliva. The honey is regurgitated when the bee returns to the hive and the water is evaporated, thereby thickening it into honey which is then sealed in the honeycomb. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that bee honey is kosher since it is not an actual secretion of the bee, but rather the bee functions as a carrier and facilitator of the honey-making process.

All of this is interesting because honey is a staple food of the Jewish New Year’s holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Honey sales increase in heavily populated Jewish areas thanks to this seasonal honey custom. Among the familiar traditions of Rosh Hashanah are the dipping of apple slices in honey and eating honey cake.

The Ragans knew that that adding kosher certification to their jars of honey would make their products more popular before Rosh Hashanah. Their Windmill Hill Farm produces 30,000 pounds of honey annually from more than 500 hives. All of their products are now certified kosher through my Kosher Michigan agency. Like many beekeepers around the country, the Ragans’ operation has grown from a hobby to a successful business. They began with only four hives that they discovered when they purchased the Croswell farm, but they quickly recognized how their passion could turn into profits.

“We’re passionate about making honey,” said Carol Ragan. “When we first discovered hives on our Croswell farm we were excited to experiment with making honey. We never realized how much we would come to enjoy it or how much of a market there is for honey products.”

Even with colony collapse disorder, beekeeping is on the rise throughout the country. New York City legalized recreational beekeeping last year, and even Michelle Obama had a beehive installed outside the White House.

Many members of the Jewish faith prepare dishes and baked goods with honey in time for Rosh Hashanah. Dan Sonenberg, owner of Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market in Farmington Hills, Michigan, explained, “My honey sales increase ten-fold during the holiday season and we build honey displays next to our apple offerings in the store. This cross-merchandising makes it easier for our Jewish customers to purchase both during this time of year. Honey products are also featured in our kosher baked goods department where our most popular items are the apple fritter challah (Jewish egg bread) and the honey apple cake.”

While the Bible describes Israel as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” it was more than likely referring to date honey. Bees were not common in Israel thousands of years ago, but today Israel has about 500 beekeepers with approximately 90,000 beehives that produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually.

The basis of using honey in baked goods and dipping apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah is to have a sweet year. While the secular New Year is kicked off with toasts of champagne, the Jewish New Year is launched with the sweet taste of honey. And maybe a little sugar high too.

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