Mourning For My Infant Nephew

“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” – Those words, the title of a book by my teacher Rabbi Harold Kushner, keep echoing in my head. Tragedy has struck my family. We planned to go to Chicago last week where I would have the honor of being both the uncle and the rabbi at my newborn nephew’s bris. Instead we’re headed to Chicago today – a week later than planned – where I will have the unfortunate responsibility to be both the uncle and the rabbi at my nephew’s funeral. We’re grieving.A little more than a week ago I searched the Web for an appropriate blessing to say on becoming an uncle. Not finding anything, I wrote my own blessing. Last night I searched the Web desperately seeking what one says at the funeral of an 11-day-old baby. The answer is nothing. We’re speechless.

When my nephew was born I wrote about Abraham of the Torah and his role as uncle to Lot. He took his nephew under his wing, cared for him and protected him. Today I unfortunately look to another uncle in the Torah. Moses mourned the death of his two nephews Nadav and Avihu. The Torah relates that the boys’ father — Moses’ brother Aaron — was speechless. So too must Uncle Moses have been in his mourning of this sudden death. We’re in shock.

On the Shabbat when the Torah portion was Parashat Vayechi (And he lived), my nephew died. On the Shabbat in which we learn of the blessings Jacob bestowed upon his sons, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law began to come to terms with the harsh reality that they will never bless their son as Jacob did. On the Shabbat when the Congregation of Israel stands upon finishing the first book of the Torah and, preparing to open the next chapter, proclaims “Chazak chazak v’nitchazek” (Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened), my family feels weak. From creation there will be no next chapter for my nephew. We’re weakened.

Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet. May the soul of my innocent nephew Rylan Foster Gelb (Yitzchak Chaim) be bound up in the bond of eternal life and may he rest in peace. There is no more to say.

Blessing For Becoming An Uncle For First Time

“Uncle Jason” — I really like the sound of that! Yesterday evening as my children and I kindled seven Hanukkah candles on the hanukkiyah, I received the anticipated phone call from my wife who was at a hospital in Chicago with her sister. “It’s a boy,” she said, and with those words I became an uncle. I told my children and watched them jump for joy with the news that they now had a first cousin.The Hebrew word for uncle is dod (דוד), which sounds a lot like the word “dad.” It is also the same word the Torah uses for beloved. A quick etymology search on the website Balashon.com informed me that the Hebrew dod is related to Syriac דדא for uncle or beloved, Mandaic, Nabatean and Palmyrene “dada” meaning father’s brother and the Arabic “dad” for foster-father. Balashon.com explains that the Hebrew dod is the most ancient Hebrew word for love and was probably a primitive caressing syllable taken from the sound “da-da” that babies make.

Savvy Auntie - Uncle T-Shirt Rabbi Jason

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Becoming a Savvy Uncle

As a member of the SavvyAuntie.com group of experts, I am periodically asked to contribute blog posts to SavvyAuntie.com, the website created by Melanie Notkin. Since I am not an aunt myself (and never plan to be one), I often write about an aunt or uncle of mine or even my kids’ aunt. In my recent blog post for SavvyAuntie.com I wrote about how excited I am to finally, God willing, become an uncle:

I was one of the first guys among my friends to become a daddy. And fatherhood has dominated my life in a great way over the past decade. With three kids I often forget what my life was even like BC (before children).

While I’m very content begin a father, there has been something missing. I’ve been watching my friends become uncles for years. Even though I cherish my relationship with each of my kids, I’ve been eagerly awaiting “unclehood.” You see, my relationship with my late uncle was a special one. For ten years before Uncle Jerry had kids of his own I got to play basketball and tennis with him, go for long bike rides, and attend professional hockey games. He taught me to do fun things. He gave me my first summer job. And he always treated me a little older than I actually was – something uncles are supposed to do. Even as Uncle Jerry got children of his own, we still had that special uncle-nephew relationship. There are just things that uncles can do that dads can’t.

Jerry Gudes
With my Uncle Jerry

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Fun Passover Activities for the Seder and Beyond

Passover, which begins on March 25, is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Each year during the Passover seder, Jewish people attempt to integrate the old traditions of the holiday with innovations. Mostly, these innovations are meant to keep the children (and many of the adults too!) alert and engaged during the seder.

Innovations in the Haggadah are certainly valuable for keeping things fresh at the seder while still sticking to the centuries-old script. However, for young children it can be a frustrating and kvetchy experience as they watch each adult at the table take a turn reading the midrashic commentary of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian slavery — no matter how lovely the artwork is in the newly published Haggadah.

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, on the ReformJudaism.org website, writes that the “most important thing in leading a Passover seder is feeling that you have the freedom (pun intended) to be as creative as possible.” These days many families — especially those with young children — are scrapping the traditional seder symposium and opting for fun activities that keep everyone participating. Some families I spoke with pitch tents in their living room and tell the Passover story while pretending to be the Israelites camped out in the desert.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, which arrives quite early this year, I had the opportunity to review a few games and activities that I plan to use to keep my kids having fun at the seder this year. Some of them I’ve been using for years and others I’ve only discovered this year.


PASSOVER BINGOTamara Pester, a Denver lawyer, sent me this game back in January and my kids started playing it right away. They enjoy playing Bingo and I was thrilled to see them using Bingo cards with some educational value rather than a bunch of numbers. Pester came up with the idea for Passover Bingo when she saw her niece and nephew getting restless during the family seder. “Instead of drudging through the Hagaddah, wondering when it’s time to eat,” she explains, “people will be motivated to follow along with the story of Exodus. Guests at your traditional Seder will be participating and paying rapt attention to the pages, thanks to this easy-to-play game.”

The game retails for $24.99 and features six colorful game boards with Passover keywords such as Egypt and Elijah. The game also includes 96 foam markers, and is recommended for children ages three and up. To help fund the project, Pester turned to Jewcer.com, which offers crowd-sourced funding for Jewish projects. “Actually, the Jewcer people contacted me because they’d never done a promotion with a product before,” she said. The Jewcer site waived fees and helped Pester raise nearly $3,000 for the game. Pester’s sold over 150 of the games through Jewcer, the Passover Bingo website, and several synagogue gift stores.

PLAGUES BAGS
I first discovered the Plagues Bags back in the late 1990s when I saw an ad for them in Moment Magazine. I ordered one and began to use it at my family’s seder which I started leading after my grandfather passed away in 1994. It became a custom at our seder for my young cousins Jeff and Ben to put on the hand puppets of Moses and Pharaoh respectively and act out the dialogue between the two. The two cousins are now in their mid-20s and, while their hands no longer fit in the plastic puppets, they’re good sports and still play along.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein thought so highly of the Plagues Bags that he decided his synagogue would take over the sale of them each year. In 2001 my wife and I moved to Caldwell, New Jersey where I served an internship at Congregation Agudath Israel with Rabbi Silverstein. He put my wife in charge of the Plagues Bags and that year she reported to me that they had sold several thousand in the week before Passover.

What’s so great about the Plagues Bags? They encourage the seder participants to have fun during what could otherwise be a very tense time during the seder. The horrible plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn children, can be difficult to explain to children. It’s also getting close to the festive meal and everyone is hungry at this point in the seder. The “toys” inside the Plagues Bags help the seder leader keep everyone’s attention and bring some levity to the “talk-feast”.

JEWISH HOLIDAYS IN A BOX
At JewishHolidaysInABox.com, they’ve completed a new guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder”. This creative guide helps families who are novices when it comes to the Pesach seder or want to make their standard seder more engaging and fun. Their The 3-part downloadable package comes with a 36-page PDF + 2 audio tutorials and is available on the Jewish Holidays in a Box website.

RESOURCES FOR INNOVATIVE AND FUN SEDERS
Two books I recommend to help seder leaders enliven the seder each year are David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and Ron Wolfson’s “The Passover Seder: The Art of Jewish Living”. Danielle Dardashti and Roni Sarig also have a great chapter with some fun Passover seder projects for children in their book “The Jewish Family Fun Book”. All three books are published by Jewish Lights Publishers. This year the Foundation for Jewish Camp has published an activity book for the seder to promote its “One Happy Camper” program. The activity book includes games, Madlibs, and even Capture the Flag using the afikomen.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Passover” activity book for the seder

SKITS
Many families perform skits during their seder, which is a great way to observe the commandment that we should all act as though we were actually part of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Behrman House, a wonderful educational publishing house, has a couple scripts on their website. “Seder Time” is a skit by Stan Beiner, a well known Jewish educator who created Sedra Scenes. Meredith Shaw Patera’s “The Courage of Nachshon” is another good skit available on the Behrman House Passover activity website. Aish Hatorah lists ways for participants to act out the ten plagues on their website.

On Facebook and Twitter I asked people to share some of the innovative activities they have adopted at the seder to keep the children participating and the adults from dozing off. Here are some of my favorites:

Rabbi Michael S. Jay: We’ve had children prepare commercials for Matzah or other symbols of the Seder.

Rabbi David Locketz: I find out what songs all the kid who are coming have learned at school and then incorporate them into magid. Give out parts in advance and we act it out in song and brief dialogues.

David Kaufman: We had all the kids bring knapsacks filled with the items they would want to make sure they brought out of Egypt. Then, when we begin Maggid, we all get up from the table, they take their knapsacks, and we make an “exodus” into the living room. There, we start doing Maggid, and the kids also show us what they would bring and explain why.

Prof. Michael Satlow: I had the kids do a play of the Exodus from the Egyptian perspective. It really taught me something and opened discussion.

Jennifer Levin Teper: I make oragami frogs and use them as placecards. Then everyone, can “jump” them during the seder. Our favorite is trying to get it to land in your water glass.

Melanie Dunkelman Hartong: I found silly masks of the plagues at my local Kroger- kids thought it was hysterical!!

Lynn Davis: We throw plagues (tiny plastic animals, etc.) but I realize that a rowdy seder isn’t for everyone!

Rabbi Judah Isaacs: My sister buys a Pesach puzzle and gives out the pieces for answers to questions. She has the kids put the puzzle together during the Seder.

Shawn Broida: When our kids were little and we knew we couldn’t get 6 cousins under age 8 to sit through a seder, we decided to do a bedouin seder on the floor and let them roam! Aside from a few almost disasters with the seder plate getting kicked across the room, it was more relaxing for everyone and the kids had a ball!

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach… may your seders be educational, innovative, and memorable!

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

Blessing for Aunt on Auntie’s Day

This Sunday is Auntie’s Day. I only know this because I’ve become “Cyberspace Friends” with Melanie Notkin, the founder of SavvyAuntie.com. Melanie let me know that Auntie’s Day was approaching and asked if I’d contribute my third article for her blog. I decided that a blessing for aunts was in order…

I have wonderful memories of my bar mitzvah. I was a “day school kid,” so I had that going for me when it came to grasping the Hebrew verses I’d have to chant from the Torah. But on the negative side, I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it; and to make matters worse, I had that awkward “going through puberty” voice thing going on.

My bar mitzvah party was fun and everyone seemed to have a great time, but the memory that sticks with me almost 23 years later is the Shabbat dinner the night before for close family and friends that my aunt put together. My aunt and uncle had just moved into a beautiful new home, and the Friday night dinner for close friends and family would be their first opportunity (of hundreds) to play gracious hosts.

To this day, I remember that my aunt went above-and-beyond (and then even further beyond) to prepare a delicious dinner. Her house looked immaculate. Everyone enjoyed themselves.

For me, more important than the food or the centerpieces that made her newly decorated dining room look so fancy was that I felt so relaxed in her home. I won’t go on record on the Web by admitting that my uncle likely snuck me a drink, but I do remember feeling peaceful and unstressed that night. While many 13-year-old boys experience butterflies in the stomach on the night before their bar mitzvah, I have a vivid recollection of having felt ready for the next day and able to just enjoy the evening at my aunt and uncle’s home.

Many people had important roles to play with the success of my bar mitzvah. My parents planned a wonderful celebration that Saturday night. My grandparents hosted everyone for lunch back at their home following the synagogue services. The rabbis and cantor all were integral to my entry into Jewish adulthood. But to this day, I feel like my aunt was the unsung hero of that memorable weekend. Six years later my aunt reprised the role of Friday night dinner hostess before my brother’s bar mitzvah. Like me, he too felt relaxed the night before his big day.

At a bar or bat mitzvah there’s a special blessing said by the parents as they mark the transition of their child into a more responsible individual. Additionally, the parents and grandparents offer a blessing of gratitude for reaching such a milestone. I’d like to suggest a special blessing for the Savvy Auntie of the bar or bat mitzvah. The aunt who makes sure the bar mitzvah boy’s tie is straight before he stands before hundreds to read from the Torah. The aunt who makes sure her niece’s hair is just right before her party. A blessing for the aunt who is ready with a needle and thread to fix a rip in the suit pants. For the aunt who has a wet cloth to remove a stain. For the aunt who lovingly opens her home for a relaxing evening before the big event.

May God who blessed our ancestors bless my beloved aunt who is often the unsung hero. She is there to nurture and to love. Thank you, God, for the gift of aunts who, together with parents, grandparents, teachers and friends, play a significant role in my life and in my upbringing.
And let us say, Amen.

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

Savvy Auntie Blessings

There is something very special about an aunt and uncle’s relationship with their nieces and nephews. No one has demonstrated the importance of the relationship between an aunt and her nieces and nephews better than Melanie Notkin, who launched SavvyAuntie.com. Here is the second column I have published on the SavvyAuntie.com blog and it is in honor of my children’s Aunt Stephanie:

Blessing my children is something I do every Friday night before we begin our family Sabbath dinner. Last week, I had the opportunity – actually the honor – to bless my children’s Savvy Auntie. Officiating at the wedding of my sister-in-law Stephanie made me realize just how meaningful she is in the lives of my children. More important than being my wife’s sister or my sister-in-law is her role as “Auntie Steffi.”

The focus of any wedding is on the bride and groom (or on the two brides or the two grooms for that matter). But my children were made to feel so important and special during their aunt’s entire wedding weekend. She was constantly giving them little tasks to perform, having them believe that the success of the wedding depended on their help.

Photo: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot

For months leading up to the wedding, all my children talked about was Auntie Steffi’s wedding. They anticipated her big day as much as she did. Part of the excitement for them was venturing to a beautiful, tropical destination where they would play with their favorite aunt on the beach and in the pool before watching her get married and celebrating well past their bedtimes. They haven’t stopped talking about Auntie Steffi’s wedding weekend since returning home.

My children’s aunt is always showering them with gifts. As a librarian, she makes it a point to send books every few months that are carefully selected based on the interests of each child. The first thing she did when we arrived at the hotel at the beginning of her wedding weekend was present her nephews with embroidered groomsmen shirts and an adorable pink flower girl shirt for her niece.

When my daughter was a toddler, Auntie Steffi had her convinced that she was a princess. At school, she would tell her friends about her aunt who was a “real live princess.” Seeing Stephanie walk down the aisle in her beautiful wedding dress, perfectly applied makeup and fashionable hairstyle even had me convinced she was royalty on this special day.

As the rabbi standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with my children’s aunt and her groom, I had the pleasure of helping them sanctify their marriage. I offered my blessings that their now intertwined lives would be full of love and security, romance and peace. I have the good fortune to bless many happy couples during their wedding ceremony. The difference was that at this wedding I also blessed my children’s Savvy Auntie and gave thanks for everything she does for my children.

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

Gene Simmons in Israel

Here’s my recent article for JTA.org


The most well-circulated piece of trivia about Gene Simmons, former member of the band KISS, is that he was born in Haifa, Israel. For years Simmons’ birthplace and Israeli heritage were rumored to be true, but in the Digital Age it would be confirmed with Wikipedia and video interviews on YouTube.

Now there is no question that the aging rock star, who is starring in his own reality TV show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” traces his roots to Israel.

In back-to-back recent episodes, Simmons ventures back home to Haifa. With son Nick and soon-to-be wife Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy Playmate, along for the trip, Simmons takes an El Al jet to Tel Aviv en route to his birthplace, where he receives the City of Haifa’s Medal of Honor from the mayor.

Simmons had left Israel as an 8-year-old, moving to the United States with his mother, a survivor of Auschwitz.

In the episode appropriately titled “Blood is Thicker than Humus,” Simmons explains that he is reluctant to return to Israel, but his fiancee convinces him to go. When he arrives at his hotel, the cameras are in tow for his first experience speaking to Israelis.

Using a perfect Hebrew accent, Simmons checks into the hotel with the pseudonym Oy Vey. But it isn’t long until the memories of his childhood lead him to a very emotional moment when he proclaims, “Hashem sheli [my name is] Chaim Veitz,” using his birth name Weitz and expressing that he would be nothing without his birthplace.

Simmons and his entourage get a VIP tour of the important sites in Israel, including Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. He also visits Cafe Nitza, the bakery where his mother worked. Sitting down to enjoy a pastry, the aroma from the cafe revives memories for Simmons.

On a nostalgic tour of his childhood, Simmons visits Rambam Hospital, where he was born in 1949. He returns to his childhood house in Haifa and speaks in Hebrew with Chaya Cohen, his neighbor growing up.

The most poignant segment of the two episodes is the reunion dinner secretly convened by Tweed that allows Simmons to meet his Israeli family 50 years since he left the country. He meets his half-brother and three half-sisters for the first time. Together with his half-siblings — his father’s children from subsequent marriages — Simmons visits their father’s grave and says the Kaddish memorial prayer.

Say what you will about reality TV, the Gene Simmons nostalgia tour to Haifa is must-see television before the High Holidays. If watching a former rock star tour Israel as the distant memories come back in a cloud of nostalgia doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps the message of reconnecting with family will.

As Simmons puts his father’s yarmulke on his head, he suddenly realizes how important his roots are to him.

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

Dancing at Auschwitz

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Detroit, Michigan is the nation’s first Holocaust memorial. It was originally located in a building connected to the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. It was this Holocaust museum that I toured with my grandfather when I was twelve-years-old and listened to him explain that many of his family members — my relatives — perished in the Shoah.

Several years ago that Holocaust museum moved to a new location a few miles away in Farmington Hills. The space that was originally occupied by the Holocaust Center is now a teen center where Jewish youth come to watch movies, play video games, eat pizza, and compete in pool and ping-pong tournaments. It is also where hundreds of Jewish teenagers come to dance to loud music.

The symbolism is not lost on me. This space was originally dedicated as a museum to pay tribute to the victims of the Shoah and to memorialize the six million souls who perished. It was a solemn space to educate about the Holocaust so that history wouldn’t be repeated. But today, it is a space where Jewish young people (many the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) can celebrate that “Am Yisrael Chai” — the Jewish people have endured. Hitler and the Nazis were not successful because the Jewish people are alive today and our children sing and dance at the Jewish Community Center and in the location originally consecrated as a museum of memory.

It is in this spirit that I embraced the YouTube video of a Holocaust survivor dancing with his grandchildren to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” in front of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. The original video, which was viewed over 500,000 times in one day, has since been removed from YouTube for a copyright violation. However, it was likely removed due to the controversy it created. The reposted video is below.

Australian Jewish artist Jane Korman filmed her three children and her father, 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Adolk, in the video clip “I Will Survive: Dancing Auschwitz.” The clip depicted the Korman family dancing in front of Holocaust landmarks in Poland, including the infamous entrance sign to Auschwitz death camp reading “Arbeit Macht Frei,” a Polish synagogue, Dachau, Theresienstadt, and a memorial in Lodz.

Her father at one point in the clip even wore a shirt on which the word “Survivor” was written. During a recent family visit to Israel Korman said that she thought of the idea after she encountered hatred toward Israel and Jews in Australia and added that she wanted to give her concerns presence during the heritage tour of Poland she recently took with her family, and take a different approach to the matter.

Haaretz newspaper reported that “Many Jewish survivors have reacted gravely to the video, accusing her of disrespect. Yet Korman told Australian daily The Jewish News that ‘it might be disrespectful, but he [her father] is saying ‘we’re dancing, we should be dancing, we’re celebrating our survival and the generations after me,’ – the generation he’s created. We are affirming our existence.'”

This is clearly a work of art, but it is also a powerful message that no matter how horrific and catastrophic were the acts committed by the Nazis in the last century, the Jewish people are still having children and grandchildren, and we are dancing together in joy all over the earth. Even on the land that buried millions of members of the Jewish faith, the Jewish people are still rejoicing with our future generations.

What do you think about Holocaust survivors dancing with their grandchildren at Auschwitz?

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