Shaquille O’Neal Says Shabbat Shalom & Other Hebrew Phrases

A few years ago I saw one of those quick “catch a celebrity getting into his car” video clips on TMZ.com in which NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal walked out of a restaurant and wished all his Jewish friends a L’shanah Tovah. It was right before Rosh Hashanah and it was circulated pretty quickly around the Web.

I had forgotten about that video when I asked Shaq to say “Shabbat Shalom” into my cellphone yesterday. My friend and fellow native Detroiter Lisa Lis got me hooked on video recording celebs saying those two Hebrew words a couple years ago and I’ve already collected several which I uploaded to my YouTube.com channel.

Shaquille O'Neal with Rabbi Jason - Shaq Speaks Hebrew

Yesterday at CES in Las Vegas I heard a wonderful interview with Russell Simmons, the Hip Hop pioneer and entrepreneur. After the interview he graciously offered a “Shabbat Shalom”. After meeting Russell, who is the president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding along with Rabbi Marc Schneier who serves as chairman, I had the opportunity to meet Curtis Jackson, better known as 50 Cent. Something told me that he wouldn’t be so into saying Shabbat Shalom, but Shaq was more than willing. In fact, he took the time to ask me what “Shabbat Shalom” means and when it’s appropriate to say it. He even surprised me with some other Hebrew phrases (“Baruch Hashem” and “L’shanah Tovah”). Shaq and I shmoozed for a while inside the Monster booth at CES. When he saw the large American Express bag I was carrying with me, he asked where I got it because he needed a large bag to carry his gifts from Monster. I gave him the bag and in return he presented with me a nice pair of Monster DNA Pro headphones. A great deal!

I suppose had I gotten 50 Cent to say “Shabbat Shalom” on video it would have been the triple trifecta of Shabbat Shalom greetings in one day from three uber-successful entrepreneurs in the African American community. All three gentlemen struck me as very impressive, nice guys who are each doing great things to promote technology and entertainment in the 21st century.

The Shabbat Shalom videos of Shaq and Russell Simmons are below:

The Jewish Flavor of Maurice Sendak

Originally published on JTA.org

A few months after my first child was born, I went to a bookstore to buy a few books that I thought needed to be on the bookshelf of my new baby’s nursery. Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was one of those books.

A childhood favorite of mine, I knew the day would come when I would read it to my son as part of our bedtime ritual. I immediately recalled that bookstore visit when I heard the news that Sendak had died Tuesday from complications of a stroke. He was 83.

Much has been written about Sendak’s imagination and his uncanny ability to create characters to whom children can relate. Many of the characters in his books were developed based on the Torah stories that his father told him as a child. Sendak has said that he embellished those stories to make them more interesting for children.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw the Jewish flavor that peppers Sendak’s works.

The characters in his most well-known children’s story are based on his old Jewish relatives. In some of his stories, Yiddish words are interspersed with his poetic English.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is even based on the Yiddish vilde chaya (wild beast), which Jewish parents for generations have used to describe rambunctious children.

Some of Sendak’s stories, including “In the Night Kitchen,” speak to his own fears of the Holocaust. His immigrant parents lost most of their family members in the Holocaust and reminded him that he would have had many more cousins were it not for the Nazis.

Having learned that Sendak was influenced by his father’s nightly bedtime stories drawn from the Torah, I have found real value and meaning in reading Sendak’s books to my own children at bedtime. His children’s stories are my kids’ most requested bedtime books.

Over the years, I’ve read “Where the Wild Things Are” to my children many times. In fact, I recently read it to them in Hebrew.

Just a week ago, my daughter brought home a Hebrew version of Sendak’s masterpiece. His brilliance comes through no matter the language.

Turning the pages of the Hebrew translation, I began to laugh as I recalled the author’s uproarious appearance on “The Colbert Report” earlier this year.

Even at 83, Sendak was still entertaining both children and their parents.

His memorable illustrations and ability to turn scary monsters into lovable friends will live on into future generations, and I look forward to the day when my own children will read the stories of Sendak’s wonderful imagination to my grandchildren.

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

The Hanukkah Spelling Confusion

I was excited when I saw that J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, wrote an article referencing my recent “Jewish Techs” blog post about the Hanukkah (חנוכה) spelling confusion on The Jewish Week‘s website (“How Do You Spell Hanukkah?”). And then I started reading the first paragraph of Goldberg’s piece. Say what?

Goldberg asserts that I start off with “an incorrect premise” and then look for an answer “in the wrong place” as I lead my readers on “a bit of a goose chase.” Fortunately, he concludes his opening paragraph by maintaining that I eventually get to the right place. So, I wondered… What was Goldberg’s beef with my blog post?

At the end of Goldberg’s treatment of how Hanukkah got to be spelled with so many variations, my head was spinning faster than a battery-operated dreidel. Goldberg didn’t like that I began by asserting that there are different acceptable spellings of Hanukkah, but then demonstrated through the rules of Hebrew-to-English transliteration that there are, in fact, more than one possible spelling. He then gave a terse lesson in Hebrew grammar followed by a lesson in Arabic grammar (why he prefers a K or Q for the former Libyan leader’s name over a G).

Goldberg also took exception with the fact that I showed which transliteration spellings of Hanukkah were most popular through Google search results. What Goldberg might not have understood is that most people who are confused about which spelling of Hanukkah to use aren’t concerned with learning about Hebrew consonant letters that take a dagesh. They don’t want a lesson in Arabic gutturals either. They just want to know which is the most common spelling. And for that, Google is very helpful. So, I don’t think I was doing a disservice to the many people wanting to know which English spelling of December’s Jewish holiday is the most prevalent. Wikipedia chooses the Hanukkah spelling as well. Other encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Judaica have its own rules for transliteration.

No matter which spelling of Hanukkah you choose to use, the holiday’s over. At least until next December… when this conversation begins anew.

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

Obama’s Bar Mitzvah Speech

President Barack Obama gave what even he described as a “Bar Mitzvah speech” at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial on Friday afternoon. Love him or hate him, the President gave an impressive speech that earned him no less than 70 rounds of applause.

In the speech, he not only defended his administration’s record on Israel, but claimed that, “no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”

Telling the audience that his daughter Malia has been on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit, he took his daughter’s advice and gave a D’var Torah about this week’s Torah portion. Obama’s message focused on the Hebrew word “Hineini” (I Am Here) saying that like Joseph from the Torah, he is here and ready to take on challenges even if he can’t predict them all. He also dropped some other Hebrew words, but didn’t pronounce all of them well. He struggled to pronounce the term “Tikkun Olam” but fared better with other words and received a rousing ovation when he wished the audience a “Shabbat Shalom.”

Obama’s “Shabbat Shalom” came with the acknowledgement that he knew it was still a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath. He said, “Even though it is a few hours early, I’d like to wish all of you Shabbat shalom.” His former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (or any other Jewish adviser for that matter) could have informed him that we Jews start wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom” as much as 24 hours prior to the actual Shabbat. My sense is that Obama knows this and his statement was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the criticism he received for hosting the White House Hanukkah party two weeks before the actual holiday.

Who knows if “Hineini” will replace “Hope” as Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, but here are some Obama Hineini t-shirts and products just in case (available online).

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

Farmar in Israel, LeBron and Kobe at the JCC, and Hebrew with Amare Stoudem

NBA basketball players got a much longer summer vacation than they expected because of the lockout. It feels odd to have gone through the entire month of November without any professional basketball games to watch.

So what have these NBA stars been doing with their newly found free time? NBA player Jordan Farmar has been playing in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and step-father is a Jewish Israeli, has spent the NBA lockout playing in front of sellout crowds at Yad Eliyahu Arena. He is the first Jewish player in the NBA since Danny Schayes, son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes, retired in 1999.

A number of other NBA stars have been hooping it up at local Jewish Community Centers. TMZ.com reported that LeBron James was a last minute fill-in for a team at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The second he stepped on the court LeBron “instantly became the best player to ever compete in the Herbert S. Diamond league.” Apparently, the former Cleveland Cavaliers player got a call from some of his friends who had a 7:30 PM game at the JCC and King James was happy to oblige. He led his squad to a ten point victory.

The NBA Lockout led superstars like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James
to play at their local Jewish Community Center (JCC)

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “Just got done hooping in the JCC league. So funny but good run @RichPaul4 had a few 3’s #basketballneverstops.” Here’s a video clip of LeBron playing at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland:


While LeBron was playing in the gym of the Cleveland JCC, his nemesis Kobe Bryant was having a private training session at a Jewish Community Center in Irvine, California. Once again it was TMZ.com that broke the story (that means some 12-year-old kid at the JCC called it in). JTA reports, “the Los Angeles Lakers’ star guard, according to the TMZ website, brought a trainer to the Southern California JCC to work on shooting drills and cardio training as spectators watched.

Here’s the video of Kobe Bryant at the JCC in Irvine:

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And if Kobe and LeBron are becoming regulars at the JCC that means that the New York Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire has to do something even more Jewish than that after discovering there was Jewish heritage on his mother’s side last year. Don’t worry, the 6-foot-10 superstar who visited Israel for the first time last year now says he’s interested in opening a Hebrew school, according to the New York Daily News. “An unnamed source told the newspaper that Stoudemire has discussed opening a school that would focus on teaching the Hebrew language and Jewish history, though no school is actually in the works.”

But who will teach at the Hebrew School Amar’e Stoudemire opens? He will of course. Here’s Stoudemire’s first Hebrew lesson:

Well, that was Tov Meod!

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

Rahm Emanuel Just Says "Lo"

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be stumping for his old boss, President Obama, in Iowa this weekend. In an interview with NBC’s Harry Smith, Rahm Emanuel explicitly said he will never run for president and even went so far as to state it in Hebrew.

“No, not,” he told NBC’s Harry Smith. “I’ll say it Hebrew: ‘Lo.’”

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

Yiddish Everywhere and Late Night TV Goes For the Jewish Triple Play

I’ve always maintained that if an alien from Outer Space arrived in the United States and spent just a short period of time here, he would conclude that Jews make up much more than the measly 2% of the population that we actually do. Jewish people are influential in many areas of society and somehow Jewish themes and words seem to always creep into pop culture.

Take the Yiddish language for instance, which has long been considered the dying language of the Jewish people. Many Yiddish words have crept into popular parlance as I blogged about this summer when presidential candidate Michele Bachmann mispronounced the word chutzpah. Just a few weeks ago another candidate for president, Mitt Romney, attempted to say the same Yiddish word in a televised debate. “I like your chutzpah on this, Herman,” Romney said to Herman Cain. Romney’s pronunciation was much better than Bachmann’s, though he still wasn’t able to get that throat-clearing hard “ch” sound.

And it’s not only Mormon politicians who are casually tossing out Yiddish words and expressions. I’ve begun to notice more Yiddish words being used by non-Jews recently. Last month I was playing a round of golf with an Indian businessman. On this rainy afternoon, he drove the ball into a patch of wet mud. When we arrived at his ball I heard him express his dissatisfaction as he exclaimed that his ball landed in the schmutz. I guess he plays golf with a lot of Jews.

And then earlier this week Canon Kevin George a pastor friend of mine from Windsor, Ontario emailed to ask if I could speak at his church on the Sunday following Thanksgiving in an interfaith service. I responded to his email explaining that I had already committed to officiating at a wedding that afternoon, to which he replied simply: “Oy vey!”

My new Greek friend Nick Raftis, the owner of The Inn Season Cafe (a delicious vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan certified by Kosher Michigan), is always asking me if I want to come in to his restaurant to have a nosh.

These Yiddish phrases have even found their way into social media. I received an email from the social media analytics website Klout informing me I had a new notification. When I logged into my Klout account, there was a message that said, “Mazel tov! You received 1 +K for doing something awesome.” Amazing.

And then of course there’s late night TV. Saturday Night Live is singularly responsible for bringing such Yiddish words as “verklempt” and “shpilkis” into the mainstream through Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman”. Last night, I noticed what I would call the Late Night Triple Play when it comes to Jewish references.

First, at the end of The Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart gave a very heartfelt tribute to the late Gil Cates, producer of the Academy Awards. Introducing the “Moment of Zen” dedicated to Gil Cates’ memory, Jon said that the man who produced the two Oscar shows that he hosted was “in layman terms, a mensch.” The next Jewish reference came on Tosh.0 when Daniel Tosh (who is not Jewish) encouraged his viewers to come to his stand-up tour taking place over the holidays and then said, “I mean the Jewish holidays”. The third Jewish reference came from the Irish Conan O’Brien who is hosting his late night show from New York City this week. Joking that he couldn’t see the small signs held by audience members in the back of the theater, Conan asked how he was supposed to be able to read these small signs that look like they’re written in Hebrew.

With all of these references to Jewish themes, from the political arena to late night television and in regular everyday conversation, it really is amazing that we Jews are such a minority in America. In fact, even that topic made it into The Daily Show episode last night. John Hodgman told Jon Stewart how surprised he was that Jews only made up 2-3% of the population because “You (Jews) seem to be everywhere!”

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

Midrash, Manicures and Middle School Girls

I love reading about the creative ways in which my colleagues are bringing people closer to Torah. Over the weekend I read about one young colleague (a Conservative rabbi) who is using manicures to teach midrash in a Jewish day school. Yes, manicures!

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The NY Times reports that Rabbi Yael Buechler of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester, New York teaches her middle school students how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portions. 

It’s the Midrash Manicures club at Schechter, a Jewish day school here, where the weekly club offerings include math club, glee club, sports writing club and this one, in which Rabbi Yael Buechler teaches girls in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades how to do their nails with designs inspired by the weekly Torah portion. (The term “midrash” refers to the deep textual interpretation of the Bible, with every word examined for meaning.)

If the mix of acetone fumes and Torah study strikes you as unusual, you’re not alone. When Yarden Wiesenfeld, 13, first heard about the club, she wondered whether there was another meaning for “manicure,” one that did not involve the coloring of fingernails.

But Rabbi Buechler has been at it since college, when she seized upon the manicures “as a way for me to personally explore my own Jewish learning.”

“Re-envisioning education is what this is all about,” said Rabbi Buechler, 25, who was ordained in May by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and is the middle school student life coordinator at Schechter. “If I said come to a Midrash course, I’d have five or six students. But Midrash Manicures? Twenty plus.”

It seems to me that this is a wonderful example of how a rabbi who is a woman is embracing her femininity and using it to achieve the goal that all rabbis are striving for — teaching Torah. Rabbi Buechler, who’s father Rabbi Howard was ordained from JTS in 1985, is not trying to be like her male rabbinic predecessors. Rather, she is doing something that those male rabbinic predecessors could never have done. She brilliantly connects with these middle school girls in a Jewish Day School environment and makes Torah learning fun.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna, who taught Rabbi Buechler as an undergrad at Brandeis University, told the NY Times that “her Torah-inspired manicures were both innovative and in keeping with the Jewish precept ‘that we worship God with all of our bones and our muscles and, by extension, with our fingernails.'” I especially liked the quote from Rabbi Buechler’s boss, the school’s principal Nellie Harris (wife of my beloved Torah teacher Rabbi Robbie Harris), who described the manicures as “a modern tzitzit.”

Incidentally, this is now the second time this year that I’ve blogged about Rabbi Buechler, although the last time (March 2011) she was still a couple months shy of gaining the title. On this blog I referenced a very funny video Yael Buechler made for Purim at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York starring the Seminary’s Chancellor Arnie Eisen as Sesame Street’s “Ernie” and Professor Burt Visotzsky as “Bert”.

I certainly hope that her manicure curriculum takes off and that other Jewish Day Schools (including the one my own children attend) begin offering this club to their female students. Perhaps some day my own daughter will get a Torah-inspired manicure from Rabbi Buechler. I’m already very proud of my beautiful daughter who turns 6-years-old later this month and can already (pretend) to read from the Torah. Here’s the video:

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

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

Devarim – The Importance of Hebrew

Hebrew, Hebrew, I Speak Hebrew

As a child, one of my favorite songs was a silly song that taught new Hebrew words using English puns (“Etz a nice tree! How do you say ‘tree’ in Hebrew? Etz!). The refrain is “Ivrit, Ivrit, Ivrit Daber Ivrit” (Hebrew, Hebrew, Speak Hebrew). This song was a staple at Family Camp during my youth and now my own children love to sing it too. I’ve taught this song on the bus during trips I’ve led through Israel because it’s a simple way for participants to return home having learned a few dozen Hebrew words. After all, one can’t travel to Israel without learning some Hebrew – the indispensible language of the Jewish people.

There are many Jews who are not comfortable with the Hebrew language. In this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, we read “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching.” What does this mean? The commentator S’fat Emet wrote, “Moses interpreted the Torah in many languages, so that future generations of Jews in many lands would have access to the Torah in a language and in terms that they could understand.”

I want every Jew to be able to understand the Torah. Likewise, I want every Jew to understand what they are saying during their prayers. I want the vast library of rabbinic legend and lore, the midrash, and the great legal works of the Jewish people to be accessible to the entire global Jewish community. It is for that reason that I embrace the translations of the Torah and the Talmud, the prayer book and Hebrew literature, into so many languages. If an English translation means that one more Jew embraces the beauty and wonder of our sacred liturgy who otherwise would not have been able to because the Hebrew was a barrier, then it is a worthwhile tool.

However, I also believe that Hebrew is the indispensable language of the Jewish people and every Jew should make an effort to learn Hebrew, which is known as l’shon ha-kodesh “the holy language.” Resources exist in our community to learn Hebrew from the most basic level. While it is possible to study the Torah in English, it is no replacement for understanding our sacred Tradition in its original Hebrew.

In The Sacred Cluster, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch writes, “Hebrew is coterminous with that of the Jewish people and the many layers of the language mirror the cultures in which Jews perpetuated Judaism. It was never merely a vehicle of communication, but part of the fabric and texture of Judaism. Words vibrate with religious meaning, moral values, and literary associations. Torah and Hebrew are inseparable and Jewish education was always predicated on mastering Hebrew. Hebrew literacy is the key to Judaism, to joining the unending dialectic between sacred texts, between Jews of different ages, between God and Israel. To know Judaism only in translation is, to quote Bialik, akin to kissing the bride through the veil.”

There is nothing like being able to go to Israel and get directions in Hebrew or order a meal in Hebrew. Yehudah Amichai’s poetry in English is still marvelous, but it is not the language in which the poet expresses himself best. Studying Torah in the language in which it was originally written is a feeling that every Jew should experience.

God hears our prayers in any language. However, there is something beautiful about the Hebrew language. Something about it that connects us together as a people. As the Jewish new year is approaching, it is a great time to resolve to learn Hebrew or advance your Hebrew literacy. The Torah will come alive like never before.

Shabbat Shalom!

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