A Very Kosher Christmas Poem

Jews on Christmas

There isn’t enough soy sauce in the world to feed
Jews on Christmas
Huddled around steaming plates of dumplings
Discussing cinematography
Who has lived and who has died
Shocked to hear that the hot new Hollywood star is actually half-Jewish
(and not arguing which half)
I don’t see what all the fuss is about Nathan Englander.
Yes, it’s like The Wire, but different,
Costco is a mixed blessing,
Do you trust Yelp?
On our smartphones we subtract the Chinese year from the Jewish year to see how long the Jews had to wait to try egg drop soup. 

The laughter of Jews on Christmas
shakes the jade Buddha under the faux waterfall from his 
sleepy serenity
And for a moment, the enlightened one opens his eyes,
smiling contently as he joins us to look at pictures of relatives at Harry Potter world.
Now he's Jewish too. 
The Moo Shu comes with little tortillas, pancakes, wraps, 
whatever you want to call them.
And we wrap up the mush of last year, with all of it’s regrets and tzuris,
And immerse into soy sauce,
a ritual bath,
three times dipped,
and we say – this is not bad.
Our highest compliment.

- Daniel S. Brenner 


A Minor Holiday: Hannukah Take Two!

I sat down and recorded this tune again with a better video resolution this time so it ain't so fuzzy! (unlike my beard right now.) Enjoy!


Hannukah: A Minor Holiday

I wrote this song way back in 2009....which seems ages ago. I think there were still Macabees alive back then. I recorded it once at a house party (thank you Rafi and Jared and Noam for joining me on that version) but returning to the lyrics I felt that a jazzier setting would be more suitable. So...here goes my Hannukah song. Enjoy, and please share with your friends - who knows, maybe a lo-fi tune that doesn't copy the latest catchy dance song can actually spread a little holiday cheer this year?


Thoughts on Gaza

Thinking aloud: I am blessed with friends on the Right and on the Left. Nearly everything I see posted on Facebook tonight about the current IDF vs. Hamas situation is either saying a) "look at all the suffering that these murderers are causing" or b) "let's just have peace/love each other" (and though I have an open and feeling heart and have learned to breath in and out slowly I am still 
not sure what that really means when people are in fear of their lives because all around them they hear explosions) or c) "this is all part of some geo-political military master plan." Here is my "d" -

This is a unique situation with complex histories on both sides and both societies are lead by political leaders who have their own ideas about how to handle the situation (often separate from the people that they represent) and those ideas are a combination of their love for their people, their read of the external and internal forces impacting national security, and their own desire to stay in power. This is a war between two men and two very different types of armies and they both have major outside supporters who may or may not get involved. And those major outside supporters have the capability to destroy the entire region.

On a personal level, I care deeply about my friends and family in Israel and I salute those who have the difficult job of protecting the State. I hope that their surveillance will lead them to weapons caches and that taking out hundreds of buildings and vehicles will be a major setback for the Hamas rocket program. I cried while reading a report from an Israeli radiologist who looked at scans of shrapnel in children's bodies and I mourn for the three innocent Israelis whose lives have been violently taken away by the hands of those bent on revenge or rage and I wish for healing for all those who have been injured. And, at the same time, with the same heart and head, I grieve for those Gazans and residents of Gaza who have been caught in the crossfire. While I am not an endless font of compassion and I do not grieve for those who shoot rockets at civilian targets, the photos I saw and the tweets I read this evening from Gaza have reminded me of the unintended results of an urban operation with hundreds of targets.

Surfing the web conversation, I also stumble into a world of anger. At times I want to scream out:

Those who accuse Israel of genocide - your hyperbolic attitude is one of the factors that is escalating the conflict!

Those who deny the suffering of Gazans - your hard-heartedness and snide attitude are soul-crushing!

But I have little energy for screaming at people whose voices are already speaking through bullhorns.

So I return to the simple belief that we can all play a helpful role in this conflict by being honest about the complexities of the situation, having an open heart towards the panic and suffering on both sides of the border (and around the world for that matter), and by advocating for a long-term vision for the region which envisions safe borders, mutual recognition, and government cooperation. Such a vision is, on a day like today, hard to imagine. But sometimes sworn enemies learn to get along.

As a Jew, I want people to know that my people are going through a really difficult time and that we are all reading news from friends and family in Israel and that the fear of escalation from other powers in the region is very real.

As a human, I want people to know that I am willing to hear all perspectives, and to work for a world where there are fewer injustices and where different peoples can co-exist and live freely.

Tonight my prayer is for a boring and pragmatic end to the conflict.


Who has the right to pray at the Western Wall?

I have a new piece published in the Huffington Post today about the recent arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall. The piece can be accessed here. 

Who Has the Right to Pray at the Western Wall?

Posted: 10/23/2012 5:50 pm

After I posted an article on Facebook about Anat Hoffman, the Israeli woman arrested last week for praying in a tallit at the Western Wall, a friend and colleague, who happens to be an Orthodox rabbi, messaged me on Google chat to ask why I was bothered by the incident. He argued that she knew that she was violating a court order and she nonetheless decided to barge into an "Orthodox synagogue." His core question to me was this: If someone trespassed into a liberal synagogue and did something labeled by the people there as offensive, wouldn't you want to have the trespasser arrested?
Hearing his perspective raised new questions. Why should Jews like me, who are not actively seeking to rebuild the Third Temple, care so much about the Wall? Why not just recognize the Wall as an Orthodox synagogue? To whom does the Wall belong?
Before Jews were expelled from the Old City in 1948, the Western Wall was a sacred site of Jewish pilgrimage. In defiance of a British ban on public prayer at the site, Jews blasted the shofar at the foot of the wall. When Israeli forces entered the Old City during the 1967 war, the Wall became a potent symbol of return and reconnection to this shrine for Israelis and for Jews worldwide. My parents stood in at the Wall in '67, something that they never imagined that they would be able to do. As a teenager, I stood at the Wall and prayed for the Jewish people with a purity and conviction that I will hold with me for the rest of my life.
In recent decades, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (particularly young people on Taglit-Birthright Israel) have made their first visits. At the same time, the various ramps and security barriers have been added, the area in the men's section expanded and the women's section shrunk, yeshivot have placed large signs on the back of the plaza, and the Wall's state-appointed guardian, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, has taken an oppositional stance to women's prayer groups that wish to read Torah or wear tallitat the Wall. Tensions have mounted in Jerusalem, and the current lines are drawn between a growing and relatively impoverished Haredi community and a largely Anglo and comfortable liberal community. Both see the Wall as a sacred pilgrimage and prayer site.
One of the chief differences between these communities is the way that they view gender in Israeli society. The following headlines illustrate the growing culture clash: 
  • Women are told to ride in the back of the bus on select routes
  • Ultra-Orthodox men spit on Modern Orthodox girls in Bet Shemesh
  • Female soldier is called a prostitute when she refuses to move to the back of a public bus
  • Hilary Clinton's face is erased from a group photo of world leaders in the newspaper

Haredi leaders might point out another set of headlines: 
  • Government support for large families has been reduced
  • Funds for haredi schools have been blocked due to policy disputes
  • Growing pressure on ultra-Orthodox men to serve alongside secular Israelis in the nation's military

The arrest last week at the Wall cannot be properly understood outside of the context of this culture clash. Modern Jerusalem, built by the late Mayor Teddy Kollek into a vibrant and multicultural city, has become more deeply divided as the Haredi population has grown to more than 20 percent of the city.
So, should those of us who hope for a Jewish state that allows for a diversity of Jewish religious practices give up on the idea of creating a shared space at the Western Wall? If so, are we willing to see the day when all public spaces with rich Jewish history where people gather to pray, Masada, for example, are classified as "Orthodox synagogues"?
Two years ago, Dan Meridor, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, the man who signed the original law banning religious observances that are not "in accordance" with the current rabbinic authorities, called for the Wall to be recognized as a national Jewish shrine instead of a synagogue. Establishing the site as a shrine would require a government effort to bring together representatives of the various Jewish streams in Israel and to create new guidelines regarding the use of the plaza and clear directives to enforce these new policies. These policies would protect the rights of those Orthodox who wish to pray at the Wall in the current fashion and ensure that other Jewish groups, both Modern Orthodox and Liberal, have the ability to pray in their custom. With such an effort, women would be able to read Torah and to wear tallit and to raise their voices in prayer without fear.
Can a society respect various religious minorities and uphold religious freedom in such a large public space? My answer to the questions posed by my Orthodox colleague is that the Wall is big enough for both those who desire distinct gendered roles in prayer and those who are more egalitarian. The responsibility of the State of Israel at this hour is to preserve religious freedom for both the segment of the Orthodox world that desires to worship at the Western Wall in the current fashion and for the millions of other Jews -- Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and "just Jewish" -- who seek to approach the Wall in prayer.
May the outcry over the arrest of Anat Hoffman help awaken Israel's political and religious leaders to the need for a new vision of freedom and coexistence within Jerusalem's walls.


The Cry: A Poem for Rosh Hashanah

The Cry

“Heed the cry of the shofar!”
the crowd reads in unison,
the hum of the air conditioning system,
the monotone reserved for special occasions,
the hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses perched on the end of noses,
the heavy prayer-books held at a slight angle.

And when we turn the page, not so much in unison, and the cantor lifts the long, curly, brightly polished ram’s horn bought on a last trip to Jerusalem,

We wait for it.

A-roooooooooooo. A-roooo. A-rooooo.
And I say to myself:
Would you call this a cry?

It sounds like something you might hear at a truck stop.
A low bellow, a trombone-like elongated honk.

A-roooo. A-rooooo. A-roooo.


I don’t know about you, but I came for the sound of heartbreak and disappointment.   
I came for squawky squeals, exasperated red-faces, eeked out chirps of grief and failure, sorrow and mourning, regret and remorse.

I came for frailty.

I will not heed the cry of a Cadillac of a shofar played by someone with a Master’s degree in sacred music!  

Give me an illiterate shepherd boy with a pure heart who stumbles over the alef-bet!
A childless woman so distraught and desperate in her plea that they mistake her for a drunkard!
A mother who can’t bare the pain of watching her baby die of thirst!
An aging prophet who drinks in the suffering of the exiles and dreams of redemption!

I channel the inner shofar,
the breath that wheezes through me,
the held-back sighs,
the self-storage container of loss,
the backed-up memory banks of hurt,
my first cry and my last
and every one in between.

-      -  Daniel S. Brenner, 5773 


Another Corny Rabbi

We Call it Maize

At the beginning of the summer, when I finished putting in a raised bed garden, I decided to use some of the rugged property by the house to put in a pumpkin patch and a row of corn. Rains came and the garden grew. The pumpkin plant now covers three zip codes. And the corn is close to six feet tall.

In August, I went down to Florida to celebrate my grandmother's 100th birthday. At the party, my cousin Nissen had prepared a slideshow of her life and in it I saw a great old black and white photo of my grandfather Jesse standing in front of his crop of corn stalks. Do I have karma working on me or what? I never knew that he had grown corn, but there he was, proudly in front of his small crop. So I guess that I'm following in my grandfather's footsteps. I'll check in at harvest time and let the blogosphere know if it's for eating or popping. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: The ears were small, but we boiled one up and it was quite tasty. Then we dried some out and made a "corn snack" with our air popping popcorn device. Now the stalks will go atop the sukkah.


Top Ten Jewish Folktales: The Rabbi From Pinsk

Note: This is an adaptation of a classic tale that I wrote for a friend's son's bar mitzvah...it is one of my favorite tales. 

The Rabbi of Pinsk and the Wise Wagon Driver

The Rabbi of Pinsk was a man of moderate wealth, so he had enough money to hire a servant to drive his horse and buggy to Pichniev. The servant was a very poor man, who dressed only in rags, his feet wrapped with burlap because he had traded his shoes for food during a moment of destitution. The servant was hungry, and the rabbi noticed that he had nothing to eat for the long journey. Most wagon drivers would sing or hum a tune to pass the time, but this wagon driver was quiet, a sad look on his face.

When they pulled over to give the old horse a rest, the rabbi shared his bread and jam with the servant. The servant began to weep. “Thank you for your kindness,” the servant said, “It has been so long since I have been treated with dignity.”

The rabbi thought for a moment and then said: “I have an idea!”

The rabbi took off his fine coat and hat and gave it to the servant. Then he took off his shoes and gave them to the servant. When the servant removed his rags, the rabbi donned the rags, even wrapping his feet. “Let’s switch places” said the rabbi.

The rabbi of Pinsk drove the wagon into Pichniev. When he got to Pichniev he announced that the great rabbi of Pinsk had arrived to provide counsel to the Jewish community.

The townspeople greeted the servant, who they all thought was the rabbi, with a feast. The servant had soup, fish, and even chicken, something he hadn’t eaten for years.  He even had a nice piece of rugelach.

Then the townspeople began to tell the servant about a very difficult dispute in the town. One man began to argue that he was right because of a particular Talmudic passage, the other man said that he was right because of a passage in another section of the Talmud – it was a bitter argument and it divided the entire town.

The servant stroked his chin and closed his eyes. Then he said:

“My friends, the questions that you ask, they have been asked before in other towns. You may think that they are complicated, but actually they are very easily understood. In fact, I believe that even a lowly wagon driver could answer these questions for you!”

At that point, the rabbi, disguised as the wagon driver, walked in and began to answer the questions of the townspeople. They liked the answers so much that they invited him to join in the feast. 

In the morning, the servant and the rabbi left Pichneiv and switched clothing. But now, the servant began to sing as he drove the wagon.


A Poem for Yom HaShoah

For Helen

The child of survivors spoke of the softness
Breaking forth from the bark,
Pushing its way from the cold comatose tree,
How it sprung,
green, then white,
climaxing in stunning pinks and purples.

As we carpooled to work she pointed
to the trees that lined the road,
“this is my floral escape tunnel,”
she said, as she put her foot on the gas.

Momma's Groove

I met Juan Miguel Avila in 1987 because he had a T- shirt that said “I learned how to play guitar in just five minutes!” We were college students looking for extra beer money so we started playing on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin for loose change. I’d sing about my love of various Wisconsin cheeses and he’d play flamenco style behind me and we’d rake in twenty bucks in quarters and dimes. We loved playing the streets and the occasional open mike night, but in 1990, we decided it was time to start a real band.

We teamed up with Chad Grochowski (bass) who had an attic we could practice in and a 4-track. We roped in Steve Wilks (guitar) and Dennis Golden (drums), began writing songs, and did the house party circuit under the name Mamma’s Groove.  Donovan Hart (sax) joined in for some of our shows. We played our own tunes, all of which were in the funk/rock genre and a few covers, like The Jeffersons TV show theme song, a Robert Johnson tune, and Hendrix’s “Fire.” Eventually we landed gigs at Club deWash, The Willy Bear, and other local bars. I guess that our height was in 1991 when we performed at the Mifflin Street Block Party.  Juan and I even did a dance routine.

We once sent a tape to a contest that was promoting safe sex. Our song “Put it On When You Get It On, Don’t Do a Thing Without a Thing on Your Thing” had the lyric: “If you’re with you lover getting ready to squirm, don’t forget to roll a rubber down your worm.” Real classy stuff.

I was taking a course in video production, so I did this mockumentary of sorts about Mamma’s Groove. (Let’s just say that I was a wee bit influenced by having seen Spinal Tap like fifty times.) This was back when you had these massive machines that could lift something from one VHS tape and layer it onto another one. All I remember is that it had something to do with magnets and it took hours just to get a few seconds spliced. Looking back, I am wondering why on God’s green earth I chose to perform wearing goggles and a long Hawaiian robe I borrowed from Chad's BMW motorcycle obsessed roommate called a “muumuu.” I am not proud of the costume choice…but hey, it was 1991. (Although I am not sure how saying it was 1991 explains anything.) In the movie you’ll see a brief cameo of the street musician Art Paul Schlosser, a Madison legend, singing “I See a Watch.” People around Madison say that he dropped too much acid in the 60s. He was on America’s Got Talent as a novelty act in 2010 as “Buddy Holly Cheesehead.”

I still have some of the tapes we made on Chad’s 4-track –working on digitizing them now. Getting ready for the 25th reunion I guess.  


Calling all Massachusetts Rabbis!

Hello, rabbis of the commonwealth. If you are one of the fine rabbis of the State of Massachusetts then I hope that you will join me next week in Newton! Here are the details. 


Drake is Jewish

The fact that Drake is Jewish is only part of the reason that he released what has now been dubbed a controversial "re-bar mitzvah" video. Or at least that is what I argue in my latest scribble for Huffington Post. The commentary was also featured in Vibe Magazine....that's right, ye olde reb blog is redefining hip hop!

Here's the video for those that missed it...


Deep Dish Jewish Learning

This week I was in Chicago (O.K. truth be told, Suburban Chicago) at the iCenter www.icenter.org to visit their "ideas incubator." This is a forum where educators from every sector - camp, day school, Federation, JCC sports, synagogue life - learn from one another and from outside folks who focus on a particular issue in education. Great idea and great execution - and their well-designed website is worth a visit.


Best Kosher for Passover Wines: The Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague enlists Reb Blog!

I had the wonderful pleasure of joining Lettie Teague, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal's On Wine, for a pre- Passover tasting. Here's an except from the piece and a link to the article: 

The 2010 Domaine Netofa ($20) from Galilee, a Rhône-style blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, had lots of lush dark-berry fruit and spicy aromatic notes. Rabbi Brenner took note of the rabbinical seal on the back label. The wine had been approved by the Jerusalem High Council, he announced. "I recommend this wine for all sects of Jews," pronounced Rabbi Brenner.
Of the two Binyamina wines, we actually preferred the mevushal bottling of the 2009 Reserve Syrah, a grape that seems to do particularly well in Israel. At $19, though, it wasn't equal to the great bargain that was the 2009 Yogev Cabernet-Petit Verdot blend, a well-balanced, pleasant red with soft tannins whose $12 price tag made it not only the best buy of the tasting but "perfect for communal Seders," according to Rabbi Brenner. Rabbi Brenner reserved his highest praise for the 2010 Recanati Wild Carignan Reserve from Galilee, which, at $52, was also the most expensive red. It was also the most polished—elegant and lush with penetrating dark-fruit aromas. Rabbi Brenner's advice? "This is the wine you should serve when the Rebbe visits your house."

For the entire article, click here. 


Skittles on the Seder Plate

My friend Jenna, who is a grad student in religious studies at UNC, posted a photo of a Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea communion from the Kairos Church in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. (see above) I loved the sentiment, and this got me thinking about what we might do in the Jewish community to mark the latest tragic display of injustice and disregard for human life as we remember our time of enslavement in Egypt. (According to Midrash, one of the horrors of Egypt was that the Egyptians cared more about property and construction projects than human life.)

Skittles on the seder plate? Not exactly kosher. First off, last time I checked Skittles culinary backstory, they were made with a beef-derived, non-Kosher, gelatin. (there are apparently some made in the UK that are kosher) Second, they certainly are not Kosher for Passover because of the corn syrup and other products. Also Arizona Iced Tea is loaded with corn syrup - not kosher for passover.

But if there is still no movement on this case by next week, then there is nothing wrong with printing out pictures of Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea and placing them on your seder table.