David Malman, Calligrapher & Mensch

Facebook_DavidMalman_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_GronowskiFamilyChapel_CBS_August2016In February 2016, our twice-daily egalitarian minyan was featured by J Weekly. The article emphasized just how important our CBS minyan is to the larger Bay Area Jewish community.

"San Francisco is home to about a dozen egalitarian congregations, yet Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in the Inner Richmond, is the only one that provides the essential community service of a daily minyan. I say it’s essential because of the Jewish practice of saying Kaddish daily for 11 months after the passing of a loved one, a practice more common among liberal, egalitarian Jews than one might assume."

We’re proud of our minyan. Many members describe it as our congregation’s "beating heart." Our regular daveners (prayer participants) join the minyan because they want to be there for every person who needs to pray, recite the mourner's Kaddish, or recall the anniversary of a loved one’s passing with communal support. CBS is the minyan's home, providing space, financial support, and leadership, but the minyan is literally and figuratively "made" by those who participate – people like congregant David Malman.

Years ago, David and his wife, fellow congregant Ellen Shireman, read an issue of CJ Voices, the magazine of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), that included a feature about an East Coast minyan that presented a personalized siddur (prayer book) to individuals who came regularly to say Kaddish for a loved one. Ellen and David were inspired by the lovely tradition, and decided that CBS should and could offer the same.

Facebook_DavidMalman1_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_Boardroom_CBS_August2016Facebook_DavidMalman2_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_Boardroom_CBS_August2016"The people who come [to say Kaddish] do it to honor their parent or loved one," David told me recently, "but the rest of the minyan deeply appreciates it. It’s a kind of symbiosis – the minyan supports the mourners, but, through their regular presence for those months, the mourners support the minyan."

In 2008, David approached Rabbi Micah Hyman, then the spiritual leader of CBS, and proposed that CBS adopt the siddur gifting tradition. Once Rabbi Hyman was on board, David bought a calligraphy pen and obtained a number of siddurim and label stickers from the CBS office. The next step? Learning how to create calligraphy for the bookplates David would place in the front of each siddur.

"When we read that [CJ Voices] article, I thought about it and said to Ellen, 'I know how to do this!' I’ve been fascinated with letters since I was a kid." As a teenager, David practiced writing calligraphy in English and even dabbled with some Hebrew. Later, in his twenties, when the art career of David Moss took off, he was reminded of how moving calligraphy and Judaica can be. "I was looking at these insanely beautiful ketubot…and [the work] broke my heart." David considered picking up the practice again, but his calligraphic impulse lay dormant until he and Ellen decided to get married in 2005. "When I started thinking about our ketubah," he recalled, "I felt I should do it – create the calligraphy." And so he did. Today, the ketubah that David created, which incorporates both English and Hebrew text, hangs in their home. "I guess it worked out!," he said with a smile.

Facebook_DavidMalman3_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_Boardroom_CBS_August2016The labels David used for his first CBS siddurim bookplates were small, and fewer lines of text could fit; as a result, only English text was included. As his calligraphic confidence grew, so, too, did the label size. Today, each bookplate features an English inscription as well as the name of the memorialized individual in both English and Hebrew. The date on which the deceased passed away is also included, using both the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars. David points out that the date serves a practical purpose – whenever the siddur owner wants to double check the date of their loved one’s Yahrzeit, they need only crack their prayer book.

Since 2008, David has created approximately 20 bookplates. His process and specific approach continue to evolve. Currently, David is trying to find the ideal label stock. The original, smaller labels took the ink well, with little bleeding. He hopes to find a larger label that does the same. The personalized siddur gifting practice has also spread; David and Ellen are evening minyan regulars, but the morning "minyan-aires" learned of the practice through the CBS grapevine and soon adopted it.

Facebook_DavidMalman2_SiddurMinyanBookPlate_GronowskiFamilyChapel_CBS_August2016What hasn’t changed in almost a decade is the bookplates’ purpose and the hand creating them. Each is crafted with care by David, placed in a siddur, and presented to a minyan participant who completes the 11-month period of mourning. (Occasionally, if the last day of Kaddish is missed, the presentation will occur on the first Yahrzeit of the deceased.) David describes this presentation as “a tiny ritual, maybe 20 seconds long,” but its brevity is not a reflection of its meaningfulness or sincerity.

Each bookplate is a handsome artifact. David, ever humble, attributes this to the art of calligraphy rather than his particular hand. He thinks that the Hebrew letters, in particular, are "extremely beautiful," and not just aesthetically. "We’re the People of the Book. Our letters are the atomic particles of our civilization. When you look at these pieces, you might think, 'Oh, they’re just bookplates,' but they’re not. Each one is a little brick in the greater Jewish building." This is true with respect to language – David points out that including both the English and Hebrew helps Hebrew literacy – but also klal Yisrael (all of the Jewish people). "Fundamentally, this is a community building enterprise. It enriches our community and it enriches the history of these books – it's all about continuity. When these become 'feral' siddurim, set out into the wild, someone will open these prayer books and see names and a date, and know a bit more about where this book lived and whose lives it touched. That’s important."

It is, indeed. Kol HaKavod, David! Thank you for this wonderful mitzvah!

CBS encourages all community members to sustain and strengthen our twice-daily minyan through participation. As David points out, ours is the only egalitarian minyan "between Los Angeles and Vancouver, and perhaps west of the Rockies with the exception of Phoenix [and the aforementioned cities]." Pick one day of the week (or even just one day a month), and commit to joining the minyan for davening in the morning, evening, or both. Not only will you sometimes have the privilege and honor of making minyan when a mourner from outside the community has come to CBS to say Kaddish; you might even find yourself surprised by the value of a regular commitment to Jewish prayer.

Pesach – Day 5

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pesach5777"Roots, man — we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. … yeah — these are my roots, I suppose. Am I looking for them? … I ain’t looking for them in synagogues … I can tell you that much." — Bob Dylan, 1983

Is the Messiah a person or a process of redemption?

In my forthcoming book on Bob Dylan’s gnostic theology, God Knows Everything Is Broken, I argue that the Hibbing bard fell prey to the allure of messianic personhood one night in a Tucson hotel room, as he described his own experience: "I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." Months later, Dylan again found himself alone in empty arena sound-checks. Through these solitary communions, he worked up a new song, "Slow Train," which served, amid larger questions with ineffable answers, as his own journey through a messianic process.

Meanwhile, many of his Jewish listeners turned a deaf ear to his next three albums. That's unfortunate, because they are necessary listening if you want to hear how Dylan’s "conversion songs" are inextricably linked to his ongoing, post-conversion work.

Following a few short years of "conversion," Dylan, in 1983, released "Infidels," a virulent self-critique, embarking on "a very personal battle to construct a world view that retains [his] faith in both God and humanity." Around this time, Dylan even recorded an album of Hasidic songs (the bootlegged out-takes are called "From Shot to Saved"). It is through the outreach of Rabbi Manis Friedman that Dylan found his direction home, and Chabad legend has it that the Hibbing bard prayed in a hoodie at the Crown Heights headquarters. During Dylan’s first appearance before the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson at his farbrengen, a traditional Hasidic gathering, the latter did not acknowledge the former because of his apostate status – only after Dylan immersed in a mikvah to return to his Jewish self would the rebbe smile at him at the next farbrengen.

While this "re-conversion" story is kept under wraps, Dylan’s public return to roots was still misunderstood as a returning of a secularist, or nonobservant Jew. Perhaps their singing spokesperson accepted the darkening spiritual awareness that "everything is broken." Yet the return to his Jewish roots, for Dylan, was more radical. Importantly, he returned not as a zealot, which "Infidels" rejects, but as a Jew devoid of Orthodox ideology. In his perennial reinventions, Dylan’s pendulum swings — not merely from one orthodoxy to another — but from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. Already wobbling into heterodoxy in 1985, Dylan remarks: "Whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you’re aware of the messianic complex, that’s … important … People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now, as if He was here …"

Unlike the medieval Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia, who aborted his messianic meeting to convert Pope Nicholas III in 1279, Dylan’s modern messianic mission with Pope John Paul II in 1997 was met with equally dubious reception as the Vatican called him "a false prophet." Did Dylan believe his messianic search had evolved from personhood to process, to then dissolve the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

Like every SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) seeker so allergic to setting foot in a synagogue, Dylan eventually returns home to the root of his soul. Being "aware of the messianic complex" demarcates the theology of Dylan’s songbook and enables its rapid shift, from the apocalyptic songs to those affirming a personal sense of gratitude for his redemption. This struggle to clarify the source of messianism emerges in many lyrics, for example, in "Pressing on to a Higher Calling" (from the 1980 album "Saved"), which points to the shift from personhood to process. Such a journey, especially when it is frustratingly circuitous, is only possible by struggling with messianism as a process.

So for Pesach, don’t leave home! Rather stay attuned during the seder. Open that door at home for Elijah and see there is really an internalizing shift taking place, from messianic personhood to process. It is an opening to that "kind of sign [each and every one of us] need[s] when it all come[s] from within"!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
(This piece originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California, April 7, 2017).

Artwork note: This week’s illustration depicts the Korban Pesach, or "sacrifice of Passover." Also referred to as the Paschal lamb, it figures prominently in Christian rhetoric, where Jesus Christ is portrayed as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, or Lamb of God. The illustration seemed a fitting accompaniment to Rabbi Glazer's examination of Bob Dylan's messianic search. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit: Not Every Jew Looks Like You

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Kone-Miller-family- Writing recently in Tablet Magazine, author David Margolick acknowledged the Jewish people's chauvinistic tribalism.

"Why is it we Jews are not only quick to claim someone as our own, but insist upon claiming all of him? For better or worse, though, we do: our fierce feeling of specialness is something we don’t want to share with anyone else. [...] Our chauvinism knows no bounds, and tolerates no asterisks."

Margolick made this admission in an essay exploring the Jewish antecedence of Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland, which he penned after reading a New York Times profile of Garland that included the following biographical detail.

"Friends say Judge Garland’s connection to Judaism runs deep. His father was Protestant, but he was raised as a Jew — he had a bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue — and he spoke movingly Wednesday of how his grandparents left Russia, 'fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.'"

Upon learning that it was "only" Garland's mother who was Jewish, Margolick "felt instantly deflated," and became determined to dig deeper to see what could be turned up about Garland's paternal ancestry. In fact, Margolick learned, Garland's father is Jewish; the Times piece had reported Garland's father was Protestant in error. When the Gray Lady printed a correction, according to Margolick, "everywhere, Jews cheered."

Actually, this Jew didn't. If Garland identifies as a Jew (and is halachically Jewish as well!), why does it matter whether or not both of his parents are Jewish?

Louis-Jeff-used-for-BART-ad_smallerMargolick's article is a reminder that, for many contemporary, secular Jews, ethnic and genetic "purity" -- or yichus -- matters as much if not more than one's behavior or personal identification. Moreover, many members of the tribe (M.O.T.s) tend to prioritize our particularistic "subtribe" (e.g., Ashkenazim discounting Sephardic practice as alien or misguided rather than simply different, or Modern Orthodox Jews looking askance at their Reform brethren), further eroding the virtuous notion of klal Yisrael (the interconnection of all Jews).

Disappointingly, I can recall numerous conversations with fellow Jews, friends as well as relatives, who observed that Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel), Indian Jews (including the Bnei Menashe), and all manner of converts (gerim) "aren't real Jews." When I blanche, they'll often add something like, "You know what I mean, not genetically."

To be fair, whereas Judaism, the religion, and Jewishness, our ethnic/cultural identity, used to be inextricably intertwined, the two are now viewed as distinct by a large majority of Jewish Americans, and the comments of my friends and relatives reflect their prioritization of Jewishness over Judaism. They accept that Ethiopian Jews are Jews in the sense that they practice Judaism, but they lack any yiddishkeit, which is what qualifies them as "real" M.O.T.s.

Enter Debbie Rosenfeld-Caparaz of Lehrhaus Judaica and Dawn Kepler, Director of Building Jewish Bridges, who co-curated the photography exhibition, This is Bay Area Jewry, currently on view at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Kepler, quoted in a J Weekly article about the exhibition, points out that "many refer to the Bay Area as a diaspora of the diaspora," a region where Jewish identity is complex-compound. Kepler states that the exhibition aims to “[push] folks to think more deeply about what Jewish heritage means and to realize that there are lots of Jews, and not very many of them fit into that Ashkenazi stereotype.”

If, as some leading sociologists contend, the Bay Area offers a portrait of the future of American Jewry, Margolick will need to accept the fact that many dedicated and active Jews look very different from him and/or have very different origin stories. Moreover, a great many of us may have only one Jewish parent...or none!

Kol HaKavod to Rosenfeld-Caparaz and Kepler for conceiving of This is Bay Area Jewry, and to photographer Lydia Daniller and writer Robert Nagler Miller for their efforts, as well. For more information on the exhibition, click here.

Image credits: Both photographs by Lydia Daniller for This is Bay Area Jewry, 2016 -- Top: The Kone-Miller Family, members of CBS!