Skip to content

“WHY DO I HAVE TO GO TO HEBREW SCHOOL?” (What does Being Jewish mean?”)

Freedom, Greenberg and Katz, Prentice Hall Press, 1991

  • Because we love you and want you to know as much about being Jewish as you possibly can.
  • Because we parents often don’t know as much as we possible could about being Jewish and can’t give you all the right answers.
  • Because at Hebrew School you get to learn and socialize with other Jewish children, just like yourself (who may sometimes wonder why they have to go, too.)
  • Because one of the most important things the Torah expects of parents is that they teach their children Torah – and if we are unable to do that, we are obligated to find someone who can do it for us.
  • Because Judaism is a rich and full heritage older than 5000 years, with lots to learn about, enjoy, and appreciate, and Hebrew School is a great place to be introduced to it.
  • Because if you didn’t go and later found out all you had missed, you’d probably be mad at your parents.
  • Because Judaism is precious and beautiful and important and your parents want you to share in it and be connected to it.
  • Because whatever career or role in life you pursue the knowledge and information you gain in Hebrew School will enrich you in ways you cannot even imagine.
  • Because Judaism is more than just a religion – it is a way of life.
  • Because all of Judaism is based on scholarship and study. If we spent our whole lives studying Torah, we still wouldn’t know everything there is to know about living our lives the way God wants us to live them.
  • Because at Hebrew School you learn to read Hebrew so that you can understand what is going on at services.
  • Because at Hebrew School you learn all you need to know to fully participate in your bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
  • Because to be a good Jew you must first be a knowledgeable Jew.
  • Because sometimes we parents know what is really best for you, and you  just have to trust us (in the same way that we all have to trust that God knows what is best for us, even when we don’t understand why).
  • Because sometimes, as children, you don’t yet have the ability to appreciate really good things and will only realize how good those things truly are when you get older. (Do most kids like vegetables all the time? Don’t most adults?)
  • Because Hebrew School is just as important, and in some ways may be more important, than public school.
  • Because you are so fortunate that there is the State of Israel in your lifetime, and going to Hebrew School is a great way to strengthen your connection to Israel and to the Israelis – by learning the history, songs, and stories of our homeland and its people.
  • Because, unlike those Jewish children who are not allowed to learn and practice Judaism in some countries, you are lucky enough to live in freedom with the right to study your religion openly.
  • Because Judaism has survived all kinds of persecution and disasters throughout the ages, but it cannot survive indifference and neglect by its own people.
  • Because the only way for you to continue the unbroken chain of Judaism is to study it, know it, and pass it along to your children. You are a precious link in this chain, which stretches back through generations, and while you may add to it, you should not break it.

That way, someday years from now when your children ask you, “Why do I have to go to Hebrew School?” you can smile at them very knowingly and answer, “Because.”


Chicago-area Jewish women hold Torah to send a message

Photos of women holding Torah capture religion’s divide and protest arrest of woman who held a Torah at Western Wall in Israel

By Becky Schlikerman, Tribune reporter

8:11 PM CDT, September 19, 2010

One by one, the women walked onto the sanctuary’s stage, took hold of the Torah and smiled as the photographer captured them cradling the sacred scripture.

The women, members of Congregation Solel, a Reform temple in Highland Park, intend to send the portraits to the Israeli government, protesting the recent arrest of an Israeli woman. Authorities reportedly detained her July 12 for the forbidden act of carrying a Torah at the Western Wall.

Their demonstration highlights a difference of practice between Orthodox and progressive Jews that more often plays out behind the closed doors of a synagogue. Because women don’t touch or read the Torah in the most traditional Orthodox Jewish settings, they also are forbidden from doing so at the Western Wall, the remnant of the wall that surrounded the sacred Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Many progressive Jews interpret the restriction as a violation of their right to worship in the Holy Land.

“It speaks to the divisiveness of the chief rabbinate in Israel and the unfortunate lack of pluralism allowed in the country,” said Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet a Conservative synagogue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The chief rabbinate of Israel is charged with overseeing religious laws and supervising the Western Wall.

In Israel, when Judaism is observed, it is often done in a more traditional way.

“The non-Orthodox religious movement is growing in Israel, but is not as extensive as it is here,” said Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

And Jewish Americans are beginning to feel the strain, reacting to events like the July arrest of activist Anat Hoffman. Shortly before her arrest, Hoffman held a series of events in Chicago synagogues to raise money for her organization, Israel Religious Action Center.

For Wendy Rhodes, president of Congregation Solel, Sunday’s photo op was an important way to take a stand for religious plurality, she said.

“We hope it sends the message,” Rhodes said of the two dozen photos she commissioned. Rhodes said the congregation seeks to make a dent in the much larger issue of religious equality.

“The challenge they face as members of a Reform congregation is wanting to assert a greater religious presence at a site like the Western Wall, (where) traditionally Orthodox exerts religious control,” Balinsky said of efforts like Solel’s.

For Modern Orthodox Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Lakeview’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, where women do touch the Torah, it’s important to respect and honor rules set abroad.

“It’s very tricky to get critical not living there,” Lopatin said. “We have to give a lot of respect to those who are living there and those who are put in charge.”

But it’s not that simple for progressive Jews, who fear that the restrictive rules will push people away from the religion.

“This is a very serious issue that really threatens the unity of the people,” Siegel said. “Throughout Jewish history, internal divisions … have proven to be as dangerous as external threats.”

As Reform advocate Marlene Dodinval summed it up, “There’s more than one way to be Jewish.”

Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune


What Makes the Jews So Funny?

Shir Tikvah Schlesinger Lecture

Thank you Suzanna for that honest and very appropriate introduction. It’s really good to be with you this evening.

I never had the pleasure of knowing Bob Schlesinger personally, but then, rabbis get to know folks a lot from their next of kin and I had the joy of working alongside Bob’s fabulous Suzanna for a time. Suzanna herself has a wonderful sense of humor. For example, she asked me to speak for ten to fifteen minutes tonight. Now that’s funny! And even funnier? She said: Rabbi, please be appropriate. To which I replied, are you kidding? mah nishtana? Why start now? It’s not my shul, what are they gonna do, fire me? By that time it was too late, the invitations had gone out.

So it’s going to be long and it’s going to be crude.

Suzanna shared with me how humor was a large part of Bob’s life and helped keep him strong during his own battle against illness. I really wanted to tap into what Bob would think was funny so I paid a visit to the Temple Israel Memorial Park the other day and sat on the little bench at his graveside to see if I couldn’t get some of Bob’s humor into my head. I sensed the great love he had for his family and friends. I slid over a little bit, and understood the devotion he had for community. Then readjusted my position and got an insight into Bob’s sense of humor. Getting up from the bench I saw that I had been sitting on the word “laughter”. So now you know the part of the body through which rabbis receive their most profound inspiration.

A little about me. Before I went into the rabbinate I fronted a band in the Jewish music biz which appealed to my sense of Jewish joy. We played weddings, Sim Glaser and the Glass Breakers, bar and bat mitzvah parties – where we were called the Rolling Scrolls, punk Havdalah parties on college campuses where we went by the name Twisted Candle, even the occasional bris, as Rabbi Shlomo and the Four Skins.

Ok, so a career as a casuals musician wasn’t going to do it for me. I felt the need to opt for a more serious career, even though I found most things pretty funny. Entering the Reform Jewish seminary I encountered many brilliant students there who always spoke up in class, always called on. And then there were students like me. But I kept my sense of humor.

We had a blind Talmud professor by the name of Wacholder who could find any page in the Talmud using only his fingers and then quote from it from memory. Knew the Talmud by heart. Wacholder always called on Goldstein to read. “Goldstein”, he’d say, “you read today”. Goldstein finally got sick of it and one day when Wacholder called upon he piped up “Goldstein’s not here today”. “What?” said Wacholder. “Goldstein’s not here?” Ok, you read.

So what am I supposed to talk about tonight? Ah yes, why Jews are so funny. I have no idea.

Alfred North Whitehead once remarked how amazing it is that there is no humor in the bible considering how funny the Jewish people are.

I think there is plenty of humor in the bible from day six. Calling the first male Adam – Hebrew for dirt, and hava his wife which means – live one, as in “I got me a live one” and she is so disgusted with the first man Eve takes off and God has to pull another one out of Adam’s rib cage. Noah the famous sailor of Ark fame climbs out of the ark to start civilization anew and the first thing he does is get drunk and pass out. God has a weird sense of humor.

Giving Abraham and Sarah a child at 90 years old whom she names the Hebrew for “what a joke”. Having Jacob work seven years for his beloved Rachel and then wake up the morning after the wedding in bed with her older sister instead. Or having a foolish prophet scolded by the talking ass he’s riding on. Jewish humor started a long time ago.

Ok, so the most prevalent theory is that Jews have suffered so much oppression the only thing we can do to stay afloat is to laugh at ourselves and kid about others. This is laughter through tears. This is about making the oppressor laugh because as long as you’re laughing at me you won’t or can’t hurt me. It is also, ahem, being smart, clever, talented, and, to some extent, desperate. This is survival by levity. Philosopher Victor Frankl has reported evidence of humor even in the concentration camps.

Sigmund Freud said that all humor is a means of circumventing civilization’s obstacles by making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic.

Some years ago a Jew is reading Farakhan’s nation of Islam paper. His friend asks him: why are you reading that? Well, everywhere you read about terrible things happening to the Jew – in this paper the Jews control Hollywood, they run Washington, they control all the banks.

Jewish humor seems on the one hand very particular and clannish, like we should be the only ones to get the jokes, but at the same time look at the universal appeal of Jewish humor. Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, Billy Crystal, Groucho Marx, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, to name only a handful.

There is a saying that Jews are like everyone else, only more so. This might explain the broad appeal of Jewish humor, and it also may account for the expansive history of anti-Semitism. The faults people see in themselves and the humorous side seems magnified in the Jew.

The principle subjects for Jewish humor happen to be the things that create in us the most anxiety: anti-Semitism, financial success, poverty, Jewish guilt, Jewish parenting, Jewish know-it-alls, shlemiels and shlemazels, assimilation.

Assimilation is a huge theme, and never seems to get old. It stems from the fear that we may disappear as a people, but also having the sense that we’ve been doing this so long we cannot possibly disappear.

Like the Jewish woman who after years of trying finally gains admission to the gentile country club and jumping into the surprisingly cold pool for the first time yells “oy gevalt! whatever that means…”

Or Harry Moses Abramovitz wanted to join the Greenvale Country Club, a place known never to admit Jews. First, Harry went to court and had his name changed to Howard Trevelyan Frobisher. After that, he flew to a plastic surgeon in Switzerland who transformed his Semitic profile into a Nordic one. Next, he hired an elocution tutor from England to teach him to speak like a native Brit. And finally, Harry worked his way into the graces of several well-established members of the Greenvale Country Club. Two years after embarking on his project, Howard Frobisher appeared before the club’s membership committee. “Please state your name,” the chairman said. In a clipped Oxfordian accent, Harry replied, “I’m Howard Trevelyan Frobisher.” “And, tell us, where were you educated, Mr. Frobisher?” “Eton and Oxford.” The chairman beamed. “And what is your religious affiliation?” “My religion? Why I’m a Goy.”

But perhaps is best illustrated by the two Jews walking down the street and they see a church sign that advertises $1000 if you convert to Xianity. One says why not? Goes in, comes out and his friend asks him – did you do it? He says – I did it – his friend asks – and did they give you the $1000? And he says: is that all you people ever think about?

Another theory about Jews and humor is that we relish our objectivity and perspective. Laughing at one’s self is the height of objectivity. Laughing at how bright we are. Laughing at our goofy holidays which all seem to celebrate the same thing – they tried to kill us, we overcame them, let’s eat.

And oy, the food we eat! Greasy laktes from eight days of Hanukkah that stink up the drapes for eight months. And what kind of religion calls on you to eat this flat unsalted cracker with a piece of horseradish. Matzah for a week! This teaches us affliction. It is, after all, the binding commandment.

And who came up with gefilte fish as a concept? This is a funny food. Did you know that gefilte fish is the number one impediment to converting gentiles to Judaism? If it weren’t for gefilte fish thousands of Lutherans in the Twin Cities alone would join our ranks. I have to lie to potential proselytes about the origins of gefilte fish, telling them that in rabbinical school they took us on a tour of a gefilte fish hatchery in the Golan Heights where they breed them right there with the little carrot just in the middle of the head like that.

We can laugh at our own traditions, our life cycle events – a perfect storm for humor might just be the bris – anxiety, trepidation, nachas, open theater surgery, everybody standing far away from the mohel like he’s going to lunge at you with his clamp, all the men crossing their legs. Temple Israel tries to lighten things up with charming gifts (t-shirt) – but they rejected my far more authentic version – My parents lopped off my foreskin and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

Our humor seems to suggest that we are so clever we can reason our way into or out of anything. The chochum comes from chacham or wise person, but in fact is more like the wise guy. Bugs Bunny was a chochum. For 2000 years we have been studying Mishnaic and Talmudic discourses that can bend and twist a point of logic, notably the kal vahomer – “if this is true, then how much the more so must this be true”.

Example (and this may get me kicked off the bima):

A man caught cheating with another man’s wife is brought before the rabbi. “You’re vile” says the rabbi. “Wait wait, let me prove my innocence” says the chochum. Do you not admit that I am entitled to have sexual relations with my own wife? Well, of course. And you agree rabbi that the man who accused me is permitted to have sex with his wife? Obviously! And may that man have sex with my wife? Of course not.. Well there you go rabbi, you conceded that I am permitted to have sex with a woman with whom my accuser is forbidden to have sex. All the more so should I be entitled to have sex with a woman with whom even he is permitted!

Then there are the stereotypes. There are thousands of jokes about Jewish mothers, but I always think of the mother of the Jewish quarterback up in the stands yelling: “Sheldon, if they want the ball so much, just give it back to them!”

Or the waiter who approaches the lunch table of Jewish women asking: Excuse me ladies, is anything alright?

There are countless stories about Jewish shlemiels, shlemazels and fools. The schlemiel being the one who trips and spills the soup, the shlemazel is the one he spills it on. The stories of the wise men of Chelm detail our people’s love of knowledge and scholarship no matter how stupid the scholar might be.

Our lasting tradition of hope and humor might be best summed up by the guy who’s sitting in the street and his friend comes up and asks him – what are you doing sitting there? Why don’t you get a job? He says: this is a job. I’m waiting for the Messiah. I’m a professional waiter for the Messiah. His friend exclaims – Waiter for the Messiah?? What kind of job is that? Well, he says, it’s steady work.

And of course, rabbis get a lot of it. My father, alav ha shalom, often recalled the two elderly women sitting listening to the rabbi’s sermon. One has fallen asleep, and when she wakes up she asks her friend: “Is the rabbi’s sermon over?” Her friend says: “Yes, but he’s still speaking.”

I’m sure you can all relate to that one by now.

So let me conclude with my own theory about why Jews are so funny which is a spiritual, Kabbalistic one. Jewish Mysticism teaches that God’s reason for creation, that is, of an entity separate from God (but of course still within God) is for God to have a relationship with us, and the primary reason for that is to bestow goodness and happiness and for us to accept it. Humor is God’s blessing. Why else would laughter feel so good?

The problem is that God is a just and perfect God. God created the world. By logic it ought to be perfect. But it isn’t. It’s a mess. So the Jew has three options – to despair, to take it very seriously, or to repair it, or to laugh at it. With 2000 years plus of tsurus behind us option #1, despair is out of the question, so we opt for fixing and shticking. In this way we perform the ultimate duty of humankind – to accept God’s goodness in one of its most delicious forms – humor. Also, we learn to bestow it upon one another.

The oldest man in the bible was a guy named Methusaleh who lived to be 969 years and then died. The Torah, in its laconic and dry ironic style says just that about him. Methusaleh lived 969 years and then he died, to teach us that this guy didn’t do anything worth reporting in his life. He didn’t bless anyone, and he didn’t particularly enjoy life. Just made it to 969.

Bob Schlesinger was taken before his time, but a too brief life filled with laughter beats the heck out of 969 years of nothingness. Our lives are not to be measured in terms of time, but in moments of resonance and meaning – chief among them are joyful, funny moments.

Let me close with two pieces of advice. I know you are in the midst of a search for a new rabbi so here’s one thing you never do to your rabbi, especially when they’re new in town… Never ask them: do you know my name?

A woman from my congregation came up to me in the supermarket and pulled that one on me. “Do you know my name, Rabbi?” she asked. As it happened I did know her name. “Yes,” I said. “You’re Marlene Fischbein.” She was delighted. But as she walked away I thought for a moment and then called out to her: “Marlene, do you know my name?” and she didn’t. “uh, well, you’re rabbi, uh, right?”

And tell your rabbi never to do this. When you invite guests up to the Bat Mitzvah bima to dress the Torah, never tell Aunt Sadie to “put on the breast plate”. I did that once, turned away, and when I turned back? It was just awful. What did I do? You ask – I did not despair – I chose joy! I picked her up, danced around the bima, put her in the ark where she remains to this day.

Shabbat Shalom.