Oh, Boy! | “Hello Again! The Songs of Allan Sherman” @ TAS Northridge

Hello Again! The Songs of Allan Shermanuserpic=theatre_ticketsIt started with Bruce Kimmel (FB). I had participated in the Kickstarter for Bruce’s revue “Los Angeles: Then and Now” at LACC. It was there I met  Linden Waddell (FB) and learned about her one-woman show, Hello Again! The Songs of Allan Sherman. I thought it would be a good fit for our congregation, Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB) in Northridge. After some back and forth, we ended up booking the show as a fundraiser for the Men of TAS (FB) and the TAS Sisterhood (FB). Thus began my second stint wearing the hat of a producer :-), similar to my ACSAC Experience.

Last night was the show, and now I can return to my traditional hat — one that fits better — that of a professional audience.  I’ll note that although I had booked Linden’s show based on the strength of her personality and my love of Allan Sherman‘s catalogue. I had actually not watched her You-Tube clip, so the show itself was a complete surprise … and a delight.

It wasn’t just me that loved the show. As the show was going on, I was watching the rest of the congregation audience. Universal smiles. People singing along quietly. After the show, talking to the attendees, there was universal acclaim.  Although many of the younger generation have forgotten Allan Sherman, with their only exposure to parody being Weird Al, the generation in attendance grew up with these parodies, and it was a delight to hear them again. The live aspect added a lot to it — if you know about Allan Sherman, you know these songs were meant to be performed live — they started out as party parodies. It added something.

Linden’s show was not just a simple performance of songs. She brought characterizations and accents and stories to add to the songs, and provided history and context to the songs. It went over very well, and the audience interaction was a delight.

Linden adjusts the songs for the audiences; at our show, the playlist was as follows:

  1. Parody Tonight (an introductory adaptation of Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight to set the context of the show)
  2. There is Nothing Like a Lox
  3. Green Stamps
  4. Academy Award Medly: Call Me / Secret Code / Chopped Liver / Overweight People
  5. Taking Lessons
  6. Crazy Downtown
  7. Shticks Medly
  8. You’re the Top
  9. Sir Greenbaum’s Madrigal
  10. Your Mother’s Here to Stay
  11. The Ballad of Harry Lewis
  12. Skin
  13. How Deep is the Ocean/Birdbath
  14. One Hippopotami
  15. Night and Day (with punctuation marks included)
  16. When I’m In The Mood for Love
  17. Harvey and Sheila
  18. Smog Gets In Your Eyes
  19. All of My Laughter (from The Fig Leaves are Falling)
  20. Shake Hands with your Uncle Max
  21. Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah

What’s nice is that there was  a mix of the familiar and unknown (and that unknown was Amazon’s gain, as I filled in the 6 albums I was missing). Songs that I hadn’t known — such as “Secret Code” or “All of My Laughter”, and it was amazing how many of these songs — from 60 years ago — were still relevant today. You can really see how artists like Weird Al owe there existence to artists like Allan Sherman.

About the only regret I have with the show is that the audience was not bigger. We tried our best to spread the word via social media and promotion, but it obviously didn’t reach the right demographic. This wasn’t the fault of the show — it was our learning curve on this aspect (and one I think many groups need to learn — from my conference experience, publicity is one of the hardest jobs there is and one that often gets left to those without the connections to do it right). A number of attendees expressed interest after the show in booking it for groups they know — I think that is a wonderful testament to the universality combined with nostalgia of this music. Still, I’d estimate we had nearly 100 at the show, which is pretty good attendance.

Linden was accompanied during the show by accompanist Marjorie Poe, who join in on a few songs.

Production credits: The show was directed by Janet Miller (FB), who alas was not in attendance (I enjoy seeing Janet). Linden is booked by Jeannine Frank / Frank Entertainment. On the Temple side, credit goes to the members of the Sherman Show committee: Jackie Zev, Jennifer Kassoy, Larry Hoffman, Roger Lowe, and lil ole me. Our sound was run by Andrew Petrak and Jacob Zonis, alumni of the Nobel Middle School Drama program. A special shout out to Aaron Solomon, the TAS Executive Director, who came over in the late afternoon to help us figure out how to get the connections right and the sound working perfectly. Thank you also to the spouses who helped (Karen Davis (my lovely wife) and Dorothy Hoffman), and all the kids and volunteers who helped usher and set up. A special thank you to our sponsors: Larry and Dorothy Hoffman, and Bernard and Tamara Singer.

If you remember Allan Sherman — and even if you only know Weird Al — I’d recommend you see this show. Alas, for us, it was a one-time event. Luckily, for you, you can check Linden’s website and find future showings.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB).  The Chromolume 2017 season looks particularly good: Zanna Don’t (Tim Acito, January 13 – February 5), Hello Again (Michael John LaChiusa, May 5- May 28), and Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim, September 15 – October 8) — all for only $60). Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  November starts with another Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB): Culture Clash’s Vote or Die Laughing. The following weekend brings Hedwig and the Angry Inch at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the Nottingham Festival (FB). We then lose a weekend as we travel to Palo Alto for a Bar Mitzvah. The third weekend of November brings Funny Girl, a Conundrum Theatre Company (FB) guest production at  The Colony Theatre (FB) and a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) [excuse me, “Southern California Railway Museum”]. November concludes with a HOLD date for Little Women at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last month of the year will include Into the Woods at Nobel Middle School, the CSUN Jazz Band at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), Amalie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

Turning to 2017, January currently is quiet, with just a single hold date for Zanna Don’t at the Chromolume Theatre (FB). February 2017 gets back to being busy: with a hold for Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Although we can’t make it, I also recommend the 10th Anniversary Production of The Brain from Planet X at LACC. Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.


“History on Trial”/”Denial” – Potential Discussion Questions

denialuserpic=tallitOn Sunday, October 9th, the Men of TAS (in lieu of our usual meeting) are going to see the new movie Denial, based on Dr. Deborah Lipstadt‘s book, “History on Trial” [Note that this particular meeting is open to everyone]. This book is about  Dr. Lipstadt’s trial in the UK when the Holocaust Denier David Irving sued her for libel. I was a student of Dr. Lipstadt’s when I was at UCLA (I was the only one turning in papers printed via nroff(1) off the Diablo 1620 in the CS Department); as such, I feel it is important to see this movie and have a discussion. Note that this discussion is taking place just before the 2nd presidential debate.

As I’ve read the book, I’ve come up with the following discussion questions. I’m curious if you have others:

  1. When reading this book, I was struck by a number of parallels between the issues raised in the trial, and this year’s election season. What parallels do you see?
  2. Is it ever right to distort facts for a particular purpose?
  3. What is the importance of fact checking, and how much room is there for the interpretation of facts? We have seen much of that this election season — from both sides — where the claim is made in the past that they supported some thing or position, and yet evidence is quickly found showing the opposite, to which the candidate provides a spin to justify their original claim. (Trump Example; Clinton Example). How is this fact checking similar to that presented in the Irving trial?
  4. Is there a distinction between proving the truth, and proving that someone is lying about the truth?
  5. When building your overall assessment of an individual and their viewpoints, which has greater import: isolated past incidents, or continual patterns of behavior?
  6. When is it right to speak up, and when is it right to stay silent in the face of denial of history?
  7. Is it right to deny history for political reasons? An example of this is the Armenian Genocide in the face of the Turks, where there has been hesitation to publicly acknowledge that genocide because of the relationship with Turkey. Does political expediency ever trump history?
  8. What is the relationship between the denial of history, and the denial of science? Does the notion of convergence of the evidence differ between history and science?
  9. How might one balance convergence of the evidence and belief? Are there any parallels between those who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible (such as those who have built the ark museum or fight creationism) and the denial of history?
  10. What lesson does this trial teach about fighting conspiracy theories, especially those theories that include the media as part of the conspiracy?
  11. When you are part of a team effort, when is it the right thing to do to suppress your desire to do it your way and go along with the remainder of the team?
  12. This trial ended over 10 years ago, yet antisemitism remains active? In what ways do you see antisemitism today? How do you battle it?
  13. Is there antisemitism present in this year’s election (for example, this or this)? Are any of these claims similar to the claims that Irving attempted while on the stand?
  14. In the book, Dr. Lipstadt edited it to ensure that antisemitism was always referred to without the hyphen. Why do you think she did that?
  15. Currently, the repeated efforts of the supporters of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sactions) movement against Israel are in the news? What is the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? Does the denial of history have any connection to the arguments of the anti-Zionists? There are some paragraphs in the conclusion of the book that note that various Palestinian leaders, over time, have either denied — or have at least publicly doubted — the extent of the Holocaust.
  16. Are there other instances you can recall where the reality of significant Jewish history has been denied? How has it been combated?
  17. What is the balance between remembering history and glorifying it? Contrast the attempt to remove all Confederate symbols and remembrances of actions that were insensitive to blacks (such as blackface minstral reviews) with an attempt to pretend that slavery didn’t happen and that the Civil War was for purely economic or states right reasons. Contrast that with attempts to glorify Nazi heros and eliminate any Nazi symbols or practices. Where do these fall on the level of denying history, and what is the right balance regarding remember past actions of your country or people when those actions were horrific in today’s eyes?
  18. The closing paragraph of the book is: “We must conduct an unrelenting fight against those who encourage — directly or indirectly — others to [deny history]. But, even as we fight, we must not imbue our opponents with a primordial significance. We certainly must never attribute our existence to their attacks on us or let our battle against them because our raison d’etre. And as we fight them, we must dress them — or force them to dress themselves — in the jester’s costume. Ultimately, our victory comes when, even as we defeat them, we demonstrate not only how irrational, but how absolutely pathetic, they are.” Are you aware of any deniers of history today, and are they viewed as statesmen or jesters? What does how we view such individuals say about how society has changed since the Irving trial?

You can learn more details on the meeting by visiting this page, and clicking on the October flyer (or clicking the flyer to the right). Here’s the description of the movie:

Based on the acclaimed book “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial”, DENIAL recounts Dr. Deborah Lipstadt’s (Academy Award ® winner Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against David Irving (BAFTA nominee Timothy Spall), who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, in cases of libel, the burden of proof is on the defendant, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, led by Richard Rampton (Academy Award® nominee Tom Wilkinson), to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred.

Additionally, here’s a preview of the notion of Holocaust defense in the movie, and how Dr. Lipstadt taught the lead actress to sound like a Jewish woman from Queens. That, of course, leads to the question of whether there is such a thing as the American Jewish accent, but that’s a question for another day.


A Night of Funny 😃 Elayne Boosler @ TAS

boosleruserpic=laughingLast night, Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB) threw a special fund raiser in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the formation of TAS as TAS out of the merger of two other congregations (Temple Beth Torah (1951-2016) and North Valley Reform (1962-1965)). For this fund raiser, TAS presented comedienne Elayne Boosler (FB).

When this was first announced, I was excited. As you’ve probably figured out, I attend loads of live performances every year, and I write up each and every one of them. Yes, that obsession extends to Temple events. So, last year, when we held a cantor’s concert, I felt obliged to write that up. It’s OK when things are good, but when they go south, well, it can be a bit awkward.

So, when I heard about Ms. Boosler coming, I was very happy. I could write up the show without worrying about feelings. Further, she was someone I had heard about, and about whom I had heard positive things. My wife, who isn’t always enamored of Temple events, didn’t even put up a fuss with the tickets.

So, last night came. And we were blown out of the water. The evening was extremely funny — I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen my wife laugh like that; it certainly topped both Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and An Act of God. There were some stories that I’m not sure I ever expected to hear from a bimah, but they were true and effective commentaries on life — which is what we get normally from a bimah. Evidently, a lot of the material was part of her regular act (which I hadn’t). I can’t remember a lot of the stories, but I did enjoy the reference contrasting Donald Trump with a Jackie Mason delivery.

During the show, Elayne mentioned her charity Tails of Joy, which does dog and cat rescue and supports such organizations. This made us think of our dear friend Mindy, who works with Boxer Rescue LA.  Mindy would have gotten a kick out of the show.

All, in all, a very enjoyable evening, with wonderful desserts. Congratulations to the 50th Anniversary Committee at TAS for doing this event; I hope an evening like this become an annual tradition. It’s something we’ll certainly go to.

Disclaimer: I must disclose that I am President of the Men of Temple Ahavat Shalom; as such, I am also a member of the Board of Trustees.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I had been subscribing at three theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and REP East (FB): but all have gone or are going dark., I just added a subscription to the  Hollywood Pantages (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next up is a mid-week concert of the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 7, followed by “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 10. The following weekend’s theatre is on Thursday, because the weekend brings our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). The Thursday show is Stella’s Last J-Date at the Whitefire Theatre (FB). The fourth weekend in April is is Pesach, but the Indie Chi Productions dark comedy Dinner at Home Between Deaths at the Odyssey Theatre (FB) sounded so interesting I’ve booked Sunday tickets. The last weekend of April will be the Four Clowns (FB) production of Lunatics and Actors at the LA Shakespeare Center on April 30. May starts with a hold date for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (FB). We then run off to the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation from Berkeley. While there, we are seeing the Landmark Musical Theatre (FB)’s West Coast Regional Premiere of The Boy from Oz (but pay no attention to that production behind the curtain — if they start the same day, they are simultaneous premieres and both have equal bragging rights). May 21 has a hold for Los Angeles: Then and Now, a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has holds for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB). As for June? It’s the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and I’ve started to hold dates for the following shows: All Aboard the Marriage HearseAll The Best Killers are LibrariansQaddafi’s Cook — Living in Hell, Cooking for the DevilSqueeze My CansTell Me On A Sunday   Toxic Avenger: The Musical  ✨  Vintage BoxEinstein Titus Andronicus Jr.The Old Woman Sweet Love AdieuMy Big Fat Blond MusicalAlien vs. MusicalHamlet (Las Vegas Style) ✨. But that’s just a small percentage; there are over 200 shows listed now.  We thought about Love The Body Positive, but then again… no. Can’t be scaring people.  As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.


Realizing a Problem Exists is the First Step…

userpic=stressedTonight, I went to the Purim schpiel, and realized that I’ve got a problem.

Perhaps I should explain. For the last two years, I’ve been a vice president of $mens_club, and as such I’ve been working behind the scenes to reposition the organization to emphasize our place and importance in building relationships within and with the congregation at large. I’ve tried to do that at some smaller events this year. Naturally, being active has its own rewards, … , one of which is likely getting increased leadership opportunities.  In this case, that means I am likely going to have increased responsibility to promote the group to members of the congregation.

Here’s where the problem comes in. Although I may seem outgoing, I’m really only outgoing with a supporting Powerpoint presentation :-). By that, I mean that my normal nature is to sit back quietly and do my job, and help make sure the event is a success.  I can get up and speak when I know the subject well (which is what preparing the Powerpoint does for me). Whereas my father had the personality to go up to strangers and introduce himself and become friends, doing that cold is a very very difficult mountain for me to climb (if I know something about the person to start the conversion, it is much much easier).

Tonight I thought I might give it a try. I thought I would have the gumption to go up to congregational men — who were there with their families and are precisely the men we need to draw into the organization — and introduce myself to them. I thought I would be able to sell $mens_club to them. But I couldn’t even get started up the cliff. I realized I’m the engineer, not the salesman. I don’t have that salesman persona.

I’ll note this isn’t new. I never was one to go out for drama classes or run for offices. I never sold cookies or candy bars for schools successfully. At Halloween, I was never the one creating the superinventive costume — I was either behind the door with the sound effects, or wearing a costume that made me look like everyone else. At camp, I wasn’t the one in drama or the one being out in front; I was in arts & crafts and squarely in the middle. I was fine being a committee chair or running an activity, but never the outgoing face. Even in the UCLA Computer Club, when we played Superhero 2044, my character was “Mr. Cellophane” — the one no-one every noticed because he blended in.

Realizing this is the first step to solving the problem. Practice and acting “as if” will be a second step. I’ve viewing this opportunity in the organization as a chance to improve myself; to gain a skillset that will prove me useful. It also making me realize that I need to think about doing what any good organizational head would do: if you don’t have a skill your organization needs, you find someone who can excel at that skill to make your organization complete. You bring them on board, and while they are exercising that skill, learn from them how to do it better.

That’s one reason I’m writing this post. To those who read this who are the “born salesmen” (or should I say “born salescritters”): what tips do you have, and how do I learn the skill.


My Dues Are Too High! (A Lunchtime Musing)

userpic=tallitYesterday, I read a very interesting piece on Kveller titled “My Local Kosher Market is Closing & I’m Part of the Reason Why“, and I set it aside to write a post related to it. Yesterday evening, Rabbi Lutz posted a link to an article about why one should choose synagogue membership. Both are worth reading, so I’ll wait while you do so.

(taps feet, looks at watch, taps feet again, while the theme from Jeopardy plays in the background)

OK, so now you’ve read them. What both emphasize, in slightly different ways, is the importance of having the Jewish community — and by extension, Jewish communal institutions — there when you need them. The value of these institutions cannot be viewed solely on what you get back in services over a given time period. In fact, looking at Jewish institutions (or any religious institution) in a fee-for-service manner just will not work. You can’t say: I pay $2000 a year to be a member, and that’s cheaper than buying the services ala-carte.

The reason we join together in the groups we do (be that brotherhoods and sisterhoods, or the congregation as a whole) is to create a community, pure and simple. We want to create a community that will be there to support us — to help us and lift us when we are having trouble, to be there to share our joys. We build relationships within the community, and we help others in the community. We may not always like everyone in the community, but the community should have common values, goals, and mores. Most importantly, we want the community to be there when we need it.

In the past — at least in the progressive Jewish communities — we’ve been told that there is a price of admission to the community (boy, doesn’t it sound wrong when I put it that way?) This price: dues. There are dues for the synagogue, dues for brotherhood, dues for sisterhood. This notion of dues turns people off. It is one thing to have fees for specific services (such as a fee for religious school)… but being told by some entity that you must pay $X to be considered a part of the community seems wrong (although, to be fair, they do allow you to negotiate the value of $X depending on your circumstances).

How do Christian congregations handle this? Ever hear of something called “faith offerings”? Ever seen the basket passed? Congregational support is often done at the end of services with passed baskets, with people giving as the community moves them. This never took hold in Jewish communities because of the traditional prohibition of handling or carrying money on Shabbat. There is also tithing (giving 10% of your “income”) to the church, but (to my knowledge) this is unlike dues in that it is voluntary, not a price of admission.

Some Jewish institutions are exploring a different model. In $mens_club, we’ve done away with our dues system, and made all men in the congregation members. We have ask them to send in support to the community, if they feel the community is valuable, in an amount they deem appropriate. If we do our job right and build a valuable community with strong relationships, then people will want the community to exist and will be willing to support it financially. Yes, it is a risk. However, it is a better level of feedback than robotic collection of dues for an organization that might no longer have a purpose.

What it boils down to is this: You need to support your communal groups if they are to survive and be around whenever you need them. You might not utilize them every day; you might not get back in services what you contribute in support. If you want them to survive, you contribute. This is true whether the organization is your congregation’s brotherhood or sisterhood, whether it is the congregation itself, or whether it is your local Kosher market or JCC. If an organization has value to you, support it.


Secret Relationships

userpic=tallitIf you ask most congregations, they’ll tell you they are the best kept secret in $location. In fact, they shout to the world that they are the best kept secret (as well as being the most friendly, ummm, haimish, congregations around). They think that shouting they are a secret will overcome the fact that nobody knows what they are doing. The truth, of course, is that most congregations fail horribly on publicity (and a large part of that is exacerbated by the Internet, which has gotten rid of flyers and made newspaper ads much less effective). So, to that end, I’d like to do my part over lunch by publicizing some Jewish stuff of interest on my little blog, which most people don’t read anyway (at least judging by the comments).

  • Separation of Church and State. The issues concerning separation of church and state are big news. There is the battle over the Satanist statue in Oklahoma, and the LA County Board of Supes just voted to add a cross back into the county seal. Want to learn more about the issue? Come out to Northridge CA this Sunday when Michael Risman of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State will be speaking on “Will the Wall Come Tumbling Down? An Updated Look at Church and State in Los Angeles and Elsewhere”. This is a joint event of $sisterhood and $mens_club at $current_congregation (you can probably figure those out now, but they’re cool to write, so click here for directions), and starts at 10am. There will be a $mens_club business meeting before the talk at 8:45am. Here’s the flyer and the abstract: “The 200+ year experiment of separating Church and State in the United States has been a resounding success by most measures. The political model has been emulated since that time in most all modern democracies and adopted by most UN member nations as a universal human right. And yet, as a front line worker for decades on behalf of the preservation and promotion of the First Amendment, the challenges seem only to have grown exponentially in the US in recent years. With presidential candidates and US Supreme Court judges denouncing the principle, religious groups regularly granted special privileges and shielded by law from accountability, and an array of powerful and well-funded organizations actively seeking to use the power of government to promote their religious ideologies, we may now be facing the strongest challenges to church/state separation in the US today in all of that history.”
  • Relationships With the Community. I’ve been talking for a while about $mens_club; here’s an opportunity to meet us. We’re doing a special $mens_club Shabbat service, with a dinner and short presentation beforehand, and the community is invited. The dinner is at 6:15pm and is a Chinese New Years celebration menu (don’t ask me, I didn’t pick the menu) done by one of the congregation’s excellent caterers — in fact, the caterer that did my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah (the caterer is also active in another local Brotherhood, which I think is cool and a way to build a relationship between the two groups). After dinner, there will be a short presentation by moi on $mens_club, followed by the service which will be performed conducted by members of $mens_club. Visit here to sign up for the dinner.
  • The Secret Rabbi. One of the members of $mens_club alerted me to this interesting post in the Jewish Journal with a wish list for the upcoming year. One suggestion was for the great Rabbi exchange: “So, let’s pick one Shabbat a year and call it the Great Exchange — a day when every rabbi in town gets to speak in a different shul.”. Secrets and fears are the main reason this won’t happen. Consider: Everyone is afraid that if their great rabbi speaks in another community, that community will discover him and hire him away. The other community is afraid that if another rabbi speaks, then the people will make like Moses and “exodus” to that Rabbi’s congregation. Therefore, having another rabbi speak only happens when the rabbi lives far enough away for people to not run over there. In doing so, people are keeping their greatest weapon (for good or evil — you decide) secret. They are also demonstrating a fear that their relationships aren’t strong enough. Banks build sticky relationship with customers by entwining themselves throughout their daily lives. Modern congregations are so detached this never happens. We need to make it happen so that we can be confident when we work with other congregations near us.



Talking the Talk

userpic=mlj-signWednesday night, I attended a calendaring meeting and a board meeting at $current_congregation. I was there at the request of the President of $mens_club, as the bum was off vacationing in Cancun. The things I do for my friends :-).

More seriously, I did attend the board meeting, and a few things about it have been sticking in my head… and the only way to get them out of there is to share. Hence, this post.

I’ve written in the past about how I would like to have $mens_club be a role model in how to do welcoming right. It appears that one of the themes of the board this year is similar — they are trying to establish relationships along the lines of those talked about by Rabbi Wolfson, and they were all energized to do this from the recent UAHC URJ Biennial. We did an exercise of doing elevator speeches about selling the congregation to someone you meet, and that word “welcoming” was constantly there. People were sharing their wonderful experiences about making friends, kids in the religious school, etc. I even shared about $mens_club.

But… but…

Something was off. I noticed it because I’m not a member of the board. This was my first meeting there. And other than the one person I know from Sisterhood who I sat next to (and who did calendaring with me), no other board member came over and greeted the new person. Translation: Although they talked being welcoming, they didn’t follow through with the stranger in their midst. This is the problem: we can all say we are welcoming, but it takes actual effort to break away from your friends and greet someone you don’t know. They had the opportunity to establish a new relationship, and potentially draw in a new volunteer (c’mon, if I’m stupid enough to attend a temple board meeting in someone’s absence, I can be talked into anything)… and they didn’t follow through. This is yet another example of just not seeing the little things that aren’t welcoming. Welcoming is more than a nametag and a hello: it is an attitude shift and (in many ways) a paradigm shift from the comfortable cliques.

I was also thinking, during the elevator pitches, about the pitches themselves. As someone who hasn’t had the positive experiences (other than with $mens_club), they weren’t resonating. Consider: someone who hadn’t seen the warmth was just hearing words about how warm the place was. What is needed (and I couldn’t put it in words at the time) is something that goes beyond words: doing something that demonstrates the warmth. Invitations. Personal connections. Now there was some of that in the speeches, but perhaps I’m too much of the colder computer scientist to always pick up on it. However (and I think this is important), when giving such speeches, one needs to be aware that you might be talking to someone like me. What do I want to hear? Tell me why this isn’t the typical Reform congregation — why this isn’t a marble house of plastic people.

I had a second observation on the meeting itself. The meeting consisted mostly of reports — there were almost no action items for the Board to act upon and discuss. Some of these reports went on longish, perhaps too longish. I’ve learned from my ACSAC meetings that meetings work best when condensed down to the actions that require the entire board to take, or short announcements that the entire Board needs to hear regarding upcoming due-dates. I didn’t get that sense here. Further, there was the sense of exclusion again. When there were committee reports, there was extensive attention paid to the $youth_group representative, who was new. Other groups that might have had items to report (I shyly raise my hand) were never given the opportunity. Why one group over the others? In short: more focus was needed — reports should be (a) from all committees and auxiliaries, and (b) highlighting upcoming actions and activities within a 60 day period (which is significant for publicity purposes). The focus should not be selecting particular groups to report, and then cutting off when the time limit is reached. Meetings are for the efficient conveying of information and the taking of necessary actions. Meetings are the forum for cross-committee interactions, or extra-committee or higher-level decisions. In particular, upcoming events should be discussed to ensure that there aren’t surprise impacts, and so that everyone can support and discuss them.

Will this scare me off of volunteering again. Probably not. This was a typical temple board meeting — I’ve been to my share. It only means that work of being the role model is even more important.


Learning from Political Compromise

userpic=tallitFor the past umpteen years, when I go to High Holyday services, I bring additional reading with me. No, it’s not a paperback novel. It is companion books like “Gates of Understanding 2“, S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe“, the Pirke Avot. Gates of Understanding 2 is particularly interesting, as it is “A religious commentary to help High Holy Days worshipers unlock the message behind the liturgy. Covers the history and tradition of the prayers, music in the service, synagogue poetry, the role of God, sin and repentance and much more. Also includes comprehensive notes to Gates of Repentance and a thorough index.” In particular GoU2 describes how this particular machzor (prayerbook) came to be in its present form — what was included, what wasn’t, and why.

This was highlighted for me last night when reading the history behind Kol Nidre, and its inclusion — or non-inclusion — in the Reform prayerbook. Kol Nidre is a mystical prayer dating back to the 12th century in Germany that nullifies vows made in anger or in haste. It was controversial for Reform because it implied to the larger community that Jews could not be trusted with their vows. So controversial was this discussion that in 1949 it was included in the first printing of Union Prayer Book (UPB) II, and then removed. Just that page was replaced with a double spaced prayer, the hebrew words for “Kol Nidre”, and in small type “The Kol Nidre Chant”. Even today an exact translation of the prayer in English is not in the prayerbook.

So today at services I brought with me the usual GOU2, but also a collection of older High Holyday Prayerbooks: UPB II, the Hillel prayerbook “On Wings of Awe”, and two prayerbooks produced by Temple Emet in the early 1980s. As we went through the service, I discovered that the current prayerbook was drawn from hither and yon (for example, Unetaneh Tokef was only in the YK Afternoon Service in UPBII), and many things were not translated the same.

So why am I telling you this? Any prayerbook — any service — is a political compromise. What you see on the page is the product of committees wrangling about what should be in or out to express a particular dogma or political point. Essentially, this means that you can’t pray wrong. If you don’t say the words, that’s OK. If you omit a particular prayer, that’s OK.

So what do you do? Again, the answer is in the prayerbook. The Torah portion from Deut. 30 (at least for Reform; traditional uses Lev. 18) emphasizes the need to make the right choice. The Haftorah, from Isaiah, does similar. Actions speak louder than words. Don’t just mouth the political compromise words about correcting failures. Change how you act and you behave. Don’t believe that sitting in a building twice a year will do it for you. Work to improve every day.

[And, to tie this back to the other themes I’ve discussed: Don’t just talk about a congregation being friendly and welcoming. Go out and welcome a stranger. Go out and make a friend. Don’t just talk about the connections that exist — make new ones, and strengthen existing ones. Let your actions be your prayers, and you can remake the world.]