The L.O.G. (Lox, Onions, Greens) Matzo Brei

This morning I conducted my first “Instagram Live” broadcast.  It featured me, alone in my kitchen, demo-ing how to make a savory Matzo Brei on the Sunday of Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach.  (Hilariously, my computer just autocorrected “Chol,” which means the intermediary days of a Festival, as opposed to “Chag,” the Festival Days themselves, which bookend the week, to “Cholesterol.”)FgRbZwnCQu6smpgC0QbOXA

A few nice folks who joined me Live have asked for the recipe.  So, here you go.  I didn’t really measure anything, so bear with me.

The L.O.G. (Lox, Onions, Greens) Matzo Brei by Jonathan Blake – Serves Four (4)

Cooking Time (including prep): 30 minutes

[Cooking Time for basic Matzo Brei (including prep):  5 minutes]


4 Sheets of Matzo (any type will do; if you’re using gluten-free, please plan to use less water to moisten the matzo)

Butter (3-4 TBSP) (You can substitute a neutral vegetable oil, like grape seed or safflower oil; I advise against olive oil for Matzo Brei, especially if you’re making a sweet (not savory) variation.  If you want to go super old-school, use schmaltz (chicken fat).

4 Eggs, whisked

2 medium onions, diced or thin-sliced

2 cups of chopped leafy greens (I used Swiss/Rainbow Chard; you can also use kale, spinach, arugula, or a mix)

1/4 lb. smoked salmon, chopped (I had on hand some cracked-black-pepper Nova)

Chopped herbs (e.g., chives, parsley) for garnish/finishing

Salt & Pepper to taste – go easy, throughout, if you’re using salty smoked salmon, which will flavor the dish.


Melt 1 TBSP butter in a nonstick skillet until it’s foaming and just staring to brown (don’t let it burn).

Add your onions and sauté until translucent, with browned edges – nice and caramelized is good.

Maybe a little salt & pepper here.

Add your greens and another 1 TBSP butter and sauté until completely wilted and maybe even a touch crispy, if you like that.

Remove the veggies from the pan, and set aside in a bowl.

Crumble 4 sheets of matzo in a separate bowl, into bite-sized pieces.  Don’t pulverize.  Just break it up.

SPRINKLE (do NOT douse) your matzo pieces with warm tap water, JUST ENOUGH to moisten the matzo.  DO NOT over-soak.  If it’s gluten-free matzo, even less.  You don’t want the matzo to disintegrate.  Use your hands to toss the matzo pieces around so that they’re all equally dampened.  Pour off any excess water.

Add your 4 whisked raw eggs to the matzo and toss/stir gently to incorporate completely.

Add another 1-1.5 TBSP butter to the skillet and set the heat to LOW.

When the butter is melted, add your matzo+egg mixture, gently spread throughout the pan, and let set for a couple of minutes.  When the butter is foaming along the edges of the Matzo Brei, use a spatula to toss the mixture around a bit – but go easy.  It’s like scrambling eggs the French way.  Low heat, slow & easy does it.

Incorporate your veggies and toss through.  Let cook for another minute.

Toss in the chopped lox and distribute evenly.  Cook for one more minute.  Don’t overcook, which will dry everything out.  Matzo Brei should be a bit moist (but not runny).  Maybe another dash of salt & pepper here.

Serve in bowls, or on plates, and finish with your chopped herbs.  Enjoy.

Chag Sameach, Mo’adim L’Simcha – Happy Passover!


To Be a Kohen in Our Time – SHABBAT TZAV 5780 – APRIL 3, 2020

Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Westchester Reform Temple

Pesach—which is just around the corner—is a time of questions.  At this juncture in the viral outbreak that has engulfed the globe, and which rages with particular ferocity right here in New York, we have more questions than answers:  

How long until the number of new infections reaches its peak and begins to subside? Will my loved ones remain safe?  How can I know who is telling us the truth? How badly will the pandemic damage the economy?  Is my job secure?  What will happen to my employees and those who depend on me?  What about my retirement prospects?  How will this crisis affect my children and grandchildren?  How many people will die before we bring the virus under control?   

These questions have no answers, at least no easy ones—just models and predictions, best-case-scenarios and worst-case scenarios.  

Still, what we might learn about ourselves, about the world, about what really matters, in this unforeseen and unwelcome turn of events, will surely provide ample material for reflection for a much time to come, and so I ask your forbearance as I muddle through along with you, doing my level best to make sense of life in this new reality, doing my best to teach Torah in a time unlike any other.  

And, at least for this teacher of Torah, one conclusion is already clear:  that we will never look at the Book of Leviticus the same way again.  

I confess that I, like many students of Torah, am guilty of not having given Leviticus its proper due, until now.  I confess that I, like many students of Torah, have furrowed my brow at its litanies of blood sacrifices; its arcane rituals incumbent on a Biblical Israelite community so far removed from us in space and time; its obsession with cataloguing every living thing and every conceivable experience as pure or impure, kosher or treyf, holy or profane.  I confess that, like many students of Torah, I have chuckled at its bizarre rulings and rituals, from the Yom Kippur tradition of casting the sins of the community upon the head of a hapless goat and then driving the poor animal off to die in the wilderness; or the disparities that Leviticus proposes for gender and sexuality:  without getting into too many details, that the Book basically favors men, and prefers for them to be straight; all of this and more has been met with an uncomfortable mixture of bewilderment and disdain.

Until now.  

Until now, when everything outside looks different and so the Torah looks different, too.  The words have not changed but we have changed.  The world has changed.  

Until now, when the word “plague” could not be spoken without a self-consciously Biblical appreciation for hyperbole—knowing how that word evokes blood and frogs and lice and any of the other nasty things we will mention at next week’s Seder.  

Until now, when the ideas of contagion, and purity, and enforced isolation, seemed abstract to all but epidemiologists who have always known that a microscopic virus could, in the worst of circumstances, decimate a civilization.  

Until now, when the notion of sacrifice no longer calls to mind the blood-soaked rituals of an archaic cult but rather the important, even life-saving measures that we might take now—the assertion that by giving something up, lives might be saved. 

Yet all of these comprise the core vocabulary of the Book of Leviticus.  Purity and impurity, contagion and quarantine, sacrifice and priestly dedication:  these are the building blocks of this Book.  

The fact that the Book of Leviticus seeks to classify the chaos of human existence into neat categories, delineated by clear boundaries—again, pure and impure, kosher and treyf, permitted and forbidden, holy and profane—says a lot about Jews and Judaism.

It certainly portends this moment.  When confronting a person with an ailment, the Kohen, the Levitical priest, would do something that resonates eerily with our time.  In dealing with a novel condition, the holiest, most life-saving work a priest could do would be to quarantine the symptomatic person for a week or more, until a diagnosis could be confirmed—and then have the patient ritually bathed before re-entry to the community.  In the absence of a cure:  isolation, rest and fluids—that’s the prescription.

The priest had no particular skill or training in medicine.  He was no shaman, no miracle-worker.  And yet, in the Book of Leviticus, the priest presides over the public health.  The tools at his disposal are rudimentary:  visual diagnosis, quarantine, scrupulous personal hygiene.  What the Kohen could bring to this often thankless and undoubtedly risky work was a human touch, a compassionate presence, a sacred responsibility to the suffering.

The priest also oversaw the sacrifices of the Israelite community—categorizing and accepting their freewill and mandated offerings, their gifts great and small, from rich and poor alike—that is, overseeing the social welfare system and the basic guarantee that the spiritual life of the Israelite community and especially its core institution, the temple, would remain ever vital.  

If you don’t see where I’m going with this, let me spell it out plainly:  we are now the priests, we the Kohanim.  The Book of Exodus charges us:  “You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  We.  Not just some elite class of religious officials.  All of us.  

We must now embody a sense of priestly responsibility to the public health, and a priestly orientation toward sacrifice—quite likely more, at this moment, than ever before in our lives.  We must each give of ourselves, distancing our physical presence when we most crave to be with the people we cherish.  (Here’s one way of thinking that I’ve found helpful:  we have never been asked to do so little in order to do so much:  by just sitting at home, we literally save lives.)

Let’s sacrifice for the greater good.  Let’s give of our time to call the people in our congregation and offer our support.  Let’s give of our financial resources to support the people in our congregation who need our help; and, let me even say here, let’s keep in mind the needs of our temple as we consider where we can make sacrifices, great or small, in time and in resources and in love, in order to keep our spiritual home vital through and after this crisis has passed.  

Let each of us become a priestly vehicle for the kind of sacrifices that Americans have not been asked to make in more than two generations.

On the front lines of this crisis we find heroes who embody all the noblest qualities of the Levitical priest:  the courage to meet the afflicted with compassion, the generosity to sacrifice of one’s self to serve those in greatest need.  And they are doing so under extraordinarily stressful and strained conditions.  Our healthcare workers are true Kohanim—they who bless and heal through their presence as much as through their wisdom and expertise.  

In anticipation of tonight’s service, WRT reached out to those congregants who serve in the healthcare sector.  Tonight we gather together as one community to say thank you, to bless you, even as you bless others.  Thank you for your service and thank you for your sacrifice.

If you, or someone in your circle of family or friendship, is performing the essential work of attending to the sick and their concerned loved ones, and you feel so moved to stand in your home, we feel honored to share with you this prayer by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen:

Prayer for the Healers

Adapted from Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen

May the One who blessed our ancestors
Bless all those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick
Physicians and nurses and orderlies
Technicians and home health aides
EMTs and pharmacists
Hospital social workers and respiratory therapists
And all our other frontline healthcare workers who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,
To tend to those they have sworn to help.
Bless them in their coming home and bless them in their going out.
Ease their fear. Sustain them.
Source of all breath, healer of all beings,
Protect them and restore their hope.
Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;
Keep them in health, that they may bring healing.
Help them know again a time when they can breathe without fear.
Bless the sacred work of their hands.
May this plague pass from among us, speedily and in our days.

And let us say:  Amen.

A Plea from a Member of WRT’s Medical Community, on the Front Lines of the Covid-19 Pandemic

“Please, Rabbi, just tell people this is real and it is nothing short of a horrifying war that I and my colleagues are fighting it in every way we possibly can.

But the more fight we put into it, the more risk we each personally take because we don’t have what we need, and the more patients come.  We feel powerless and are practicing medicine we never thought we would have to.

The best we can often do is hold a patient’s hand for the minute they pass, as they lie there alone.  Maybe we can ask about a family member we can call before they die.  Acknowledge them by saying their name aloud, and keeping silent for 5 seconds before moving on to the next patient.

When the patient in the next bed dies you see the terror in the roommate’s eyes.  They know they’re next, and we do too.  Many of these patients have never been sick before, or even ever in a hospital before.

Please tell people to stay home and really socially distance when they must go out.  REALLY.  And get everyone else to do the same.  My children get it, but I think many don’t.  Please help congregants understand, and spread the word.  We don’t have the weapons we need to fight this war now (for ourselves AND our patients’ safety) and the apex is still coming.  I don’t want to practice medicine like this ever again.

I just keep thinking every day that I have died and this is some surreal place I am in.  Or a fleeting nightmare.  But it’s not, and I know that.

Best wishes for your health and safety, and for all at WRT.”



Shabbat Shalom and welcome once again to our WRT Shabbat Live-Stream!  It’s good to be with you, even virtually.  I hope you are safe and healthy and negotiating this challenge with as much hope and equanimity of spirit as you can muster.

Tonight we complete the Book of Exodus.  For the last several weeks, we have been wandering in the wilderness, seeking shelter from the unknown.  That, at least, is what our recent Torah portions have been telling us.

The major project undertaken by the Israelite community over these consecutive Torah portions is the building of a communal Mishkan or sacred dwelling place, sometimes also called an Ohel Mo’ed or Tent of Meeting — that portable sanctuary in the wilderness where God would dwell among the Israelites on their journeys

It is ironic that our portion speaks of a communal, public gathering space at a time when public gatherings are off-limits, when they carry grave risks, when each of us is doing our part, our communal responsibility not to gather, not to worship together, not to come to our beautiful sanctuary to pray and sing and take shelter, and find comfort in the presence of our community.

The Torah recognizes that we need such spaces; that to be deprived of them is to feel isolated, even removed from the very presence of God who dwells among the people when we come together for a holy purpose

But, still, we are doing what we must, and it is heartening that we can utilize some technological innovations to bring us together in virtual space even when we can’t convene in real space.

And, although the Torah emphasizes, in elaborate detail, all the physical elements of the Mishkan — its specific measurements, down to the very last cubit; its fabric curtains and wooden supports; its metal clasps and woven ornamentation; its copper vessels and the golden Ark of the Covenant at the heart of the structure… even, with all of this, if we read carefully, we can learn that the physical structure was not the essence of the Mishkan.

We can all certainly relate.  Here I stand, in our beautiful sanctuary…. But, as lovely and warm and inspiring as our building is—and it is—the building itself is not what makes WRT our spiritual home, our tent of meeting, our place for encountering the community and the Divine.  

If we pay attention to what the Torah tells us about the Tabernacle, we learn that it is, rather, three other noteworthy aspects of the Mishkan that truly define the project as sacred and its purpose, Divine.

First, the Torah makes clear that contributing to, and constructing, and furnishing, and finishing the tent is a project shared among the entire community.  Moses may direct the work, but every person is invited to donate precious resources toward the Mishkan — and “whosoever’s heart was moved,” the Torah says, gave, and supported, and sustained this project.  I know from my years serving WRT that what makes our Mishkan special is so much more than our beautiful campus—it’s the way in which so many of your hearts and souls have given generously in supporting our mission.  We need you, and we need each other, now more than ever.  I want to say thank you to everyone who has asked how to reach out and sustain the community.  I want to say thank you to everyone who has placed a loving phone call, text, or email, checking in on a friend, a relative, a fellow congregant.  It is this shared communal commitment that makes our tent holy.  Starting earlier this week, and continuing for as long as our campus will remain closed for public gatherings, we will continue to share with our congregational community ideas for supporting the members of our extended community, whether that’s through a contribution to Feeding Westchester, our local Food Bank, or the temple’s own Hungry and Homeless Fund, which will provide for people in our community hit hard by the pandemic, or through virtual outreach.  Each of us can give of ourselves in bringing a little bit of hope at this anxious time, a little bit of light in the darkness.

Secondly, I would invite us to note the verse in which God commands Moses to build the Tabernacle.  In this instruction, God describes the blueprint for the Tabernacle as a pattern, the Hebrew word tavnit.  A Midrash imagines that when God showed Moses the pattern for the Tabernacle, an image of the structure appeared before the prophet as a constellation of multicolored fire, almost like a hologram.  Moses balked and said, “Where on earth am I going to get multicolored fire to build this thing?”  To which God responded, “No, Moses!  I have my materials; you’ll use yours.”  

In this lesson, I think, the Rabbis are suggesting that we, human beings, have to do our best, with our earthly materials, to emulate the pattern that God has in mind for the world.  So, we can’t gather in our usual Tabernacle, in all its physical beauty, its wood and glass and fabric; instead, we have to follow the pattern by creating new ways of praying together — like this one.  In virtual space, we create a pattern of the Tabernacle.  We may not be able to replicate the look of WRT in our living rooms.  But we can replicate, to the best of our ability, the feel of WRT, in our shared yearnings, in the pattern of our prayer, in our common hopes and dreams, in our shared will to overcome whatever challenge has been placed before us.

And finally, we should note well that when God invites the Israelites to build a Mishkan, a Tent of Meeting, it does not actually promise that, upon its completion, God will reside there.  We do not, we cannot, build earthly structures that can contain God.  What the Torah does promise is that if we build a Tabernacle after a Godly pattern, then God will dwell among them—among the people.  

So where is God?  Here in this sanctuary with me?  Maybe, but certainly not exclusively.  In fact, I need to tell you, it’s lonely in here, and I miss you.  What I do feel is that God is among us tonight, among the people – with you, with all of us.  God is among the infected in hospital beds, and among the quietly heroic doctors and nurses who are caring for them.  God is among all those public health workers, scientists, and servants of the common good who are promoting a rigorous protocol to mitigate the spread of the disease; who are researching a vaccine and treatments to alleviate the damage; who are communicating honestly and without sensationalism about our responsibility to save and protect life as one human family, all in the same boat together. 

V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, says God:  “Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” – among the people, among us.  

Dwell, O God, among us now, as we each seek shelter in our own Tabernacles of home and health and hope.  Dwell with us, with our community, with all who need you most, in our time of shared need.  

Let us say the words that are shared whenever a Book of Torah is completed.  Now, as we finish the Book of Exodus, we say — Chazak, Chazak, v’nitchazeik:  Be strong, be strong, and, together, we will give strength to one another. 



Jewish Humor Video Playlist, 1990-2020

Hi everyone,

Here’s the playlist for the 3rd and final session of my winter Jewish Humor class.  I figured it was worth putting online, especially with many of us looking for a smile or two in these difficult hours.

Please stay safe and well – and keep in touch.




Jerry Seinfeld (1989 – 1998)


George Hates the Jews:

Jewish Food:

Yada Yada Yada:


Soup Nazi:

Garry Shandling/The Larry Sanders Show (1992 – 1998)

“Hey Now” – with Jeffrey Tambor –

Larry David/Curb Your Enthusiasm – 

Palestinian Chicken Place –

Survivor –

Montage – Curb’s Guide to Being Jewish –

With Richard Lewis:

Larry David Accepts the Laurel Award:

As Bernie Sanders:

See full clip starting at 5:50 –

Adam Sandler

Chanukah Song:

The Zohan:  Hummus –

On Howard Stern chanting Torah blessings (this is amazing) –

(Stern has called himself “King of All Media” since 1992; his biographical film “Private Parts” is from 1997.)

The Simpsons

FYI, … “[H]alf the show’s writers are Jewish as are three of the main voice actors — Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson), Hank Azaria (Moe Szyslak, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Duffman) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner).  “The place is sort of like a kibbutz, only more Jewish,” he said, throwing out one-liners that would have made Henny Youngman proud.  Reiss showed clips of a few Jewish moments in the show, including the backstory of Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, better known as Krusty the Clown, the son of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. The rabbi was voiced by Jackie Mason; Reiss described him as one of his favorites among the 800 or so guest stars the show has featured.  There also are several recurring characters in the show who are portrayed as Jewish, including Duffman, Superintendent Chalmers, Dolph Starbeam and a nursing home resident simply known as Old Jewish Man” (from

Krusty the self-hating Jew –

The Coen Brothers

A Serious Man – The Junior Rabbi –

A Serious Man – The Goy’s Teeth –

A Serious Man – Opening Scene (Yiddish) –

The Rabbi is Busy –

(Start film at 9:00)

Andy Samberg – 

With Ben Stiller as Jewish Willy Wonka:

As Moishe Samberg With Cornelius Timberlake:

Sarah Silverman

Being Jewish vs. Being Black –

On Piers Morgan, The World Hates Jews –

On the Holocaust:

Hitler Goes to Heaven –

Amy Schumer

On Being Jewish:

On Radio Show:

Tiffany Haddish – on Fallon

Detour:  The Canadians

Rick Moranis

Eugene Levy (and now his son Dan Levy, Schitt’s Creek)

Lorne Michael

Seth Rogen on Thanksgiving –

“The Night Before” Trailer –

Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Seth Rogen Rap Battle:

Harold Ramis (SCTV, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day)

Jon Stewart

On Israel:

JAP Battle

Jack Black

Jack Black talks about being Jewish –

Sacha Baron Cohen

On comedy –

Throw the Jew Down the Well –

The Running of the Jew –

Borat – Self Defense:

Ali G. On Religion:

Bruno Makes Peace in the Middle East –

Behind the Scenes:

On Jimmy Kimmel, Borat does Election Tampering:

Erran Morad – Who is America?

Rain Pryor – 

Fried Chicken & Latkes –

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Yidlife Crisis feat. Rabbi Lisa Grushcow


This is my play list for the second night of “What Makes Jewish Humor Funny?  What Makes it Jewish?” – an overview of American Jewish Comedy (TV/FILM) from The Marx Brothers to “When Harry Met Sally.”


  1. Horse Feathers – “Swordfish” –
  2. Duck Soup – “Mirror Scene” –
  3. Duck Soup –
  4. Duck Soup –
  5. Duck Soup – “These are my Spies” –
  6. 3) “Night in Casablanca” –


The act originally featured Moe Howard (born Harry [Moshe] Moses Horwitz), brother Shemp Howard (born [Shmuel] Samuel Horwitz, and longtime friend Larry Fine (born Louis [Levi] Feinberg). Shemp was later replaced by brother Curly Howard (born Jerome Lester [Yehudah-Leib] Horwitz) in 1933. When Curly suffered a debilitating stroke in 1946, Shemp rejoined. 

JERRY LEWIS (Joseph Levitch):

SID CAESAR (Isaac Sidney Caesar (family name Ziser) / YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS:  

Clock: (written by Danny and Neil Simon!)

“Gallipacci” – (Start at 7:34)

Argument to Beethoven’s 5th:


DANNY KAYE (David Daniel Kaminsky): “Accents” –

PETER SELLERS – Inspector Clouseau –

Dr. Strangelove –


HENNY  YOUNGMAN (Henry Yungman)On Ed Sullivan:

JACK BENNY (Benjamin Kubelsky) –

MILTON BERLE (Mendel Berlinger) ––c4bGfOtrI

GEORGE BURNS (Nathan Birnbaum) – Roasting Jimmy Stewart –

BUDDY HACKETT (Leonard Hacker)A Guy Goes to the Doctor –

JOAN RIVERS (Joan Alexandra Molinsky):

DON RICKLES: Roasting Reagan –

Roasting Jack Klugman –

ALAN KING (Alan Kniberg) Classic bit on Letterman – Start at 1:08 –



I Hate You:

Interfaith Dating:–kLKTGzaQ

Insurance Policy on my Life:

Elaine May (Elaine Berlin) & Mike Nichols – “Mother & Son” –

JACKIE MASON (Yacov Moshe Maza)“Psychiatrist” –

JACK KLUGMAN & TONY RANDALL (Aryeh Leonard Rosenberg):


“Catholic” – Hannah & Her Sisters –

“Nazis” – Manhattan –

“A Bigot but for the Left” – Annie Hall

“Easter Dinner” – Annie Hall –

Opening Scene – Annie Hall –

BILLY CRYSTAL – “When Harry Met Sally” –

GILDA RADNER – SNL, “Jewess Jeans” –

SNL, “Rosanne Rosannadanna” –

LENNY BRUCE (Leonard Alfred Schneider) – “Jewish and Goyish”:

ANDY KAUFMAN: “The Fonz Look-Alike” w/ Dick Van Dyke – (start at 2:36)


“The 2000 Year Old Man” w/ Carl Reiner –

“Put the Candle Back,” Young Frankenstein –

Marty Feldman & Gene Wilder – “Frankenstein and Igor” –

Blazing Saddles – “Yiddish Indian” –

High Anxiety – Trailer –

“The Schwartz,” Spaceballs –

“Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers –

Hearing the Call, Seeing the Flame

Shemot 5780:  Installation of Rabbi Alexis Berk, Temple Solel, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California

What does it mean to be called to spiritual leadership?

You might suppose that we rabbis and cantors would have this question all figured out.  

You’d be wrong.  

Twenty years ago this June, when Alexis and I presented ourselves for rabbinical ordination in Cincinnati, Ohio—she, just two minutes before me, “Berk” before “Blake”… and “Buchdahl” would have been next, had she come to the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College, like she was supposed to, instead of running off to New York to become a cantor AND a rabbi, the show-off—twenty years ago, Alexis and Angela and I probably thought we had it all figured out, too, what it means to be called to spiritual leadership.  

After all:

We love Judaism; we love learning and teaching Torah, leading and participating in prayer, Jewish music and culture, holidays and rituals.  We love Shabbat.  We love public speaking even when you do not love that we love public speaking.  We love the Jewish people—quirks and all.  We love the non-Jewish people who find their way into our synagogues and homes.  We love a good Talmudic debate.  We love questions more than we crave answers.  Alexis especially – Rabbi Berk loves questions.  You should ask her about that, sometime.

But, you know, time goes by, and all the reasons that impel a person to choose this path, to choose, willingly, to lead a congregation, to put up with the long hours and more than a few kvetches (one of those aforementioned quirks of the Jewish people), begin to grow hazy.  You get consumed in the day-to-day.  You realize that it’s not all holy moments, the weddings and B’nei Mitzvah, the solemn rites of passage, the sacred encounters at hospital bedsides, or by the grave, to give comfort in moments of need.  It’s also board meetings and budgets, the mom who can’t abide her kid’s Bar Mitzvah date; it’s Rosh Ha-Shanah falling on your birthday and Shavuot on your anniversary and a Bat Mitzvah on your kid’s dance recital, and, well….  

Well, the flame that used to burn bright and clear as a noonday sun, begins to flicker, maybe even fade.  And that’s when you really need to pay attention and figure out what it means to be called to spiritual leadership—again and again—so that, twenty years into your rabbinate or cantorate, thirty years, forty, maybe even more, you can still hear the call.

And so it is that Rabbi Alexis Berk has been called to Temple Solel, called to serve as your spiritual leader.  Yes, there was a process—a thorough process.  To your rabbinic search committee, let me say:  Excellent, excellent choice.  

And yes, there’s the allure of the location; arriving here in the middle of January makes me question the sanity of living in New York altogether.  And yes, there’s the fact that Temple Solel is a special congregation; I know you’ve already figured this out, but Rabbi Berk is the kind of spiritual leader who could have gone anywhere—including Anywhere, San Diego—but she’s here because you are here.  And yes, there’s a contract, with a salary, and benefits—but, let’s face it, you don’t become a rabbi or cantor for the money (not even Angela, who’s both a rabbi and a cantor.  Well, maybe Angela).  No, there still has to be a calling—you still have to see the flame.

And that does take us to this week’s Torah portion—of course.

It’s Parashat Shemot—the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus—that we read this week, the story of Moses’s own calling to spiritual leadership.  And who better to answer our question, who better to consult on the meaning of the call than the one we call Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, Our Rabbi?  

 וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה הָיָ֥ה רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֛אן יִתְר֥וֹ חֹתְנ֖וֹ כֹּהֵ֣ן מִדְיָ֑ן וַיִּנְהַ֤ג אֶת־הַצֹּאן֙ אַחַ֣ר הַמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיָּבֹ֛א אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים חֹרֵֽבָה׃

 וַ֠יֵּרָא מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָֹ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃

 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה מַדּ֖וּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַ֥ר הַסְּנֶֽה׃

 וַיַּ֥רְא יְהוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

 וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

Moses was out shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian.  He drove the sheep out into the wilderness, until he came up on the Mountain of God, at Horeb [also called Sinai].  A messenger of Adonai appeared unto him in flames of fire from within the bush; he looked, and, what do you know? The bush was burning with fire but the bush was not consumed.  Moses said to himself, “I should turn aside to see this wondrous sight—why is the bush not burning up?  When Adonai observed that he had turned aside to look, God called out unto him from within the bush, saying, “Moses, Moses!”  And Moses answered Hineni, here I am.  And God said, “Come no closer; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.

Pretty much everything you need to know about what it means to be called to spiritual leadership appears within this passage.  Let me highlight three, each of which is embodied by the person we now call Rabbeinu, our Rabbi, Alexis Berk, who has been called to lead this holy congregation. 

First—the passage is overpopulated with one Hebrew verb, the word Ro’eh.  When spelled with an Aleph in the middle of the word, Ro’eh means to see.  First, Moses sees the messenger of God speaking out of the middle of the bush.  Then, Moses sees that the bush is burning but not consumed.  Then Moses determines to turn aside and see more closely the phenomenon he describes as a “wondrous sight,” using the same root word.  Then God sees that Moses has turned aside to see.  All in all, that’s six iterations of the word “to see” in the space of four verses, not to mention the pun at the top of the passage, when Moses is out shepherding, in Hebrew, the homonym Ro’eh, but spelled with an Ayin instead of an Aleph.  

Shepherding a flock does require a good deal of seeing, after all.  One must look carefully after all one’s members—and be willing to journey out into the wilderness after the ones that go astray.  The rabbi has to look deeply and gently at each person in order to understand his and her uniqueness, his and her innermost humanity.  

The Rabbi is, indeed, expected to be a seer, of sorts.  Not a prophet, to be sure, but a person possessed of vision and clarity of insight.  We invite such leaders into our congregations not to preserve the status quo but to move us forward.  We trust such leaders to see, or, better, to envision, our destinations even when we cannot see what lies on the horizon.  

And the Rabbi is expected to be a good overseer too, one who can guide and inspire not only her congregation but also her clergy colleagues and staff, to help bring that vision to reality.  

In all these ways and more, you have called upon a great seer to lead Temple Solel.  Rabbi Berk possesses vision—both clear-sightedness and farsightedness, an ability to discern and articulate destiny and purpose.  She knows how to move her community forward, as her last decade of exemplary leadership of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans will attest.  She is observant.  I don’t mean Jewishly observant, although in all the ways that count, she’s that too, in her deeply, authentically, beautifully Reform Jewishly observant way.  I mean, even more, that she observes keenly.  She sees the needs and feelings of others.  She is observant of her surroundings, observant of herself—that is to say, profoundly self-aware.  

The Rabbis observe in the Midrash—those volumes of commentary and story-making on the Torah—that it was Moses’s own observance—his own capacity to stop and look and take note, and really see what was going on with that bush—that prompted God to call him to leadership in the first place.  How long does it take to stare at a burning bush before one notices that it’s not burning up? the Rabbis asked.  How many of us would run in the other direction, go back to chasing that wayward sheep, call the fire department—anything but stay right there, in that place, in that moment, until the ordinary sight revealed itself to be extraordinary?  Let us then celebrate the vision and insight and deep seeing that you have brought to the leadership of your congregation.  

And, while we’re at it, let us resolve to be patient and observant, too, as we invite Alexis to take the time she needs to get to know Solel—to see us, really, truly, and deeply, even as we take the time to see her in all her dimensionality before we think we have her all figured out.  Because, and I speak from experience, she’s a person of many, many layers.  

Which takes us to the second feature of the call to spiritual leadership that we might observe in a close reading of our passage.

“Take off your sandals,” God instructs, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  After seeing, the next step is to take off one’s shoes.  And that is, well, let’s just name it, a bit weird.  And, possibly, depending on where those shoes have been, even a bit stinky.  

Is God inviting Moses to a yoga class, or a Japanese restaurant, or a walk on the beach?  Alexis likes all of those things, and the abundance of all three in San Diego is surely appealing to her, but there has to be more to this whole “take off your sandals” thing.  

Watch closely how Rabbi Berk conducts herself and you will begin to understand its meaning.  For the call to spiritual leadership requires that the rabbi does not elevate herself above her people.  The shoes have to come off in order to see eye-to-eye.  Yes, yes, before you pipe up—I know that Rabbi Berk does not actually need to make herself shorter in order to see you.  It’s a metaphor—a sign of humility.  Alexis knows before whom she stands.  She will never elevate herself above you.  She will never pretend to know more than you when she doesn’t.  And when she does know more than you, as when she’s teaching (and she is such a gifted teacher), she will never make you feel stupid or inadequate.   She will always make it clear how much your questions, your presence as a learner, your own insights into the text or the tradition matter, how much they add to her own understanding.  

And, as much as she knows that she has come to serve you, and not the other way around, her shoes are also always off when it comes to her service of God, above all, above all else.  Rabbi Berk gets that, wherever we walk, it is always holy ground—that there is no experience, no place, no encounter, devoid of the possibility of holiness, of spiritual elevation.  

Which takes us to the third and final element about the call to spiritual leadership—the part that comes after this passage, when Moses goes back down the mountain.  

Perhaps you have heard about one Mrs. Lenore Berkowitz, who at the age of 80 resolved to go see the guru.  Her friends all thought she was crazy!  Go all the way across the world, to Tibet, to see the guru, who sat all day on a high mountain in the lotus position, eyes serenely closed in contemplative silence?  What could the guru offer that she couldn’t find in shul?  Nevertheless she booked her flight and packed her bag and left.  As the sherpa guided her frail steps up the mountain, they warned her that every pilgrim would have only three words to speak to the guru before he would dispense his wisdom.  Up the steep trail she trekked until finally she stood before the guru.  “Remember, just three words,” said the sherpa.  Mrs. Berkowitz nodded.  Leaning close to the guru she said:  

“Sheldon, come home!”   

We should all be suspicious any so-called guru who never comes down off the mountain.  The call to spiritual leadership always sends us back to the people.  The people who are at the foot of the mountain.  You have called this rabbi and her beautiful family, Bob, Ari, and Seth—back home—to the place she has always belonged.  

And not just because Alexis has been in a lifelong love affair with Southern California.  

More than any rabbi I have ever met, Alexis believes that her calling has brought her into a binding covenant with the people.  We met in our first year of rabbinical school, twenty-five years ago, when she sat next to me in Ulpan, which is Hebrew school for grownups.  In know what you’re thinking—Berk before Blake—but this was before she was Berk, back when she was Alexis Gerber, like the baby food, only less mushy.  Over twenty five years, your Rabbi has demonstrated time and again to me and Kelly her wisdom, compassion, good nature, humor, and the kind of friendship that endures through thick and thin.   

She moved me to change my own position on officiation at interfaith weddings, explaining, simply and profoundly, that a rabbi belongs with his or her people in all the moments of their lives, in all their choices, and can help any couple, any family, affirm its covenant with the Jewish tradition, especially when others might abandon them.  

When it comes to pursuing a more just and equitable society, Rabbi Berk will walk among her people.  When teaching, she will learn alongside you.  When leading prayer, she prays with you.  When preaching, she speaks not from the lofty perch but from the lived experience of our shared human journey—from the awareness that we are all stumbling through this wilderness together, this wilderness called life.  If she says something from the bimah that stirs your curiosity, or discomfort, or tears, or rage, or a laugh—and she will—please, do yourself a favor, and make an appointment to see her.  I promise you, it’ll be one of the best conversations you’ll ever have.  

And there will be tea.

The word for flame in the Jewish tradition is lahav.  The word also turns up inside the Hebrew word Hitlahavut, meaning “enthusiasm” (or enzusiazm as our Ulpan teacher Chanah Shafir would have said).  

We wish you and your new rabbi hitlahavut in your shared calling.  May the flame of inspiration, compassion, justice, joy, and learning burn brightly within her and within the collective heart of this congregation.  To echo a favorite prayer from our Siddur:

“Help us to see wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.  And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  ‘How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!’”   

Shabbat Shalom!


End-of-Year Favorite Music List (2019)

It’s here! Favorite Music of 2019, ranked 50-1 by album. What a spectacular year for music this was. I know it’s not technically the end of the decade (that’ll happen December 31, 2020), but this year feels like we’re going out on a high note indeed.
50. Thom Yorke, Anima
49. Josh Ritter, Fever Breaks
48. The Highwomen (self-titled)
47. Dori Freeman, Every Single Star
46. Charlie Marie (self-titled)
45. Bedouine, Bird Songs of a Killjoy
44. Karen O & Danger Mouse, Lux Prima
43. A Winged Victory For the Sullen, The Undivided Five
42. Lankum, The Livelong Day
41. Caroline Polachek, Pang
40. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County
39. Pernice Brothers, Spread the Feeling
38. Dykeritz, Madrigals
37. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
36. Clairo, Immunity
35. Allison Moorer, Blood
34. Federale, No Justice
33. Fink, Bloom
32. The New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
31. Calexico + Iron & Wine, Years to Burn
30. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
29. Aldous Harding, Designer
28. Joe Henry, The Gospel of Water
27. Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
26. Jessica Pratt, Quiet Signs
25. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
24. Elbow, Giants of All Sizes
23. John Paul White, The Hurting Kind
22. Mike and the Moonpies, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold
21. Kalie Shorr, Open Book
20. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Later
19. (Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar
18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen
17. Caroline Spence, Mint Condition
16. Wilco, Ode to Joy
15. Purple Mountains (self-titled)
14. Emily Scott Robinson, Traveling Mercies
13. Jay Som, Anak Ko
12. Brittany Howard, Jaime
11. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
Top Ten
10. Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
I haven’t enjoyed a power-pop album this much since Fountain of Wayne’s perfect opus, Welcome Interstate Managers back in 2005. It’s in that echelon: a band hitting its stride, armed with supreme confidence and a vault of sticky hooks. (For similar fare, check out No. 39 on this year’s list.)
9. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
I have not taken much pleasure in a Springsteen album since the 80’s – until now. Western Stars offers a tightly connected suite of sweeping, cinematic arrangements mated to some of his sharpest and most poignant storytelling, where we meet a cast of drifters, dreamers, and ordinary Joes moving forward against the bruises and setbacks life has handed them. A fantastic late-career offering that suggests that the creative well runs deep and strong as ever. It’s also one of two album covers in this year’s top to feature a nice photo of a horse. (The other is Love and Revelation, No. 7 below.)
8. Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
It’s like Astral Weeks, only not so astral — just “weeks.”  Ordinary Weeks.  Brilliantly constructed across four sides (as in vinyl; it all fits on a single CD), Callahan offers musings and oblique meditations on writer’s block (this is his first album in six years, during which time he got married and had a child, which apparently conspired against his creativity); how it “feels good to be writing again”; the often overlooked, mundane grace of domestic life; the meaning of true love; and, on the last “side,” the inevitable shadow of mortality and finality. Not a word is wasted, not a guitar flourish or percussive chatter out of place. There are so many quotable lines, it’s hard to pick just one. Consider: “Angela, whoa Angela, like motel curtains, we never really met.” Shepherd is another Callahan high-water mark in a career full of them. It is, easily, his happiest album — he sounds serene, not somber; pensive, not resigned—everything, even a final, birdseye view of a graveyard, is shot through with hope. And couldn’t we all use a little of that now?
7. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation
Over the Rhine is the band that anyone who knows me knows I’ve been evangelizing about for the last 23 years – ever since I first heard them play in a tiny coffeeshop/hangout in Downtown Cincinnati, Kaldi’s. (Alas, Kaldi’s is no more.) Since then, the husband and wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have gotten only better and wiser, in their song-craft, their lyrics, and especially their music-making together. Kelly and I spent Memorial Day weekend this year on their property, Nowhere Farm, about an hour outside Cincinnati, for the Nowhere Else mini-festival that they’ve been curating under a big tent on their lawn for the past 3 or 4 years. Love and Revelation, their latest set, is a lean and lovely collection of 11 songs, the best writing they’ve done this decade, and possibly since their masterpiece double album “Ohio” (2003) (off of which they played a few tracks in concert this spring. Here’s a link to tickets to the Festival in 2020, if you want to join Kelly and me on the farm – we’d love to see you!
6. Big Thief, U.F.O.F. & Two Hands
I know, it’s really not fair to put both of these albums down on a single line, but I needed to include both. Although U.F.O.F. dropped in May and Two Hands in October, it seems as if the two function together as a proper double album, the first more hushed, intimate, and delicately constructed; the latter more rough, more aggressive, less meticulous—but, equally devastating in their lyrical focus and musical intensity. Compare the searing “Not” from Two Hands to the pastoral “Cattails” from U.F.O.F. and despite the obvious differences in instrumentation, tone, and content (the first is about how, in the words of a Genius (the website) reviewer, “to negate a thing is also to posit that very thing, making vivid, alluring, even present, the elements or events that are to be cancelled or set aside” (S/he’s a smart reviewer.); the second is a tender promise to a loved one who is dying), what you get from the two side-by-side is their commonality, how they share Big Thief’s overarching commitment to remind us at all times that (and here I’m quoting PItchfork’s wonderful review of Two Hands) “intimacy isn’t just about the comfort we bring to each other but also the proximity to our sickness and pain, blood and guts.” In most other years, this could easily have been a Number One on my list; it’s just that 2019 was too darn good.
5. Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka
I’ve heard this album described variously as R&B, Soul, and something I’ve never heard of before, called Psych-Soul, which seems to fit best. It certainly shares DNA with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, minus the raw political edge and explicitly accusatory tone. You’ll still pick up a searching quality to Kiwanuka’s writing, which touches on brutality inflicted communities of color (“Hero”), the anxiety of unmoored isolation (“Solid Ground”), and the quest for love, truth, and faith in a world that would deny them all. And there’s that yearning, burnished, smoky voice.
4. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!
….In which all of Lana Del Rey’s thematic fetishes coalesce around a pungent vision of America (Los Angeles stands for America in the Del Rey lexicon) and the corrupted American Dream: the potent allure of beaches and summertime, high-gloss cars and celebs, man-children and fake dolls, drugs and alcohol, romance and capitalism, with a sickly sweet smell of decay just beneath its surface. It’s all wrapped in a strong set of piano ballads and vintage Laurel Canyon arrangements. It has every bit the feel of one of those classic Seventies AM radio records. Producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff nails the texture. It even has something no one every thought we’d need: a Sublime cover song. All this, and one of the greatest opening lines of a pop album — ever. Which makes me wonder: what are the best opening album lines of all time? I’d put a vote in for: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying…”). Or Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”) Or Simon & Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence (“Hello darkness, my old friend…”). Or Steely Dan, Aja (“In the corner of my eye / I saw you in Rudy’s / You were very high…”). Or literally any album opener by Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello. We’ll play this game some time.
3. FKA Twigs, Magdalene
Prepare to be gobsmacked by Twigs’ second proper full-length. As the title suggests, the British singer/dancer’s album explores the intersection of the sacred and the profane, the madonna- and whore- archetypes. Somewhere I read a listener’s appraisal of Magdalene as the 2010’s answer to Bjork’s landmark Homogenic (1997), and the comparison works. You’ll also hear shades of Kate Bush, James Blake, ARCA, Nicolas Jaar…. The videos are absolutely mind-blowing.  (Check out the video for “Cellophane” to understand how twigs deploys madonna/whore images.)
2. Better Oblivion Community Center (self-titled)
Here’s an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Indie-folk godfather Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos), who has about a zillion albums to his credit, and relative newcomer Phoebe Bridgers, who has one, teamed up to write this album together – and it’s a little gem. Every song is a self-contained a diary, coalescing as a deeply affecting whole around a shared gaze on mortality, a mordant sense of humor, and a commitment to tunefulness rarely heard among indie artists these days. I hope they keep this project going—I like it better than just about anything Oberst has done as a solo artist. It’s clear that Bridgers has become a muse most suitable to his prodigious gifts, and a hell of a songwriter in her own right. Save for one album (see No. 1, below), no set of songs got more in my head in 2019 than this.
1. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
Stone. Cold. Classic. Since its release in early April, Natalie Merling’s new album (she records as Weyes (rhymes with “Wise”) Blood) didn’t leave regular rotation. Think of Enya crossed with the Carpenters, but with the songwriting scope of a Jackson Browne. In fact, Titanic Rising reminds me of no other album such as Browne’s gorgeous, plaintive Late for the Sky (1974), for the dramatic expansiveness of the writing, the lush orchestration, the interconnected motifs among the songs (water, water everywhere), and the emotional sweep of the album as a whole. In all, a modern masterpiece.