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The Book Is Better

This article by library volunteers Barbara Breakstone and Doris Gould originally appeared in the August 2017 KOL.

We got into a conversation about books made into movies recently.  

zookeepers wifeBB: I had just seen The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) and thought it trivialized the Holocaust. The non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman was about a woman who ran a zoo in Warsaw during World War II and was able to shelter about 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. Mainly, I thought Jessica Chastain was just too perfect, never a missed step, angelic with the
animals, saintly with the refugees, perhaps sacrificial with the German zoo keeper who wants a “relationship.” No sense of the horrors of the Holocaust in this movie, a sanitized version of the book.




exodusDG: I remember Exodus (1960) as the earliest movie from a book, by Leon Uris, that I read and saw. Oh, those long descriptions of UN debates and diplomatic maneuvering in the book! But, the movie concentrated on the compelling blue eyes of Paul Newman and his character Ari Ben-Canaan, the major hero of the story.  Sal Mineo, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Peter Lawford – great cast – acting in a movie whose script was written by Dalton Trumbo. The Am Shalom book group discussed Exodus a few years ago – it’s held up surprisingly well.

DG: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper, became a movie in 2014. The story is of a fairly secular Jewish family whose husband/father has died and the mother asks her four children and their partners to not only come back for the funeral (of course), but to also have a full seven day shiva, which of course is beset with all kinds of sibling and other relationship goings-on. We both thought the characters and relationships were more nuanced and real in the book.

DG: The June Am Shalom book group discussed The Chosen, by Chaim Potok.  The book is celebrating its 50th anniversary and we found the story of two Jewish boys, one Hasidic and one Modern Orthodox, in post-World War II New York City, certainly stood the test of time. In the movie, made in 1981, Robby Benson and Rod Steiger are the Hasidic boy and his father (who is the leader of this particular Hasidic sect); Barry Miller and Maximilian Schell play the Modern Orthodox
characters. In addition to contrasting Hasidism and Modern Orthodoxy, the book brought the boys together in friendship based on like interests and
provided some insight to post-WWII American history and the founding of Israel.

gentlemans agreementBB: One of the older movies (1947) adapted from a book is Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson. Gregory Peck plays a journalist who is asked to write a series of articles in post-WWII America on anti-Semitism. Peck decides to post as a Jew and experiences all sorts of anti-Semitism, both blatant and veiled. Gentleman’s Agreement won three Oscars, including Best Picture. I have not read the book nor seen the movie for years, but I remember them as extremely compelling.

Finally, how can we write this column without mentioning Shindler’s List, the 1993 movie adapted from the book of the same title, in which Oskar Shindler, a German businessman, starts a company that makes cookware and utensils in World War II Poland and ends up saving the lives of over 1,100 Jews who worked at his factory. Both Thomas Keneally’s book and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation and direction were outstanding.

So many other movie adaptations exist. Go to, for examples of other adaptions. While you are there, search around the Jewish Book Council site; lots of good stuff exists there.

We hope you are having a terrific summer, with lots of good books and lots of good movies! Stop by the library and check out a book for summer reading! Thanks to our volunteers, who labor, even in the summer, to keep the library organized and interesting. And thank you to all of you who make donations to the Library and Technology Fund – that is where the money for new books comes from!

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Caramel-Apple Hamantaschen

Hamantaschen Dough


2 sticks margarine, softened
1 cup sugar
6 eggs
5 to 6 cups flour
4 rounded teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Pre-sift together flour and baking powder. Begin with 5 cups.

3. Beat margarine and sugar til creamy. Add eggs one at a time. Add 5 cups pre-sifted flour and baking powder. Add 6th cup of flour if necessary. Add vanilla. Mix well.

4. Roll dough very thin on wooden board with rolling pin.

5. Cut rolled dough into circles with the rim of a glass or a round cookie cutter.

6. Place filling in the middle of the circle - about a scant teaspoon for the small size. If larger circles, use more filling. Pinch the circle to create a three cornered shape.

7. Place on cookie sheet and bake until light brown. Watch your oven - do not over-bake!

Caramel-Apple Filling


1 apple
1/2 cup Prepared caramel sauce

1. Grate the apple. Squeeze out excess juice.

2. Mix the caramel into the grated apple.

Recipe courtesy of Rabbi Phyllis' great-aunt Dora.


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How to Braid a Round Challah

Rabbi Phyllis takes the challah out of the ovenWhy exactly do we eat round challah on Rosh HaShanah? Some see the round shape as a reflection of the continuing cycle of years and seasons. Another interpretation is that the round challah resembles a crown, symbolizing the sovereignty of God. At a time of year when our thoughts turn to repentance and resolutions of self-improvement, the round challah reminds us that the opportunity for teshuvah, return, is never-ending.

Watch Rabbi Phyllis prepare and braid a round challah in this video. Click here for her recipe, and here for a list of suggested supplies.

Shana tova and happy baking!


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Parashat Chukat - A red cow: What's the point?

Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1 (July 16)



In last week’s portion, Korach, a man named Korach and 250 other elites questioned Moses and Aaron’s power. As punishment, God opened the earth and swallowed them. The Israelites who rose up in response to these men's deaths were quickly killed by plague. A blossoming staff revealed Aaron and his family’s chossenness as priests and the text details their sacramental duties.

Cast of Characters

Aaron and his son Eleazer
The Israelites
Kings and citizens of other nations in the region


Kadesh, in the desert of Zin


Chukat begins with God’s instructions to the Israelites concerning the red heifer. When one becomes impure through contact with a corpse, they must be sprinkled with a mixture of the heifer’s ashes and water, and then immersed in a mikveh to become pure again.

Miriam dies and is buried in Kadesh. The Israelites have no water and, per usual, complain to Moses and long for their old lives in Egypt. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock that will bring forth water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock twice and water gushes out. As punishment for striking the rock rather than speaking to it, God does not permit Moses to enter Canaan, the Promised Land, with the Israelites.

Before entering Edom, Moses sends messengers to the Edomite king asking for safe passage through their land on their way to Canaan, but the Edomites refuse their request. They travel to Mount Hor and Aaron dies there. His son Eleazer is dressed in his clothing. The congregation mourns Aaron for thirty days.

The Israelites’ journey to Canaan continues and they meet various tribes. Though each tribe attempts to combat the Israelites, God helps them triumph and gain land throughout the territory. They reach the bank of Jordan.  

Big Questions

What’s the deal with the Red Heifer? Why does a mixture of red heifer ashes and water make somebody pure?

Why is Miriam’s death only one verse in the entire Torah?

How does Moses’s crime of hitting the rock yield the punishment of not entering Canaan?

What do the tales of Israel’s battles with other tribes try to teach us?


Parashat Chukat is full of subplots that have been the subject of endless Torah commentaries. Yet, the portion’s very first topic, the rituals surrounding the red heifer after contact with a corpse, remains our Torah’s most elusive. Even the wise King Solomon remarked about the red heifer’s mystery: “All of the Torah’s commandments I have comprehended. But the chapter of the red heifer, though I have examined it, questioned it and searched it out—I thought to be wise [in it], but it is distant from me.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:5) 

Though I, too, have wanted to discover the red heifer’s mysterious purpose, what speaks to me now is the power of ritual so evident in these laws. When an individual comes into contact with a corpse, which presumes that someone they know has died, they’re required to perform a complex cleansing ritual with the red heifer. Today, too, we perform rituals during challenging times.

This summer I’m completing a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) at Rush University Medical Center and serving as an interfaith chaplain for patients and families across the hospital. I’ve been present with dozens of dying patients and grieving families of every color, religion, and background. Despite superficial differences, the families I’ve accompanied through death share a commonality: in their immense grief, they rely on the power of ritual for comfort. Though we don’t see many red heifers at Rush, people request anointings, prayers, silence. Conducting ritual is a crucial part of the chaplain’s role serving patients and families in times of grief.

For me, Jewish ritual is one of our tradition’s most comforting characteristics. When someone close to us dies we recite Kaddish Yatom, known as the Mourner’s Kaddish, for 11 months after their death. For many Jews, reciting Kaddish brings an incredible sense of comfort in times of mourning. Its cadence, its alliteration, voices of the community joined together--these all contribute to its power. Jewish rituals don’t just comfort in times of grief. When I light Shabbat candles, hear a familiar Jewish melody, or smell my grandma’s matzo ball soup, my soul finds a sense of peace.

Perhaps this sense of peace is what the biblical author sought to create with the ritual of the red heifer--to provide grieving Israelites with a soothing custom in their time of need. What Jewish rituals bring peace to your soul? How can you access these during trying times?

Summary and musings by Student Rabbi Sarah Rosenbaum.



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Summer Reading by Doris Gould

Summer is here, and with it the prospect of time to relax or even take a vacation.

Stop by the library to pick up a book as a companion - it's open whenever the building offices are open! We’ve added some new titles recently that will make excellent choices.

Brenda Janowitz has written a light novel of a family in flux and a meal gone haywire. The Dinner Party relates the efforts of Sylvia Gold to impress the parents of her daughter Becca’s boyfriend. The ‘dinner party’ is actually the Passover Seder. The boyfriend in question is Henry Rothschild, son of Ursella and Henry Rothschild who are financial legends. Sylvia decides to upscale the menu by hiring a professional chef instead of serving her home cooked favorites. That her plan will go awry is forecast by Chef Michael’s plan to skip the appetizer of chopped liver for frog legs, no doubt a nod to a plague. Sylvia’s husband and her other daughter, Sarah, are present. Sarah is accompanied by her boyfriend, Joe Russo, to whom she is secretly married. Joe’s mother Valentina, who is really not good at keeping secrets, rounds out the table. That was the plan, but of course there would be unexpected guests: Gideon, the Golds’ son, who they thought was in Africa serving with Doctors Without Borders, upsets the seating chart and brings along his fiance, who he never mentioned before. The expensive wine is not spilled but plenty of secrets are as dinner serves up a main course of surprise. After the Seder, the group grows and changes in ways even Chef Michael couldn’t have cooked up.

If you’re looking for something to put a chill in summer, check out Julia Dahl’s mystery, Invisible City. The setting is a New York winter. The crime is brutal and the cold is relentless. Rebekah Roberts was raised in Florida by her father after her mother, Aviva Kagan, abandoned her at six months old to return to the Orthodox community. She moved to New York to work as a stringer for the New York Tribune. This job finds her standing at a dump where a crane operator noticed a woman’s leg in the garbage that was being loaded onto a barge for disposal. When the body is finally retrieved, it is claimed by the Orthodox Shomrim, not the Medical Examiner; it is buried the next night without an autopsy. Rebekah’s investigation delves into the relationship between the police and the Orthodox community. The owner of the dump is the husband of the victim, but the police refrain from questioning him, deferring to the community to solve their own crimes. A second theme in the novel is Rebekah’s unresolved anger at her mother for abandoning her and her frustration with her father’s acceptance of Aviva’s choice. When Rebekah’s investigation stalls, Saul Katz, the police liaison to the Orthodox community, steps in to help her. Not only is he willing to help her investigate the facts of the murder, but he recognized Rebekah because of her resemblance to her mother. This would seem to be quite a stretch for the author, but she sells to the reader by relating that Rebekah has always been told she looks just like her mother and because the story of Aviva Kagan has been told in the Orthodox community for many years. There is a satisfying tension to Dahl’s novel that kept me turning pages. Rebekah begins to question her assumptions, her judgment and her journalistic ethics as the story unfolds. The sequel to this story has already been published to favorable reviews. Let me know if you’d like to read more about Rebekah Roberts.

The book I’m planning to take on vacation is Philip Kerr’s A Quiet Flame. It was recommended by my husband and also by Rabbi Sommer’s father, so how can I go wrong? The novel features Kerr’s fictional detective, Bernie Gunther. Bernie is a sardonic, tough talking veteran of KRIPO, Berlin’s criminal investigation police. The Quiet Flame takes place in 1950 as Bernie leaves Germany for Buenos Aires posing as the escaped Nazi war criminal Dr. Carlos Hausner. There is a lot of historical detail in Kerr’s writing. In this book he manages to weave in Eva and Juan Peron, Adolf Eichmann and Otto Skorzeny, and take a major detour into 1930’s Germany. Since Bernie Gunther is a detective, I’m sure there is a murder to solve somewhere.

These are just a few of the new books found on the new book rack by the library windows. The whole collection is on our online catalog. The library is open whenever the building offices are open; please remember to sign the book card and leave it at the desk.

Thank you to our volunteers who keep things organized, and our donors who keep new books arriving. 

Have an enjoyable summer with books!





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Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32 (July 9)

Recap: Last week, in Parashat Shlach L’cha, twelve spies were sent to survey Canaan, the Promised Land. Ten spies came back with reports of giants and fortified cities, instilling fear in the Israelites. God became angry at the community’s lack of faith and annihilated all of the disbelievers, while saving the two faithful spies, Caleb and Joshua. God delivered laws for the new land, including commandments about welcoming the stranger and wearing fringes on their garments to remember God’s word.

Cast of Characters:
Korach, Datan, Abiram, and 250 Israelite elders

Setting: The Paran desert

Summary: This portion begins with the story of Korach, a Levite, who confronted Moses and Aaron with his friends Datan, Abiram, and 250 other head honchos in tow. He questioned Moses’s power and riled up the congregation. The Israelites continued to complain about Moses’s inability to bring them to Canaan and Moses became distressed. God appeared before Moses and Aaron, declaring he would annihilate the congregation. Despite their frustration, Moses and Aaron spoke up against God, asking why God must punish everyone for one person’s sins. Therefore, per God’s instructions, Moses instructed the innocent congregation to move away from the rebellion leaders, and the earth split open and swallowed up all of Korach’s men and their property.

The congregation rose up against Moses because they were angry that their peers had been annihilated. Though these people had initially been saved from death, 14,700 of them were quickly killed by plague.

God told Moses and Aaron to gather a staff from each tribal head to determine the chosen leader of the congregation. Overnight, Aaron’s staff blossomed with flower buds and almonds to indicate his chosenness by God. God spoke to Aaron about the responsibilities and gifts associated with his family’s priestly role, specifically regarding the sanctuary, holy objects, and ritual offerings.

Big Questions:

What provokes Korach to approach Moses and Aaron in this rebellious way? What can we learn from his methods and subsequent punishment?

Does the rebellion’s punishment fit its crime?

Why does the text choose a blossoming staff as a sign of Aaron’s family’s unique position?

Musings: Korach is one of the Torah’s most controversial characters. He raised a 250-person rebellion against Moses and Aaron, questioned their power, and encouraged discontent amongst the Israelites. The biblical authors were clearly not too keen on Korach’s rebellion; as punishment for their actions, God opened the earth and swallowed up Korach and all of his followers! Yet, many scholars wonder whether Korach was really a bad guy and whether his punishment was justified. After all, wasn’t Korach simply advocating for democracy and empowerment of the common people? “The entire community is holy,” he says! It can be easy to identify with Korach and his men, who can’t help but question the absolute power of the community’s leaders. So why did Korach and his men receive such an exorbitant punishment?

According to Mishnah Avot, the sayings of our fathers, “Any dispute for the sake of heaven will have enduring value, but every dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”  Our ancient sages are saying that Korach’s rebellion was not “for the sake of heaven,” it was not motivated by righteous concerns. Had he been truly interested in creating equality between the people and their leaders, he would have used a different approach to create an enduring solution. Korach could have spoken with Moses and Aaron privately to voice his concerns and collaborate on a compromise. Instead, he approached them forcefully, with 250 men in town, presenting a battle for power. He riled up the entire community against Moses and Aaron and created rifts within the congregation to boost his own position. An argument “for the sake of heaven?” For the biblical authors and the rabbinic sages, it was certainly not.

The story of Korach and his company teaches us a valuable lesson about our own “rebellions.” When we oppose a person, an idea, or a system, what is our method of confrontation and what is our ultimate goal? Are we fighting for a selfish cause, or is our debate for “the sake of heaven,” to create “enduring value” more profound than our own egos? 

Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern. 


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Sh'lach L'cha - Promised Land Ahead: Proceed with Caution

Israeli stamp

Sh'lach L'cha

Numbers 138:1-15:41

Recap: In last week’s portion, B’haalot'cha, the Israelites traveled from the Sinai desert to the Paran desert, moving with the cloud that had settled over the tabernacle. They complained about not having meat and Moses became frustrated. God gave them quail and they feasted, but God killed the gluttonous people. Miriam and Aaron reproached Moses about marrying a Kushite woman. Miriam was infected with a skin disease, tzara’at, and spent seven days healing outside the camp.

Cast of Characters: God, Moses, the 12 Spies (featuring Caleb and Joshua,) and the Israelites

Setting: Desert of Paran

Summary: God told Moses to send out men, one from each of the twelve tribes, to explore the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.  At the end of their forty-day journey, ten of the spies reported that Canaan is full of bounty but also full of “giants” and fortified cities. They felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison! Joshua and Caleb, two of the spies, touted God’s loyalty and insisted that they should go into the land. Yet, the people trusted the pessimistic spies and God became furious. God annihilated the ten spies and their offspring, but saved Joshua and Caleb’s families. 

God told Moses to instruct the people that, when they enter Canaan, they must give offerings to God and treat the stranger with respect. God detailed the punishment for disobeying the instructions: being cut off from the community. God tells Moses to instruct the people regarding wearing blue fringes on the corners of their garments. By gazing upon the fringes, they will remember God’s commandments and loyalty throughout the ages.

Big Questions:

What prompts Caleb and Joshua to speak out against the other spies?
Does God’s punishment of the ten pessimistic spies fit their crime?
How does the punishment of separation from the community relate to the crime of disrespecting the stranger?
How did the commandment to wear fringes of blue evolve into our custom of wearing tallitot?


Have you ever felt so eager for a new experience, only to be discouraged when you realized how daunting your task actually was? Perhaps the hill on your beautiful new cycling route was steeper than you felt able to handle. Or maybe an exciting new project at work became more tedious work than you expected. If you’ve had such an experience, you’re not alone. In this week’s Torah portion, Sh'lach L’cha, the Israelites encounter a similar situation.

The Israelites were almost at Canaan, the Promised Land, and their emotions were running high! Imagine how they might have felt after so many years of journeying through the wilderness. Sensing this emotional rollercoaster, God instructed Moses to send twelve spies to scout out the land. When the spies entered Canaan, they saw a land flowing with milk and honey. They took in the scent of grapes, pomegranates, and figs. I imagine that they were mesmerized by the bounty of the land! And then, they noticed the powerful residents, their fortified cities, and a few of their historical enemy tribes. Suddenly, their feelings of elation morphed into fear. Ten of the twelve spies allowed their fear to prevail over their faith in God and themselves. Those ten fearful spies caused the entire community to lose faith and were punished --they were destined to die in the desert and never enter Canaan, while Joshua and Caleb, the two spies that maintained faith, were permitted to enter the Promised Land.

This story, though dramatized, is incredibly relatable. We too may feel that we cannot face the hill in front of us, the project before us, or the powerful people around us. Like the ten spies who felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison to the powerful people of the land, we may feel inadequate to complete the challenge ahead. Yet, if we allow fear to overcome faith, we are far less likely to enter our personal “promised land.” May we emulate Caleb and Joshua, facing our challenges with courage, confidence, and certainty in ourselves and God.

Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern in 2015.

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B'haalot'cha - Complaints, Calamities, and Learning to Delegate


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Recap: Last week’s Parasha Naso spoke about a wide range of rituals: Ways to make restitution for acts of treachery against God and people, the sota ritual for a suspected adulteress, and the Nazarite vow. The mishkan (tabernacle) is completed and the priestly blessing is established.

Cast of Characters: God, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Moses' wife, Tziporah, and the Israelites

Setting: The Sinai Desert and the desert of Paran

Summary: Parashat B’haalot'cha describes the ritual for consecrating Levites, who are given unique services to God and the sanctuary. God, once again, instructs Moses to relay instructions about Passover sacrifices to the Israelites. They made the offering accordingly. However, some people were ritually unclean and unable to make the sacrifice. They approached Moses to receive guidance about their conundrum. Moses took the question to God. God gave the people additional instructions about how and when to make a Passover sacrifice if they are unable to do so during the appointed time. 

The parasha continues with a description of the mishkan (tabernacle), describing the cloud that hovered over it by day, and the fire that remained with it at night. The Israelites moved with the cloud’s movements, and rested when the cloud settled, “at the bidding of God.” The text then describes Aaron’s descendants’ responsibility to blow the trumpet during times of gathering, travel, war, and festivals. The Israelites traveled from the Sinai desert to the desert of Paran. Once again, they complained about not having meat to eat and longed for the bounty of food in Egypt. God brought manna to the people and they consumed it, but Moses was sick of leading this group of kvetchers! Moses told God that his task of leadership was too big a burden. In turn, God told Moses to assemble seventy elders to assist him.

God brought a great descent of quails upon the Israelites’ camp. The people gathered the quails gluttonously and God became very angry. God killed the gluttonous people.

Miriam and Aaron, Moses’s siblings, spoke out against Moses because he married a Kushite woman. They said: “Has God spoken only to Moses? Hasn't God spoken to us too?” God defended Moses’s gift of prophecy and inflicts Miriam with tzara’at (what some say is leprosy). Moses then prays the shortest prayer in our text: El na r’fah na la (God, please heal her). Miriam spent seven days outside the camp to be healed from her affliction.

Big Questions:

Why are the Levites singled out for special service to God and the mishkan?
What is the cloud and fire that the text describes? What is their significance?
Another story about the people complaining and being killed! Why do we hear such stories repeatedly?
Is the story about Miriam and Aaron really about Moses’s Kushite wife, as the text says? Or are they approaching Moses about something else entirely?


This Torah portion is chock-full of fascinating subplots! In the midst of their desert travels, the Israelites are getting crabby yet again. They complain about not having meat to eat  and they go so far as to wish that they were back in Egypt! God hears the people’s cries and gives them manna. They make it into tasty treats (even cake!) but continue to whine. Moses is fed up! He’s done so much for the Israelites all of these years and feels unable to bear the burden of their constant grumbling. Moses has a bad case of burnout. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, describes the shift in Moses’s leadership responsibilities. Rabbi Sacks says that, formerly, Moses exercised technical leadership. Though Moses was in charge of tasks like speaking to Pharaoh and lifting his staff at the sea, God provided Moses the help he needed in order to succeed. Now, Moses’s role necessitates adaptive leadership. While the showstopper miracles have passed and the Israelites continue their grueling journey, Moses is in charge of helping the people adapt to their surroundings and take care of themselves. Change is difficult for the Israelites, just as it is for us, and they certainly aren’t making Moses’s job easy! 

God doesn’t abandon his prophet Moses. Just as Moses’s father-in-law Yitro suggested back in Exodus, God tells Moses to gather seventy elders to help him lead. Moses learned that, in order to be an exemplary leader, one cannot bear the burden of leadership alone. A true leader must rely on the support of others to succeed

Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern in 2015.

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Naso - Priests and Wives Outsmart Jealous Husbands

Naso Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89

Recap: Last week, Parashat B’midbar outlined the Israelite census. Each Israelite clan was given a camp in which to reside and responsibilities for the mishkan (tabernacle) maintenance. The Levites and Kohanim (priests) have separate censuses and duties, caring for the mishkan’s sacred objects.

Cast of Characters:
God, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites

The Sinai Desert

Summary: Parashat Naso begins by continuing last week’s Israelite census  and describing which clans are responsible for various aspects of mishkan (tabernacle) maintenance. The text then shifts gears to speak about the processes by which a person can make restitution for treachery against God and for sins against other people. These consist of animal offerings and monetary payments. The text then speaks about a specific sin, adultery, and the process used to determine if one’s wife is guilty of adultery.The priests are responsible for officiating this process, known in later rabbinic texts as the sota (“adulterers”) ritual. In the next chapter, we learn about Nazarites, lifestyle restrictions that their Nazarite vow entails, and the rituals for completing the 8-day period of the Nazarite vow. The priestly blessing is established, Moses and the Israelites complete the mishkan, and all of the clans offer sacrifices to God for 12 days.

Big Questions:

What’s the sota ritual all about, and why is it instituted?
Why would someone take a Nazarite vow, knowing all of the strict rules that it entails?
How is the priestly blessing used today?


While reading Parashat Naso and coming to the description of the sota ritual, I cringed. To recap, the sota ritual is deemed necessary when a man believes that his wife has been unfaithful to him and “a fit of jealousy comes over him.” The man must bring his accused wife to the priest, who will give the woman a drink of water and dust; if her body becomes swollen then she is “proven” guilty, and if not she is considered innocent. Humiliating? Unegalitarian? Disgusting? Yes, yes, yes. This ritual posed a challenge for me as I sought to find meaning in our holy text.

Preliminary learning led me to an article about the sota ritual written by Rabbi Anne Brener. She frames the ritual in a beautiful way by noting the protective qualities of the ritual. It requires a fitfully jealous husband to bring his wife into the priest’s care immediately--a safe space away from the contentious home. Furthermore, the “test” wasn’t effective! A simple concoction of water and dust would not cause women’s bodies to swell, thereby proving all accused women innocent. Rabbi Brener suggests that this ritual, though seemingly bizarre, may have been a joint project between women and priests in order to temper jealous husbands. She compares their arrangement to Project Sanctuary, an organization that supports victims of domestic violence. The biblical priests saw the strife of women in their communities and attempted to provide kindness and care through difficult times.

In our world, protective duties aren’t simply a man’s domain, and women aren’t the only victims of domestic violence. We can each be a “priest,” a person who creates safe spaces for those in need. Shalva is a Chicagoland organization that supports victims of domestic violence in Jewish homes. Visit for more information about Shalva and find ways to get involved in this holy work.

Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern in 2015.

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B'midbar - What is in a name, anyway?


B'midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20

Recap: Last week in B'chukotai, the last portion of Leviticus, we read about God’s promise to the Israelites: If they follow the commandments, they will be blessed. If they veer from God’s word, they will be punished. We also read about making a vow and tithing.

Cast of Characters:
God, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites

The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is B’midbar, “in the wilderness.” This name appropriately describes the setting of this book: in the wilderness of the Sinai desert. Per usual, the first parasha of a book has the same name as the book itself.

Summary: Parashat B’midbar begins with a census of the entire Israelite community, organized by clan. God tells Moses and Aaron to write the name of every male over age twenty. According to the text, the entire community totaled over 603,000 people. The Levites are given a separate census because of their unique duties in the mishkan, the tabernacle, and these Levitical tasks are outlined. Each of the other clans is given a specific camp location around the mishkan and a set of tasks for the mishkan’s care. Lastly, a census of the priests (the descendants of Aaron) is taken and God assigns them to care for the mishkan’s sacred objects.

Big Questions:

Why does God demand that each person be counted individually, by name?
Why does the text spend so much time detailing the names of the clans and their specific demographics?
Why are the Levites and Kohanim (priests) given special roles in the mishkan?


"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Though Juliet’s expression of love for Romeo tells a beautiful story, the God of B’midbar would certainly disagree with her. In Parashat B’midbar, names are significant. The portion begins with God telling Moses and Aaron to take a census of the entire Israelite population. However, this isn’t just a numerical census. God demands that every single man over the age of twenty, the age at which one was able to serve in battle, be recorded by name. (If God was commanding a census now, we can speculate that women would also be included in these records!) Why is God so transfixed on recording each person’s name?

Sforno, a 16th century Italian sage, comments on God’s command. “‘According to the number of names…’ For at that time, every one of that generation was designated by his name, which indicated and reflected stature and character.” In other words, names tell stories about a person’s depth--his or her background, family life, personality traits, and ethics. Sforno’s remarks suggest something even more profound. He’s saying that God isn’t concerned about the community’s raw numbers. Rather, God wants each person recorded by name because God cares about each individual as a unique human being.

If God cares about each person’s name and character, shouldn’t we? May we recognize the individuality of each person we meet, beginning by learning that person’s name.

Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern in 2015.

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B'chukotai - Blessings, Curses, and Questions Still Debated


B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34

Recap: In last week’s Parashat Behar, we learned about the shmitah, the 7th-year rest for the land in Israel, and its accompanying laws regarding debts and release of slaves. The portion also detailed laws about selling land, treatment of slaves, and treatment of one’s brother in need.

Cast of Characters:
God, Moses, and the Israelites

The Sinai desert

Summary: Parashat Bechukotai begins with God’s reassurance to the Israelites; if they follow God’s commandments, they will prosper and live peacefully. However, if they reject God’s covenant, they will be punished. The text outlines these specific rewards and punishments, which relate primarily to agriculture and security. At the end of the punishments, the text clarifies that God will not abandon the Israelites completely while they are in the lands of other nations because God made a covenant with their ancestors and took them out of Egypt to be their God. The text describes the price of making a vow to God, assessing the value of humans, animals, possessions, and land. This includes the tithing of produce and livestock to God.

Big Questions:

How can we understand the text’s theology that following the commandments reaps reward, and straying from them reaps punishment?
After all of the punishments detailed in this portion, why does God say that God will not abandon the Israelites?
What is tithing, and what’s its modern application?


This parasha, the last one of Leviticus, presents a theology that we hear time and time again throughout the Torah and is known as the Deuteronomistic theology. The Deuteronomistic theology states that, although God established a “covenant for all time” with the Israelites, the covenant is conditional: If the Israelites follow God’s commandments, they will be blessed with land, fertility, and prosperity. However, if they stray from God’s statutes, they will be punished.

The Deuteronomistic theology can be challenging for us modern Jews. It may be comforting to know that our ancestors struggled with this idea too. Jewish sages throughout the ages have grappled with the ideas of reward and punishment presented in Bechukotai. Maimonides, one of our most prolific medieval commentators, suggests that rewards for living a good life are not limited to this world. Those who follow God’s ways may be rewarded in olam haba, the world to come. He states: “Whoever, fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come.” Maimonides was not alone; many medieval philosophers, who lived a life of subjugation and violence at the hands of their rulers, found comfort in the idea that all rewards and punishments would be reconciled after death.

The Deuteronomistic theology is directly related to the question of theodicy, why evil exists in the world, which is an essential question for modern Judaism. If you’re interested in further reading about this topic, I highly recommend Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s book offers an enlightening and alternative approach to Deuteronomistic theology. It is avaiilable on Amazon in print and kindle editions. (Click here for further information.)

Written by second-year Rabbinical Student, Sarah Rosenbaum, who served as the Am Shalom Summer Rabbinic Intern.

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Israeli Classical Music with Ken Smith

Ken Smith, Am Shalom's remarkably talented accompanist, offered a "Lunch and Learn" event on May 27th. With our grand piano at his disposal, he talked about the history of Israel's classical musical style and shared several pieces from notable Israeli composers and musicians.


This piece, heard in a snippet below, is by Ze'ev Bitkin. Bitkin made his way to Israel from his homeland of Moldovia via Moscow. He calls himself a "poly-stylist" and collects folk tunes in addition to his skills as a jazz pianist. This piece is called "Lullaby."

Stay tuned for upcoming musical programs and other learning opportunities!

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