Monday, February 28, 2011

Darwin defended...

Well, I think that went well. We had almost 100 people representing various parts of the Jewish community. People seemed interested, and more importantly were pleased that we were presenting a Torah U'Madda perspective in Cleveland.

Anyway, several people requested the recording. So below are the "powerpoint", (you may have to give it a couple of minutes to load)  source sheet and audio recording. (click on the blue text to download the file)

I hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Learning from Asher Lev

Or: A pretendin' febrengin

I’m not a good self promoter, but Hashem looks out for me. I’ve been really fortunate to come by cool jobs just by knowing nice people who recommend me. When the Cleveland Playhouse was looking for a Rabbinic consultant for their production of “My Name is Asher Lev”, the trail of their search eventually led to me. Man, am I lucky. Its been a blast. So far I’ve met with the director once, and then had two meetings with her and her cast

I always enjoy getting a look behind the scenes at how things work. (for example I’ve taken opportunities to do so in the NYPD and the IDF, but much less literally) What I didn’t realize was how fascinating it would be to get to know these artists. I found that they have a crucial element in common with the Hasidim that they will be playing. 

I was amazed by their pure curiosity. The questions that they had about Judaism in general and Hasidut in particular were certainly designed to better inform their performances. But it went beyond that. They were clearly deeply curious about other people and how they think, feel and live. I suppose that one of the joys of their craft is inhabiting those personas and seeing through the eyes of the other. I was amazed at how fascinated they are by Jewish ideas and practices beyond those that directly relate to this particular play. 

What really stands out is their menschluchkeit. They are, if anything, too concerned about treating Jews and Judaism with respect and dignity. I keep having to reassure them that their performance won’t offend or raise the ire Jews in the audience. (in some parts of the community it might, but that isn’t a problem that can’t be resolved. Luckily, I doubt that those who would be offended will see the play)

These qualities, deep curiosity, love, and respect for other individuals is also very Hassidic in nature. A nice formulation of this value appears in another Potok novel, “The Chosen”, through the voice of Rabbi Saunders. He says, “A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul… The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks...” (emphasis mine)

I have found it fascinating that the cast and crew of this play share this approach to life. Although they come to it from a culture very different from Hasidut, it has elevated my soul to find itself at this point of commonality. 

Boy, I can’t wait to see the play! 

Postscript: The play was great. I had the honor of participating in a "Talkback" discussion after a performance, and also led a Pre-Show Talk before another performance.
The Talkback was at the performance we took my whole high school to. They had a great time, and it was a real group culture bonding experience. They still do impressions of the cast, and loved it when an audience member asked me in front of hundreds of people, "So what do you Jews think about Jesus, anyway?"
Also, the director, Laura Kepley, posted the following on the Cleveland Playhouse blog:

And most invaluably, this production is very fortunate to have Rabbi Michael Unterberg, a graduate of Yeshiva University and a teacher at Fuchs Mizrachi School, serving as a consultant illuminating and contextualizing the Hasidic worldview for us. Each day of rehearsals brings more questions, such as “What does the bringing the moshiach into the world mean for these characters?”, “What would the image of a crucifixion mean to a Russian Jew?”, “What exactly is the afternoon prayer?”, and “How do my tzitzit show if I tuck in my shirt?” From the mystical to the mundane, Michael patiently answers our daily “Ask the Rabbi” emails, and comes into rehearsals to watch our work. 

Seriously, how lovely is she? Also, here are some pictures:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest post: Dara on Parshat Terumah

So far my most hit blog post was Dara's acceptance speech. As she recovers from surgery, let's see if we can cheer her up by sending around her dvar Torah from a couple of weeks ago. (I asked for it last week, but hey, she's been distracted)

As for Dara, She's feeling ok today, but probably won't feel up to talking on the phone, but you can send her an email at 

For those wondering what was wrong, here is the wiki info:

Parshat Terumah
Dara Unterberg
The בית המקדש is a prominent feature of the Jewish landscape. The Tanach emphasizes its centrality, and our tefillot are full of petitions for it to be rebuilt. Rabbi Joshua Berman, in his book The Temple, notes that over one third of the pesukim of the Torah as well as over half of the 613 mitzvot relate directly to the בית המקדש or to the activities that take place within it. The mikdash is also firmly entrenched in the hearts of Jews everywhere. Jews from all walks of life stream to the Kotel every day and stand closely together before the ancient stones. The Kotel in actuality and the Bet Hamikdash in memory are symbolic of Jewish strength and success. Ideally the mikdash represents Jewish unity and dedication to our national mission; to be a light unto the nations.
The first reference to G-d’s desire for the building of a mikdash dedicated to Him is found in פרשת תרומה:
א וַיְדַבֵּר יקוק, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹרב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָהמֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.  ג וְזֹאת, הַתְּרוּמָה, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ, מֵאִתָּםזָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁתד וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי, וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּיםה וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים, וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּיםו שֶׁמֶן, לַמָּאֹר; בְּשָׂמִים לְשֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, וְלִקְטֹרֶת הַסַּמִּיםז אַבְנֵי-שֹׁהַם, וְאַבְנֵי מִלֻּאִים, לָאֵפֹד, וְלַחֹשֶׁןח וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם.

The process by which the mikdash is to be built demands commitment on both G-d’s and Bnei Yisrael’s part. Bnei Yisrael must contribute the materials for the construction of the mikdash. In turn, G-d graces us with His presence.
Understanding the precise definition of the word תרומה enhances one’s appreciation of this partnership. According to the Da’at Mikra, the root of the word is רום, as in to raise. When one separates and sets aside part of his possessions for a G-dly purpose, he raises the value of those items. The process of sanctification/הקדשה has occurred. Another possibility is that the tradition was to literally raise the item that was to be contributed as a symbolic expression of its now elevated status.
In response to Bnei Yisrael’s outreaching to G-d vis a vis the terumot, G-d comes to dwell among them. Note that the verse does not say ושכנתי בתוכו, and I will reside in it, but rather ושכנתי בתוכם, among the people. Just as Bnei Yisrael has elevated their belongings by donating them for the building of the mikdash, Hashem elevates the spiritual status of His people by dwelling among them. In Chasidic thought, the mikdash brings Bnei Yisrael closer to Hashem in that they will feel His presence in their inner selves. That is why G-d’s house is called a mikdash; it is named for its future mission- to sanctify the Jewish people. The Rashbam explains the phrase בית מקדש as בית מועד; a place that is designated as a meeting place for G-d and the Jewish people. Similarly, the chagim are called מועדים, for they too are designated times for G-d and His people to come together.
The crowds of Jews that throng to the Kotel every day is a remarkable testament to the strength and resilience of the bond that exists between G-d and His people. Although the mikdash is not standing, the site on which it stood is a beacon that calls out to all Jews. It cries out a silent cry that is heard and felt in the souls of Jews everywhere. We have responded to that call in our prayers and Torah study for thousands of years. Today, thank G-d, we have the ability to physically return as well, and stand on holy ground. And yet we must continue to pray for the completion of the redemption process and for the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash as this is the ultimate expression of the coming together of G-d and the Jewish people.

"יהי רצון מלפניך...שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו, ותן חלקני בתורתיך, ושם נעבדך ביראה, כימי עולם וכשנים קדמוניות..."

Shabbat Shalom.

I don't know who this dude is, but he's recovering from the same surgery that Dara had. (found it online)                         Man, the wrapping looks a lot bigger on her. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ferment and Freedom

When online news Op-Eds are already obsolete, you have to wonder if it pays to post anything about the fall of Mubarek at all. This story twists and turns every few hours at this point.

My guess is that Egypt will not end up completely transformed, but there will be incrementally more freedom and democracy than there is now. There will probably be some muddled representative parliamentary system put in place, and the people will enjoy more basic rights.

I think worst and best case scenarios are very unlikely. The worst case scenario is the rise of an Islamic Theocracy. It seems that the Moslem Brotherhood doesn't have the popularity or charismatic leadership to pull this off. And they would have to get past the very Westernized Egyptian Army. They will probably end up with representation in a future parliament, where it is unlikely that they could make the same problems that Hizbollah does in their parliament. Egypt isn't Lebanon.

But why not a best case scenario? I really don't think they want a Western style Liberal Democracy. Freedom and Democracy are not the same things, and I don't believe you can have the latter without the former. Democracy is (at least) government chosen by the people, and without freedoms of speech, press, assembly and press, options for choice of leadership can't realistically come to be.

I performed a little experiment with my students this week. I asked them if a Neo-Nazi group filed proper permits for a parade in Cleveland to celebrate Hitler's birthday, should we allow it? They will hand out flyers, give speeches and sing songs praising the greatness of the Third Reich. My unscientific mini-survey came out 100% in favor of allowing it. (I was impressed that a few of them even knew about and brought up the case in Skokie from the 70s)

Look at that I told them. You have been so educated and indoctrinated to accept the Bill of Rights as fundamentally important to American life, that you Orthodox Jewish day school kids all handed parade permits to Nazis.

If I went to Tahrir Square right now and presented a similar survey, what would happen? Let's say I asked for a group of Jews to have a Salute to Israel Parade every Yom Ha'Atzmaut, handing out leaflets explaining the story of the Jewish State. I wonder how many would support it, even begrudgingly. My guess is very few.

I told my students not to take for granted that they live in a country that was lead by Thomas Jefferson. All people being endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights is the religion of America. (or at least as close as we get to one) The Egyptian people want and deserve those freedoms. But I doubt they will be ready to carve out a Bill of Rights that compares to Americas.

Incremental steps forward in Freedom and Democracy are still steps forward. Short term, who knows what comes next? But the surest route to stability is through handing power to the people. They will not want another war with Israel, nor will the Egyptian army. Have you noticed that Democracies don't fight wars with each other?

Even these small steps could lead to a better future for the Arab world. And any real freedom and democracy in the Arab world is better for Israel and the West. And some point, this is where things are going.

Friday, February 4, 2011

What is Faceshuk?

My blog appears on their site, and here is what I have to write to claim administrative rights:


But what the heck is it?

Unterberg vs. Carter (Stephen and Jimmy, not Michael and Billy)

Imagine getting an e-mail from your brother with the subject, “I'm suing Jimmy Carter”  and a link to a web article confirming that. That’s what happened to me yesterday.

After a few hours of nudging, I got more of the story. My brother Shmuel has put his name with four others on a class action lawsuit against the former president for his book “Palestine, Peace not Apartheid”, along with publishers Simon & Schuster. Basically the suit alleges that the book violates New York consumer protection law. As an ex-President with decades of involvement in Middle East politics, someone purchasing the book would reasonably expected an honest and fair explanation of the Palestinian conflict with the Israelis. His bias and arguments would have been expected as well. The fact that the book is filled with outrageous lies and omissions means that the consumer was ripped off. The class action suit for $5 million dollars seeks restitution for purchasers of any form of the book.

A Google news search for the name Unterberg turns up articles from JTA and the Jerusalem Post, but also the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post. (as always clicking on the blue hyperlinks should open the corresponding webpage) It seems to have first appeared on the online Jewish Tablet magazine, which gives you a link to a PDF of the court papers.

The papers are a cool thing to read. For me the best part was sections (paragraphs?) 28 to 110, which establish Carter's marketing claims of complete accuracy, followed by a long list of complete falsehoods that he must have been aware of. The complaint compares Carter's book to Frey's "Million Little Pieces" memoir deception, and claims that publishers should sell what they are claiming to sell. That's the law in New York State.

The complaints by Simon and Schuster seem somewhat off the mark. (although they are echoed by the Boston Globe article) The suit is obviously (and explicitly) not an attack on free speech. It is simply an attempt to hold people who exercise that sacred right.

As for the nuisance lawsuit accusation, that may bear out to be true. We'll see what the courts make of it. To me it seems like the manager running out of the dug out to kick dirt on the umpire's shoes after a bad call. The umpire won't change it, but he will probably make future calls more carefully. I have a hard time working up sympathy for the defendants in this case for having to respond legally.

Some have wondered why the case is coming five years after the book was published. I don't know. It could be that they wanted to give the publishers time to publish a corrected edition. Or it could be that they only thought of the idea after Oprah massacred Frey on national television a couple of years ago.
I think my brother is enjoying the mini-hubbub. That's cool, I know that I am. One thing is for sure, though, that book really was a piece of garbage.
Me and my bro, back in the day...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

If you can watch this without getting choked up, you're tougher than me!

Alan Rabinowitz appears here on 60 minutes. It's a really interesting piece. The part where he explains why he is so committed to preserving the big cats is a story he tells often, and it always breaks my heart. What a beautiful person.

Stories like this always make me so mad at schools and the conformity that it demands. Happily, things are much better than when Rabinowitz was a boy. But school still often demands a level of fitting in that make unique kids feel undervalued. Sigh.

Harry Chapin's "Flowers are Red" has always been inspirational for Dara and me.