My Daughter's Kushya

My second grade daughter, currently learning Parshat Vayechi, came up with the following question:
Q. Why did Dina not get a bracha?
My wife and I think it's a great question.
She also came up with an answer:
A. It probably would have been something really girly, like "get married and have lots of kids".


A Very Bitter Rabbi

I originally called this blog "Self-hating Rabbi". I was bitter. I still have some of those sentiments, but, since I'm not a practicing rabbi anymore, I tend not to get all worked up about things anymore. Sometimes I miss it, but usually not. For example, the whole conversion thing is rearing its ugly head again; apparently, R. Metzger backed R. Sherman at a recent EJF convention - and I don't really give a darn (to be sure, if my son came home with a girl who is a ba'alat teshuvah, whose non-religious mother had converted through R. Druckman, I would insist that she do a tevilah le-chumrah before marrying my kid). I took it much more seriously when I was performing conversions and experienced personal outrage when conversions were being threatened. No more.

Anyhow, I'm currently learning a book called Yamin u-Smol by R. Yehuda Leib Graubart. This is the second work of his that I'm learning with someone who is interested in learning the works of this Rav specifically. The rav had a wonderful sense of humor, but was clearly a very bitter person. The current book is a series of essays on his hashkafa, but with a very then-contemporary bent - he talks about the balance between kodesh and chol, personal hygiene, business vs. agriculture (this was a huge issue then), communism, socialism (he believes that the Torah is fundamentally socialist; funny enough, Rav Lichtenstein has expressed similar ideas), Reform (boy, does he go after them) and a host of other issues. It's a lot of fun.

He has a few essays on the role and status of the rabbi, especially in America. He even discusses the relative merits of American rabbinical schools like RIETS and HTC (Skokie, before it was in Skokie). He laments the futility of being a rabbi in America often, but here's a real money quote:

My translation:
Who shall ascend the mountain of the Rabbinate? One who does not have clean hands and a putre heart (cf. Tehillim 24:4) - he will withstand and endure, be sated with bread, and it will be good with him - even though those charlatans did not choose the rabbinate out of wisdom, because had they employed their trickery and strategies in business, they probably would have become wealthy. The situation in the rabbinate is that with all their cunning, they will not amass much of a fortune. The rabbinate is not fertile ground for wealth.

Honest man - do not come here! Do not put your energies into the rabbinate. Run from it. Be a craftsman or peddler, and eat your bread, the fruit of your efforts, in peace, be it a lot or a little. Do not be take on the concerns of the many. Do not be a bundle of nerves. Be absorbed amongst the people - see, but do not be seen. You will fear God, and you will not hate people.

Sitz im Leben

I've been going through some of R. Elchanan Samet's shiurim on Tehilim (in Hebrew; the English ones are coming out a bit slower). I might have mentioned it before, but I find R. Samet to be one of the most exciting contemporary commentators on the TaNakh. I've read a lot of his stuff - on Chumash, on Melakhim, and now on Tehillim, and he's really very good.

In the shiur that I'm currently reading, he analyzes Psalm 44. He often takes the descriptions of events recorded in the psalms and tries to link them with specific historical events. With this one, he runs into trouble. He presumes that the canon was closed, or at least that no new psalms were added to the collection that forms the Masoretic Book of Psalms, from some point during the Second Temple. Thus, this psalm, which refers to exile, must refer to teh Babylonian exile. This, however, presents three problems:

a) The psalm makes no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple, which would be expected of a complaint about the Babylonian exile.

b) The psalmist protests the innocence of the Israelites (or the Jews, at this point); this flies in the face of everything else that the prophets wrote - that the exile was a punishment!

c) The psalmist very stirringly relates to the fact that the Jews went to the slaughter for God's sake. This is not characteristic of the Babylonian exile - which seems to have been quite comfortable.

These are R. Samet's questions.
I believe that I can point to a set of biblical events that would answer the questions.
As is familiar to students of TaNakh, the Jewish King Yehoyakhin was exiled to Babylonia about a decade prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Along with the king, a group of several thousand of Judea's most promising youths were exiled as well.

So there's your answer. The psalm does not lament the destruction, because it had not yet occurred. It protests innocence, because these youths were, in fact, innocent. It relates to martyrdom because the first biblical account of martyrdom - that of Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah - is actually from that time period.

Interesting new blog

Check out The Talmud Blog.
I would probably be interested in it even had I not been related to the blogger...


Check Out my Article in Jewish Action (and other ramblings)

I have an article in the Jewish Action that just came out. The topic of the article is the construction of eruvin on college campuses in the past decade.

I'll post a link when it's up.

A couple of random thoughts during the drive up to Akko this week:
1) Does Baka al-Jarbiyeh mean "the Valley of Socks"?
2) It would be extremely cool if there was ever a Megadeth concert at Megido.

While at Akko, Raphi thought that the gallows in the Akko citadel/ prison were really cool: "Just like in 'Pirates ofthe Caribbean'". I actually did some of the translation of the museum signs there, so that was nice to see (if you're there and you notice any spelling mistakes - those are not mine).

I'm currently working on several long-term Torah- and Jewish- related translating and editing projects, with more on the horizon. I can now count five different Hesder yeshivot as clients, plus a half-dozen other Jewish educational NPOs. It's like I'm back in kollel, just the pay is a bit better.


Affiliate Marketing as an Institutional Fundraiser

As part of my shul’s building campaign, I came up with the idea of creating a “virtual mall” to help with the fundraising effort. Thus far, in its 2 months of operation, it has generated about $113 – not a tremendous amount, but we’re just getting started. In truth, once its set up, there is very easy to maintain and it’s “passive income”. The trick is to get the members of your community to do their online shopping through your portal. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll explain from the beginning.

Most online vendors have affiliate marketing programs. The idea is that you create links to the vendor’s site, and then you get a certain percentage of any purchases generated by traffic that you drive (Amazon pays the best commissions). As a simple example, my shul has my own affiliate account with Amazon. This link to Amazon is a unique link that tells Amazon that the traffic was driven by me. There is no need for the buyer to enter any code or anything.

When it comes to institutions, it’s all about loyalty. If your constituents shop online, and you can educate and convince them to do their shopping through your affiliate links, then you can make money. The best thing about it is that it costs the buyer nothing. It’s essentially an advertising cost paid by the vendor. In fact, I’d say that if you shop online and DON’T go through some sort of affiliate link, then you’re leaving money on the floor.

Setting it up can be complicated. There are three main companies that manage affiliate programs for the most popular online vendors – Commission Junction, Linkshare, and Google Affiliates. The problem is, unless you have a lot of traffic, many affiliate programs will reject your application. Amazon, which has its own affiliate program, does not have an application process – they’re smart that way. You can, however, create links using other sites – such as visitourmall.com, onecause.com, and other “charity mall” sites. You can create your own site within those sites, or you can ‘harvest’ links and embed them in your own site. The problem with these “charity mall” sites is that they take a hefty chunk of your earnings. For example, if Vendor A pays 4% commissions, the charity mall site will take 50-60% of that, leaving you with 2% or even less. It’s better to set up your own accounts, but, like I mentioned, it’s not always so easy to get approved.

On my shul’s site, most of the links are through charity mall accounts; as we generate more traffic by getting friends and family to shop at our “mall”, we will hopefully get more and more of our own accounts approved, and our commissions will go up. Whoever sets it all up for the institution should spend some time learning the ins and outs of affiliate marketing.

There are no privacy concerns. The account manager can not see who buys what, and often not even what was bought.

In all, if your institution has a decent number of loyal constituents who do a decent amount of online shopping, it is worth exploring the possibility of creating a “virtual mall”. It could generate a decent amount of revenue. Until that time, however, feel free to shop at my shul’s mall. You’ll help a great young community in Israel.


Things I DON'T Miss About America

In this week's parsha, the Israelites complained about the things that they missed about Egypt, like fish and watermelon. I sort of satirized this 2 years ago (here), and, fortunately, most people actually got the joke.

Then, about a year ago, I created the "Bounty of Spain" meme to discuss products that olim import from abroad.

Every once in a while, though, you come across something American in Israel that you wish had just stayed put. Tonight, I saw an ad for some concert featuring "Israel's Justin Timberlake". That's what I mean. We don't need our own Justin Timberlake. We don't even need yours. Can I come up with a list of 5 American imports that we can do without here? Let's try:

1) Annoying pop music. There's good music in America, but it somehow doesn't find its way onto the Israeli radio stations.
2) Survivor. I just don't understand what all the fuss is about, and Israelis are crazy into 'Hisardut'. I've never actually watched the show for more than 5 minutes and by accident, but I do think that the "Survivor" scene on Curb your Enthusiasm is one of the all-time greatest bits of comedy:

3) Curse words. Somehow, several American profanities have worked their way into the Israeli vocabulary, even appearing in advertisements. In general, I'm not a fan of the street English that Israelis seem to absorb so that they can act all 'American'.
4) RC cola.
5) Basketball. I happen to like basketball a lot. I just don't like the way Israelis play. It would have been better had it stayed an American sport

The Treaty of Tripoli

Gotta jump on the bandwagon of spinning the Obama speech. In delineating the long history of Muslim-American relations, he invoked the 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli. This is significant for two reasons, one obvious, and one less so.

The obvious significance is that the treaty established the non-Christian nature of the United States. In fact, Article 11 of the treaty, from which the President quoted, reads, in its entirety:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The point that he was trying to make with this is that America has always been open and tolerant of Islam. Well and good. Point taken.

The other, hidden part of this is the darker underbelly of the true statement that "Islam has always been a part of America's story". The Treaty of Tripoli was a capitulation to privateering. American ships were being captured in the Mediterranean, so the nascent US concluded a "treaty" with the Barbary States in which they agreed to pay a certain amount per year for "protection". Article 10 of said treaty states:

The money and presents demanded by the Bey of Tripoli, as a full and satisfactory consideration on his part, and on the part of his subjects, for this treaty of perpetual peace and friendship, are acknowledged to have been received by him previous to his signing the same...
That's the obscure part. Of course, this was before the US even had a navy. Once they got one, they went and kicked some Tripolitan a** (that's the "... to the shores of Tripoli" part of the Marines' Hymn). So what was he trying to say? Was he trying to reinforce a 200-year-old US policy of capitulating to what was essentially state-sponsored piracy? Was he trying to say that the US can take a bit of thuggery here and there, but don't press your luck? Or am I being too intertextual about this and it was simply an observation that the US and a Muslim country concluded a treaty over 200 years ago, just don't look at it too closely?

In all, I admire BO's optimism. I'm also not sure if anyone has a better chance of bringing about this vision of world peace than he does. I just don't think it's really possible, that's all.


Ushpizin on Shavu'ot

Since making aliyah, we have instituted a custom in our family regarding the night of Shavu'ot. Our meal is graced by the presence of two very important guests who truly enhance our simchat Yom Tov. Their names are Ben and Jerry.

The wife and I each gave a shiur over Yom Tov - the same shiur, more or less, in fact. It's an expansion of this. I generally don't stay up all night anymore. Maybe when the kids are older (more on that below). I made sure to give the shiur at a time that I could still get a decent night's sleep. I had the 12:40- 1:25 am slot. It went very well - there were a lot more people than I expected (I printed 20 source sheets, and there was not even enought for people to double up). The problem was, I got so jacked up on caffeine before the shiur that I could not fall asleep afterward.

My favorite Shavu'ot memory: I must have been 10 or 11. My father and I were learning mishnayot in the wee hours on Shavu'ot morning, in the basement of the shtiebl on Park Heights Avenue, AC on full blast, soda and chips in reach. We got up to the following mishna (Bekhorot 5:3):

One some children were playing in a field, and they tied the tails of two lambs together, and the tail of one of them was disconnected - and it was a firstborn. The incident came before the sages, and they permitted it. They went and tied the tails of other firstborns, and they forbade it...
I remember poring over the books, trying to figure out (er, make heads and tails?) out of the text, and then we get to this little anecdote, and we just lost it. We probably laughed for 10 minutes, imagining these kids tying the tails of sheep together. So what's your 'all time favorite mishna'?