Blessings Part Three: Wow, Oops, Please, Thanks

There’s a well-known saying in the world of religion: We pray for four reasons: To say,  

“Wow!” 

“Oops!” 

“Please!” 

“Thanks!” 

While it might seem a little too simple of a formula, this saying brilliantly captures what it means to express ourselves in prayer, to communicate our basic human needs to a figure or force that is more than human. What is often pressing on our minds and hearts? Our sense of wonder about the world and our existence within it, our hope to be forgiven for our mistakes, our desires and dreams for ourselves and our loved ones, and our gratitude for the gifts that we receive. 

No Jewish prayer captures all four of these modes better than the Amidah. The climax of each of the three traditional daily prayer services, the Amidah contains 19 blessings, each one expressing one of these four sentiments. To recite the Amidah, we rise (amidah means “standing” in Hebrew), some people cover their heads with their tallit (prayer shawl), and most of the prayer is said silently, all in an effort to increase focus and concentration. 

One of my teachers in Rabbinical School, Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, who is one of the world’s experts on Jewish prayer, writes the following about the Amidah

Everything about the Amidah is intriguing. We do not know for sure when Jews started saying it or even why. Most puzzling of all is how it came to consist of nineteen benedictions, since the Amidah is also named the Sh’moneh Esreh–that is, “the Eighteen [not nineteen!] Benedictions”…It was the Rabbis’ favorite prayer, after all, known originally as Hat’fillah, that is, “The Prayer.” Literally thousands of learned Jews have spent their lives reading and rereading those few classical texts that purport to explain how it came about (Rabbi Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, My People’s Prayerbook vol. 2).

In addition to its origins, what fascinates me about the Amidah is how neatly each of the 19 blessings can be organized into our four categories of prayer. Here is a summary of each one: 

Wow! 

We are amazed by…

Blessing 1: Ancestors – Our connection to God through our ancestors. We are part of an ancient story! 

Blessing 2: Might – God’s power over the natural world and over life and death. 

Blessing 3: Holiness – God’s holiness. 

Blessing 4: Knowledge – God as the source of all wisdom.  

Oops! 

Please grant us…

Blessing 5: Repentance – Opportunities for teshuva, the chance to make better choices in the future.

Blessing 6: Forgiveness – Forgiveness for our mistakes (some people lightly tap their chest with their fist when reciting this one). 

Please! 

We hope for…

Blessing 7: Redemption – A better world. 

Blessing 8: Healing – A speedy and complete recovery for those who are ill. 

Blessing 9: Bounty – A good harvest and a healthy planet. 

Blessing 10: Gathering the Exiles – Unity of the Jewish people. 

Blessing 11: Justice – Wise leaders. 

Blessing 12: Elimination of Evil – Floundering of those who seek destruction in our world. 

Blessing 13: The Righteous – Flourishing of those who seek good in our world. 

Blessing 14: Jerusalem – Peace for this sacred city. 

Blessing 15: Deliverance – God to fulfill ancient promises to the Jewish people. 

Blessing 16: Listen! – God to listen to our prayers. 

Blessing 17: Accept! – God to accept and answer our prayers. 

Thanks! 

We are grateful for…

Blessing 18: The miracles that God performs for us, day in and day out. 

Blessing 19: The gift of peace. (Which also serves as a Please! prayer, since we hope to see a world of greater peace.) 

As someone who loves the clarity of lists, I am amazed at how well these main blessings of Jewish liturgy fit so perfectly into these four categories. 

But these are a lot of feelings to feel—and a lot of blessings to recite— every single day! When I was a counselor at a Jewish sleepaway camp, I was responsible for overseeing that the kids in my bunk recited the Amidah each day. Often, the teenaged campers would express how overwhelming it was to get through each of these 19 blessings. After all, you might imagine how long it takes to recite all of the material in the Amidah, especially in Hebrew! 

To help make it more manageable, I sometimes suggested that the campers focus on a single blessing each time they recited this prayer. To me, this exercise turns the recitation of the Amidah from a chore into a grounding ritual, and it’s something I still do when I recite the Amidah today. It gives me a chance to check in with myself: What blessing feels most relevant in this particular moment? Am I feeling a sense of awe? Sorry for a recent mistake? Hopeful for a world filled with more righteousness? Grateful for all that I have? Luckily, there’s an Amidah blessing for any experience and emotion that a given day might bring.

In the (slightly modified) words of the Amidah, may God lovingly and willingly accept our prayers of Wow! Oops! Please! and Thanks! 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena

Blessings Part Two: Getting Specific

After over two years of anticipation, it finally happened: The Whole Foods on Wall Street opened last week! Though Jon and I will miss our weekly trip to the Tribeca location—where we loved bumping into and catching up with so many of you!—it was truly amazing to walk down the block, enter a beautiful new store, and see all of the delicious food that a person could ever dream of eating. 

Many faith traditions have a practice of gratitude before (and sometimes after) meals. But one of the most interesting things about Judaism is that our tradition invites us to get specific about our gratitude. Not only do we have the opportunity to give thanks for our food before we eat, but each type of food we consume has a slightly different blessing associated with it: 

For bread: Ha’motzi – Blessed are You, who brings forth bread from the earth

For wine/grape juice: Borei P’ri Ha’gafen – Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the vine

For grains: Borei Minei Mezonot – Blessed are You, Creator of all types of foods

For fruits: Borei Pri Ha’etz – Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the trees

For veggies: Borei P’ri Ha’adamah – Blessed are You, Creator of the fruit of the earth

For anything else (eggs, meat, fish, beverages, candy, etc.): She’ha’kol Nih’yeh Bidvaro – Blessed are You, by whose word all things come to be 

One of my favorite activities growing up was the annual Hebrew School “Bracha Bee” (Bracha is the Hebrew word for blessing). The teacher would shout out a food, and we had to come up with the corresponding blessing. Some of them were easy. Cheese was “she’ha’kol,” apples were “ha’etz,” cupcakes were “mezonot.” The harder ones were more interesting. Is the blessing for almonds different than the ones for peanuts? (The answer is yes!) Over chocolate covered peanuts, should one say “ha’adamah” (for the peanuts) or “she’ha’kol” (for the chocolate)? Is the blessing over French toast “ha’motzi” (for the bread) or “mezonot” (because we don’t quite treat it as bread)? (The correct answers to these questions are ha’adamah and ha’motzi, respectively.) To me, finding the right blessing for the right food was a fun puzzle to solve. 

But even if you weren’t a bracha nerd like me, it’s easy to see the wisdom of the ancient Rabbis, who grouped foods into distinct categories and created a blessing for each one. Instead of saying a general blessing of thanks, Jewish tradition gives us the opportunity to reflect on what is special about the food we are going to eat, where it comes from, and why we enjoy it. 

The most meaningful expressions of gratitude are specific ones. A good thank-you note might express gratitude for a gift. But a great thank-you note will explain what the person loved most about the gift, when they will use it, and what it means to them. It’s great to hear someone say: “I love you.” But it is even better when they share what they love about you and reflect on the qualities that are unique to you. 

May this Shabbat, and maybe even your next trip to the grocery store, be filled with gratitude for all of the specific gifts and blessings that life has to offer. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena 

Looking Outward | Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend

This week, we begin a new book of the Torah, and our perspective changes. We have completed the Book of Genesis (called Beresheet in Hebrew), and this Shabbat, we will begin the Book of Exodus (called Shemot in Hebrew). Though the world is created at the beginning of Genesis, most of the book focuses on the story of the first Jewish family: Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Rachel, and Leah; Joseph and his descendants. Throughout this book of the Torah, we look inward, focusing on the special relationship that God forges with this family, and the complicated dynamics—including intense rivalries and reconciliations—that emerge among its members. 
But as we begin the Book of Exodus, we begin to look outward. We shift away from a focus on a single family. Instead, we learn about a large society: The powerful Pharaoh; the Egyptian elite; and the enslaved Israelites. This is an unjust and broken society, where one group benefits from the abuse of another. Throughout the Book of Exodus, we follow the Israelites on their trajectory as they escape a precarious life of slavery in Egypt (Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, comes from the word tzar, which means “narrow” or “constricted”) and begin to build a world of freedom based upon the laws of God. By the end of Exodus, the Israelites are no longer a small family, but a large collective, tasked with creating a society of justice in which the Divine spirit can dwell. 
We retell this story of the exodus from Egypt each year during our Passover Seder. This ritual serves to teach the next generation—and to remind ourselves—of the Jewish dream of a fair and sacred society, and of the Jewish obligation to take the necessary steps to transform that dream into a reality. 
On Monday, we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, along with countless other leaders and activists, fought for civil rights and greater racial equality. Like that of the ancient Israelites, our nation’s transition toward more freedom and equity for all has been challenging, and the work is nowhere near complete. But Dr. King was a religious leader, whose work was inspired and anchored by the narrative of the Book of Exodus, and whose faith allowed him to imagine a world different from the one in which he lived. His famous I Have a Dream speech, which can perhaps more accurately be called a sermon, is brimming with biblical references, not the least of which is his declaration of hope, which comes from the 23rd Psalm: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.” 
Just as the Passover Seder is a reminder of our religious obligation to work toward a society free of discrimination and abuse, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day serves as a reminder of our American obligation to reckon with the injustices of our nation’s past and present. It is an opportunity to recognize how much work there is still to do. And it is a chance to commit ourselves to building a society that recognizes and honors the inherent sanctity of all people. 
If you are interested in reading and learning in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I recommend reading an article entitled I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Biblical Prophetic Speech, by Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler, which analyzes the biblical quotes and devices that Dr. King used in this magnificent speech. If you are looking for a community service opportunity over the weekend, UJA has a number of meaningful volunteer activities.
This Shabbat, as we enter the Book of Exodus, we turn outward, and orient ourselves toward the concerns of an entire society. On Monday, we also turn outward, reminding ourselves of our Jewish and American responsibility to heal the brokenness in our own society. 

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom, and a meaningful Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 
Deena 

Blessing Part 1

Growing up, I always loved playing with Magic 8 Balls. There was something so enticing about trying to predict the future. I loved the idea that a tool could clue me in to what might be in store. 

This week, we complete the Book of Genesis, the very first book in the Torah, with Parashat Vayechi. Jacob, our patriarch, reaches the end of his life and tries to predict what the future will hold for his children and grandchildren. He gathers them around his deathbed and says: “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” 

Some of the predictions are harsh: Reuben will be “unstable as water” and will “excel no longer,” and Shimon and Levi will live with anger. Some of the predictions are exciting: Judah will give rise to kings, and Asher’s food will be bountiful. 

It feels very meaningful to read these predictions on the first Shabbat of a new year. As 2023 stretches out before us, we ask ourselves what the year might bring. Many of us feel an increased sense of agency, committing to resolutions and behavior changes so that we can achieve our goals as the year unfolds. What do we foresee for ourselves as we gaze into the unknown future? 

But before outlining what’s in store for his children, Jacob gives a special blessing to his grandchildren. He says: “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm—Bless these children. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” 

It’s a beautiful blessing that has become a popular Hebrew lullaby. In sharing this blessing, Jacob brings the past and the future together. He hopes that the memories of his father and grandfather–-those who came before him–-will inspire and shape the lives of his grandchildren and great grandchildren—those who will come after him. 

In honor of this blessing for the future, and to help us bring blessings into this new year, I am excited to spend the next few weeks exploring some of my favorite Jewish blessings. A blessing is a prayer that begins with the formula: “Baruch Atah Adonai,” and Jewish tradition teaches that we should recite at least 100 of them each day! 

May the new year bring bright futures and countless blessings. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena 

Hannukah Part 3: The Age-Old December Dilemma

The question of what it means to be Jewish in America never feels quite as important as it does during the month of December. For the entire month, we are surrounded by symbols of Christmas: Santa (both in figurine and live action form), Christmas music, trees, tinsel, and more. Christmas is part of the cultural landscape of America. 

I remember the first time I was faced with the question of how to participate in a Christmas ritual. I was six years old, and my family took me to an exhibit at a local museum during the holiday season. The museum was decorated with gorgeous Christmas trees and twinkling lights, and I felt the magic of the moment. At a certain point in the exhibit, a man dressed as Santa invited all the kids to take turns sitting in his lap and telling him our Christmas wish. 

I was ambivalent…I knew that as a Jew, I didn’t celebrate Christmas. Yet, I was excited by the prospect of telling Santa my wish and hoping it would come true. I think I passed on the opportunity, probably less out of a desire to avoid participating in a Christian activity, and more out of a desire not to share my secrets with a stranger. But from then on, I knew that Christmas would be part of my life. 

Interestingly, Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, and it lacks the work restrictions that govern other major festivals. There are very few rituals: Some additional prayers in the daily service, a candle lighting each evening, and some customary foods. But because of its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah has become a major Jewish holiday in America, and has been branded as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. 

So how do we navigate the prevalence of Christmas? This is a major question for Jews, other non-Christians, and interfaith families. The good news is that this is not a new question. Throughout history, Jews have responded to the Christmas holiday in a variety of ways, from quietly staying out of the way of celebrations to full-on embrace. For more history of Jews and Christmas, check out this article from My Jewish Learning.

Many parents feel worried that somehow, Hanukkah will “lose” to Christmas. The concern is that compared to decorating a tree, putting out cookies for Santa, and waking up to a mountain of gifts, lighting Hanukkah candles and eating latkes will feel a little lackluster. 

It can be helpful to remember that there are no winners or losers when we think about both holidays as opportunities to bring light into the world. It’s no coincidence that, during the darkest month of the year, many faith traditions responded with festivals of light. We each do so in different ways, but ultimately, the winter holidays allow us all to celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, and to share our light with others. 

With this in mind, being exposed to another faith tradition can be deeply rewarding for children. It teaches them to be open to new experiences and to find beauty in diversity (see below my signature for a great example!). And it can be empowering for Jewish children to teach friends of other faiths about their Hanukkah traditions. For interfaith families, it can be very meaningful to celebrate not just one, but two holidays that capture the spirit of introducing light into the darkness. 

Of course, each family needs to decide how to navigate these issues; there’s no right or wrong way to handle anything related to the December Dilemma. We hope you’ll see us as resources to help think it all through. Don’t hesitate to reach out!

Though different, these holidays remind us that we have the capacity to bring light into the world—through ritual, learning, and action. Maybe December doesn’t need to be filled with dilemmas after all. 

Shabbat shalom,
Deena 

Hanukkah Part 2: Protecting Jews and Judaism

It’s been a tough few months for the Jewish community. From antisemitic tweets and statements made by well-known athletes and celebrities—public figures whose platforms reach millions—to credible (and thankfully, thwarted) threats to synagogues and Jewish communties, the years-long rise in antisemitism is in full force.

In her book, People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn shares a theory about why we are seeing more antisemitic vitriol in the US than we ever have before. Her answer is simple…and disturbing: 

“The last few generations of Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust—which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make antisemitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events were dying off, the public shame associated with antisemitism was dying too. In other words, hating Jews was normal. And historically speaking, the decades in which my parents and I had grown up simply hadn’t been normal. Now, normal was coming back.” (pp. 217-218). 

After the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018, I remember thinking, with great sadness, that Jews in America had just joined Jewish history in a new way. Mourning violent attacks against our communities, and fearing subsequent ones, had rarely been part of our experience in this country. Now, tragically, it is. 

So many people have asked me how I am dealing with this new reality. I always remind them of our strong security procedures at JCP, and about how many organizations, including the ADL, are constantly and diligently working with law enforcement to protect the Jewish community from harm. I am so deeply grateful to the people who keep us safe. I am also thankful for friends and allies who reach out with messages of support. 

But I am also concerned. It seems that so many people—Jews and non-Jews alike—become animated about Judaism only when Jews are threatened. When antisemitism rears its ugly head, Jewish identity suddenly becomes not about the richness of text study, or the beauty of holiday celebrations, or the joy of imparting our ancient wisdom to the next generation. Instead, sadly, it becomes about how much people hate us, and always have. 

As Horn points out in her book, the Syrian Greeks of the Hanukkah story did not want to kill Jews. Instead, they wanted to wipe out Jewish identity and traditions by inserting their own religious practices in their place (p. 57). Jews weren’t allowed to study Torah, they weren’t allowed to circumcise their sons, and they weren’t allowed to worship in their sacred Temple (a statue of Zeus had been placed on the sacrificial altar). In the Hanukkah story, the goal of the antisemitism was not to kill Jews, but to kill Judaism. And in our current environment, we can’t let antisemitism accomplish either of these horrific goals. 

We must, at all costs, protect ourselves when our communities are threatened with violence. And we must make our voices heard when people spread this dangerous and most ancient form of hatred. 

But we must also remember—as the Hanukkah story reminds us—not to let antisemitism define Judaism. If antisemitism is the sole force that shapes Jewish identity, that’s just another victory for hatred. Judaism is so much more than reacting to antisemitism. Our Jewish lives can and should be shaped by all of the beauty and meaning of our tradition…not just by the forces that want to destroy it. 

One of the Hanukkah traditions is to display the menorah in the window in order to “publicize the miracle” of Hanukkah. During a holiday where we remember how Jewish tradition was almost wiped out, we respond by proudly and publicly displaying the symbols of our faith. 

So when people ask me how I am dealing with this new reality, and what I am doing to fight antisemitism, I feel excited and empowered when I share that we at JCP help our community live as proud and joyful Jews. There’s no better antidote to hatred than witnessing our community at its best. 

Shabbat shalom,

Deena 

Hanukkah Part 1: The Holiday Spirit 

Though it feels like our Jewish High Holy Day season ended not so long ago, the next holiday season—the American one—has just begun. It’s officially December, which means that the classic holiday songs are playing, the Starbucks cups have turned red, and the cheer is spreading. 

The holidays can be a time of cognitive dissonance for Jews: On the one hand, the holiday season is fun! Our ever-bustling city slows down a bit and is engulfed by coziness and warmth. It’s hard not to feel the sense of hygge, the perfect Danish term meaning “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being” which permeates the city. Kids are off from school, work is quieter, the rigorous schedules we keep are a bit calmer. It is a time to gather with loved ones (especially meaningful after so much isolation over the last few years), a time for generosity, and a time to enjoy increased patience and kindness that seem to pervade our society during this magical season. 

On the other hand, the holidays can feel tough. For anyone going through a hard time, the onslaught of so much good cheer can be challenging to face. It can also feel like a time of maximum consumption, with the emphasis on consumerism and copious gift-giving. 

And for many Jews, it can feel isolating to be Jewish in a country whose supposedly secular calendar is defined by a different faith. It can feel difficult to explain to children why we might not participate in the fun and beloved traditions of their friends. And for families of more than one faith, it can be tough to make sure that both Christmas and Hanukkah feel sufficiently fun and festive so that one holiday doesn’t “win out” over the other. 

But just as our experience of the holidays can be complicated, so too is the story of Hanukkah itself. Though we might immediately think about the miracle of oil, the historical story of Hanukkah is really about a struggle between assimilation and the maintenance of tradition. When the Syrian Greeks, ruled by Antiochus, introduce Greek culture into Jewish society, many Jews are thrilled. They want to partake in the sophisticated culture of their Greek neighbors. 

But the Maccabees, the classic heroes of the Hanukkah story, want to ensure that Judaism is not “tainted” by Greek influences. So not only do they fight against their Greek overlords, they also fight against their fellow Jews who want to integrate an outside culture into their sacred traditions. And yet, when the Maccabees emerge victorious, they celebrate by instituting an annual military parade…one of many Greek customs that they fought so vigorously against.

For the next month, I will share reflections on all things Hanukkah, from how the holiday can help us think about contemporary antisemitism, to some strategies to navigate the tension between Hanukkah and Christmas (often called the “December Dilemma”), to ways that we can share more light in the world. 

For now, I hope you will join us for our Hanukkah celebrations at JCP, which you can find below. And I wish you a cozy Shabbat, filled with warmth and joy. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena

Register for the Purim Spiel Musical Theater Workshop!

Grades 3-5 | Begins Jan. 9

Join the cast of the JCP Purim Spiel and participate in a weekly musical theater workshop! Participation in the Purim Spiel is open to all children in grades 3-5. Workshops will take place on Monday nights from 5:30-7pm starting on January 9, and will culminate in performances on March 5 and March 6 at JCP’s community Purim celebrations. We will provide a pizza dinner for the cast. $380 to participate. Email Jacob Leizman for more information or register here.

15 Broad Will Fulfill Wishes Again

Two years ago, the good people at 15 Broad joined in a Salvation Army program that fulfills specific wish lists for New Yorkers in need. They answered 200 requests the first year, and last year 388. The families must apply and live at or below the poverty line; all of them live south of 14th Street. The effort, organized by Lissa Hussian, Jessica Grunfeld and Sallyjo Levine, has been fulfilling requests for everything from toys to bedding to tablets for school. And this year they are also fulfilling 50 lists from newly arrived migrant families who are currently living at the Skyline Hotel near Times Square. They also now have a website so they can explain their program.

“One child asked for a toothbrush this year—can you even imagine?” Lissa said. “There’s so much need and we really want to get the word out.”

If you don’t want to shop but want to donate cash, the group at 15 Broad will do the shopping for you. You can also donate new clothing or toys, and the SA will distribute to families who did not sign up in time to secure an angel. The deadline is Dec. 12. Contact the effort here to contribute: 15BroadAngelTree@gmail.com

JCP has a Babysitters Club!

JCP has launched our very first babysitters network! We’re matching JCP teens with parents of current students looking for local babysitters. If your teen is interested in being connected to JCP families for babysitting opportunities, please have them complete the form with their contact information and relevant details. This information will only be shared with JCP families upon request. If you are interested in babysitting, please fill out the form.

If you are a parent who would like the list of JCP teens interested in babysitting, reach out to Daphne Logan.