Monday, December 28, 2009

Favorite reads 2009

As we come toward the close of 2009, I’m looking back at the various books I’ve read over the year. The following are not necessarily the “best” books (nor were they all published in 2009). They are among the most interesting or favorite reads I’ve had. Each are worthy of recommendation. This is not an exhaustive list of the interesting items on my list, and I’d love to know what you think about the following:

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else what It Means for Business, Science and Everyday Life (Penguin, 2003).

I have recently become a serious student of social network theory (no surprise here), and Barabasi is one of the gurus of the field. This volume not only outlines the recent trends in the area – it also gives an invigorating exposition of the interplay among the physical and social sciences and the arts. Creative souls and networking minds enhance one another.

Stuart Brown, Play - How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Penguin Group, 2009).

Play is easily the most influential book I’ve read this year, and one of my favorites of the decade. An intelligent, enjoyable exploration of the importance, power, and necessity of play in our lives – this volume demonstrates that “recapturing” the sense of awe and wonder of childhood is a sad requirement for many of us, as we should never have lost it in the first place. Brown provides a great addition to our understanding of humanity’s search for meaningful existence.

David Ellenson, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity (Hebrew Union College Press, 2004).

OK – this entry mainly betrays my life-long geeky interest in Jewish history. In this collection of essays Ellenson, president of HUC-JIR, delivers a wide array of examples of Jewish re-framing of tradition and practice in the modern era. It’s a wonderful read for anyone interested in the ongoing progressive nature of Judaism.

Zachary I. Heller, ed., Synagogues in a Time of Change: Fragmentation and Diversity in Jewish Religious Movements (The Alban Institute, 2009).

The Alban Institute has long been a leading think-tank about American congregational life. This collection of essays by a variety of Jewish thinkers and practitioners captures the current fragile, tumultuous, and exciting moment in American Judaism.

Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Riverhead Books, 2006).

This is a fascinating exploration of the emerging “conceptual age”, in which it is necessary for us to cultivate both our imaginative and logical capacities in order to progress successfully in work, career, play and life. In addition to his descriptive material, Pink offers a “portfolio” of suggested activities for each of his “six senses.”

So what good stuff have you read this year? And more so – what’s on your reading list for 2010? Let me know.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The power of names

Today I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Hebrew naming of not one, not two, but THREE children of the congregation. So I’ve been thinking a lot about names:

L’chol ish yesh shem – “Every person has a name.” According to our tradition, each of us has three names: the one given to us by our parents; the one by which we are known; and the one we hope to earn for ourselves. Judaism has placed great significance on our names. Our Hebrew names connote certain meanings, and therefore are seen to describe us as well. The ancient rabbis said k’sh’mo keyn hu – “As is the name, such is the person.” Throughout our history, and especially in the Bible, specific names were granted or chosen for this very purpose. “Adam”, who was created from the dust of the earth, refers to earth itself. “Eve”, the first mother, is a word that means “life.” “Abraham” is said to mean “father of many peoples.” “Moses” is so called for he was “drawn out” from the waters of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter.

And so do we continue this tradition even to this day. When we name our children in memory or honor of other family members, we keep those loved ones, and their names, alive. I greatly enjoy assisting families in selecting names, as it gives me the opportunity to share with them the tradition of looking at the meanings of the words themselves, and to help continue writing their sacred family narrative.

So tell me – what’s YOUR Hebrew name, and how was it chosen for you? I’d love to know.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The potato chanukiah - a family story for the 6th nite

Tonight, driving home from Temple on the 6th night of Hanukkah, I called my parents to say hello (as I often do randomly during the week). Talking with my dad, he says “hey, guess what I found today? I was reaching for something in the cabinet in the family room, and pulled out a wooden menorah. You remember it?” “Yeah, sure”, I said, “two stacked pieces of wood, painted blue and gold, with nuts on it for the candles.” “And it says ‘Eric Siroka’ on the bottom”, dad continued. “One of these days, you should take it. You should have it at your house.”

I continued by telling him of a similar chanukiah that my son Benjamin made a year or so ago – this one out of mini flower pots turned upside-down, also painted blue and gold and silver, with the right-sized nuts glued on for the candles. Then, even over the phone, I could see a light go off over dad’s head, as he repeated a story to me:

“I remember one day as a kid coming home from synagogue, and telling my parents (my grandparents) that the teacher told us that we should do something ‘fancy’ or ‘creative’ to celebrate Hanukkah. ‘Fancy? Creative’? your grandpa replied. ‘When I was kid, we had nothing. We didn’t have a fancy menorah or anything for Hanukkah. We each went out and found the BIGGEST potato we could find, flattened one side (so it would sit still) and poked some holes in it for the candles. And we had a menorah.’”

Dad went on: “so I decided then to go to the kitchen and get the biggest potato we had, and use it for a chanukiah that night. I can still remember those funny little orange candles we used – they were all orange back then.”

Just then, I pulled into the parking lot of our local supermarket – I was picking up orange juice on the way home. A powerful thought struck me. I told dad “hey, I have to go – gotta run in and get a potato and little candles so I can tell your story tonight to the kids. Ben and Vered will love this.” I could hear dad smiling on the other end of the phone.

I got home, took off my coat, went to the kitchen. I took out that BIGGEST potato I could find, flattened one side (so it would sit still) and poked some holes in it for the candles. I went downstairs and told the story that my dad (their grandpa) had told me that his dad (my grandpa) had told him. We went up to the kitchen, and the four of us lit our chanukiot – chanted the blessings and sang maoz tzur. Now in the warm glow of the Hanukkah candles, with a little Mingus in the background J, I raise a glass in honor of this festive holiday, and in thanks to the story of my family, speaking to me to this day.

Ner Shel Tzedakah - Pursuing Justice on the 6th night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the sixth night of Hanukkah – which has been called Ner Shel Tzedakah (Candle of Righteousness). Ner Shel Tzedakah is a program to raise public awareness and educate the Jewish community about poverty. On the 6th night of Hanukkah, we encourage families to teach their children about the needs of those less fortunate and donate the value of the gifts they would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the poor. In addition to Temple’s ongoing social justice efforts, like our congregation’s Hamotzi Project (which supports the local food pantries) here are a few items to consider in making your family’s Ner Shel Tzedakah commitment for the 6th night of Hanukkah – Wednesday, December 16.


It’s the perfect time to give a child a wonderful gift that will last through the holiday season and for many years to come - a protective bed net to keep them safe from malaria. Imagine what the global economic recession means to the world’s poorest, for whom a single mosquito bite can be the difference between life and death. It only costs $10 to send a net and each net saves lives in Africa.

MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger (

Each year, MAZON grants over $4 million to more than 300 carefully screened hunger-relief agencies, including emergency food providers, food banks, multi-service organizations and advocacy groups that seek long-term solutions to the hunger problem. MAZON (“food” in Hebrew) believes its dual purpose is to provide for those who are hungry today and to address the systemic causes of hunger and poverty, both domestically and globally. Although grants are provided to many organizations serving the Jewish poor, in keeping with the best of Jewish tradition MAZON believes it is important to respond to all who are in need.

Ronald McDonald Family Room (

The Ronald McDonald Family Room at Memorial Hospital is a safe, affordable home-away-from-home for families of seriously ill children. Families draw support from each other, and from the caring volunteers who help them through a truly difficult time in their lives. In the Ronald McDonald Family Room, families can relax, take a quiet moment and a deep breath in a warm and comfortable environment that the medical world does not enter. Our Family Room is approximately 2,000 square feet with three sleeping rooms, two baths with showers, a laundry room, a fully equipped kitchen, a library and, of course, a family room. The Family Room relies on the generosity of the community for monetary donations, goods, services, and for the countless hours of volunteer time. There are certainly similar facilites in other communities as well!

Hanukkah is our traditional celebration of religious freedom. As we recall the victory of the Maccabees against an overwhelming foe, so too do we consider how we can be champions of freedom, goodness and peace on behalf of all people everywhere. I hope your family will participate in Ner Shel Tzedakah – whether on this 6th night of the holiday, or one of your choosing. I would love to know of your contributions – of time, finances and volunteerism – in honor of this effort. Together, we can make each night one dedicated to perfecting the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah, celebration of evolving Judaism

Hanukkah is a celebration of Jewish pride and identity. With its roots in the Maccabean revolt around 165 BCE, the Festival of Lights is a yearly reminder of the dynamic tension that has characterized the relationship between Judaism and society – the challenge to maintain tradition while also being relevant in the age. This relationship has allowed (and demanded) that Judaism evolve continually – in its forms and perspectives, and remain significant. It is this very tension that has inspired Jews and Judaism to be creative throughout our history – healthy Jewish expression has grown and changed throughout the years. Perhaps there is no better example of Judaism’s progressive nature than the realm of religious practice and ritual. It is in this area that we see, perhaps slowly, the most meaningful representation of evolving Jewish identity and understanding. For nothing describes Jewish life and culture as fundamentally as our liturgy and rituals, and the art that emerge from them. Here’s a fabulous example, from NPR’s “Morning Edition”, December 11, 2009:

An exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York has everything from green energy synagogues to a prayer shawl that doubles as an apron. Many of the works are influenced by environmentalism and feminism. There are menorahs just in time for Chanukah that invite people to look at lighting the candles in a very different way.

(go to to hear the full story)

The vibrant relationship between Jewish heritage and the world in which we live is a great blessing, for which we give thanks as we celebrate Hanukkah, dedicating ourselves anew as agents of freedom, compassion and justice. HAPPY HANUKKAH!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

OK friends - for my first post - a quote from a new book, one of several recent works I've read in the field of social network it, the author offers a GREAT insight to the importance and relevance of "new" technology of connecting.

Adam L. Penenberg writes in Viral Loop:

Why do we do it? What explains our BlackBerry-bearing, Twitter-tweeting, Facebook friend with the need for constant connectivity? As facile as it sounds, we do it because we are hard-wired to socialize. It’s in our best interests. One reason we gravitate toward communities is because they multiply the impact of each individual to bring greater prosperity, security, and fulfillment to all. Aristotle believed that “man is a political animal” and we achieve noble actions by living as citizens together. What is politics, however, but the expression of personal interest manifested in the body politic? Two thousand years later Benedictus de Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish descent, expressed the view that men “are scarcely able to lead a solitary life so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury.”

Perhaps the answer is even more fundamental than Aristotle, Spinoza, or other philosophers ever imagined. Social networking makes us happy and, online or off, all this congregating is merely a product of biological necessity. Research indicates that engaging with friends helps us live longer and better lives…It didn’t matter if the friends stayed in contact via phone, letter, or email. Just the fact that they had a social network of friends acted as a protective barrier.

What are your thoughts?