Sunday, 13 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 29-Return

"I simply can't build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death...I think...peace and tranquility will return again."~Anne Frank

We return to that place of peace and tranquility when we return to our authentic selves. May the coming year find us all in a place of beauty, truth, and peace. שנה טוֹבה ומתוקה

Begin Again (2013)
Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 
**My favourite movie and musical of the past two years. This movie is brilliant. Rent it or Netflix it. You will not be sorry. 
***Looking Back through this Elul list of movies, I am not surprised at all to discover that each and every one is wonderfully written, impeccably directed, and intelligent. There isn't a single one that is ridiculous or mindless and even the comedies have smarts. They are my personal favourites, but I do beg my readers to be more selective in viewing choices. We as audiences deserve the best.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 28-GIve

"Success is finding satisfaction in giving a little more than you take."~Christopher Reeve

We take so much without thought. We give so little with much thought. That trend needs to be reversed.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Michael Arndt (screenplay) Lee Unkrich, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton (story)

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at
**Always exciting to watch old friends create beauty. I can always say that I knew Lee "when.."

Friday, 11 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 27-Bless

"Every blessing ignored becomes a curse."~Paulo Coelho

Each day on this earth is a blessing. Cherish it all and with every connection may we all find ourselves closer to the Divine Spirit.

The Frisco Kid (1979)
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Written by: Michael Elias, Frank Shaw

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 26-Create

"The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves."~Steven Spielberg

We must continually re-create and redefine our souls in order to live fully and authentically.

The Fisher King (1991)
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: Richard LaGravenese

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Welcoming the Stranger

The Evian Conference was not, contrary to its aqueous title, a meeting about a water issue. Rather, it was the brainchild of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and convened in July of 1938 in order to discuss and respond to the increasing plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.

Thirty-two countries were represented at the eight day discussion held in Evian-les-Bains France, and dozens of relief/refugee organizations were also in attendance. The Nazis also sent observers and while they weren't formally invited, nobody asked them to leave. Delegation after delegation rose to express sympathy for the refugees, but most countries, including Canada, The United States, and Great Britain, offered excuse after excuse as to why they refused to alter their quotas and admit Jews into their countries. The Nazi regime responded with great satisfaction to the failure of Evian. Leadership was "astounded" at foreign governments that were easy with their criticism of Germany's treatment of Jews, but none were willing to open their doors to help, and ultimately save the lives of Jewish refugees.

Kristallacht occurred four months later.

Canada did much better as a country when we admitted thousands of Hungarian refugees in the Fifties and thousands more Vietnamese refugees in the Seventies. We as a nation have grown proud of our record of global outreach to the most downtrodden.

Today we are bearing witness to a refugee crisis similar in size and scope to that of Europe in 1938. The Syrian refugees (yes..refugees, not migrants) are running for their lives and are begging the western nations to offer sanctuary. The German response has been nothing short of remarkable. And while Canada and The Harper Government has a stated plan in place to admit a set number of refugees, very few have been able to cut through the red-taped burdens placed on them. The rhetoric and unwillingness to alter responses to an hourly-changing disaster, is starting to have a familiar tone-deafness to those of us sensitive to history.

There is no question that this is a complicated issue, but it doesn't help that in the midst of a federal election candidates and the Prime Minister himself, are choosing to ratchet up fear, mistrust, and Islamophobia by neglecting the humanitarian issues for the sake of partisan politics. My local MP, a former journalist, yesterday tweeted the following:

Not only was it blatantly racist and fear-mongering, it was wholly false having been thoroughly debunked by the BBC, but that didn't stop Mr. Kent. While he did remove the offending tweet, he did so with a "non-apology apology."
Firstly, it wasn't a retweet but rather an original thought. Secondly, he refuses to name his "trusted source" who obviously is not so trusted. And thirdly, he obviously still stands by his anti-refugee rhetoric.

 In May of 1938 Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said "The admission of refugees perhaps posed a greater menace to Canada in 1938 than did Hitler." 

In May of 1939 when the S.S. St. Louis and its 907 Jewish refugees were refused admittance to Cuba,  Mackenzie King stated that he was "emphatically opposed to the admission of the St. Louis' passengers".

His immigration minister Frederik Blair said that "these refugees did not qualify under immigration laws, and in any case Canada had already done too much for the Jews...if these Jews were to find a home (in Canada) they would likely be followed by other shiploads. No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere". 

This sounds a lot like Prime Minister Harper this week when he said "How much is enough?"

This week, the election campaign turned on the photograph of a three-year old's body on a beach, and while his death is not in any way the fault of the Harper Government, the emotional response from the public has been overwhelming and the lack of both an emotional response and an appropriate stepped-up immigration effort from the Prime Minister, his Immigration Minister, and his party's candidates has fallen incredibly flat and is sadly reminiscent of 1939 in both its race-baiting and excuses. Canadians want and expect that their government will react to crises appropriately, much like Angela Merkel has done. As a Jewish Canadian I am both embarrassed and disgusted.

As we approach the High Holy Days, we all need to be reminded of not only our history, but of our religious obligation to welcome the stranger and to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. We know what it is like to be the stranger, the other. It is our sacred duty to help.

Blog Elul Day 25-Intend

"I believe every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don't intend to waste any of mine."~Neil Armstrong

When we live with intent, we live with honesty.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Herman J Mankiewicz, Orson Welles

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 24-Hope

"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."~Martin Luther King Jr.

Even in our darkest moments, hope shines a light through which we might be able to emerge.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by: Frank Darabont
Written by: Stephen King (based on his short story) Frank Darabont

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 23-Begin

"The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing."~Walt Disney

We begin with our dreams, we move forward in our realities.

The Muppet Movie (1979)
Directed by: James Frawley
Written by: Jack Burns, Jerry Juhl

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 
** I have always identified with The Muppets. The dreams of one man expressed in a simple felt frog.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 22-End

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."~Seneca

We begin where somebody else ends.

Casablanca (1942)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch (Based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison)

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at
**One of the greatest endings in film history. 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 21-Love

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage."~Lao Tzu

Love can be complicated and messy, but it should never be delayed because of our selfishness.

When Harry Met  Sally (1989)
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Written by: Nora Ephron

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 
**I am attracted to brilliant writing and Nora Ephron was one of the best.This story is one of the most realistic love stories ever filmed.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 20-Dare

"To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself."~Soren Kierkegaard

There are no lost causes, only lost people. Dare to upend the comfortable.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman, Lewis R. Foster

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 19-Judge

"Do not mind anything that anyone tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself."~Henry James

Trust your own judgement and keep your own council. The minority opinion is often the righteous one.

Inherit The Wind (1960)
Directed by: Stanley Kramer
Written by: Nedrick Young, Harold Jacob Smith (Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee)

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Can I Be a Fully Religious Jew Without Communal Prayer?

I am temporarily interrupting this month of Elul blogs to engage in what I hope will be an honest and frank discussion.

My mother and I had a conversation last week that was, at its core, about the annual observance of the Yamim  Noraim (High Holy Days)-family dinners, service times, clothing options. But it truly evolved into a discourse about the changing nature of our congregations, the content found within those walls, and whether or not a questioning but highly rational, scientifically-based individual can find value in prayer, or more specifically communal prayer. And are we, (I count myself amongst those who are questioning) best served by sitting for hours in a synagogue, simply flipping pages, during this holiest of times?

A few caveats before I delve further.

1. I am a retired cantorial soloist whose job it was for over thirty years to facilitate these services and communal prayer experiences. High Holy Days were the most stressful time of the year simply because we knew that our "audience" was at peak attendance and it was our opportunity to engage those wayward souls who honestly and accurately describe themselves as "twice a year Jews." I am not at all naive about what brings people into synagogues and what keeps them away. 

2. God does play a part in my life, but as I get older I have found myself engaged in a much more rational, intimate, and personal conversation with the Divine Presence and a far less spiritual one. 

3. I am not a liturgically-uneducated person. I have spent years studying and understanding our services, the Hebrew and English texts, the order of our worship, and why we do what we do when we do it. 

4. Judaism is a religion that is dependant upon communal involvement for the completion of many mitzvot. A minyan, or quorum of 10, is required for public prayer and finds its roots in both Torah and Talmud.

"And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev 22:32)
"Separate yourselves from the midst of the congregation" (Numbers 16:21)

Additionally we find in the story of the ten spies who returned with negative reports about the land, Moses complains to Aaron:

"How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?" (Numbers 14:27)

Using a biblical exegesis known as gezerah shavah, whereby two or more verses with similar terminology are compared, the Talmud (Megillah 23b) has deduced that the minyan is required for communal prayer. So, if a minyan is a religious commitment, and I wish to be a religious Jew, how can I fully justify a decision to disengage from public prayer, (attending services) that no longer carries any emotional weight or spiritual meaning?

And so begins our discussion....

Herein lies my fundamental problem: I am having trouble finding purpose or spiritual fulfillment in the majority of service experiences of late, and that includes many of the ones that I have led. I have been fortunate to hear wonderful compliments from congregants over the years as to how my music has moved them to a higher plane and aided in their spiritual journeys, but my own personal divine pilgrimage has been frustratingly stunted when it is within the confines of the synagogue walls and prayer books. I have worked with and been involved with some tremendously creative rabbis and cantors over the years who have been on the cutting edge of synagogue worship experiences, so I am not stuck in any kind of worship rut. I have tried the experimental, the experiential, the natural, the playing it straight, and the study. At best I find myself fidgeting, at worst I am bored and disinterested. It used to be that I would let the music carry me away, but lately I simply cannot get engaged in a service. I love the music of our people and am most moved when it is eclectic, but I am finding my voice is often silent these days during traditional worship experiences.

Last year, on the second day of Rosh Hashana, The Husband and I took a hike and communed with nature rather than attend services. We did tashlich, blew the shofar, ate some apples and honey, and enjoyed the warm autumn morning. It was the closest to God I had felt in many years and hopefully we will get a chance to repeat the experience.

So, what is the answer?

Frankly I am stumped. Is removing myself from communal prayer the answer? I'm not convinced because as Jews we not only require brethren, we welcome them, we envelop ourselves in group worship so that we might attain a level of kadosh, holiness. So...I am opening the floor to suggestions and discussion.

Blog Elul Day 18-Ask

"Animals are such agreeable friends-they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms."~George Eliot

Do we ask questions to know the answers or to avoid them? We must be fearless in our inquiries and accepting of their truths.

Diner (1982)
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Written by: Barry Levinson

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Blog Elul Day 17-Awaken

"Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."~Henry David Thoreau

We can only seize the day if we awaken to the possibilities.

Dead Poets Society (1989)
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Tom Schulman

**Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her blog and various links can be found at