Monthly Archives: January 2016

Le Deluge

Last week at this time we were bracing for a blizzard. It came as advertised, big snow and dangerous winds all Shabbat. Beth El cancelled Shabbat services for the first time ever, or at least in my 30+ years, and it was the right decision.

The storm provided much quality time in the house. I am trying to downsize my library and everything else about my life except my knee brace collection, and the snow helped. One book in the maybe pile is “The Bible According to Mark Twain” (edited by Baetzhold and McCullough.) Besides learning that Twain loved the Finger Lakes, as I have for a long time beginning last summer, and despite learning that he was pretty irreverent (“there is no evidence that God is any of these things – just, charitable, kindly, gentle, merciful, compassionate”), I found his Bible “interpretations” to be quite creative and fun. He is not considered a great satirist for nothing. Let me share part of a piece about Noah.

“We (Adam and Eve) spoke to Noah about [dinosaurs being absent from the Ark]; he colored and changed the subject. Being brought back to it – and pressed a little – he confessed that in the matter of stocking the Ark the stipulations had not been carried out with absolute strictness… There were some irregularities. He says the boys [Shem Ham Yafeth] were to blame for this – the boys mainly, his own fatherly indulgence partly. They were in the giddy heyday of their youth at the time, the happy springtime of life, their hundred years sat upon them lightly, and so… well, they did things they shouldn’t have done, and he – to be candid, he winked. But on the whole they did pretty faithful work, considering their age. They collected and stowed a good share of the really useful animals; and also, when Noah was not watching, a multitude of useless ones, such as flies, mosquitoes, snakes, and so on, but they did certainly leave ashore a good many creatures which might possibly have had value some time or other in the course of time. Mainly these were vast saurians [large reptiles] a hundred feet long, and monstrous mammals… and there was really some excuse for leaving them behind, for two reasons: 1) it was manifest that some time or other they would be needed as fossils for museums; and 2) there had been a miscalculation, the Ark was smaller than it should have been, and so there wasn’t room for those creatures. As for the dinosaur, Noah’s conscience was easy; it was not named in his cargo-list and the boys were not aware that there was such creature. He said he could not blame himself for not knowing about the dinosaur, because it was an American animal, and America had not then been discovered.”

And so on, including the difficulties of getting non salty drinking water to the elephants in the bottom level where they served for ballast, and bemoaning the prize animals who died but of course they didn’t lose a single locust or grasshopper or rat or cholera-germ. Twain was so clever, and now we understand everything about the Flood.

Mark Twain, though a Presbyterian, so fits the Beth El theme of human creativity and this reading sort of fits the storm we are still bailing out from here in D.C. Almost a week after the blizzard, I am thankful the power remained on and I wish for all locals that you have patience in the one traffic lane that used to be two. Best, Bill Rudolph


Shifting Alliances

Last time I wrote about the last bris for the Sollisch family. You wrote back, mostly about whether Sollisch felt at all guilty about it. Anyway, the phenomenon that Sollisch represents is why I am the chief rabbi of Warrenton VA. I will explain in a later blog; I don’t want this to be all about me.

Israel is very much on my mind always, and the news has been hard to stomach and I know I am not alone. So when I read a Herb Keinon piece (International Jerusalem Post Jan 15-21) that was actually somewhat encouraging, I thought I would share it with you.

Eran Lerman was deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council for the last six years. Lehman thinks the Middle East needs to be understood in new ways rather than the Sunni Shiite split that we commonly employ. There are, Lerman posits, four “camps” now. Three are a variation on the Islamic totalitarian theme, and the fourth (loosely defined) could be called the regional forces for stability. Therein lies the encouragement.

In the first groupings are Iran, the Islamic State, and the Muslim Brotherhood. (Al-Qaida, not so strong lately, is part of the ISIS grouping.) Luckily, they are mostly fighting each other. And in the other corner are the forces for regional stability of which Israel is a core member. That includes the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the Kurds, even Azerbaijan. Alliances are shifting, and things can be fuzzy; for example, Hamas gets support from Iran though it’s primarily linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar is basically in the Brotherhood camp though it professes to want stability. And then there is Turkey, which ran with the Brotherhood when it ruled Egypt but now is wavering and it was not so surprising when President Erdogan (not our favorite president) paid a visit to Saudi Arabia of all places and then said of all things, “Israel needs a country like Turkey in the region. We need to accept we also need Israel. This is a reality of the region.” How about that?

Lerman looks more closely at the three Islamic totalitarian camps. He sees ISIS as not a contender for dominance in the region; when they face forces willing to actually resist, they pull back. The Muslim Brotherhood camp is down and out in Egypt and is a third wheel in Tunisia where they were also once in power. So it comes down to Iran. It will be empowered by the money that is flowing from the nuclear deal, and can make a lot of trouble, but it will be facing the forces for stability of which the Saudis are central. The Saudis have concluded that they can no longer let others fight for them to the death, that America will not do their work for them; they have shown real engagement in places like Yemen (fighting the Houthis who represent an Iranian incursion into the Arabian Peninsula.) The execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by the Saudis on January 5th was clearly a shot across the Iranian bow.

What all this means for Israel, Lerman says, is that “the regional forces for stability are more likely to be attentive to the need to keep the communication channels open with Israel, and to look for opportunities of cooperation, taking into account that the region is getting more dangerous, and that those who feel endangered should huddle together.” Thus, Egypt just sent its ambassador back to Israel after a three year absence, and Jordan played a constructive role in fighting the myth that Israel was taking over al-Aksa. This does, however, leave the Palestinians increasingly forlorn, which partly accounts for their recent knifing/car ramming behavior. Otherwise nobody will pay attention? But at least the regional situation is more favorable than it has been in a long time. Things can change in a moment, and enormous challenges remain, but for now it’s good to read somewhat encouraging words from the region.

Ponder this, as we hope the big storm about to hit D.C. will be less brutal than predicted. Best, Bill Rudolph

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Foreskin and Hindsight

Occasionally Gail warns me that there is a newspaper article that I won’t like. Of course I eventually bring myself to read it. The most recent occurrence was just this past Sunday (1/10/16.) It wasn’t even about Israel. The Post Magazine had a short piece by a Cleveland ad agency guy named Jim Sollisch, called “The foreskin and the hindsight.” Maybe you saw it. I waited till Monday to shore up my resolve. I wasn’t disappointed, in Gail’s judgement that is.

Sollisch grew up in a Jewish home, had a bris like every Sollisch male before him. He grew up and “poked history in the eye” by marrying a non-Jew. They had a son. His wife wouldn’t let a man trained in prayer not medicine do the brit milah, and so a doctor friend (from Haiti) did it though not without some drama and extra medical attention later. So, the next son was circumcised in the hospital on the second day, a doctor did the cutting and Sollisch said the prayers, not a bagel in sight. As Sollisch puts it, “that’s how the death of Judaism proceeds, one accommodation at a time.” Later on he realized that this would likely be the last time those prayers would ever be muttered over a Sollisch foreskin. (Maybe that is the “hindsight” in the title.) Indeed, those boys grew up and married Catholics, great women whom he loves deeply, and he’s pretty sure their sister will marry a non-Jew too. And, he goes on, “the cord that connects my ancestors to God – the one I frayed – will be cut completely.” Some days, he says, this knowledge makes him sad, most days it doesn’t.

Sollisch is a self proclaimed secular Jew but he feels that his Jewish identity runs deep and Judaism is his only ethnicity. He loves America, but he loves it as a Jew – “a perennial outsider” – loves it because it’s a place where even outsiders can pursue happiness. He knows, though, and this is where his piece concludes, that his grandchildren will be un-hyphenated Americans. “They will not be burdened by the weight of Jewish history, of being chosen and persecuted. They will not know anti-semitism. They will be insiders, members of the club.” That thought makes him happy, most days.

So, where to start? I don’t know how much attention span you have left so I will do wizards. And you can write back with your own comments, which I will not publish without your permission.

Comment One: at least the writer is a little ambivalent, maybe that is why he wrote this. I can’t think of another reason.   Two, why did the Post publish it? I can only guess. Three, I have written before about secular Judaism, that every study proves it to be a dead end, and here is more proof. Though religion is not so popular in liberal circles these days, for us it is the only kind of Judaism that has a chance of producing Jewish grandchildren. Four, it is a colossal pity that Jim Sollisch never found a reason to want to hold on to his faith or care much about its continuity. Did the Jewish people fail him? Has modern western culture stacked the deck against religion? Or is the failure his own, not trying to understand why his people never let the burden of persecution hold us back from keeping the faith and contributing so much to society at the same time? I wish I knew. Maybe you do.

Best regards. Bill Rudolph

P.S. If if you have friends or family who might like my blog, please share the URL with them. It is the rather predictable They can then ask to be invited into the conversation by clicking on the Follow button at the very bottom right (once they call up the blogpost.) Any questions or concerns? Don’t hesitate to contact me directly at

It Used To Be Wednesday

It’s been about a half year since I ceased doing my It’s Wednesday blog. I miss doing it and I miss talking to you through it. So much has happened in the world, a lot of it distressing, and I missed the opportunity to try to figure it out with you. I kind of knew that would be the case, and predicted last spring that some form of It’s Wednesday would appear after a while. It won’t be an official publication of Beth El, and shul happenings and shul politics will be mostly absent. The rest of the content, my brilliant, witty, humble commentary on the times, will hopefully match your memories of what was. Not sure about the frequency of publication, we shall see. The only practical difference is that you have to sign onto the blog to receive it, a one time simple process described in the P.S.

What have I been doing these seven months since the wonderful retirement tribute?  An update seems in order, and through it you will get an idea of some of the topics for future blogs. Here is the short list:

  • Beth El Empty Nester mission to Israel last June, focused on food and high tech. Events in and around Israel have often made sleeping at night a challenge. We will surely pick up these threads.
  • Finger Lakes bike trip with my son Marc. A lot of miles and a lot of wine. The Canadian Rockies will be the setting for an August ride that is one of your generous retirement gifts to me.
  • My emeritus responsibilities at Beth El – visits to seniors that I never had time for, empty nester programming, two Gray Panther groups, some life cycle events, the debate.
  • Monthly visits to Warrenton VA.  In my search for a high holiday pulpit so I would be busy then and out of the hair of the current clergy, I found more than I was looking for. It’s a monthly gig in a small non denominational shul smack in the middle of the cities  you hear on traffic and snow closing reports – Manassas, Culpepper, Gainesville. Those are my people now also. I will share more.
  • The Zimbabwe wedding and safari in October. An unexpected, really wonderful adventure. Google “Jewish Wedding Zimbabwe” and – since it’s the first significant Jewish wedding there in 20 years – you will have no trouble bringing up a report.
  • My culinary accomplishments (before now I never got beyond lunch) and a few projects I have undertaken, one of which is actually important.
  • Our annual winter pilgrimage to NYC. The highlights were Hamilton and the Picasso sculpture exhibit at MOMA.  Talk about creativity and human genius. Once I get started on that, it migrates into a little theology.

I am learning a lot about retirement, from you and my own experience.. One thing is that I/we aren’t necessarily ready to stop doing what we were doing, we just don’t want to work 24/7 till we die. I am fortunate to have a profession that lends itself to semi-retirement and, with your consent, continuing discussion of issues that concern us all.

Best regards and please study the P.S.   Bill Rudolph

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