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Current Newsletter Issue

Reno Jewish Story Club Meeting

Monday, April 23, 2018, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

"A Contract With God" by Will Eisner

Will Eisner was born to poor Hungarian-Romanian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, NY in 1917... just as WW I ended. He had his father's gift for drawing and pursued this skill into his teens in Depression era 1930s at DeWitt Clinton High School. This led him to do illustrating for pulp magazines, advertisements and cartoons. A high school friend [who later created "Batman"] got Eisner interested in comic book art and he worked briefly for "Wow" Magazine under editor Jerry Iger. That began a very profitable partnership between the two men. Eisner created "The Spirit" and "Wonder Man" comics [with similarity to the successful Superman] among many others. "Spirit" became one of the first comic strips to be included in newspapers and was syndicated to many publishers, just before WW II. During the war, Eisner worked at the Pentagon illustrating magazines and pamphlets. He pioneered the use of comics in Army training manuals.

In the 1970s, Will Eisner started illustrating longer, serious stories and that gave birth to the "graphic novel" genre of which "A Contract with God" was his first and prime example. He also illustrated classic novel themes such as Moby Dick and Oliver Twist. Those were a parallel to the Classics Illustrated comics many of us grew up with... which sold from the 1940s to the 1960s, when they succumbed to competitor "tele-vision". Eisner lived to age 87 [2005].

The four-part illustrated novel "A Contract with God" has Faustian undertones. In the old country, protagonist Frimme Hersh promises to follow God's ways in exchange for God giving him justice and the fruit of his hands. But after Frimme comes to America, his child dies and he accuses God of breaking the contract. Frimme's life takes a new path, away from godliness and good works. We know where that usually leads, but will all be lost?

Discussion Leader: Alan Liebman

Host: This month's meeting will be at the home of Susan and Alan Liebman in south suburban Reno's ArrowCreek community.

RSVP Required: To reserve your seat(s), receive a PDF copy of this month's story and travel directions, please e-mail your name(s) to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. before sundown, Friday, April 20th.

For this meeting the Club can accommodate 25 attendees, but please remember your reservation is a pledge to attend this Reno Jewish Story Club meeting. Serial no-shows shall be banished to Winnemucca. Social time after the discussion. Refreshments served.

NEXT Club Meeting: Monday, MAY 28, 2018, 7 to 9 p.m.

Alexa Foley - D'var Torah

So, when I heard the rabbis voice chanting my Torah portion with the trope, it was so beautiful and melodic and I was thinking, oh wow, this is going to be awesome and profound and special! And then I read my Torah portion was all about animal blood, animal fat and expulsion… Eeeeeww, really?

Wow. How am I going to bring this home and into my heart? By admitting the importance of Tradition. The transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. Cultural continuity.

Yes, our Torah portion is a few of the Kashrut laws from the 613 laws that were given to us when we accepted the Torah. Just a quick reminder: Kashrut and Kosher laws have to do with the humane killing and specific guidelines such as, draining the blood, of the animals eaten.

Nachmanides reminds us that the Torah states “the soul of all life is it’s blood” and that you shouldn’t be eating the blood of another animal because the nefesh, the life force, is in the blood. He suggests that to do so is a thickening of the human soul… decreasing your human sensitivity to all lifeforms. To ignore that goes against Jewish tradition, which places such a high value upon human and animal life and the remembering that ALL souls belong to God.

And what is your soul? Your soul is the core of who you are.

As Jews we question a lot, right? So I have a few questions: Are these laws obsolete? Should we start picking and choosing which of these laws are going to apply to us? And what would that do to our health? What would that do to our soul? I guess that as Reform Jews we do pick and choose to various extent… but how far should we go before our Jewish soul has gone too far? And, who defines what ‘too far’ is?

Of course, no one person can answer that for everyone. So, for me, I worry that what we could be doing is diluting our sense of Jewish self, culture and our sense of living the example the Torah provided for us. If we remember that in Judaism the soul, mind, body and health are connected then we can make the argument that keeping your body and health strong through the Kashrut laws could also strengthen your soul and mind with clarity and a closer connection to G-d and Jewish culture.

The more we change Torah laws to fit our modern world, the more we dilute what it means to follow Torah and be Jewish… and the further away we get from even understanding it. The fact is if we don’t even know what the laws are, whether we consider them to be obsolete or, more relevant than ever, then how can we identify with our faith and culture?

For example: You choose whether or not you’re going to eat bacon, or, if you’re going to get that tattoo. But regardless of that personal choice -- it’s a whole other thing to know WHY “It’s against your religion” and thus, WHY you made whichever choice was right for you.

Would I have 3 tattoos today if I had known Judaism discourages any permanent marking of the body because the body is sacred, having been created in God’s image? Maybe, maybe not. But, it would have been a better decision-making process had I known.

My parents were connected to being Jewish on Friday nights when we gathered at my Grand Parent’s home with my Aunts and Uncles. And their Jewish identities came out at life cycle events and the times we were with family. But in our home, including Friday nights, we weren’t observant. And then, throw in divorce and everything religious got thrown out the window in my family.

So I never had a Bat Mitzvah. Never went to something like our Sinai School. And when you grow up without a strong sense of G-d and prayer and Jewish learning, you begin to long for an understanding of your religion. The less you know, the more fragmented you feel. Over time, it becomes very easy to keep living vaguely (in a Jewish sense), saying you’re Jewish but not really knowing what that means. Over time, it becomes comfortable and the idea of walking into the local Synagogue became scary to me.

When there is no tradition to keep, there is no sense of that part of you. Now, that doesn’t matter to some people. But to others, to me, that leaves a deep void. A lack of knowledge. A lack of connection. Misunderstanding.

Cherry picking the kosher food laws could be harmful to your body if you consider modern science and the findings on heart healthy diets. I also feel that cherry picking within your religion and the culture of it can be harmful to your soul. Harmful to your sense of Jewish-ness in your own home and life.

How do I keep my own children from feeling the disconnection I felt? By keeping tradition. Or, at least understanding and wrestling with it. By teaching them what it means to be a Jew; the expectations of living by example and how very cool our religion is! Teaching them how steeped in history it is. Give them a sense of pride in the past and the future.

But, I can’t do that if I myself don’t know what all that means. So here I stand before you, quite un-traditionally and, obviously, not 12. I’m learning again and loving it! My personal relationship with G-d is now complimented with better understanding of my religion. And for me, that is awesome and profound and special!

Now I’m not going to lie… I don’t know or live by all 613 commandments. But I know a lot more today than I did 2 years ago and I have made some changes. I’ll know a lot more 2 years from now… and will make some more changes. And I’ll know WHY. Little by little, my home is more and more resembling my Grandmother’s… and I like that for me and my family.

The reason I chose to do this today is because I’ve always felt somewhat ignorant as a Jewish person. My two sons will not feel that way… and their souls will have a strong sense of self… and they will make their own decisions about eating kosher and so many of the other commandments. My hope is that they’ll make those decisions as educated Jews, so they can make decisions about their practice with confidence and clarity.

Thank you for sharing in this day.

Ignacio Montoya - D'var Torah

Shabbat shalom. Thank you all for honoring us with your presence on this Shabbat morning as Alexa, Steve, and I stand before you after many fruitful months of study with our fearless teacher Rabbi Bair and his faithful deputy, Marilyn Roberts.

The Torah portion that we chanted from this morning is Parashat Tzav, which deals primarily with different aspects of ritual sacrifice. In a Torah portion such as this one, it’s very easy to get lost in the details, because, if you read the whole Torah portion, you can see that there really are a lot of details. The risk of getting lost in details is especially true for me. I was trained as a linguist and that’s what we linguists do: We like to get ourselves lost in details. And, so it’s not surprising that as I was studying this week’s Torah portion, I became quite interested in a single word, the word ‘sacrifice’.

First of all, I wonder if your intuition matches mine, that, when we use the word ‘sacrifice’ in English, it implies losing something on behalf of someone or something else. When we speak of parents making sacrifices for their children, for example, we mean they give up something – time, money, sleep – to benefit their children.

In Hebrew, the word ‘sacrifice’ is korban. Now, for those of you who don’t know much about Hebrew word structure, please indulge me as I offer a very short lesson: In all Hebrew verbs, and in most Hebrew nouns, we can identify what is called a root, which is a three-consonant sequence that connects related words. The root of the word korban ‘sacrifice’ is the Hebrew letters kof-resh-bet, which correspond to the sounds made by the English letters k-r-b. Interestingly, this root is also found in the word karov, which means ‘close’, in the word kruvim, which means ‘relatives’, and in the word l’hitkarev, which means ‘to approach’. These three consonants, I believe, have some important lessons to teach us.

When I think of examples of sacrifice in my life, I think of my mother. When I was 13, my parents separated and my mom moved from New Mexico to Arizona, bringing along my two brothers and me and my grandmother. During our first years in Arizona, my mom’s life could be characterized as consisting of a great deal of sacrifice as she took on various jobs to provide us with food and shelter, while also going to college to provide herself a better future.

Though my mom’s life settled into a more-or-less stable routine after she finished college, she once again had to make sacrifices when my grandmother became ill as a result of complications from diabetes that left her bed-ridden and in need of dialysis three times a week. During that time, my mom gave up essentially all her free time, a lot of sleep, as well as potential career advancement, to take care of the various needs of my grandmother. Two years after my grandmother passed away, just as my mom was settling back into a more-or-less regular routine, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer, which ultimately left her bed-ridden and which left my brothers and me to now be the ones to make sacrifices – of time, money, and lots and lots of emotional energy – to take care of her during this really challenging time for all of us.

Now, the way that I just related those events, I believe, reflects, the notion of sacrifice that’s basically what we typically think of when we use the word ‘sacrifice’ in English – that of giving something up on someone else’s behalf. However, the Torah and, specifically, the Hebrew language itself challenge us to think of sacrifice in another way. I believe a lesson we can draw from the Hebrew root kof-resh-bet is that the act of sacrifice is not fundamentally about giving something up. It is about approaching the divine. We can see this by the fact that korban ‘sacrifice’ shares a root with l’hitkarev ‘to approach’ and karov ‘close’. My mom’s sacrifice for her mother, therefore, was not fundamentally about my mom losing something, but about her drawing close – to her mother, to her values of family, integrity, and dignity, and to God. In other words, by taking care of my grandmother, my mother was connecting to God.

This idea of creating close relationships as a way of approaching the divine reminds me of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Buber wrote a book called I and Thou, and in that book, he discusses how there are two types of relationship dynamics: what he calls an “I-It” relationship and an “I-You” relationship. An "I-It" experience is one of use. For example, a patient uses a doctor to heal from an illness and a doctor uses a patient as a way to earn a living. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an “I-It” relationship, but we probably don’t want our close relationships to consist solely of “I-It” experiences. In contrast, an “I-You” experience describes a relationship of mutuality, one that is built on two people genuinely respecting and understanding one another. When we truly know someone and when we are moved to do something to make their life better, that, is an “I-You” relationship. And, when we achieve such a relationship, as Martin Buber writes, “we are touched by a breath of eternal life.” To Buber, when we approach another human in an “I-You” relationship, that is a way of approaching God. And, that, I believe is how we are called to view the sacrifices we experience for others – not as losing something, but rather as part of a larger endeavor to connect with them. I also believe that this principle offers guidance on what sacrifices are appropriate to make for others. It is those sacrifices that draw us to others that are the ones worth making. Sacrifices that have the effect of distancing us from others or from our values are not consistent with the spirit of the Hebrew root kof-resh-bet, which reminds us of the vital link between sacrifices, closeness to others, and approaching the divine. And, so, as we let the words of this week’s Torah portion inform our experiences of the week to come, may we view the act of building closer relationships to the people we interact with as a way of approaching the divine. Shabbat shalom.


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