Where in the world is Rabbi Eli


posted 3 Sep 2019, 20:28 by Charles Greene

Where in the World is Rabbi Eli?

"Where in the World" is fun to read when your rabbi is globe-trotting like crazy, sending communiques from Cote d'Ivoire today, Honolulu tomorrow, and the Queen Maud Land a week later.

But can I keep you sufficiently entertained after a month in Scotland? Well... let's see. Today, instead of a story, you get a little poem I found in a New Jersey Schule bulletin about 20 years ago.

From my stash, I bring you:

What’s in a name?

“In Aberdeen that bonny town

a house was full of joy

as MacPherson told his happy wife,

How grand! It is a boy!

Aye that it is, his wife agreed,

what shall we call the lad?

A good Scot’s name will do him proud.

maybe Angus like his dad.

Nay, lass, MacPherson then replied,

a better name I see

I have the lad’s name all picked out,

we’ll call him Yehudi!

Stop your jesting, said his wife,

this is indeed absurd,

of a Yehudi MacPherson pray

what Scot has ever heard?

Well, I don’t know, her husband said,

But silly it is not,

for my friend Epstein, in New York,

has named his first born “Scot.”   

Sending my best regards and Shabbat Shalom from (as it happens) Aberdeenshire,

Rabbi Elish MacCourante

The Isle of Islay

posted 27 Aug 2019, 08:24 by Charles Greene   [ updated 29 Aug 2019, 07:34 ]

The Isle of Islay, Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland
For a single malt scotch enthusiast, there is only one thing better than having a deep, tarred, peaty nip of Islay malt; and that's having it on Islay. The smell of heather in the air, the salty sea breeze, the sharp cries of seagulls, the taste of the creek water on your lips all collude with that crafted juice of the barley, the intense liquid goodness in your hand to entice you to live the moment to its fullest.

Worry not, it is only the first 7 or 8 wee drams that impel your rabbi to wax poetic; by now, we are way past poetic, hence the turn of philosophy cometh. 

Lately, a new gift has gained popularity in the west; those self-aging whisky kits where you pour a young rough drink into a tiny barrel and wait for it to mature quickly on account of the drink having much more exposure to the wood all around it. Now, not to rain on anyone's parade but other than the novelty of the experiment, you should not expect a great end result. You see, as the water of life, uisge-beatha, hits the barrel, it starts undergoing three simultaneous processes.

There's the addition of the wood sugars, tannins, the char, vanillin, and whatever other tastes the barrel can share with the liquid. Then, there's the subtraction of the coarser, heavier particles from the drink where the barrel acts as a natural filter. And, at the same time as the other two reactions, there is the interactive transformation, catalyzed by the oxygen exposure, where the particles of the drink start slowly bonding and interacting with each other, eventually attaining levels of depth and maturity.

With replacing time with more wood exposure, you can ensure the latter reaction, but it would still take years to have the former two. Don't get me wrong, it can still be a very pleasant experience, great start in understanding and appreciating whisky production, and good fun altogether. Just don't expect it to be perfect. That takes time, toil, patience, and perspicacity.

                 Why am I telling you all that on the doorstep of Elul, the month of soul-searching and contemplation? - It just occurred to me that our process of Teshuvah is not too far from good whisky aging. When you start teshuvah, there are three ways in which you hope to become better; by seeing the goodness in the world around you, and working to achieve some of that goodness, claim ownership over it (additive change); and by releasing whatever negativity has claimed hold over you (subtractive change); and, by putting yourself to such scrutiny that will help you prevail in that grappling match with your inner self, and come out of it the very "best you" can be (there's your internal change).

Of the three changes, only the first one can happen more or less speedily. Once we see all the good that surrounds us, it can become contagious, and imbibing it is practically natural. Nothing happens fast with the other two aspects. Whatever negative, destructive feelings have been gnawing at your soul for years - old slights, pangs of envy, pains of rejection, sorrows of a wounded pride - you can't expect to shed them off in the time it takes to listen to the shofar and get through a couple prayers and sermons. It's a long process, full of doubt, struggle, and searching. Same, of course, applies to the interactive metamorphosis; even whisky can't do it in less than 6-9 years, and you are more complicated than whisky (probably). No barrel, no service, no magic bullet can transform you into that best you instantaneously. Yet the journey has to start somewhere - and the call to take our seats has been issued, as the shofar resumes its calls every morning.

Work on your changes, slowly and meticulously - and if you want to see the quick improvement, by all means, do look at yourself before and after the mini-barrel of the High Holy Days.

So much for the thought of the week. And if I said more than I should have, blame it on the whisky, for I'm about to hit Send...

Shabbat Shalom from Islay.

Little Jerusalem - Dublin, Republic of Ireland

posted 20 Aug 2019, 12:47 by Charles Greene

Little Jerusalem - Dublin, Republic of Ireland

It is raining in Dublin today - on and off every hour, as is the way with the summer weather here.

Five Jewish merchants (apparently from Normandy) came to Ireland with gifts for the king of Munster, and were soon sent packing. The next we hear of Jews in Ireland is 1232, when King Henry III grants the office of the Irish Exchequer "The Custody of the King's Judaism in Ireland". Jewish history here is every bit as tumultuous as it was everywhere else.

This is the community that produced Baron Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, later the Chief Rabbi of the UK; Chaim Herzog, a rabbi's son and the sixth president of Israel; Max Abrahamson, the author of what became known as "the engineer's bible"; and many other prominent figures in public life. 
The most famous Irish Jew, of course, never even existed; Poldy Bloom's day is apparently celebrated annually by antisemites and Jews alike - not to mention a whole lot of supporters who never read as much as a page of Ulysses. :)

 A hundred years ago, the area to the south of the city centre was known as Little Jerusalem; the Jewish community, about 6,000 strong, over 90% of them coming from the Russian Empire, gave a special flavour to those streets. 

6 active synagogues, yeshivah, kosher butcher shops and bakeries, Yidden both frum and secular were busily roaming these streets. Those days are gone. After the war, so many immigrated to Israel or New York, others moved to the suburb of Terenure, Schules were relocated, and buildings sold (though one of them still contains an active Jewish museum, the curator of which is a member of the original community, always happy to take visitors down his memory lane).

Live and learn: just found out Harry Potter was Jewish. Or at least, the actor who played him.
Always was under the impression somehow that Daniel Radcliffe was Irish; it was an Irish gent at a pub, one of those magnificently colourful Joyce-ian old school establishments, who told me he was born to a Jewish mother in England (and - yes, much as I put stock in everything I hear at the pub, I did check).

The weather has actually cleared as I am writing this.
Warm regards and Shabbat Shalom from Dublin.

My Monides or Yours?

posted 9 Jul 2019, 11:36 by Charles Greene

Where in the world is Rabbi Eli?
My Monides or Yours?
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as RaMBaM in Hebrew and the western languages, was a sage, philosopher, and physician. He is known for his great agility of mind in matters of biblical interpretation and philosophic discourse. He is not, however, known for his affinity for mysticism, which he largely rejected, for waxing poetry which he despised, or for his sense of humour, which he... uhm. Well. Let's say, there actually is a letter from the sage to an admirer/follower who begs for two minutes of his time in order to ask an important question face-to-face. In response, Maimonides describes in great detail, over nearly two pages how busy his day is and how presumptuous it was to expect him to spare even one single moment of that immensely tense and crazily hectic schedule of a great Rabbi and the Egyptian court physician... all that, without a shadow of a smile.

There are many great things you can glean from the works of Maimonides. He practically single-handedly brought Aristotelean thought into Jewish philosophy and biblical exegesis. He introduced formal views to the fields of Jewish theology where it was sorely lacking before. He opened a whole new world of discourse. He is known as 'The Great Eagle'. Rabbis used to say, "From Moses (the prophet) until Moses (Maimonides) there was none like Moses". In Rambam's works, you can find enlightenment, foresight, and inspiration. But if you happen to be looking for fun today, you may want to turn to other sages first.

As Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, one of the greatest critics of Maimonides, used to say, he forbade his disciples from reading the famous Maimonidean "Guide for the Perplexed", lest one reads the description of heresy and gets so bored he falls asleep before getting to the refutation part, thus spending the night as a heretic...

Anyhow, Cordoba is justly proud of being the birthplace of the great scholar, whose statue was erected in the Jewish Quarter, La Judaria, over half a century ago.


From Andalusia the project takes us up north, all the way to the old Toledo. The two once-gorgeous synagogues here are known as El Transito and Santa Maria La Blanca (a name like that's a sure sign your Schule is in trouble even if you never heard of the Expulsion).

Indeed, though both synagogues had been turned into churches once the Jews were expelled, El Transito contains the Sephardic museum of Toledo today. As for Santa Maria La Blanca (the white name was adopted in the 16th c. by the monks trying to "drive out the darkness of its Jewish past"), it is still in the Catholic Church possession. Once known as Ibn Shoshan, the largest and most glorious of Toledo synagogues, it fell in the Church' hands after the terrible pogroms of the 14th c, connected to the Black Death coming in the city.


The Spanish Jewry keeps pressing for the restitution of the synagogue to the community; so far, in vain. Ironically, simply paying the entrance fee to the empty building you drop a few pennies in the coffers of the Spanish Church. On the upside, nobody will try to burn you at the stake, not anymore. The community even organized a couple of services here in the last few years. Things definitely are looking brighter.

Looking forward to seeing you next Shabbat at The Lodzer,


Two Towns, Two Synagogues

posted 1 Jul 2019, 23:58 by Charles Greene

Where in the world is Rabbi Eli?
Two Towns, Two Synagogues
Belmonte – Castelo Branco, Portugal
The history of Jews in Belmonte goes back to the 12th century. Of course, after 1498 it became a very hushed history. Rather than simply submitting to baptism and living as “cristãos novos”, they went deep underground, practising the customs of their ancestors in secret for centuries to come. (Not all the customs, naturally. The first ones to go were those that would blow their cover; shofar, circumcision, and synagogue were no-no from now on.) They would congregate in deepest secret, just a few times a year, each time switching to the home of yet another of the community, always remembering the fires of the inquisition that were never far away.

The conspiratorial ways of the Crypto-Jews of Belmonte had such an imprint on their lifestyle that for centuries after they went in hiding, they believed themselves to be the last remaining Jews on earth. In fact, when Samuel Swartz, an engineer from Poland, came here in 1917(!) to supervise the operation of the mills, he had a hard time to convince them he was Jewish as well. It was not until he told them how he celebrates Yom Kippur and Shabbat, and recited part of Shema by heart, that they accepted him, with difficulty, as one of the tribe.
A few months ago, our very own Isi Davis visited Belmonte and wrote an excellent piece about his visit.

As you can see, he was unable to get inside the Bet Eliahu synagogue. (Old habits kinda die hard. You do have to arrange for a visit, or know the “secret number” to call. ;) It is very pleasant and heimische, but you shouldn’t expect medieval imposing architecture, nor any unique traits of an old Portuguese community (as you would in Amsterdam, for instance). This synagogue is a mere 23 years old, consecrated in 1996.
Ironically, now that the Crypto-Jews came out of hiding and lead an openly Jewish life, what with the Jewish museum, a Rabbi, a Synagogue, and a kosher hotel in town – between the tourism revenues and the grants they’ve been receiving from international Jewish organizations, the town of Belmonte finds most of its sustenance from the tiny Jewish community it once worked so hard to erase.

The city of Tomar, one of the oldest historical and architectural jewels of Portugal, was born inside the walls of a 12th century convent, a Templar stronghold. By the early 15th century, the Jewish population of the city numbered hundreds. Many Jewish tradesmen and artisans came here to find refuge after the exile from Spain, and were largely undisturbed (counted as nominal Christians under the census) until the establishment of a Tribunal of Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. Once the active persecution began, the wealthiest Jews managed to flee while the rest were forced to convert.

There was no major pocket of crypto-Jewish life in Tomar that we are aware of. Yet, amazingly, it is here that you will find one of the best preserved old Synagogues of the Iberian peninsula. Built between 1430-1460, it has had a colourful past; after the Jews were forced out by the decree of king Manuel I, it has served, consequently, as a prison, a Christian chapel, a common cellar, and a grocery warehouse, before being classified as a national monument in 1921, and eventually purchased by Samuel Swartz (remember him from the story of Belmonte Jews?), who had finally converted it into a Jewish museum in 1939. The museum bears the name of Abraão Zacuto, a Rabbi and historian who served as the royal astronomer to King Joao II.

Every original detail has a symbolic meaning; the four columns supporting the vault represent the four matriarchs, and there are twelve corbels, one for each tribe.
The Synagogue is fully functional – various organizations and private donors sent in donations in money and kind from all around the world (the Torah scroll came from a congregation in Australia). Alas, there are not enough Jews for a minyan in Tomar; the three remaining families go to Lisbon for the holidays (about 90 minute drive). If you want to bring a group to pray here, you have to arrange for it way in advance (this is the voice of experience).

In a sense, this is a mirror image of the Jewish stage in Belmonte; the synagogue was preserved but the community is largely gone. Last week, the wonderful Dona Tereza, an elderly lady who took it upon herself to maintain the Schule and the museum after the passing of her husband Luiz, peacefully passed away and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Lisbon. Her amazing energy, love of all things Jewish, her kindness and positivity remain an inspiration to everyone who ever met her. (I haven’t seen her for over a year and was looking forward to another encounter – which, as we just found out, was not meant to be. May her soul be bound up in the bond of life eternal.)
Next on “Where in the World”: in the footsteps of Marranos

Heichal Shlomo & the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem

posted 1 May 2019, 16:28 by Charles Greene

Heichal Shlomo & the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem.

Tomorrow night, we begin marking the annual Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. Colloquially known in Israel and abroad as “Yom haShoah, this abbreviated reference robs us of perhaps the most important, shrill, intense message of the day; survival is achieved by heroes. Those who find the strength, the foresight, the willpower to overcome the horrors of the unthinkable and carry on.

Tomorrow night, we are going to sit at my dad’s place and talk of the family. Those who did it – fighting, some of them eventually chasing the Nazis all the way back to Germany, and those who didn’t make it, leaving the survivors to pick up the pieces. If your relatives were in Eastern (or central) Europe at the time, chances are we all have those stories to tell; all of them the same, each of them unique.

On the stage of Beit Avi Chai on the corner of King George and JNF street in Jerusalem, they were showing See Under: Love, based on David Grossman’s eponymous book. If you haven’t read it you should. I still remember my first time when the book was still a new release, over 30 years ago.

David Grossman speaks of the silence that surrounded in the 50’s the whole subject of the Holocaust in the families of many survivors. His protagonist Momik grows up in a Jerusalem neighbourhood catching up occasional phrases and building his own picture of what happened through the efforts of his parents to protect their son from knowing the truth.

Just as Israel is ready to celebrate yet another birthday, the country takes a deep breath and pauses to tell the story. The story, while full of unimaginable horrors, while overflowing with pain and suffering, is a tale of our nation pulling through and finding its strength.

The heroism never ceased (if you forgot or doubted it for a moment watch below the message from Rabbi Goldstein of Chabad Poway, who survived the horrific shooting attack on the last day of Pesach).

Am Yisrael Chai. Get together, go to your friends and family, go to your non-Jewish neighbours and tell them the story.

Regards from Eretz haKodesh, I’ll be back home next week; right in time to celebrate Yom haAtzmaut.

Shabbat Shalom,

Stromboli, Aeolian Islands

posted 24 Apr 2019, 12:41 by Charles Greene   [ updated 24 Apr 2019, 12:45 ]

Stromboli, Aeolian Islands
We humans tend to be visual creatures. Perceiving a story through physical senses will typically enhance it greatly, make it play in colour in our heads.
To quote rabbi William Shakespeare, all the world is a stage.
Standing in the ruins of the picturesque Greek theatre in Taormina, we prepare here excitedly for a full day on and around one of the most fascinating volcanoes on the planet.

Stromboli has been in pretty much continuous eruption for the past 2,000 years.
We sail out to the island of Stromboli - from here, those of us who opt to ascend the volcano are going to climb some 900 m above the sea and peek into the fire-belching crater. Then, we will come back and join those sailing around.
Nature can be truly humbling - our Sages even introduced a blessing recited when you witness a volcanic eruption. Baruch Ata... she-Kocho u-Gevurato maleh Olam, Blessed are You, oh God... Whose power and might fill the universe.
Three days after reading the Haggadah, we actually get to witness the smoldering lava, burning fire and steaming ash coming live out of the earth.
As we keep climbing, we encounter the first burning bush. Should we take our shoes off? Moses did, after all. Then again, he was explicitly told to.
Here comes the pillar of smoke by day, and pillar of fire by night. We smell the sulfur, see bits of ash flying in the air. And the roar, the low grumbling of the mountain's guts. You could hear it miles away. If that mountain were floating above your head, like Sinai above the heads of our ancestors according to the Midrash, would you have refused the Almighty's gentle offer of the Torah and its commandments?
We head home, davening Ma'ariv onboard. 
As the Bard tells us, the Shul must go on.
The prayer comes out quite inspired. We can't help but compare our own finality to the little part of something very, very big that we just touched.
Mo'adim le-Simchah you beautiful people. See you next week in the Promised Land. We just need to behave, lest the week turns into 40 years.



posted 9 Apr 2019, 12:40 by Charles Greene

Singapore’s earliest Jewish settlers were merchants from Iraq who came to trade as early as 1831. Maghain Aboth Synagogue (in spite of the unusual spelling, pronounced in the common Hebrew way as ‘Muh-gen Uh-vot’, i.e. the Shield of the Fathers) on Waterloo St. was constructed in 1878, and therefore is the oldest active synagogue in Southeast Asia.
It owes its birth to Sir Manasseh Meyer, a smart boy'chik from Baghdad who became one of the shrewdest businessmen in the British Empire. On his return trip to Singapore in mid-1870's, he found the existing schule in a sorry state and decided to erect a new and beautiful one.

Thirty years later, due to the frictions (what else is new!) between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, he built yet another one, Chesed-El (also very much operational nowadays though I personally prefer both the food and the vibe here at Maghain Aboth).

This is a community of businessmen, traders and their descendants (more than 100 of the original Iraqi Jewish families of Singapore are still around, most of them Orthodox). A community that lived through the colonial period, saw the Japanese occupation (during which Maghain Aboth was the major hub of Jewish life and news exchange,) the attempt to integrate Singapore into Malaysian kingdom upon its gaining independence in the early 1950's (Malaysia kicked Singapore out for not being sufficiently Muslim in its laws and practices; look where the Malaysian economy is today, and where Singapore's is), and finally, over half a century of independent market and politics.

Should you happen to visit Singapore, do not limit yourselves to the Jewish sights. There are imposing skyscrapers, opulent malls and trade centres, and of course the magnificent botanical Gardens by the Bay, of which the Singaporeans are justly so proud.
The polymer artificial supertrees behind me were planted a mere 5 years ago. Up to 50m tall, each is an independent vertical garden, In another 3-4 years, they are expected to be completely covered in those ferns, vines, orchids, and other plants growing at their own normal rate; as you can see, thus far they got just a bit over halfway.

Bidding you farewell for the moment, next week - see you in Europe!

Are you working hard to get rid of that chametz yet?

Shabbat Shalom, RE

Los Angeles

posted 2 Apr 2019, 07:49 by Charles Greene   [ updated 7 Apr 2019, 08:40 ]

Where in the world is Rabbi Eli? 
Although the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was only built 90 years ago, the congregation has been around since early 1860s. In the early 20th c. it drifted away from its previously largely Orthodox practices, and officially joined the Reform movement in 1903.

In a sense, we mostly have one person to thank for the development of the movie industry, and with it - the Jewish community here. That person was Thomas Edison. Contrary (and in contrast to his close friend Henry Ford) to popular belief, Edison was not an anti-Semite.  He was merely a bully who stopped before nothing to ensure having a finger in every pie imaginable. Pushed by Edison Trust that owned, through various means, patent rights to many technical inventions behind the cinemas (and frequently employed armed goons to assert those rights they "did not entirely own"), the industry started to shift out west, as far from Edison-controlled New York as possible.

It's been over 100 years now since Carl Laemmle, (the polished Jewish entrepreneur from Wurttemberg,) moved a large chunk of his Universal Studios to LA county. 
This is a Schule that saw the big bosses of Warner Bros, Paramount, MGM, and dozens of others crowd in for the services, mingle, socialize, dazzle, participate, see and be seen.

The iconic Rabbi Edgar Magnin remained balabos here for nigh seventy years, showing great skill at chaplaincy, oratorship, and community politics, and gaining a name for himself as The Rabbi to The Stars and The John Wayne of Rabbis.

Cometh high noon, the bright sunlight pours through the tall stained glass windows on the east and the west. Just like our windows at The Lodzer, there are twelve of them, each symbolizing a tribe of Israel. Unlike ours, those were donated by Louis B. Mayer of MGM and consist of 5,500-6,000 pieces of stained glass each. 
The building itself was designed in a once-popular Moorish style, its dome crafted after the Pantheon of Rome, and almost as huge.
This is Hollywood baby, pure and undiluted. Subtlety, can take a walk.

Reporting from L-A for all that glitters,
Rabbi Eli

Chicago: Jazz, Chagall, Ethiopian Hebrews, and snowstorm

posted 13 Feb 2019, 14:47 by Lodzer Shabbat-Bulletin   [ updated 16 Feb 2019, 11:43 ]

Where in the World is
Rabbi Eli

Jazz, Chagall, Ethiopian Hebrews, and snowstorm

Mark Chagall loved Chicago. In the mid-seventies, having come here to install the mosaics of the Four Seasons, he ended up creating also this gorgeous set of America's Windows for the Art Institute of Chicago (you may remember them from the hugely popular film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", produced 10 years later).

Have you seen his (probably most famous) stained glass work, the windows for Hadassah Ein Karem in Jerusalem? There are twelve of them, one for each tribe - just like in our Sanctuary. He made a number of those since, from Zurich to the UN building in New York. 
On a sales trip, I will typically (and counterintuitively) have more time for sightseeing than when on a travel project. And in the Windy City, no serious sightseeing can go without a night at a jazz club.
If you are also a jazz fan, enjoy the little musical video I shot for you. The Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman has been ripping the North American jazz scene ever since he moved to New York 15 years ago. 
The saxophone is Ben Wendell, it's his composition.

 There is quite a bit to be said about the Jewish architects' input into the development of Chicagoan famous art nouveau.
As we only have so much room here, (and I need to leave something for the next time I report from here,) I will tell you instead of the Synagogue I visited last Shabbat.

Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation is 100 years old. In its early days, it was seriously influenced by Rabbi W.A. Matthew, the founder of the Commandment Keepers and the bearer of the Black Hebrews movement' values and ideas in America.
The original Commandment Keepers congregation in West Harlem, NY fell apart due to inner conflict. The synagogue building was shut down and eventually sold; yet there are a number of Black Jewish congregations around, Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken probably the most influential among them - and the only one outside of New York, to my knowledge.

Majority - though not all - of its congregants are African American, and  Jewish either by ancestry or conversion.
The style of the unaffiliated congregation is "Conservadox"; separate sitting but no mechitzah, women will stand alongside the men and children on the Bimah. The singing is strong and deep, with many original tunes. 

The powerful, passionate sermons are delivered by Rabbi Capers Funnye (pronounced as foo-nay); born in a Methodist Christian family, he became Jew by choice in his late teens, and was later ordained as a Conservative Rabbi. He is very well known, widely respected and recognized for his welcoming and open attitude, outreach work, and passion for social justice.
His story is every bit as fascinating as the history of the movement, and the synagogue service is well worth a visit. Meanwhile, if Chicago is not part of your itinerary for the near future, feel free to roam the congregation's site: bethshalombz

Meanwhile, the blizzard jumbled up my so carefully-laid plans. By the time Chicago was willing to let planes take off again, Pearson airport shut down for arrivals. I still have a couple days to get home - so, hope to see you this Shabbat!

Shabbat Shalom,

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