Allan Falk for the Win!

My friend Allan Falk sent me this wonderful story about an episode from his legal career which involved a synagogue in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. What follows is his own retelling.


Word reached me (Allan Falk) from a friend I’ll call Jim that his old boyhood shul in Iron Mountain, Michigan, Anshe Knesset Israel Congregation, was down to 4 living members, one of whom was a widow who is not actually Jewish herself. The surviving congregants had decided to sell the shul (and completed a sale to a non-profit drug treatment outfit early in 2020). But while the shul was on the market, the local tax assessor put the property on the tax rolls in 2019 (without proper notice), and in order to complete the sale they were going to have to pay the property tax of about $1500, plus a late penalty.

Iron Mountain Congregation Anshe Knesseth Israel

Of course, I inquired how the assessor had failed to give notice. She made a half-hearted, ill-conceived attempt to do so–she mailed notice to a person who had been treasurer of the congregation many years earlier, but not to his current address which had been the Iron Mountain cemetery for about 25 years. She then resent notice to a person with a similar name to someone else in Georgia, who had no relationship to anyone or anything in or near Iron Mountain or connected with the synagogue. This bit of idiocy was in the context of the congregation President walking into City Hall monthly to pay the utility bill, and being known to the City Treasurer–in fact, it was on one such occasion that in casual conversation the City Treasurer mentioned that the synagogue’s property taxes were past due that brought the problem to anyone’s attention.

Jim also indicated that the assessor had put the property on the tax roll after inspecting it. I asked how the assessor gained access for her inspection, and it turned out the assessor and the realtor were friends, so the realtor, without checking with anyone connected to the synagogue, gave the assessor the key. The assessor saw that there were books on the floor (the book shelves had been given to the Green Bay, Wisconsin Chabad) and concluded that no religious services had been held for some time (the last formal service had been a few years earlier, when a family reunion brought a large group back to Iron Mountain). The passage of more than a year (and failure of the congregation to protest the assessment, of which it had no knowledge, at the March, 2019 Board of Review meeting) meant that the tax issue could not be favorably resolved in any Michigan court or similar proceeding (such as the Michigan Tax Tribunal). Thus, I began considering, literally, how to make a federal case out of the matter.

So, after my initial legal research, I wrote a letter to the Mayor, City Treasurer, and Assessor, pointing out that whether or not religious services had been held in the past millennium or not, under a precedential Michigan Court of Appeals decision the property remained exempt from taxation until put to a different, non-exempt secular use. I also note that the realtor had no authority to use the key for any purpose other than showing the property to a potential buyer, the assessor not having any intention to buy, and thus, under other law I cited, the assessor’s entry into the property was a trespass, and when done for purposes of inspection in her official capacity, was a violation of the congregation’s 4th amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. I propose that, if the City will merely refund the $1637 in property taxes and late fees, the matter would be fully resolved. But I further warned that if my proposal were rejected, the City and its officials involved would be facing a possible federal court lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1870, and be liable not only to refund the $1637, but to pay damages and my attorney fees. My letter, which I vetted with Jim and his group (lest my scorched earth approach leave them uncomfortable), allowed ample time for a response.

Two weeks later I got a phone call from a person who identified himself as the attorney for the City of Iron Mountain (he’s a senior partner in the largest law firm in town). He asked for more time to respond, and I agreed. The time elapsed, so I called him back–he claimed he needed more time, and again I consented. But the time again expired, and when I follow up he promises (it’s Monday) he’ll definitely have an answer for me on Friday–he gives me his word (N.B. It is unethical, and grounds for discipline, for a lawyer to make a false statement to anyone at any time–hard to believe, I know). The following Monday, having heard nothing, I call and find he is on vacation. I e-mail him, asking if perhaps his boss ordered him to take vacation, as it seems to have come as a surprise to both him and me. He writes back, telling us to pound sand (he’s a bit more lawyerly, but that’s the gist of it).

So I go back to Jim and his group, noting that their choice is to admit they were bluffing and walk away, or authorize me to file suit. After much consternation about the optics and a last attempt at compromise by having their President speak with the mayor to determine if the city attorney was actually doing as instructed (apparently he was), they give me the green light, and I file my complaint on behalf of the synagogue, Jim and his brother, the president, and the widow in federal court: Count I, illegal search and seizure (4th Amendment), Count II, denial of due process (lack of notice–14th Amendment), Count III violation of synagogue’s 1st Amendment rights by rescinding its tax exemption, Count 4 common law trespass. The defendants are the City, the Mayor, the Treasurer, and the Assessor.

About 10 days after process is served, I get an e-mail from an attorney for the assessor’s insurer, offering us our $1637 to dismiss the lawsuit. In response, I note that ship had sailed–the opportunity to walk away that cheaply had been offered, and all we got was rude treatment in response. After suggesting that, at this point, it would require reimbursement of our filing fee ($400), sheriff’s fees for service of process (about $75), and payment of my attorney fees (which I estimate at more than $10K), I suggest he should make a more reasonable offer–had he come back with $5K or anything close to it, I’m pretty sure we’d have called it a day. But he refuses the bait, and no further settlement communication results.

A week later, attorneys hired by two insurance companies (one for the City, one for the assessor) appear and file answers that are pure, unadulterated pettifoggery (denying most everything, or claiming to know nothing, including about events in which their clients were directly and personally involved, but admitting the fact of putting the synagogue on the tax rolls). Recognizing from their answers I made some assertions that might be problematic if I try to prove them in court, I file an amended complaint (as permitted by the federal rules), and they refile essentially the same answers.

Under the federal rules, each party must now make “initial disclosures”. I do so carefully, with strict attention to the requirements of the rules, and amass photographs, documents, and affidavits (including 1 from the Chabad rabbi averring that, as an expert in synagogue operations, when he visited to take bookshelves and 2 shtenders a month or so before the assessor’s inspection, the interior and exterior looked to him like a fully functional synagogue). Their initial disclosures are intentionally obstructive and obfuscatory, and not at all what the rules require.

So now I file a motion for summary judgment, noting that, from what they have admitted, plus what they have failed to disclose about events in which they were directly involved, it is clear that we have a right to recover damages on each and every claim. They file answers to our motion which, again, suggest their attorneys got law degrees by mail from tRump University or a gumball machine. I promptly file a reply brief that blows their puerile arguments out of the water.

At this point the federal magistrate suggests that, before a ruling on our motion for summary judgment, an “early settlement conference” might be a good idea. I agree, provided the opposition is prepared to participate by tabling a serious settlement offer and not repeating anything like their prior de minimis and absurd proposal. This requires each side to supply the magistrate with details of its settlement posture, in confidence. We advise the magistrate our president wants $15K for her travails, and $5K each for Jim and his brother Jack (the widow, who lives in Wisconsin, has by now dropped out), plus $5000 for the synagogue, and my attorney fees. I compile a separate, detailed brief on attorney fees to which I attached details of the hours I’ve invested, which I provide both to the magistrate and opposing counsel.

By the time of the Zoom conference, I’m in Florida visiting my sister, so I participate from her lanai. My internet connection keeps crashing, but Jim and I soldier through, and we begin by offering to settle for $120K, plus $20,000 for my attorney fees . The magistrate returns to tell us they will offer $50K, but including my attorney fees. I point out to the magistrate that I am uncomfortable negotiating my attorney fees as part of a package deal, as that creates a conflict of interest. But the magistrate is insistent (he wants this case off his docket), so with Jim’s approval, noting that I have the $30,000 in actual damages in hand to fully satisfy my clients, I propose $70K for attorney fees, or $40K if they will apologize in writing for their mistreatment of the synagogue and its members. An hour later he returns with a 2nd counteroffer–$75K total ($60K to be paid by the assessor, $15K by the City), no apology. It’s late in the day, my clients really don’t want to continue the lawsuit (and based on what the magistrate has told me, I’m not savoring the prospect of trying to convince a UP and Western Michigan jury to award a bunch of money to Jews, or especially to an elderly Jewish lawyer with a J.D. from Yale Law School), so we accept, noting that the defendants outrageously prefer to have the taxpayers pay extra to settle in order to avoid apologizing (the magistrate says nothing, but gives me a knowing smile).

So, rather than pay $1637 (or less–I’m sure my people would have said “OK” if the City offered to refund half or so in response to the opening missive), the City and its assessor and their insurers and attorneys preferred to make an actual, federal case out of their own folly, and then pay $75,000 to make it go away. As Dave Barry would say, “I’m not making this up”. One usually expects that idiots, once represented by counsel, will moderate their idiocy, but these asshats decided instead to up the ante, with entirely predictable results. (I’m informed the Mayor reported to City Council that, because he had “held firm”, they were able to settle on “favorable terms”. I have no idea what happened to the city’s or assessor’s insurance premiums after that, or whether the City continues to use the same imbecile or his law firm as its regular attorney.) The magnitude of narishkeit is even worse than it appears–I’m familiar with municipal insurers, and there’s always a deductible for attorney fees, at least $10K if not more. So the City and the Chelmites in charge embarked on a course of action that was going to cost the treasury at least 6X as much in out-of-pocket attorney fees as we were requesting be refunded, the epitome of “We’re losing on every transaction, but we’re planning to make it up on volume.”

The president joined Jim and his brother in donating $5K each from the settlement to the non-profit (but I’m still glad I insisted that Jim and his brother both give me a dollar figure, rather than waive individual claims for damages). The synagogue’s $5K was disbursed to Jewish 501(c)(3) groups that the AKIC board selected. As with any good fairy tale, everyone (plaintiffs and idiots alike) lived happily ever after.


And to my wonderful friend, Allan Falk, I say, “Kol hakavod l’kha!”, You deserve full honor for your victory!

Understanding Jewish Orthodoxy As A New Religion

I recently received a request for comment on a proposed discussion as follows:

“We’ll talk about the new government in Israel and the declaration by Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yosef that Reform and Conservative Judaism is a new religion.”

The question makes perfect sense within an Orthodox context. Like many religions, Jewish Orthodoxy imagines itself to be the model of authenticity. It is no different than Roman Catholicism considering itself the only authentic repository of the Christian religion, or Protestantism claiming that resting authority in a Pope is a fundamental violation of Christian principles.

Orthodox Jews will usually point to various aspects of the way that non-Orthodox Jews observe their faith as some sort of “proof” that they are not authentically Jewish. Virtually all of these arguments fail for one overriding reason: Jewish Orthodoxy has departed from age-old methods of re-interpreting the religion. That departure is by almost any reasonable definition more serious than the violations they attribute to others.

Consider this: there is not the slightest doubt that the Torah applies the death penalty to any violation of the Sabbath that it deems a violation. So why are there so few executions among the Orthodox for violating the Sabbath? If you bother to raise the question, be prepared for wagon loads of nonsense in reply. The simple truth is that Judaism realized that it was mistake to apply such a harsh penalty for these infractions and over time eliminated the possibility. During the period when the rabbis assume the role of religious arbitration for those calling themselves Jews, virtually all capital punishment was abolished, and one sage opined that if a court (Beit Din) executed more than one person in 70 years it should be regarded as a corrupt court and abolished.

This modification of the religion of the Israelites continued throughout history. For any given community, there could be long periods of stasis punctuated by upheavel which required radical action and often, significant change.

Among the more significant instigators of change in Europe were new intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment. In Eastern Europe, many Jewish communities experienced new freedom through Emancipation. Whenever there is change, there is almost always resistance to change. Beginning in the early 1700s, some rabbis, especially in Ashkenaz, began to argue that there was so much turmoil in the world that age-old mechanisms for modifying Jewish practice (halakhah) could no longer be used. This was hardly the first time such calls had been heard. At the dawn of the Talmudic era, the Amoraim declared that many of the rules which had been used by the Tana’im to alter the halakhah could no longer be used because the newer generation of rabbis did not have the vast institutional memory that the Tana’im possessed and were therefore prone to making mistakes.

The notion that the changed experience in post-Medieval Europe was so much worse than earlier periods is absurd on its face. The fall of the First Temple, the Babylonian Exile, the fall of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, more than 1,500 years of persecution by Christians and Muslims–all this was not a problem requiring the abolition of rules for changing the halakhah, but somehow the Emancipation was?

It is that claim, the claim that the Jewish people and their leaders are now forbidden from making changes to the rules for things like Sabbath observance, is a new claim. This one argued by reactionaries who did not want to see change to those observances. Since this imposed a new regulation of practice which had not been the case in the prior two to three thousand years of Jewish practice, the religion which argues this, Jewish Orthodoxy, has to be understood as a new religious movement which differed from all that went before it.

The Reform movement was created by Jews who believed that the Reformation and the Enlightenment and Emancipation were opportunities to do what Jews have been doing since the inception of the faith–modify practice in accordance with the ways that Jewish people want to live. Conservative Judaism began as a reaction to Reform because some members of Reform thought things had gone too far. But that too is a part of the age-old dialectic. The insistence that no change to loosen halakhic strictures can be permitted is the more radical notion.

Today, Jewish Orthodoxy represents the smallest movement within Judaism–even in Israel. Of course, in a place like Israel, if people need or want to go to a synagogue, they often have little choice. Non-Orthodox synagogues exist in small numbers and for the most part in large metro areas. But merely because a person uses an Orthodox synagogue or prayer book–does that actually make them Orthodox? If that person drives on Shabbat, flicks lights on and off, doesn’t maintain separate meat and dairy dishes, is that person really Orthodox, or is the more accurate descriptor, “Reform”–meaning that while they like the traditions, they see no reason of faith not live as they choose.

We started this conversation mentioning Chief Rabbi Yoseph. Yitzhak Yosef.jpg Ask yourself, does this man dress like Moses? How about Rabban Gamli’el? Sa’adia? Maimonides? Notice that biblical personages wore the square garments on which the tassels were supposed to be affixed, but by choosing to wear clothing that looks like a different place in a different era, R. Yosef needs to wear a talit qatan to observe the mitzvah. And notice that the Torah never suggests this is permissible. But the Jews of a much later era wished to dress differently and so they adapted. In other words, they were Reform Jews.

For further reading, there is (of course) a vast scholarly literature on this topic. Remaining as one of the best is the masterpiece of Joseph L. Blau, Modern Varieties of Judaism, originally published in 1972. Blau was a student of Salo Whitmayer Baron, and taught at Columbia (where he Chaired the Department of Religion) for most of his career.

Helping Friends in Uganda several years now I’ve been sharing posts with several friends from Uganda. The nature of Facebook being what it is, this means that many of my friends have also become friends of Ugandans. While this is unremarkable, what it remarkable is that in recent weeks I’ve seen a significant increase in requests for financial aid from people claiming to be Ugandan Jews in deep distress. Several of these I know to have been fraudulent, and I’ve been forced to block several.

You might wonder why I have allowed myself to establish these “friendship” links. There are several reasons, but all of them relate to my status as an educator specializing in Jewish religion and history.

To the best of my knowledge, the oldest and unquestionably Jewish populations in sub Saharan Africa are in Ethiopia. Members of this community like to attribute their origin to the beginnings of the Israelite kingdoms. Although there is no certain explanation, the preponderance of scholarship is that the community dates to the Middle Ages (about 2,000 years after the era of David) when various Ethiopian tribes were aligning themselves with groups from Europe and Arabia who were establishing relationships and commerce with Ethiopia. Whatever the case may be, the world Jewish community, including Orthodox authorities in Israel, have long accepted the credibility of these Ethiopian claims to Judaism.

In much more recent history several African communities have shown an interest in being identified as Jews. Several of these are located in Uganda, probably the most famous of them calling themselves the Abayudaya. These various groups have had a tumultuous history of being accepted and then rejected by various Jewish and Israeli authorities. There can be no question that the members of the Abayudaya and others seek to observe Judaism in traditional Jewish ways, the only question is whether Israel might regard them as striving to obtain Israeli citizenship or Orthodox authorities quibbling over their Jewish heritage.

Many of these histories and issues are important to me both personally and professionally. That is why I have established Facebook “friendships” with a number of Ugandan and other African people.

Uganda is a poor country in general, and many of those who try to live a Jewish life are among the poorest. They clearly need financial assistance. But there is a huge problem–the number of con artists and scoundrels is too great to consider sending money to individuals. Not only does sending money mean that one might be giving it to a crook, but some of these will even use various tools to try to steal payment cards and checking account information.

What this means is that no one should ever consider sending money to an individual via Western Union, other payment systems, or using debit or credit cards. There is only one exception to this rule: someone you know in person and trust. If you have, perhaps, visited Uganda, or if you have met a Ugandan abroad and spent time with them, in other words, if you have some certainty that the person you are dealing with is a person you can trust, then it can be appropriate to use a wire service to help them out.

How can any of us help these African communities without risking our financial security? The answer is really the same as it is for our own countries. We need to find bona fide charitable organizations which are in the field working to help the people we care about. In the USA, we have services such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator to help with this chore. And many of the charities they cover have a presence internationally, so organizations covered by these agencies may be the safest way to help our Ugandan friends.

Since this comes up with me owing to the Jewish connection, it is reasonable to ask about charities such as United Jewish Appeal (UJA) which obviously have been created to aid Jews in distress around the world. I wish I could tell you that this is a great solution for Uganda, but unfortunately, it is not. UJA can get bogged down with the question of “Who is a Jew” (referred to above), and that can create road blocks for helping communities we’d like to support, but who have not passed muster with Israeli religious authorities. Nevertheless, UJA is a good organization which deserves Jewish support, and hopefully we can persuade our friends in UJA some day to consider helping folks such as the Abayudaya.

All this said, where should we donate besides the UJA? Some of our Ugandan friends have managed to mount “Go Fund Me” campaigns. If you’ve been corresponding with people and feel comfortable with them, this is at least a generally safe way to provide funds. “Go Fund Me” won’t do a thing to verify that the destination is truly charitable, but it is at least a safe way to send money. I strongly recommend using a credit card, not a debit card or check, if you choose to do this.

Aside from GoFundMe, here is a list of International charitable organizations which are active in helping people in Uganda:

One organization stands out as having great reviews wherever I’ve checked. The first URL is for the organization as a whole, the second is for their activities specifically in Uganda:


Global Giving is headquartered in the USA and is therefore subject to all the scrutiny of philanthropic organizations. It has outstanding performance recommendations from both Guidestar and Charity Navigator. What Global Giving does is provide the scrutiny necessary to guarantee that our contributions will be used thoughtfully for the purposes we intend. It does not manage projects in places like Uganda on it own, rather, it works with local organizations. If you go to the Global Giving website (below) you can choose from dozens of projects in Uganda. Searching on the keyword “Uganda” produced 293 projects deemed worthy of donation. Because you are donating to Global Giving, the money will reach the project you want to support without endangering your financial interests.

Originally the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF is now just the United Nations Children’s Fund. UNICEF  is the world’s largest providers of vaccines. The mission of UNICEF looks like a menu of items all precisely in the greatest need in Uganda: child health and nutrition, safe water and sanitation, quality
education and skill building, HIV prevention and treatment for mothers
and babies, and the protection of children and adolescents from violence
and exploitation. The USA branch of UNICEF is fully under the scrutiny of charitable organizations and is safe to donate to. UNICEF also has a headquarters for Uganda in Kampala, but when you press the “donate” button you are redirected to the USA offices. I couldn’t find a way to specify that I wanted my donation to benefit projects in Uganda, but I’ll do some additional research on that. Stay tuned.

For now, this is all the time I have, but I intend to return to this and add additional charities as I learn about them.


Language of the Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah)

At a recent Jewish wedding I attended, I was startled by the reading of the Jewish marriage contract because it was written in Hebrew rather than the traditional Aramaic text. After the ceremony I asked the rabbi who had conducted the service why the document was in Hebrew since Jewish practice, halakhah, required the Aramaic. He replied that there is no such halakhah.

Of course, being the stubborn cuss that I am, I had to check the sources and lo and behold, I found that he is correct, there is no such halakhah.This was a bit disconcerting to me since whenever I have discussed the ketubah in recent years, I have usually mentioned this apparently non-existent rule.

My knowledge of the customs of the ketubah is one of several topics that I owe to one brief stint of study with an Orthodox teacher, Rabbi Steven Roth, who was one of the last graduates of the Jews College of London. Let me hasten to say that I am not asserting he taught me incorrectly, I’m sure I just didn’t quite understand his teaching now some 50 years ago. And certainly, most of what I recall from that teaching is completely accurate.

While we’re on the subject of rules, we should acknowledge that there does not necessarily have to be a law for a practice to be considered mandatory. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the head covering, kippah or yarmulke that Jewish men wear especially when entering a synagogue or engaging in prayer. Many might be surprised to learn that nowhere do we find any written requirement for this practice, and yet try to find an Orthodox or Conservative congregation which does not insist on it. In its early decades, one way Reform congregations demonstrated their difference from tradition was by discouraging the kippah in synagogue, but in more recent times, congregations have returned to the practice of encouraging it.

While there is no documented halakhah demanding that the ketubah be written in Aramaic, you’d be hard pressed to find any ketubot written in any other language until recent decades. The standard terminology is recorded in various sources, always in Aramaic. And the Talmud explains the use of Aramaic in the following way: Since this is a document which is intended to protect the rights of the wife in a marriage, it is very important that it be written in the language the wife will understand. And in the period and place where this conversation took place, Aramaic was the lingua franca, the common tongue.

In recent decades, there has been a change, but it’s a change that I think reflects a certain sensibility that is remote from the question of the marriage document itself. Part of the reason for this is that the ketubah simply does not mean what it once did to Jewish women. There are other mechanisms which are far more important in protecting the well-being of marriage partners in most of the Jewish world than the ketubah. For this reason, the ketubah has become more of an objet d’art than an actual contract.

The ketubah was written in Aramaic because that was the language a woman could understand in the places and times where the ketubah was developed, and Hebrew was a language which most women did not understand. But today, a Jewish woman is more likely to understand Hebrew than Aramaic. Beyond that, the spread and importance of Zionism has led to a new focus on Hebrew as the central language of all Jews. It is therefore understandable that especially in non-Orthodox settings, we are seeing a proliferation of ketubot written in Hebrew.

But there is a strong irony in what has happened. If we understand the spirit that motivated those who created the ketubah, if we are not going to write it in Aramaic, then we should be writing it in the language the wife (or partner) knows best–the language of the land. In America, most ketubot should therefore be written in English if they are not going to be written in Aramaic since, after all, even a knowledgeable person will understand their native language better than Hebrew. Paleo-Hebrew alphabet - Wikipedia

There is at least one cultural reason to suggest why this is unnecessary and Hebrew versions might be acceptable in many Jewish communities. That is if we understand that the ketubah is no longer considered an important part of the legal protections for the wife. If the ketubah is merely ceremonial, then it no longer matters whether the woman can understand it or not. And Hebrew is certainly as good as Aramaic for creating art work. There is one more irony to this story, however. In fact, the alphabet (alef-bet) used to create Hebrew writing today is not, in fact, Hebrew, but rather Aramaic writing–brought back from Aramaic speaking lands by the Judeans returning from Exile. So I guess Aramaic gets the last laugh.

Hanukkah Musings 2021

It’s time for my annual Hanukkah message. I’ve been doing this off-and-on since 1972, when an article I wrote was featured in a Jewish student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin—which seems to be defunct. There was a new Chabad rabbi in town for the new position of any sort of Chabad presence at UW whose name as I recall it was R. Shmudkin. The Hillel rabbi at that time, R. Alan Lettofsky, was going to be out of town, so he invited R. Shmudkin to lead students in reciting the Hanukkah blessings.

I was one of the last students to arrive so there was a bit of a crowd and I stood near the back. R. Shmudkin saw me and raised his eyebrows. He said, “I see that Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we are about to recite the blessing honoring the Maccabees.” Two things startled me about this. First, that he knew who I was, and second, that he apparently had read my article. I just chuckled and said, “I’ve been lighting the Menorah since I was 5 years old, so I think I’ll keep doing it.” And a brief but lovely service ensued.

My life and career have endured many twists and turns since then, and I suspect that if R. Shmudkin is still around somewhere he is even less happy with my views now than he was then. But I guess he would be happy to know that all these years later I and my family are still delighted to kindle the Hanukkah lights on one of the dozen or so Hanukkah lamps that beautify our home.

What had so disturbed R. Shmudkin is that in my senior year at UW, I had done a lot of research on the ancient history of the Near East. Steeped in the writings of historians such as Victor Tcherikover, Alexander Fuchs, Menachem Stern, and Elias Bickerman I came to understand that a considerable part of the narrative surrounding the origin of Hanukkah was just a fairy tale. In fact, the great devil of the era, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was not attempting to destroy the valiant God-fearing Jews, he had simply been invited into a struggle among rival factions of Judeans by one of those factions. In other words, it was a civil war and Antiochus decided to intervene on the side of the faction that offered him the most reward. And unfortunately for him, the other side won.

Most modern Jews imagine that we know all about the Maccabees and their struggle because of the preservation of such sources as the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees and the historian Josephus. In fact, the ancient rabbis rejected all those sources and had nothing to do with their preservation. We owe the existence of those sources to Christians. As it happens, the early Church was particularly interested in stories of martyrdom, and as for Josephus, they thought that he had described the era of Jesus and even mentioned Jesus in his Antiquities. The rabbis cared for none of this. But about 1500 years after the Maccabees some Jews also felt that it was important to recall ancient Jewish victories. Having nothing of their own, they plagiarized Josephus, added in a few tales from the Midrash, and published Sefer Yospipon (The Book of Joseph). The conceit was that they had discovered this book written by another of Josephus’ fellow generals in the Roman War of his era. Sefer Yosippon has the same relationship to Josephus as exists between the Gospels and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

If this is the case, where does our festival of Hanukkah come from? The ancient rabbis faced exactly the same problem that confronted early Christian authorities. That problem was that no matter what they might have argued as religious doctrine, the general populace was not going to be dissuaded from recognizing the change of seasons and most especially, the Winter Solstice. Christians solved the problem by moving the birth of Jesus to a day that is unsupported by their own Gospels. The rabbis composed a tale of the miraculous purification of the Temple by oil which though only sufficient for one day, nevertheless lasted for eight. And this event just happened to coincide with the coronation celebration of the hated Maccabean kings—and so could replace any notion of that in the popular imagination. This tale, by the way, is not recorded in any of the most ancient sources of the rabbis, but rather in the Babylonian Talmud, (Shabbat 21a). The earliest date that could be ascribed to this tale is 300 C.E. and a century or two after that is more likely.

Ultimately, who cares? None of this matters to me as I enjoy the potato pancakes and see the joy in the eyes of my children and grandchildren as they light the candles with us and look forward to treats and toys. Religion is not about history, but rather about what we make of it. History and religion are, as Stephen Jay Gould said, “non-overlapping magisteria.”

About 10 years after R. Shmudkin led the Hanukkah service at UW Hillel, I met the woman who would become the love of my life. We were married on 28 Kislev 5744, the 4th day of Hanukkah, 1983.

Barukh Dayan Emet–Harold Diftler

We learned of the passing this last weekend of a dear friend, Dr. Harold Diftler. Harold and his wife Joyce were among the first people to welcome us to Knoxville.
Harold was one of the most prominent dentists in the region and there are many accolades from his professional colleagues. But nothing tells the story of Dr. Diftler better than the simple fact that he turned no one away over his entire career, and never complained when his patients could not the afford the care.
Harold was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. As a member of the Knoxville Track Club he ran marathons all over the USA. His collections of antique clocks and watches are renowned. He was able to converse about many subjects because he so valued education that he never stopped taking courses–in recent years University courses in history, film, political science, anthropology and music.
Harold is pictured above from our Passover Seder in 2015. May his memory always be counted as a blessing. May his memory be entwined with ours so that he lives on forever through us.
Blessed is the True Judge.

To Dream the Impossible Dream

Few songs could capture the essence of nearing the completion of a University degree and at the same time demonstrate the nature of the course my students and I have been on together these past four months better than To Dream the Impossible Dream. The song has entered the canon of the American Songbook and is familiar to millions who know nothing of its origin as part of the Broadway play Man of La Mancha. The play is a riff on the great novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes which presents a complex view of human nature despite the surface comic opera of the story it tells.

Man of La Mancha was, as so many Broadway shows of its era, an almost entirely Jewish affair. The creators of the show were all Jews, Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion and Dale Wasserman. Joe Darion was also the lyricist for The Impossible Dream. You’d have to look hard for the fact of his Jewish upbringing because none of the common biographical sources mentions it–apparently Mr. Darion was very private about his upbringing and religious life. The music of The Quest (the original name of the song) was composed by Mitch Leigh, who was born Irwin Mitnick in Brooklyn, NY.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how the themes of imagination and hopeless causes might have carried so much import for this group of Jewish artists.

Most of the portrayers of Don Quixote on the stage (and screen) were non-Jews.The original was Richard Kiley, a Roman Catholic.The 1992 Broadway revival featured Roman Catholic Raul Julia in the title role. And the 2002 revival starred my personal favorite, Brian Stokes Mitchell. “Stokes” doesn’t say much about his religion, but I’m guessing it isn’t Judaism based on his comments that his heritage is “African American, German, Scots, and Native American.”

Now comes Azi Schwartz, albeit in his role of synagogue Hazzan rather than part of a Broadway show, who sings this song with the perfection for which he is justly famous. For me, hearing his beautiful countertenor reminded me of the Jewish roots of this play and this composition.

A fitting conclusion, I would suggest, for the first course in Jewish Music at the University of Tennessee.

On the Term Shiktza Goddess

Two of my Facebook friends raised some issues related to the joke I posted on that platform and focused on the issue of the term “shiktsa* goddess” used in the joke. The first thing I want to say is that I am glad and grateful that my friends would indicate sensitivity to the issue. It is good to reflect on language and the nuance of words, and the fact that words can be painful or harmful. Others of my friends will take the other side–presumably most of them since the joke seemed to work for them–and most of them would take offense at being labeled something like a misogynist for using that term.

*Note: there is no standard English spelling for the Yiddish word shiktza and I have no intention of making my own practice standard. OCD folks will just need to grin and bear it.

Both of my friends demonstrated their point by looking at another Yiddishism, namely the word “shvartze” which can be the rough equivalent of what we call these days, “the N word.” Let me start with that term. Jews from Eastern Europe referred to people of color by the term “Shvartze” in their Yiddish language. In that language, it simply means “black.” In normal Yiddish usage, it is not a pejorative and carries no more hateful intent than the English word “black.” But–and this is a big but–when that term is used by an English-speaking Jew, at least in my experience it is always used as a racial epithet. If one of my Facebook friends referred to a person of color by this term, I would first ask that they edit their post, then if they did not, delete the post and privately ask that person to refrain from using racial epithets on my page. If they repeated the language, I would block them. There is no place on my page for racism.

Now, I said this could get complicated. What happens if the person using that word is actually a native speaker of Yiddish? They might very well refer to someone as a “shvartze” with no pejorative intent–no more than if an English speaker used the term “Black.” In that case I’d have to look at the context, and I might have to add a note of my own explaining the issues. But I might not censor the comment (and let’s face it, we are talking about censorship here) if I believed the intent to be innocent.

With that background, let’s turn to the issue of the word shiktza. There is not even the slightest doubt that the term began as a pejorative, and a nasty one at that. It is Yiddish, but derives from the Hebrew which means “insect” or “vermin.” At some point in the long history of ethnic conflict and hatred, Jews began referring to “gentiles” or non-Jews with this sobriquet.

My attitude to this word when used by an English-speaking Jew is precisely the same as my attitude towards the term shvartze. I would never use it, and if someone used it on my page, I would first ask them to rewrite the post, if they did not I would delete it, and if they persisted with such offensive language, I would block them. And this is not just an intellectual exercise–I have in fact blocked at least half a dozen people for this behavior.

But the word used in the joke was not “shiktza.” It was the term “shiktza goddess.” This is a term whose origin we know and understand. It was coined by Lenny Bruce, a man who literally went to jail to defend the right of free speech. And he meant nothing offensive to the woman in the term. If anything, he was casting aspersion on the Jewish men of his acquaintance who he saw as chasing after non-Jewish women as a way of denying their Jewish heritage. In the meantime, as often happens with such expressions, not a few women have adopted the term as a badge of honor. I don’t have any good statistics for this, I can only say that I know many non-Jewish women, and a few women who became Jews, who think it’s great that their Jewish friends or partners regard them as “goddesses.” Personally, I have a big problem with calling a woman like Ivanka Trump a shiktza goddess, although it doesn’t surprise me to hear others do so. But Ivanka is now a Jew, so IMO that term is inappropriate for her. Steve Mnuchin’s wife, on the other hand…well, I digress.

Louise Linton, Steve Mnuchin's wife, deletes post in support of Greta Thunberg

It might startle some people to learn that for most of the 19th and a large part of the 20th century, many Jews regarded the word “Jew” to be a pejorative. That’s why Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise called the organization he founded in 1873 and which has become the largest religious organization of Jews “The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” It wasn’t until 2003 that the organization voted to change its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Interesting, to me at least, is that they still avoided using the term, “Jew.” In like manner, the Orthodox Jewish organization which was founded to provide no-interest loans to Jews (because interest is forbidden by Jewish law) is called The Hebrew Free Loan Society. HFLS was founded in 1892 and has not changed its name. One prominent Jewish publication which began in 1879 called itself The American Hebrew. Through a variety of changes over the decades it retired that name in 1956 and now survives as The Washington Jewish Week. Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty, was first published by The American Hebrew.

I want to finish on a positive note. I think it is great that some of us care enough about these issues to raise objections. They are acting honorably, and it is good to remind ourselves that we need to look at ourselves and our language to ensure that we are actually communicating what we want to say. Not every issue has a resolution that will satisfy everyone. I never use the term shiktza goddess in my own writing other than to quote others. I see that it is problematic. But it’s not a term of ethnic or religious hatred, and it does convey nuance that is difficult to convey otherwise. I’m glad I had this opportunity to think about it.


Hanukkah Musings for 5781

Hanukkah 5781 for secular year 2020 is upon us and it is a holiday I always look forward to and treasure. The earliest Hanukkah I recall is one in which I crossed the hall of our tenement to enter the magical realm of my Bubby, my grandmother, who had her family Menorah (lamp, now more properly known as a Hanukkiah) ready for action. Bubby spoke only Yiddish, but we managed to communicate somehow or other, and she taught me how to recite the holiday blessings–in Yiddish, of course. This would have been before I learned to read Hebrew, so it may have been as early as 1957 when I was 5 years old. Whether it was then or a bit later, the warmth of the holiday and love of my Bubby and the joy she felt as I recited those words made an indelible imprint in my memory.

Bubby (Center), Esther and Louie

I was called to the Torah in 1965 and can’t say that I recall many Hanukkah occasions after that until I arrived at the University of Wisconsin. It was in my junior year, 1971, and thanks in large part to our fabulous Hillel House under the direction of Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, that I started paying attention to Judaism and Jewish history–a story for another day.

As a young student (and major) of History, I began reading about the Hanukkah holiday in several volumes that have retained their value and reputation to this day–in some cases more than half a century ago. Elias Bickerman wrote Der Gott der Makkabäer in 1937, the anteroom of the Holocaust. Subsequent accounts of the wars and dynasty of the Maccabees reflected the young state of Israel. Books like Victor Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (which became well known after its English translation appeared in 1958, but which was originally written even before Bickerman’s masterpiece in 1930). These were among the first publications to bring modern methods of historiography and analysis to the period of history bracketed by Alexander the Great and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. And for me, it they were the eye opener for me to understand that there was more to the history of the people who venerated biblical literature than the fairy tales I had known from childhood.

In the case of the Maccabees, and the Hasmonean dynasty they founded, there was a practically unanimous conclusion that the surviving historical accounts do not portray some evil “Greek” attempting to subjugate “the Jews.” Rather, what we see is a civil war in which one group of Jews (the term is actually an anachronism, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use it) against another. As often happens in such conflicts, one of the groups appealed for and succeeded in gaining the support of the ruler of the area–that evil Antiochus Epiphanes, but when all was said and done, the real war was between opposing groups of Jews who all accepted the Torah and other biblical literature, but had all sorts of diverse opinions about things like the calendar and which priests should be given authority over the Temple.

I wrote an article about this for the University of Wisconsin’s Jewish student newspaper because at this time of year, it’s customary to write about the holidays. Hillel would always have a candelabra (Menorah or the aforementioned Hanukkiah) lighting followed by a talk or group sing-a-long, and I headed over for what I thought would be the usual ceremony. As it turned out, Rabbi Lettofsky was out of town, but he asked the brand new Chabad representative (so new there wasn’t even a Chabad residence yet) if he would like to lead the service. I believe his name was Rabbi Shmodken, but memory does funny things over the decades. Anyway, I arrived to find most people already gathered around the Hanukkiah. Rabbi Shmodken apparently recognized me and arched his eyebrows. He then said in loud, clear voice–although with a heavy Yiddish accent–“Mr. Jack Love has entered the room. Jack, perhaps you would like to excuse yourself while we honor the memory of the Hashmonaim?” As I mentioned, Hanukkah was, and still is, a favorite holiday of mine, so I stood my ground and sang the blessings with my congregation.

611 LANGDON ST | Property Record | Wisconsin Historical Society

The ultimate irony in the good rabbi’s comment is that the original rabbis despised the Hasmoneans and did everything in their power to blot out their memory. They had good reason. The Hasmonean kings by and large supported the Temple priesthood most of whom belonged to the group known as Sadducees. The kings and their allies generally opposed competing groups such as Pharisees and Essenes–and it was the Pharisee sect that developed into the rabbinic group following the Roman war and destruction of the Temple. The Hasmonean king Alexander Janeus was reported to have crucified hundreds of his opponents on the roads leading to Jerusalem–which creates a bit of a problem for those who want to claim that Jews could not have had anything to do with the crucifixion of Jesus–but that is a tale for another day.

The point is that the Pharisees and their rabbinic descendants wanted nothing to do with the Hasmonean kings. They did not copy or preserve either of the books called Maccabees (which were copied and honored by Christians), nor did they copy or preserve the works of the historian Josephus, who also wrote about these events.

But what they did do is tell stories. One of those stories, which appears many centuries after the time of the Hasmoneans, recounts the tale of how the Temple had been defiled by wicked people and required purification. There was only enough oil for one day, but by a miracle, the oil lasted for 8 days. Strangely enough, we have no idea why it was necessary to have a lamp burn for 8 days for this purification to occur. But we do know that by another miraculous coincidence, that 8 day period corresponds exactly to the 8 day festival proclaimed by the Hasmonean kings to celebrate their dynasty.

LoveLees Hanukkah Night 1



Life Since WUJS

Received word from some of my old friends from the program I attended in 1973 in Arad, Israel that we are going to attempt a class reunion. They asked for an update on what we’ve done since graduating. This will likely be repetitive for many of my friends and family, but here goes…

The reason I enrolled in WUJS was that I had been accepted to Graduate School in History at Tel Aviv University, but at that point knew only the Hebrew that was taught in two semesters at my undergrad institution, the University of Wisconsin (Madison). It was a terrific way to build my Hebrew and also participate in a program designed to introduce college graduates to the entire country. Almost a half century later I still treasure the memories of our visits from Rosh HaNikra in the far north to Beersheva and the agricultural settlements south of Arad.

The indelible memory of that year was seared in place by a major conflict known to most people as the Yom Kippur War which effectively ended WUJS instruction for me. Despite offers of repatriation from the US embassy, along with many others in WUJS, I signed up to do what I could. It wasn’t much–one of my memories from that experience was a kibbutznik too old to bear arms who would lean over and tell me in the dining hall, “You eat more than you’re worth.” And friends, I was skinny in those days!

When the war ended, some students remained at WUJS, but it was time for me to begin my studies at Tel Aviv U. My favorite class was elementary Latin (“You mean you want to study ancient history, but you have no Latin?!”). We were the first class at Tel Aviv U. which enjoyed learning Latin via a textbook written in Hebrew. Before that, students had to use a teaching book written in English. Lucky me! But really, it was a huge boost in my Hebrew comprehension.

At the end of that school year, I accepted an offer from the U of California (Berkeley) and began studying for an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies in the Fall of 1974. I completed that degree in December, 1976 and received “permission to proceed” to the Ph.D. But first, I felt that I still needed more coursework, and there was nothing left to take, so I applied to and was accepted as graduate fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem beginning in the Fall of 1977.

That academic year, Anwar Sadat stunned the world by coming to Jerusalem. I sometimes quip that my two years in Israel were, “War and Peace.”

I took as many course as I could at Hebrew U, and then it was time to return to the States. But my graduate advisor at Berkeley told me that given that only 4 PhDs in History at UCB had managed to find positions, I ought to consider other alternatives. So I applied to the Rabbinical program at HUC – Cincinnati. Oddly enough, they advised me to join the History PhD program there because I would receive a much better fellowship that way. And so I went from Jerusalem to Cincinnati. The most important scholar there for my interests was Samuel Sandmel. When I got to Cincinnati, I was his only student. During the semester he informed me that he had accepted a position at the U of Chicago and asked me to consider joining him. But the chancellor pulled me aside and cautioned me that Sandmel might not be alive much longer, so I declined his offer and indeed he passed away in February having made the move to Chicago just a month before.

Without Sandmel, staying in Cincinnati didn’t seem worthwhile although I did very much enjoy my studies in Talmud with Ben Zion Wacholder. Life intervened and I received word that my mother was in dire straits and needed my help. So I returned to Berkeley, made arrangements to settle my life down a bit, and then went to New York City to see how I might help my mother. She had had a severe episode of her long standing bipolar disorder and as a result lost her job. She was in danger of running out of money for the rent. My father, her husband, had abandoned us years before–ironically perhaps to move to Israel. I was an only child to her (my sister was born to a different mother) so it was me or no one. I packed her up and took her to California.

Continuing with the PhD program was now out of the question. I took a job as the Assistant Director of the Berkeley Hillel Foundation which involved leading religious services, teaching Hebrew courses and running the rather extensive Hebrew language program of the Lehrhaus Judaica which was co-housed in the Hillel building, and being responsible for the financial part of the foundation. To do that effectively I enrolled in Accounting classes at a local community college.

This was supposed to be a stop-gap until I got my mother settled, but we all know how that goes. I enjoyed my job, I enjoyed having the stability of a real income. In 1979 I purchased my first house in Oakland with the help of the Lehrhaus director. A couple of years later I met the woman who would become my wife of now 36 years.

We sold that first house to buy a house in Berkeley (this time together with our Hillel office manager who went on to be the leader of the Unitarian Universalists west of the Mississippi). And 1985 saw the birth of our first child, Shoshana. In 1987 the University of Michigan offered Terri a tenured position in their Psychology Department, and as much as I loved our lives in the fabled San Francisco Bay Area, we both agreed that moving to Ann Arbor was the sensible thing to do. So in 1988, Terri’s mom came out and helped Terri, Shoshana and our pet rabbits move to Michigan. I came a couple of months later with our dog. And a couple of months after that I moved Momma to Michigan.

Of course I was hoping for a job teaching Hebrew, but Hillel was staffed up and my mere M.A. wasn’t good enough for the U, so I was unemployed for awhile. I had learned a considerable amount about both accounting and database management, and a friend mailed me–quite out of the blue–a T-Shirt emblazoned with the word “Oracle.” One day, I felt a tap on my shoulder as I was picking Sho up from day care, and the father of one of the other kids asked me, “Do you know anything about Oracle?” I replied that “Yes, I had successfully deployed an Oracle database at my former employer in California.” He hired me on the spot to do a training session for his group at the University’s IT department because they had just paid $600k to license Oracle, but no one knew how to use it. After the session, he hired me as an external consultant to help them design databases, and after three years of that they decided it would be cheaper just to give me a job. That’s how I became an employee of the U of Michigan in 1992. In 1995 Ephraim joined our family, and shortly thereafter the College of Engineering hired me away from the IT department. I rose through those ranks and eventually was leading three departments within the College.

I decided to retire from the University when I turned 58 because I was qualified for benefits, they were running an early retirement program, my investments had done well, and really, I didn’t need the headaches any longer. I accepted a voluntary position as the first Executive Director (unpaid) of the County’s NAMI program.

2011 was a momentous year for our family. Ephraim had decided to make aliyah and complete his education in Israel. My mother sadly left us that year. And Terri received an offer to become the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the U of Tennessee, Knoxville. After a visit to check it out, we decided to take the offer. We sold our Ann Arbor house at which point Ephraim changed his mind and decided he would stay in Ann Arbor, but we held to our plan and we went to Knoxville while he remained in Ann Arbor.

A few months after our arrival, the Religious Studies Department was notified that faculty members they had hired to teach Hebrew had elected not to come and the director of Judaic Studies and the Head of the Religious Studies department asked me if would teach Biblical Hebrew for the year. And after that first year, they have hired me ever since, seven years now.

Of course they really wanted me to have a PhD, so I was approached by someone who offered to be my mentor for completing that project. She averred that given all my prior course work, it would probably only take me a year to start writing my dissertation. But the Grad School had other ideas about whether they were going to accept decades-old courses. I stuck with it and earned my PhD in History in December 2019.

Our daughter Shoshana now lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband Karl and our two grandchildren, Clara and Alexander. My son Ephraim joined us in Knoxville after completing his BA at U of Michigan. He’s now in the later stages of a PhD in social geography and spatial statistics, and he is engaged to a woman who is also working on a PhD in the biological sciences.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Added 4/13/20:

My father was a child of the beginning of the Soviet Union, his father was a highly educated Orthodox Jew (musmah Kishinev). My grandfather came to the States first and established a business selling second hand steel in Cleveland, OH. Then he was busted for selling stolen property and after spending everything to avoid jail moved to Detroit. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather, my grandmother’s father, found the cash to ship my Bubby and her three surviving children (three others seem to have died of Tay-Sachs) to Detroit. It’s not entirely clear that my grandfather, the Grand Rabbi, was all that happy to see them.
My mother of blessed memory was born in Brooklyn. Her mother had five children of whom my mother was the youngest. She passed when my mother was 14 and my maternal grandfather (who was a Sanitation Dept employee) fostered her out to people who were cousins of ours. Through Facebook I have been able to make contact with that branch of the family and they are all wonderful folks. In those days there was no healthcare and no real pension for city employees, so when my grandfather couldn’t work owing to a savaged back, he eked out a living as fortune teller setting up on the street. He passed the year before I was born. My middle name, Francis is for my mother’s next-in-line sister Frances  who was electrocuted in shock therapy at a Brooklyn hospital, also the year before I was born. I know, many of you don’t want to hear details like this, but if you want to be honest about life, these are the kinds of things that happen.
After my pretty typically Orthodox bar-mitzvah, I didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Like Perry, I was impressed with the events of the 6-Day-War. My father decided to make Aliyah–I think as a way of getting away from us as we were not invited to accompany him–and that was the last I saw of him until I got to WUJS (he was in Tel Aviv). In 1971  I had a serious health emergency and my life was literally saved by the invention of colon fiberscope. I was only the 3rd person to undergo that procedure. The doctors found the polyps that were the cause of my issue and extracted them. I’m telling you this because when I woke up the town (Madison, WI) hazzan was waiting by my bedside. A doctor had asked him to come because he recognized that I was reciting the Sh’ma in my delirium.
After my recovery, I started hanging out at Hillel and discovered that the rabbi there was both brilliant and not crazy. It was the first time I think I realized that one could be intelligent and religious at the same time. We became lifetime friends–just spoke with him last week–and I’ve been part of Conservative Judaism ever since. It was at this Hillel that I met the “shaliah” who recommended that I go to WUJS. Not to say that “I got religion”–I was agnostic before, during, and after all this. But I found great comfort in being part of a community, and I discovered that I love ritual even if I don’t think it’s going to save any possible soul I might have.