Yom Kippur 5776, Yizkor - Laughing at Death

September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Zaide lay dying. His pulse was thready, his breathing was labored, the children and grandchildren stood around his bed waiting for the end. He’d been fading in and out of consciousness all afternoon. And now, as the time for departure drew near, a wonderful smell wafted upstairs from kitchen below. Zaide’s eyes opened, and smile crept across his tired face.

“I smell your Bubbie’s rogelach baking!” he said weakly. “What a smell! Those are the most delicious rogelach in the world. Oy, what I would give for one last taste… Please, go and get me one to eat, and then I can die happy…”

A grandson was quickly dispatched to the kitchen; after a few minutes he returned empty-handed.

“What’s wrong?” Zaide asked feebly. “Where’s the rogelach?”

And the grandson answered, “Bubbie says they’re for the shiva…”

Gallows humor; the need to laugh, if just a little bit, in the face of death, is essential. As someone once said, this world is a very tough place; you’re lucky if you can get out of it alive. Or, as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be immortal—I just want to live forever.” In the face of this, we sometimes try to reduce the inevitable end to a punch line.

Read more: Yom Kippur 5776, Yizkor - Laughing at Death

5776 Yom Kippur - The Holiest Places of All and the Apikorus

September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

One of the best stories I ever heard in person came from the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, may his memory bring blessing, the long-time president of the UAHC/URJ, our Reform movement.  Rabbi Schindler told it on himself when he visited my congregation in Santa Barbara many years ago.  

It seems that on a trip to Israel Schindler had gone to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and was walking towards this holiest place in Judaism when a old man approached him and asked him to put on a kipah, a yarmulke, worn by traditional Jews at all sacred places.  Schindler, no traditionalist and head of the most important Reform organization in the world, said grandly that he didn’t need a yarmulke because “the sky is my kipah.”  The old Jew looked at Schindler and shook his head slowly, saying, “Such a big kipah for such a small head…”

Read more: 5776 Yom Kippur - The Holiest Places of All and the Apikorus

Kol Nidrei Eve, Yom Kippur 5776 - The Superpower in Being Human

September 22, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

I recently learned a surprising and strange fact.  Many of the highest grossing films in America and in the entire world are installments of some kind of superhero movie series, based on humble comic books.  In fact, six of the top 10 highest opening-weekend box office grosses of all time are superhero movies.  And we are not just talking about Superman or Batman or Spiderman, superheroes I actually heard of growing up.  These are movies about Iron Man and The X-Men and the Avengers and the Justice League and Fantastic Four and Thor and, save us, the Green Lantern and the Green Hornet.  I have never really related to comic books, but I was amazed at the variety of preposterous scenarios that spawned first the animated cartoons that used to fill drug store shelves and now the videogame-style films that fill our movie theaters.

Perhaps our fascination with heroes with impossible superpowers saving us from apocalyptically gruesome caricature villains has been animated, if you will, by the rise of real-life villains who seem quite as bizarre and evil.  I’m not at all sure Lex Luthor or The Joker or the Green Goblin are any worse than the leaders of ISIS.  Clearly we enjoy watching superheroes on the side of good triumph over evil, twisted bad guys. 

Read more: Kol Nidrei Eve, Yom Kippur 5776 - The Superpower in Being Human

Erev Yom Kippur 5776 - Oops, I Just Fell and Destroyed a Masterpiece

September 22, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of Sandy Koufax sitting out the first game of the World Series.  Some of you may remember what that meant to Jews in America, when the best pitcher in the most popular sport, America’s pastime, chose not to play in the most important game of the year.  It was considered a courageous act, and a symbol of American Jewish acceptance and pride in our heritage.

The best part of the story was that the Dodgers’ other ace, Don Drysdale, pitched in Koufax’ place.  Unfortunately, Drysdale was pretty bad that particular day against the Minnesota Twins, giving up 7 runs in less than 3 innings including two homers.  When his manager, Walter Alston came out to pull Drysdale and bring in a relief pitcher, Drysdale said to Alston, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too, Skip.”

But before I even start I digress…

Perhaps you saw this story, or the Youtube video

About a month ago a 12 year-old boy in Taiwan was looking at a painting in an art museum.  It was part of an exhibit called the “Face of Leonardo: Images of a Genius” in Taipei. The video shows the boy – in shorts, tennis shoes and a blue Puma T-shirt, holding a soft drink in one hand – walking past a still life.  A bit clumsy, as adolescents can be, still growing into his body, he suddenly trips on the platform supporting the 6-foot high painting, and stumbles.  He reaches out instinctively with his hand, which goes right through the painting…  Which was a 350-year old work in oil called “Flowers” by Italian baroque artist Paolo Porpora. The 17th century painting was valued at $1.5 million dollars.

At the end of this disaster the boy looks up at the canvas, freezes, then looks wildly around at the other people in the room…

“The painting’s bottom right is damaged,” the curator said.  “The boy’s hand hit the artwork and left a hole the size of a fist.”

Read more: Erev Yom Kippur 5776 - Oops, I Just Fell and Destroyed a Masterpiece

Rosh Hashanah 5776 - The Necessary Chutzpah of Saving Refugees

September 14, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

An old bubbie limps onto a crowded bus. Standing right in front of a seated young man she clutches her chest and says, "Oy! If you only knew what I had, you'd get up and give me your seat."

The man looks at the old woman, and reluctantly, gives up his seat. The lady sitting beside the bubbie takes out a fan and starts to fan herself. Grasping her chest, the bubbie turns and says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." So the woman gives her the fan.

Fifteen minutes later the bubbie gets up and says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here."

The driver says, "Sorry, lady, but the bus stop is at the next corner. I can't stop in the middle of the block." Again, the old woman clutches her chest and says, "If you knew what I have, you would let me out right here." Worried, the bus driver pulls over and lets her out. As she's climbing down the stairs, he finally asks, "Ma'am, what is it, exactly, that you have? "

She smiles sweetly at him, and she says, "Chutzpah."

Read more: Rosh Hashanah 5776 - The Necessary Chutzpah of Saving Refugees