Unpacking Boxes…New Year’s Lessons from My Grandfather, Harry Sobel

Today is December 31, 2014. At midnight we will usher out the year that “was” and welcome in the year that has yet “to begin”.

This is the time of year when people begin to unpack their “boxes” from the past year (or two, or three…)

Some of the “boxes” are metaphorical. They represent the events that took place in our lives over the past year.

For some of us, these events are life-altering and bring us joy, sorrow or growth. We want to take these events out of the box, place them in their proper perspective and use them as inspiration and motivation for the year ahead.

Some events are so difficult, we bury them deep inside the “box” and can’t think about them, or don’t want to think about them for a very long time. So we keep them packed away for a very long time.

And yet, this act of “unpacking boxes” and reflecting on their contents is a very Jewish notion. As a Jewish people, the gift of memory is important to us. It’s important for us to reflect on the past. Our spiritual life does not only consist of reactions to the present and hopes for the future, but also what we can recall in our minds and hearts of what has been. And not only to reflect, but to turn our reflections into actions and deeds of love.

“We cannot overstate our debt to the past, but the moment has the supreme claim.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letters and Social Aims, 1876)

As we unpack our metaphorical boxes at this time of year, some of us are also unpacking physical, actual boxes. Yet, what’s inside represents so much more than the actual contents themselves. Contents which can inspire us for the year ahead. 

Earlier this week, my sister and one of my brothers both sent me an email (ok – my sister will correct me: she sent me a text message. My brother sent me an email.) Unbeknown to the other, they had each decided to finally unpack the boxes they had from five years ago when both my parents died, 10 weeks apart from each other (my father died first, on December 26, 2009 and my mother died 10 weeks later, on March 15, 2010. They had been divorced for 37 years).

As they each unpacked their boxes, they found a treasure-trove of items. Memorabilia, family photos, artwork, books (my beloved copy of the book “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, held together by Scotch tape, since I read it so many times. My sister’s eight-year old will now read it!), silver, china and so much more. Things that have meaning to our family.

One of the items my brother unpacked, however, was a newspaper article that was written in 1949, just after my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, died at the age of 45.

Newspaper article about my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, z"l (of blessed memory)
Newspaper article about my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, z”l (of blessed memory)

He died from a rare form of Juvenile Leukemia, after being ill for only 8 days. My father was 12, his brother was 9 and his sister was 6. All of a sudden, my grandmother was left alone with three young children to raise. We knew my grandmother as a strong, capable woman.

She was the epitome of a modern woman, who was audaciously hospitable, philanthropic, charming, artistic, generous, loyal and kind. She was also very modest about her achievements and did not like to accept accolades for her work. She was a role model for all of my siblings, my cousins and me.

And apparently, my grandfather was a similar kind of person, modest and unassuming. But this article about my grandfather reflects for us how very special he truly was.

It shows that our years on earth may be many or few, but what ultimately matters is what we have done with our time to make a difference while we are here.

So here are the important lessons for each of us to take into the New Year from my grandfather Harry Sobel, z’l (may his memory be for a blessing).

  1. Be a good friend
  2. Become involved in your community
  3. Be fair and honest in business
  4. Open your door to others: Embody the notions of “Audacious hospitality” and a welcoming home – especially if you know others don’t have a place to go.
  5. Have a fair and generous spirit (tzedakah – literally means “justice” – helping those in need)
  6. Help others to help themselves so they won’t need to rely on the assistance of others any longer (according to Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, this is the highest level of philanthropy).

As I read this newspaper clipping and reflect on its message, I feel connected to my family, those who are with me only in heart, mind and memory and those who are still present. I feel inspired to continue in the path they walked before me and hope I can achieve the heights they scaled.

Happy New Year!

No Virginia, there is no “Chrismakuh”

Today is December 24th – Christmas eve.

I love to help my non-Jewish friends celebrate their holiday, just as they love to help me celebrate mine. But I don’t observe their holiday in my home. It doesn’t belong to me.

I am Jewish. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and identity.

Set of jewish religious holiday vector symbolsWe can draw an analogy to birthdays: Just as I can help you celebrate your birthday, help you eat cake and mark the day of your birth, I know full well that your birthday is not my birthday. I would not expect to receive birthday gifts on your birthday, nor have a party, nor receive cards. Therefore, I can help you celebrate your holidays in your home, but they are not my holy days, they are not my celebrations, they are not my festivals.

I was dismayed, therefore, earlier this month, to see that several of my Jewish friends and acquaintances had adopted “Chrismukah”: a made-up conglomeration of Christmas and Chanukah. Somehow, they wanted to have a tree in their home, experience the glittering lights and music that surround Christmas.

They rationalized the tree by saying: “it’s not religious!” And, “we made it blue and white! So it’s a Jewish tree!”

First of all, let me make one thing perfectly clear: Christmas and Chanukah are not analogous. Christmas is one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar. It celebrates Jesus’ birth.

By Jews adopting some of the symbolism of Christmas and saying “it’s not religious” we are demeaning the true meaning of what Christmas is all about. It devalues the holiness of the day for our Christian friends.

Second, Chanukah is a minor festival on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. E of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. This festival is not very important on our Jewish calendar. In fact, it is not even mentioned in our Hebrew bible! It was a festival declared by Judah Maccabee. The rabbis of old tried to minimize the celebration by focusing on the lighting of the Chanukiyah. (see my post from last week).

The only commonality between Christmas and Chanukah is the time of year that the two take place: they both occur around the winter solstice. They both include a “festival of lights.” But the similarities end there.

As a Jewish community, we do a dis-service to ourselves when we feel we must adopt the holy days of other religions as our own.

Our Jewish tradition is rich with festivals, holy days and Shabbat (Sabbath) observances. If we take pride in our own traditions, if we are able to know and understand what our rituals and traditions mean, then there will be no need to adopt/adapt other traditions as our own.

To my non-Jewish friends, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

To my Jewish friends, enjoy the day off, go to the movies, spend time with your family, or celebrate with your friends. Shabbat begins on Friday: I wish you an early Shabbat Shalom.

Chanukah- Bringing Light to Others

When I was growing up, Chanukah was literally a “festival of MANY lights!” As the oldest of six children, my parents gave each one of us our own chanukiyah. (Note: A menorah is any multi-branched candelabra. A chanukiyah is a menorah specifically designated for Chanukah. It has nine candle holders: one for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, plus one for the “shammash” – the helper candle that is used to light the other candles).

Every morning during Chanukah, each of us would carefully choose which color candles we were going to light that night. My mother placed a table in front of one of our living room windows with all of the chanukiyot (plural form of Chanukiyah) circled strategically around. The mitvah – the commandment of Chanukah is to publicize the miracle. Hence the directive to light the candles in a window. My siblings and I loved watching all those candles burn and glow!

My Canadian Moose Chanukiyah - one of my favorites!
My Canadian Moose Chanukiyah – one of my favorites!


My mother's Chanukiya that she bought on her first visit to Israel in 1957.
My mother’s Chanukiya that she bought on her first visit to Israel in 1957.

I have a collection of many beautiful and unique chanukiyot now. But the one I still use every year on Chanukah is the one I used growing up, the one I inherited from my mother. It is not beautiful, but it takes me back to my childhood, it reminds me of my mother and helps make me feel as if she is part of my Chanukah celebration, even though she is no longer alive. That feeling helps the flame of my candles glow even more brightly.

It is no accident that Chanukah, our festival of lights, occurs during December. These are some of the darkest days/nights of the year: we are approaching our winter solstice. Once again, Chanukah reminds us that during the darkest time of the year, we human beings have the power to kindle lights against the darkness. We have the power to brighten the lives of others.

Let me suggest that we can make the flames of our own Chanukah candles burn even more brightly by dedicating at least one of the nights of our own Chanukah celebration to a family tzedakah project instead of giving gifts to each other. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek – which means “justice” and “righteousness”. We don’t simply give tzedakah because it makes us feel good, but rather out of our sense of responsibility to God and to taking care of others in the world around us.

There are a number of different provisions for tzedakah outlined in the Torah, all further clarified by the rabbis in the Talmud. They all center around one basic principle: no matter what form our tzedakah takes, we must make sure that we never compromise anyone’s dignity, honour or self-respect. In fact, the highest form of tzedakah is when we can help someone to help themselves, so that they will no longer be dependent upon the help of others.

Tzedakah is not something that is limited to one night of the year. Perhaps you can use this opportunity as a family to figure out a family tzedakah project that will be meaningful for your family to participate in all year long. This is something that both parents and children can research, donate time and funds to, educate others about, spend a little time at the Shabbat dinner table reflecting on and do some type of culminating event at the end of the year. (It is customary to donate tzedakah every Shabbat right before Shabbat begins). I think you will find that no matter what project you and/or your family choose, this year-long involvement will not only make your Chanukah candles glow more brightly for others, but enable them to glow all year long for you as well.

Chag Urim Sameach! May you have a Happy Festival of Lights!

Click here for some links for helpful Chanukah resources:

Chanukah resources from Rabbi Sharon Sobel @ Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, NY


No More Torture

When my sister was about four or five years old, she had long, thick, blonde, curly hair that hung down almost to her waist. Every morning, as my mother brushed her hair (that was in the days when one brushed out curly hair), my sister would cry out in pain: “You’re torturing me! You’re torturing me!” Eventually, my mother could no longer bear to cause my sister such pain (nor could she bear to hear my sister scream every morning), and she cut my sister’s hair to her shoulders.

As Jews, we are no strangers to torture and pain.

From Biblical times through modern times, we have experienced brutality at the hands of others over and over again.

We need not go any further than this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). In the portion for this week, Joseph’s brothers – who despise him for his boastful, arrogant ways and for his favored-son status, torture him by throwing him into a pit (Gen. 37:24) and Joseph is afflicted by not knowing what his fate will be. The brothers’ initial plan was to kill him and be rid of him once and for all. However, they then decide to sell Joseph to a traveling band of Ishmaelites who eventually take Joseph to Egypt.

Afterwards, the brothers torment and torture their father, Jacob, as a punishment for favoring one son over all the others. They take Joseph’s special ornamented tunic that Jacob gave to Joseph, tear it, smear it with blood and tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. Jacob is heart-broken and unconsolable with grief.

There are many other instances in the Hebrew Bible of individuals being tortured, either physically or emotionally. Samson, by the Philistines (Judges 16: 21-25), Job, and so many others.

And we are all too aware of the suffering we endured at the hands of our enemies throughout history: by the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Spaniards during the Inquisition…the Nazis…the list is too long to enumerate.

Yes – we are no strangers to torture and torment. Why am I speaking of torture now?

end-torture_20120626083213Because the United States Senate Intelligence Committee is poised to release its landmark 6000-page report about the CIA’s use of torture post 9/11.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D. California), who spear-headed this Committee, said: “The use of torture has been a stain on our values and our history. We need to show that we are a just and a lawful society.”

The report is complex and complicated, and the Committee spent over five years reading and analyzing over 6.3 million pages of information. Some of the conclusions the Committee reached are:

  • The CIA used “Enhanced Interrogation” which means that they used multiple forms of torture;
  • Human rights investigators found 54 countries who cooperated with the CIA in various ways in renditions, detentions, interrogations and torture;
  • Torture was not an effective means of obtaining desired results;
  • The CIA mis-led the White House, Congress and other agencies about what they were doing;
  • The CIA cites Israeli Supreme Court rulings as justification for their work. However, the Israeli Supreme Court, in a landmark 1999 decision, banned many of the 1987 torture recommendations referred to in the document. (The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is unlawful to torture the suspect even when we know that a terrorist act is about to take place).

Judaism has much to teach us now about the use of torture as a form of punishment. In our Jewish tradition, we need to balance the values of treating all humans as being created “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the image of God with the need for protecting ourselves and taking care of our security and safety.

Sometimes, balancing these two values simultaneously might seem antithetical, contradictory and impossible. How can we treat someone with dignity and respect if they have vowed to commit a heinous crime against humanity?

In 2005, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Rabbis’ body) issued an explanation and statement that elucidates the complexities surrounding this issue quite clearly. This was after 9/11 and after George W. Bush started to imprison people in Guantanamo Bay. The statement rings true especially now, in light of the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

CCAR Resolution on The Use of Torture or Lesser Forms of Coercion to Obtain Information from Prisoners adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2005.

The United States should be a model of a “just and lawful society”. 

We should read the Senate Intelligence Committee report carefully and take heed to what Senator Dianne Feinstein has to say.

As we are taught in our Pledge of Allegiance: …”with liberty and justice for all.”



Run, Girl, Run! (Taking Care of Our Bodies “Shmirat Ha-guf”)

“Run to Stay Young.”

That was the title of the blog post in today’s New York Times health and wellness section. My brother, Ezra, emailed the link to me, my siblings, my nieces and one of my cousins.

According to this blog, research shows that running (or any other physically taxing activity), rather than simply walking, may reverse the aging process. It contends that we should “pick up the pace” of our workouts to gain the greatest benefit for our health and fitness levels. Simply walking quickly is not enough to reap benefits for our health and fitness – we need to be much more physically active from a cardio-vascular perspective.

Ezra is probably the quietest, or most introspective, of my four brothers. Yet over the past year, he is the one who has been quietly inspiring me, motivating me, pushing me and challenging me to return to my full level of health and physical fitness.

He knows that I am not a natural athlete. That I have to work hard to achieve my goals athletically. When I discovered my passion for cycling in my 30’s, I worked really hard to train for each and every one of my cycling trips.

When I would run to train for a race, I trained tenaciously, but my running would always be slow and steady. So when I sustained permanent neurological damage in my leg and foot resulting from breaking my leg in a cycling accident three years ago, it impeded – and still impedes – my ability to just “do what I want” athletically. I get frustrated. I don’t feel like working out because my feet and legs hurt. They don’t behave as I want them to.

And then I remember: I am so fortunate: I CAN STILL USE MY LEGS. My feet are still functioning. Many people with my condition cannot even walk at all. So I persevere – I train when I can, until my legs/feet hurt too much, and then I back off. I try different brands of running shoes. Which ones will be the magic ones that will keep me the most pain free?

My new Hoka running shoes, recommended by my friend, the podiatrist.
My new Hoka running shoes, recommended by my friend, the podiatrist. Are these my “magic bullet?”

I have my team of professional advisors: my kinesiotherapist who is an Ironman and who has done multiple marathons and other events; my friend the podiatrist who has done 8 Ironmans, is an Ultramarathoner and many other events; my neurological chiropractor who has made a huge difference in how I feel simply by changing my diet and my neurologist. They have each given me all of the exercises I should be doing to try and stay pain-free and healthy. I stretch and “foam roll.” But the bottom line is, even though my feet/legs always hurt: I am walking, I am running, I am learning how to swim (not an easy thing to do at my age), I am cycling. Two steps forward, one step back.

And then, a little less than a year ago, I happened to mention to my brother Ezra that one of my long-term goals was to eventually run a half-marathon – in the distant future. This was on my “bucket list.”(eg – maybe, 2-3 years from now). I asked if he would do it with me, since he was a multi-time marathon runner. Ezra said, “Let’s do a it now! In the next few months. It will give you a goal to work toward and keep you motivated.” If I say to him, “I don’t think I’m going to make it, (due to my injuries)” he won’t let me back out. He says: “You’re the reason we’ve all signed up for this half-marathon, so no backing out now!” He’s doing this to support me. And one of my cousins is joining us on this endeavor, possibly my step-brother-in law, and one of my other brothers might do his second 5k run with us. So, I am in – no backing out now!!

The half-marathon is February 22nd in Tampa, Florida. Now that I’ve made it public, I must keep up with the training!

Ezra, without realizing it, is making sure that I am living up to the ideals of our Jewish teachings on caring for our bodies. He wants to make sure that I won’t neglect my responsibility to myself.

We are taught in our Jewish tradition that our body is a gift from God and that we must take care of it, by exercising and eating properly. The concept of caring for our bodies in Judaism is called “Shmirat Ha-guf” – Guarding our Bodies.

Medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said: “as long as a person exercises and exerts himself [sic], sickness does not befall him and his strength increases. But one who is idle and does not exercise, even if he eats healthy foods and maintains healthy habits, all his days will be days of ailment and his strength will diminish.”

And as the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo said: “The body is the soul’s house. Shouldn’t we therefore take care of our house so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?” (20 BCE-40 CE)

Thank you, Ezra, for helping me to live up to my obligation to fulfill the commandment of “Shmirat ha-guf” and for making sure that I will be “running to stay young” hopefully for a very long time! You are an awesome brother!

Who wants to join us for the Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon on Sunday, Februay 22nd, 2015? We’d love to have you be part of our team!

Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon