Sunday, April 24, 2011

Here He Is: Larry Kaufman talks about his Jewish Journey

I first heard about Larry Kaufman in the summer of 2010 when we launched this blog.. We were thinking about congregants who might be game to respond. “Ask Larry Kaufman if he’d like to chime in,” I was urged. And when I did, and he did, I saw why.

Turns out, though Larry and his wife Barbara are relative newcomers to Beth Emet (they became members in 2007), Larry is no newcomer to thoughtful close scrutiny and response to a myriad of threads of Jewish text and thinking.

Sure, his degree in English literature from the University of Chicago and a career as a marketing and communications consultant are partial explanations for his engaging blog reflections on aspects of Torah and Jewish life. But the engine in his voluminous writings is his Jewish journey.

After growing up in an observant Jewish household in Cleveland (more on that later), and moving to Chicago, Larry tells about receiving a letter from his mother alerting him to expect a call from a man named Sidney Berkowitz. Berkowitz was moving from Cleveland to Chicago to become the executive director of the Jewish Family and Community Service. His mother knew Sidney through serving on the family service board in Cleveland.

Berkowitz called and invited Larry to Fred Harvey’s in the LaSalle Street Station. It turned out to be a hugely important day in Larry’s life because, in the course of lunch, Berkowitz asked him, knowing of his parents’ activism, “What do you do in the Jewish community?”

To which Larry replied, “Nothing.”

Berkowitz looked at Larry with surprise and said, “Why not?”

“Nobody ever asked me.”

“Where is it written that you have to wait to be asked?”

That afternoon, Larry called the Jewish Federation and got involved in the Young People’s Division.

He views that lunch with Sidney Berkowitz as life-changing, as was an exchange with his boss at the temple where he taught Hebrew as a high school senior, who prodded him to choose a college that offered active Jewish life on campus. Larry recently wrote about the bit players who change our lives on the Reform Judaism blog.

Larry’s call to the Jewish Federation led him full blast into Jewish organizational activity, including presidencies at the Young People’s Division and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, and vice-presidencies at what is now Spertus Institute and America-Israel Chamber of Commerce.

However, he was not part of the synagogue world until he married Barbara in 1974 and became involved first at Temple Sholom, and in 1978, in the Reform Zionist movement. Rabbi Polish and others had just started the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and Larry was an early recruit, eventually becoming Chicago regional president and a “lifer” on the ARZA national board (ARZA’s mission, for those who don’t know, is to connect Reform Jews to Israel and to the establishment there of religious pluralism.)

Larry says he tuned in to the idea of religious pluralism because it was exemplified in the household where he grew up. His grandmother was Orthodox, so their home was kosher and “reasonably shomer Shabbat.” His mother, Rose’s, primary expression of being Jewish was in Zionism. As a young matron, she was recruited into an organization called Pioneer Women by Goldie Meyerson, (later known as Golda Meir). Rose eventually became national president of Pioneer Women (now known as Naamat U.S.A.), and spent the last ten years of her life in Tel Aviv. And his father, Louis, was active in the local Jewish community – the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brith, Jewish Big Brothers, and the synagogue Men’s Club.

Witnessing the differing ways that his grandmother and each of his parents acted on their Judaism, while giving respect and support to one another’s choices, instilled in Larry the idea that there are many legitimate and valid ways to be “a good Jew.”

So what has kept him deep in Jewish organizational life and learning?

Not surprisingly, he had more than one answer:

“Number one,” he says, “I was taught to give back.”

And number two?

“It’s been an opportunity for personal growth, particularly in leadership positions. I have been free to push boundaries and take the kind of risks that I might not have been comfortable taking in business. ”

Since 1979, Larry’s primary organizational focus has been in the Reform movement, locally, nationally, and internationally. He currently serves on the Boards of the Union for Reform Judaism and of ARZA, and is on the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism

Through ARZA, he became involved in the American Zionist Movement, serving as chair of its Chicago board, as a national vice-president, and as a delegate in 2010 to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem.

While a student at the University of Chicago, he also attended the College of Jewish Studies (now Spertus Institute), and taught for more than a decade in the adult Jewish education program at Temple Sholom, including courses on the history of Reform Judaism and Comparative Judaisms. At Beth Emet, he is currently leading a class in Pirke Avot.

Larry is a regular attendee of Rabbi Knobel’s Talmud and Rabbi London’s’ Torah classes and Kahal. He is also a well-known voice in the Jewish blogosphere, where he regularly writes for . His web name is Hinneni means here I am. And we are glad that he is here indeed.

Interview conducted by Ellen Blum Barish, April 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Letting (Some) of My Passover Expectations Go

Passover - my favorite of all the Jewish holidays.

No other gathering offers up as sumptuous a meal with as much symbolism and metaphor, conversational heft, range of aroma, song, and spirit as this celebration of freedom.

This is the part I get enthusiastic about.

The angst, however, comes from my expectations: I not only want everyone’s belly to be satisfied but their spirits must be lifted as well. I want historical significance. I want all five senses engaged. I want a high-definition Passover with large Loop musical theatre production values.

But I’ve got a tough audience: A family that prefers to do without the long meaningful fireworks version. They’d rather get right to the eating business.

Oh, the religious school teacher bag of tricks that have gone unappreciated! Like the Seder I wove a long red ribbon around everyone’s wrists, representing the bloody shackles of slavery, and then pulled on the ribbon when the Israelites were freed. The flim clip I showed from Disney’s “The Prince of Egypt.” The animated finger puppet plagues. The handmade haggadahs with covers illustrated by my kids.

During these, Mother-in-Law leaves to check on the soup. Daughter excuses herself for the bathroom, but I suspect it’s to text. A conversation between Brother and Uncle-in-Law starts in the far corner.

My husband tells me that our Seders have an impact, that our family just isn’t admitting it. But that’s easy for him to say: The filmic spoof on Passover that he made with his Hebrew School buddy got a great reception. He used Little Tykes figurines for Hebrew slaves, Captain Picard as Moses and a Klingon for Pharaoh. A stovetop set the stage for the burning bush, then on to the parting of the kitchen sink and finally, the Hebrews leaving Egypt to Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”

That was a hit, but those were his efforts, and not my style. All of these years I’ve been desperately trying to bring the heart of the holiday to the table – to conjure up the smallest sense of being enslaved and what it might feel like to be freed. Sure it’s a little bit force-fed, but it’s my table.

My grandfather, who fled Germany just before Hitler came into power, led my growing-up family Seders. He was not a religious man but he led us through every page of the Haggadah, even the songs at the end. I didn’t think about it at the time, but like many immigrants, he knew firsthand what it meant to leave home and set down roots in a new country where freedom was celebrated. There was something poignant about listening to his German-accented Hebrew as he read.

Since I moved from my hometown and became this holiday’s hostess, I’ve been trying to resurrect this Passover of old at my present table.

But I can’t. My grandfather is gone and I have a lousy German accent. So I’m letting my Passover people go. This year, we'll definitely host a true Seder, even if it is a bit modified to suit the audience, but I'm releasing my guests – and myself - from having to feel something that a plate of brisket and a bowl of matzoh ball soup just can’t evoke. But right next to Elijah's seat, I’m going to set a place for Grandpa Kurt.

Photo of Kurt Blum is courtesy of the Blum family archives.

A version of this essay aired on Chicago Public Radio-WBEZ in April 2009.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Short of History of Hava Nagila

Nine-minute history of "Hava Nagila." Sure to bring a smile to your face, at least once.