Author Archive | Nigel Savage


Four Questions For Your Second Night Seder

I’m writing in Israel, following a rather remarkable tour of “kehillot mesimatiot” – a newish phrase that literally means something like “mission-driven communities” and which maps, more or less, to the English “Intentional Communities.” It includes a variety of experiments in urban communal living and social change: some of them sharing all their money and some not; some living together and some not. But all of them living in participatory and democratic communities, with an explicit commitment to making the world around them better. We met diaspora 20-somethings who’ve made aliyah and are living in urban kvutzot – groups – in Haifa. We went to Beit Jann to see a Druze community doing remarkable leadership work with teens. We stayed with garinim toraniim, religious groups, in Akko, Bet Shemesh and Lod. In Afula we met the founders and leaders of Tarbut – an artist’s kibbutz of approaching 100 people, who have spawned a youth movement, and developed a queer nightclub scene in the town. In Nazareth Illit we were with Kibbutz Mishol, the largest of the modern urban kibbutzim, co-founded by James Grant-Rosenhead. In Akko we helped the garin there pack pre-pesach food boxes for local people – both Jewish […]

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This week in Israel

On our Israel Ride we often cycle to Ein Karem. But this week, for the first time, I visited Kaima Farm, in Beit Zayit, just on the other side of the hill. It was founded by Yoni Refet Reich, a recovering lawyer who is both practical and inspiring. He and a group of friends have created an organic farm that’s run by at-risk teenagers – kids who have been in trouble in all sorts of ways. The kids are actively involved in all decision-making. They are paid for their work, and they’re expected to be there by 7am in the morning – which they are. Many hundreds of volunteers helped to clear the fields of stones. They have a great record of their participants getting clean and getting back into education. They sell the food they grow in a CSA that generates a significant part of their revenue. Very inspiring. We went to the Heschel Center’s new Sustainability Center in Gilo, a neighborhood of Jerusalem in which locals are steadily cleaning up the neighborhood – quite literally. As they do so they’re making it more sustainable, in all sorts of ways, and they’re significantly strengthening relationships amongst neighbors. I met […]

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Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim (via wikimedia commons)
Healthy, Sustainable Purim Resources

From Purim to Pesach

I think of the period from seder night until Shavuot as a sustained reflection on the nature of freedom, and in particular about traveling from freedom from (want, oppression, slavery) to freedom to (make a difference in the world, exercise choice, restrain oneself in certain ways.) The period from Purim to seder night is thus preparation for this. It’s the work we need to do to be able to start to leave our own enslavement and to think freshly and confidently about our freedom. And the tradition’s great insight – hidden in plain view – is that a significant part of that process is about getting rid of stuff. Certainly this involves removing chametz, traditionally understood – bread and beer and whisky and other fermented products. But the deeper gift of this period – certainly in our time, certainly in the west – is the deeper notion that we have too much stuff of all sorts, and that if we truly want to be free – if we want even to begin to imagine our true freedom – the road to doing so involves getting rid not only of literal chametz but of existential chametz – the superfluities that hinder […]

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Synagogue at I. Freedman

Leadership & Followership: Support Your Local Rabbi….

I continue to be struck that the Jewish community spends a lot of time talking about “leadership” and almost none teaching about what we ought to call “followership.” Part of my understanding of this derives from my reading of a famous line in Pirkei Avot, one of the oldest and most famous parts of the Mishnah: “aseh l’cha rav” – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב – make someone your rabbi; “u’knei l’cha chaver” – וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר – and acquire a friend; “v’hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zechut” –  וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת – and give every person the benefit of the doubt. Some damage has been done to Jewish life by simply gluing Jewish teachings to contemporary liberalism. I’m less interested in where Jewish teachings coincide with what I know already than where they dissent. This teaching is for me one of the most striking, one of the most interesting and one of the most useful such instances. The heart of how I read this verbal triptych starts with thinking about the curious use of the verb “k’nei” – קְנֵה – acquire. We would not normally say to someone, “go out and buy yourself a friend:” that […]

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Secular Jews and Secular Jewish Culture

Where does secular Jewish culture come from? Can or should we try to preserve it? Someone wrote to me about last week’s email to say that I was disrespecting “the secular Jewish community.” I replied that I didn’t think that I was, and I certainly didn’t intend to; but the correspondence (and, perhaps ironically, one or two things in this week’s parsha) prompted me to reflect on the nature of contemporary Jewish secularity. It’s an important conversation, and one that, for me, began almost thirty years ago at lunch with Felix Posen in a sushi restaurant in London’s West End. Felix thought you could educate for secular Jewish culture. I was – and remain – skeptical. Yet this skepticism is not the end of the story. I want to note that when we talk about “secular Jewish community” we actually mean two quite distinct things. One is at the level of theology – people who “don’t believe in G!d.” The other is really about Jewish culture – a sense of Jewish culture deriving from Jewish tradition but independent of, for instance, synagogue or services. These two kinds of secularity are quite distinct. There are many observant (ie “religious”) Jews who, […]

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Schmaltz, Pastrami and Sushi: Now What?

Beinart at Bloom’s… Sometimes if I’m talking about the Jewish Food Movement I’ll say to an audience “put your hands in the air if you grew up with schmaltz in the fridge.” 90% of anyone 70 or over puts their hands in the air. Then I’ll say, “put your hands up if you have schmaltz in the fridge now.” If there are a hundred people in the audience, maybe two hands might go up. More recently – seeing quizzical faces – I added “put your hands up if you don’t know what schmaltz is.” A bunch of hands go up in the air – all of them amongst the younger people in the room. That’s the backdrop to Peter Beinart’s piece in Ha’Aretz, yesterday, copied here in full, because it sums up so clearly something I’ve been thinking about recently: I realized the other day that my two children, ages nine and six, have never tasted pastrami. In fact, I’m not even sure they know what it is. They’ve never tasted chopped liver or herring either. They’re unfamiliar with Dr. Brown’s Soda, and they feel no particularly affinity for rye bread. Were they growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota, this […]

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nigel speaking

Tza’aka, 2015, the World Zionist Congress, and Goodbye to Cheryl…

I have been thinking, recently, about tza’aka – crying out. It is the motif in the Torah for the moment when a person or a people says: enough is enough. After twenty quiescent generations of slavery, it is the tza’aka of the children of Israel which signals that something is about to change – that freedom is about to be within our grasp. And this is not just in the Torah. It was a kind of tza’aka that brought the Civil Rights movement in this country. It was a tza’aka that brought down the Berlin Wall. The Climate Change march in New York just before Rosh Hashanah was a tza’aka, and it helped to nudge the US and other governments in the direction of a substantive climate treaty. And what happened in Paris and in France on Sunday, provoked and inspired by tragedy, was a very glorious moment of tza’aka. Less than four weeks ago I was writing about fissures in our community, partly provoked by having just been in Paris. Here’s what I wrote then. I ended, inter alia, with “May we never need to defend ourselves – but may we have the courage and the confidence to do […]

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Can we claim the truths of seemingly non-overlapping stories?

In the last week I was in England, briefly in Paris, and I reread Amos Elon’s beautiful and tragic The Pity Of It All, his history of the German Jewish community from Moses Mendelsohn to 1933. Then yesterday I was honored to be at one of two White House Chanukah parties, at which two schoolmates – a Jewish Israeli kid and a Muslim Israeli kid – lit Chanukah candles under the supervision of a Californian rabbi for an African American President, child of a Christian and a Muslim, who grew up in Hawaii and, for a while, Indonesia. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical context for the moment in which we find ourselves. And I’ve been thinking, in particular, about two larger stories that inform Jewish life, about the extent to which those two stories seem to overlap less and less – and whether there is anything we can or should do about that. The first is the story of fragility – at best. Jewish communities have always been in the minority. There have been “golden ages” – Spain in the early Muslim period; the emancipation; Germany after Mendelsohn. But the golden ages have indeed been evanescent. […]

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Giving Thanks, and a Very Different Kind of Recycling

Tomorrow it’s Thanksgiving. On Friday night – hodu sheini – many of us will eat some of the leftovers. That kind of recycling is good, and so is recycling boxes or bottles or turning plastic into toothbrushes. We could all do more to lessen our footprints. But Hazon, this month, has been the recipient of a very different kind of recycling. I wanted publicly to give thanks for it; to make an observation deriving from it that is important and worth thinking about; and to issue a public request that I hope may hit a chord with someone, somewhere. The story begins in the summer of 1974, when Cherie Koller-Fox and some friends rented a ski lodge, and nearly forty people came out during Elul to spend time together. The following year, and coming out of this experience, a group of friends established what they called Beit Havurah – a house that they bought as a shared Jewish gathering place; a bayit in which to celebrate, to hang out, to fall in love, to express a new sense of Jewishness, and in general to explore and expand the nature of Jewish life in the 20th century. In all of this […]

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Two Pockets

The teaching that is speaking to me most deeply, these days, is the one about the two pockets – that we each should walk around with two pieces of paper in our pockets. In one pocket: “for me the world was created” And in the other: “I am dust, and will return to dust…” One of them is about power and impact; the other is about our deep insignificance. One of them reminds us of the goodness in the world; the other is about its darkness. They speak to me so deeply because it feels as if both are true, and are somehow becoming ever more true with each passing day. From one pocket: our great-grandparents could hardly dream of the peace, freedom, affluence, and choice that so many of us take for granted each day. They couldn’t have imagined the medicines that heal us or the technologies that enable us to learn or to stay connected. They didn’t expect to see three Jews on the US Supreme Court, or Ivy League schools that are a quarter Jewish, or a State of Israel that is prosperous, diverse, culturally vibrant, and militarily strong. Yet those of us who are able to […]

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