Friday, September 10, 2021

Rosh Hashanah and Mah Jongg

Rosh Hashanah and Mah Jongg

At Jewish Newport

Rosh Hashanah 2021

                                                                By Aaron Ginsburg

Edited by Vicki Kaplan

Also at

About 50 members and visitors celebrated the first day of Rosh Hashanah at Newport’s Touro Synagogue on Wednesday, September 7th, 2021. 

One of the highlights of the service is the blowing of the shofar. Why do we do it? Rabbi Marc Mandel explained,

“As we know, on Rosh Hashanah we sound the shofar. Rosh hashanah means the beginning of a new year. But it's not always easy to bounce forward into a new year. Resilience is our ability to face hardship and respond in a way that allows us to move forward. How can we be resilient as we face personal challenges?

“Cheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wrote a book called “Option B” after her husband passed away. She says that resilience is not a fixed personality trait. It can be cultivated and learned.

“I believe this is one of the purposes of the shofar. The shofar was sounded during times of battle as a way to inspire and embolden people. As we begin a New Year, let us pray that the shofar will help us find resilience and strength to guide us into the new year.”

Rabbi Mandel and Saul Woythaler shared shofar blowing duty. If the quality and loudness of a shofar’s sound could induce resilience, we were covered. Any ram would be proud to have supplied Saul’s shofar, which was so long it seemed to reach to the heavens. Ably blown by Saul, it’s notes filled the synagogue and carried us higher. 

Later a sheet of paper floated down from the balcony. On it was printed the song, Oyfn Pripetshik, one of Judaism’s greatest hits.I was familiar with it because my parents had a book of Jewish music for us to play on our piano.  I knew that it was a beautiful melody and dealt with learning the alphabet, but it is much more,

On the hearth, a fire burns,

And in the house it is warm.

And the rabbi is teaching little children,

The alphabet.


See, children, remember, dear ones,

What you learn here;

Repeat and repeat yet again,

"Komets-alef: o!"

Learn, children, with great enthusiasm.

So I instruct you;

He among you who learns Hebrew pronunciation faster -

He will receive a flag.

Learn children, don't be afraid,

Every beginning is hard;

Lucky is the one has learned Torah,

What more does a person need?

When you grow older, children,

You will understand by yourselves,

How many tears lie in these letters,

And how much lament.

When you, children, will bear the Exile,

And will be exhausted,

May you derive strength from these letters,

Look in at them!

It was written by Mark Warshawsky 1848-1907. Warshawsky was a lawyer. His songs spread through the grapevine, and Oyfn Pripetshik became one of the most popular songs among the Jews of eastern Europe by the end of the 19th century.

Under the leadership of Irene Glasser, the women hummed Oyfn Pripetshik as we began and during the recitation of Unetaneh Tokef

Unetaneh Tokef is an ancient piyyut which is recited before the Rosh Hashanah musaf amidah. A copy from the 8th century was found in the Cairo Genizah.

It speaks of God. "There's a wonderful line in Unetaneh Tokef: 'A great shofar sounds, and a still small voice is heard.' Here is God Himself, blowing the shofar. He doesn't scream in your ears; it's a still small voice. And then it says, 'The angels tremble.' That still small voice is what terrifies the angels. Not the big noise. But if God whispers in your ear and tells you you're an angel, that's terrifying. You think to yourself, 'Wow, I could be that big and look how small I am.'" [from a 2014 interview with Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the U.K.] 

It speaks of man. “It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream."

And it speaks of the future. “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval] and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree."

After we listen to Unetaneh Tokef we certainly are in need of resilience to confront our uncertain future.

One theme of the High Holidays is to deal with our less than perfect behavior from the previous year and make a fresh start.

Now, dear reader, I need your advice. As part of my fresh start I have been asked to do something new and different by Rabbi and Jackie Mandel. 

They want me to learn a new game, Mah Jongg! 

Rabbi Mandel took me to the Mah Jongg table and explained how easy it was, although by the time he finished, I wasn’t so sure. Jackie pointed out how nice it was to socialize during a game, although the Rabbi preferred it to be quiet so he can concentrate.

So, readers, what is your advice? Should I learn how to play mahjong?

Jewish Newport wishes you Shanah Tovah U'metukah שנה טובה ומתוקה‎, a good and sweet year, and a year of enjoyable Mah Jongg games!

Thank you to wikipedia for the translations.

Thank you to wikipedia for translations.

Friday, June 4, 2021

But is it really a coincidence?

 But is it really a coincidence?

By Aaron Ginsburg

At Jewish Newport

June 4, 2021

Edited by Vicki Kaplan

Also at

A couple of weeks ago, Touro Synagogue welcomed members for the first Shabbat since Covid-19 struck over a year ago.

It was a warm day.

As is customary, there was a trickle of men going out and in during the Torah reading and repetition of the Musaf. There is one bathroom accessible only by going outside and reentering the building’s wing, which has the stairs to the women's gallery. There is also only one door out of the sanctuary. 

I bided my time, being careful to say, ”Amen,” at the appropriate times. 

Finally, the coast was clear and it was my turn. Usually I make a right when I exit, and head right to the door. This time, I paused to enjoy the fresh air. It was warm and stuffy in shul, as it often is on a hot day.  As I scanned Touro Street, there was some commotion. A couple with a baby carriage was waving at me, saying,  "Aaron, Aaron, don’t you recognize us?" It took me a moment to do that, and I am still recovering from the shock.

I barely knew Isaac, Inessa, and baby David and I didn't know they were visiting Newport from their home in Westchester County, New York. They were walking up Touro Street and paused to get a good look at the synagogue at just the moment that I exited, pausing long enough for them to see me. We agreed to rendezvous a few minutes later when services were over so I could give a personal tour.

Isaac is the son of a friend who lives in the Boston area who didn't know about the visit to Newport. That faux pas was rectified before you could say Adon Olam!

I was totally stunned by the coincidence, and reiterated to myself to always be on my best behavior. We never know who is watching.

So what is a coincidence? It happens when things coincide in an unexpected, seemingly random way.

I asked Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue to write some Torah about this. He avoided coincidences.

A little research seems to indicate that Judaism does not believe in random events, in other words, coincidences.  Random events contradict the idea that the Ubershter is all-knowing. Judaism does believe that man has free will. I am not sure how that circle is squared!

The joke is because coincidences are hard to swallow, we are driven to find a message or an insight from them. This has been carried to extremes. Psychologist Carl Jung coined a word, synchronicity, "to describe circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection."[3]  In a kind of voodoo psychology, Jung encouraged people to find meaning. Often people ignore the randomness of the coincidences because that contradicts the explanations and meanings.  

The writer Arthur Koestler wrote a book in 1982, The Roots of Coincidence. He did Jung one better, and linked coincidences to ESP. Keostler was so convinced, he left one million British pounds, most of his estate, to a British University, to promote research into the paranormal at the University level. Oxford, Cambridge, King's College London and University College London all refused. The day was saved when the University of Edinburgh stepped up to the plate and set up an ESP chair. I assume that the powers that be in Edinburgh had several shots of Scotch Whiskey before making the decision.

Koestler wrote about other things that have been debunked, particularly The Thirteenth Tribe where he claimed that Ashkenazi Jews were descended from the Khazars, a Turkic people whose rulers converted to Judaism.

Koestler wrote a very moving piece about the atrocities in Europe for the New York TImes on January 9, 1944, “The Nightmare That is a Reality.” His most famous and influential book, “Darkness at Noon” was a novel about the show trials in Soviet Russia in 1938, when communists confessed to the most bizarre accusations. He wrote the book while in France in 1940, while trying to avoid being murdered for his anti-Nazi beliefs.

Which brings us back to coincidences. Statistically they are bound to happen. The birthday paradox is the probability that in a group of 23 people, the odds are more than 50% that two people will have the same birthday. It is only a paradox until you look at the mathematics.

So, Isaac, don’t let me know when you’re coming back to Newport. I love coincidences!

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

photo by Gerardus @toursynagoguenewport

Friday, March 26, 2021

Special Occasions

Special Occasions
At Jewish Newport
March 26, 2021
Edited by Rebecca Beit-Aharon
Also at

On February 20, 2021, The Newport Daily News published an article by Rabbi Marc Mandel of Newport Rhode Islands Touro Synagogue entitled “CLERGY CORNER: Is there a blessing for the COVID-19 vaccine?”
Before he answers the question, Rabbi Mandel addresses the relationship between religion and science. He quotes Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, who was living in Vilna during an 1848 cholera epidemic. Rabbi Salanter said, “Be sure to follow the behaviors which the wise doctors prescribe, for walking in the light of their words is also our religious duty, thus upholding life in this physical world to be good and to do good." He was speaking to a Jewish audience, and was, I think, referring to medicine as a science.
During the 1848 epidemic, Rabbi Salanter purportedly organized week-round—including Shabbat!—volunteer Jewish care for Jews suffering from cholera. He believed that saving lives was a higher duty than observing Shabbat. During Yom Kippur that year, he demonstratively ate because he believed that people needed to prioritize their health over fasting during the epidemic. The religious authorities in Vilna were miffed with Salantar and felt they should have been consulted, but he did not change his position. At the time, he had yet to achieve his future renown.
Rabbi Mandel gave a different reason for blessing the COVID-19 vaccine: Judaism has a blessing for good news! His colleague Rabbi Yosie Levine from New York reminds us, “As the Talmud teaches, hearing exceptionally good tidings is reason enough to recite this blessing:”
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם, הַטוֹב וְהַמֵטִיב׃
“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who is good and does good.”
Rabbi Mandel returns to his introduction by quoting Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Providence: “I hope that all of us in Rhode Island will soon have the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and when you receive yours, you might join me in reciting the blessing, ‘Blessed are You God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.’"
We will recite that blessing, the shehecheyanu, on Saturday night when we light the Passover lights, and at the Kiddush during the Seder.
There are many ways to celebrate Passover. It is a joyous occasion as we remember our emergence as a people. But it will be particularly bittersweet as we think about lives, health, and shared moments lost to the plague we have been experiencing for over a year.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach from Jewish Newport!

Here is a video to help you enjoy the holiday. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Who am I?


Who am I?

At Jewish Newport

January 23, 2021

By Aaron Ginsburg

Thank you to Rabbi Marc Mandel, edited by Vicki Kaplan

Also at

God speaking to Moses from
the burning bush 
Schlapperitzin, Konrad abt 1445 

Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island writes,

One of the recurring themes in the early part of the Book of Shemot is the reluctance of Moses to serve as spokesperson to Pharaoh for the Jewish people. At least five times, Moses asks God to replace him with someone else - someone who can speak better than he. The Torah is not explicit, but apparently Moses had a speech defect which made him very insecure. 

“Why did God choose someone with a speech defect to represent the Jewish people? The Dreshot Haran says that, ‘Moses was chosen so that it would not be thought that it was his eloquence which made Israel and its leaders his followers. For men with glib tongues have been known to attract multitudes and to have their lies taken for truth. The very opposite, however, is the case with one whose speech is impaired. Even the truth he speaks will not be accepted unless it is absolutely transparent.’"

“What a great lesson for our age!”

It is striking how much effort God put into convincing Moses to become His messenger. Was God’s power not so total? Or was it that it would be preferable if people did His bidding because they believed in what they were doing, rather than because He commanded it?

To get Moses’ attention, God used a cheap trick, the burning bush. Sure enough Moses approached the bush to see what was going on. At God’s command, Moses took off his sandals. Nowadays, God would ask people to keep their shoes on to avoid stinky feet! After commiserating with Moses about the hardships the Children of Israel were experiencing in Egypt, God popped the question, “Moses, will you go to Pharaoh and give him my message?” Moses demurred, saying, “Who am I?”

Like a child, Moses continued to come up with excuses, finally playing the “I stutter” card. God said, “Don’t worry, I will be with you.” When that didn’t work, God lost his temper and said that Moses' brother Aaron could do the talking. And Aaron hasn’t stopped talking since!

The comedic approach was repeated. Pharaoh wouldn’t listen, so the God-Moses team pulled out every trick in the book, ten (plagues) in fact. One can imagine God and Moses trying having fun thinking of things disgusting enough to get Pharaoh's attention. If a river of blood doesn’t work, let's try locusts; if locusts don’t work, lice; if lice don't work; darkness...and so on. As Leo A Connorton Jr. told us in seventh grade English at Thompson Junior High School before he jumped onto his desk, “If at first you don’t fricassee, fry, fry again.” Mr. Connorton knew how to get our attention!

Mrs. Namel Chadash asks,

 “So Rabbi Mandel, (Oy, do I love that sweet name, Mandel.), did God have the same conversation with Joe Biden?”

Rabbi Mandel silently smiled.

So how did the God to Joe Biden conversation go?

G: “Joe, I’d like you to do some networking for me.”

Joe tried every trick in the book to avoid accepting the task.

J: “God, I want to be upfront with you. There is something you should know that will make it impossible for me to be your messenger.”

G: “Nu? That’s hard to imagine. Surprise me!”

J: “You won’t like this. I’m Catholic”

The heavenly choir laughed, a deep belly laugh. Even God smiled. 

G: “Joe, look closely at me. Don’t you see that in addition to a Magen David, I have a crescent and a cross. You need a better excuse than that.”

Joe: “Sigh! There is something even worse. I’m a democrat.”

A murmur went up from the heavenly choir.

G: “Joe, we don’t discuss politics up here. A few years ago we formed a heavenly commission. After a long debate and consulting an outside expert, we decided politics were divisive and would interfere with our work.”

J: “Who was the outside expert?

G: “We went to the obvious choice, Rabbi Marc Mandel! The closest he ever came to politics was a discussion about avoiding it. Maybe you know him?”

J: “Isn’t Rabbi Mandel a young rabbi at an old Shul?  Anyhow, I stutter. A spokesman with a speech impediment would not be a good spokesman. You deserve the best.”

The heavenly choir breathed a sigh of relief. God muttered under his breath, “Whew, that’s a safe topic”

G: “No problem, Joe. I don’t want you to sound too slick. I do want you to think carefully about what you say and make each word count.”

Joe: “I will do my best to represent your interests.”

G: “Who knows? Someday, maybe you will become a modern day Moses. Wait a minute. That’s going a little bit too far. How about the President of the United States. Trust me, Joe. If you make it that far, people won't worry about a speech impediment.”

The rest is history.

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!