Friday, December 29, 2006

When all the nations of the world recognize...

YouTube is a tremendous time waster, but every once in a while, you come across a gem. Here is a PS22 Choir singing 'Esa Einai El' HeHarim - I life my eyes up to the heavens' From Psalm 121. As all Jews do, I get a tremendous kick when people of other ethnicities sing in Hebrew.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Daf Yomi vs. Brain Age

For years, video game console makers like Nintendo, Sony, Sega and Microsoft have been trying to convince moms and dads around the world to by their gaming systems for their children. However, with its DS portable gaming console, Nintendo has tried to show that fun and games aren't just for Junior.

One of the games that Nintendo is promoting is called 'BrainAge'. This game asks you to perform certain puzzles, riddles, and other tasks that are designed to judge your brain's 'Age'. It then provides you with additional tasks to help you train your brain to lower its age. While this game has received a lot of press, it seems that it is not alone in the new 'brain training' phase. For example, O'Reilly has two books in its 'Hacks' series: Mind Hacks
and Mind Performance Hacks, that are designed to do just the same thing, and unless you have been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you will have noticed that many newspapers are now carrying a Daily Sudoku Puzzle. People want to think better and faster and be super stimulated.

While there is no proof that these things truly work, the associated exercises can definitely help stimulate the mind. However, while all of the aforementioned methods are relatively new things, there is another method that I use that is over 80 years old, and has much greater fringe benefits than any of these methods - it's called Daf Yomi. Originally started as way to give working Jews a chance to learn a set amount of the Talmud on a daily basis, those who study Daf Yomi (such as myself) a required to learn a folio (two pages, as based on the Vilna edition of the Talmud) of the Talmud a day. Completing the 2700+ folios in the talmud takes just under 7 and a half years.

While this was not originally conjured up as a 'brain performance tool', but rather as a means to get Jews to study Jewish law, study the logic of the Talmud keeps one sharp - no matter what you do in business. You see, the Talmud doesn't just state the laws, but also records and reviews the arguments leading to the establishment of the laws. Sometimes, just following the logic is enough to drive you mad. But in deciphering this logic and the logical rules (for example, the Kal V'Chomer a.k.a Fortiori) can help keep your brain sharp and lower your 'Brain Age' too.

It's amazing, as soon as a started studying Daf Yomi in the past few months, I already managed to notice several times at work where the logic I studied in the Talmud crept its way in to solving work problems.

So you can go out and by Brain Age if you will, but as for me, I am sticking with Daf Yomi. While the Nintendo DS and Brain Age may not be around in 7 more years, Daf Yomi will, and it will never get tired, as no two days are alike within a 7 year span.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

December Display Debacles

It seems that in almost every year in recent memory, there has been some sort of debate regarding a December Holiday Display or activity of one sort or another. There are many sides to these debates - Jews who are denied the right to put up a menorah on public property, or (specifically so this year) overzealous government officials who deny any kind of display in the hopes of not excluding anyone (so they exclude everyone - bright idea).

While, by and large, America is a Christian Country, we still need to acknowledge that the American experience has been shaped by a myriad of religions and traditions. 50 years ago, a menorah in a public place was almost unheard of outside of New York. Now, thanks primarily to Chabad, as well as other Jewish organizations, almost any city where even the smallest of communities exists, there is a public menorah as well. While Christmas is still the crux of the Holiday season, Kwanzaa and Chanukah get more and more mentions every year - not just in the media, but in the popular culture as well.

While I've started to ramble, I do have a point, and that is this - let's stop being secular for the sake of secularity. A Christmas tree, in name and indeed, is a religious article (if it was called the Holiday Evergreen, it would be a different story). Let's just light our Menorahs, Trees, and Kwanzaa candles all in the town square and invite our neighbors to participate. And for as long as Ramadan falls out during this time of year*, let's do it at night, so that we can have one big party and invite our Muslim neighbors to break their fast with us.

I don't think anyone will argue that the true spirit of the Holiday season is sharing with our friends and neighbors - so let everyone display their own decorations and let us all explore each others' customs.

*Like the Jewish Calendar, the Islamic Calendar is tied to the phases of the moon, however, unlike the Jewish calendar, which introduces 13-month leap years to synchronize our holidays to seasons and the solar year, the Islamic calendar does not. Therefore, Muslim Holidays shift by a few days each year.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Why my 2 year old is more powerful than Ahmednijad, Carter and Yisroel Dov Weiss all put together

A couple of weeks back, I found myself browsing the children's section of a local bookstore in our neighborhood, perusing the children's books in search of Chanukah presents for various friends and relatives. I came across a book (unfortunately I can't remember its title) that talked about a classic Chanukah story out of the holocaust. The children in the story find that their grandmother, a prisoner in a concentration camp, once made a Chanukah menorah out of a potato, and used butter as its fuel. The story is both poignant and inspiring - during the most terrible period for Jews in the last 100 years, people were still able to light the light of religious freedom, the spiritual light for the Jewish World. And here we are 60 or so years later and people are holding a conference to deny the very existence of the holocaust. If it were only Mohammed Ahemadnijad, who was there, it would not surprise me. If it were only anti-semites and neo-nazis who were in this room, it would still not surprise me, but what surprised me, is Yisroel Dov Weiss. (He would prefer you call him Rabbi, but even if he has truly earned that honorific, the very thought of his attendance at such a confluence of falsehood is enough reason to not even offer him as much respect as 'Mr.' - in fact I will call him Srulik - a diminutive form of Yisroel, because he isn't more than a little man).

How does Srulik justify his presence at this conference? How does a so-called Jew even gather up the chutzpah to even get on a plane - to IRAN no less - to lend even an air of credibility to something like this. Fear not dear Srulik, for you are nothing compared to my son. You see, on Friday night, my two-year old son, lit the menorah for the first time. I held my hand over his to guide the shamash as we recited the blessings over the menorah. She-asah Nisim La'avotainu Bayamim Haheym Ba'Zeman Ha'Zeh - Bless are you G-d .... who performed miracles for our ancestors in their days at this time [of year].

I look around the world and see that Jews aren't the world's best friend. Jimmy Carter's new book, Peace not Apartheid is a best seller. Ironically it comes from a man who wouldn't know what apartheid was if it slapped him in the face (maybe he should ask his daughter Amy). And of course, the failed war in Lebanon didn't win us any new friends either. In the wake of all of that's going on, things seemed a little gloomy for us Jews.

And then my sons lit their menorahs.

The world has been full of Carters, Ahamednijads and unfortunately, Srulik Weisses for many years, and it will still be for many years to come. But on Chanukah, we remind ourselves of G-d's eternal promise to the Jews - that as long as we stick to the basics, and do G-d's will, a small group of righteous Jews will always prevail against whatever villains come to taunt us, and try to sway world opinion against us.

Those 'Potato' menorahs were one of the many examples of how the light of Judaism still burned brightly while Six million Jews perished. And 60+ years later, those lights are now being kindled by the next generation, and hopefully for the next 300 generations. The Assyrians are long gone from the world political scene, and I am sure that, G-d willing, my great-great grandchildren will be lighting menorahs long after Ahamednijad and Carter's contributions to the world would be diminished to a paragraph in their history books. And when that happens, Srulik won't even be remembered at all.

Happy Chanukah.