Coincidence can color our experiences in ways that cannot be predicted. When the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, it transforms commonplace happenings and gives them new signifi cance and wonder.
For half a century, Rabbi David H. Chanofsky has witnessed these transformative miracles, and here, he shares some of his favorite memories and lessons. He shares tales from his years of fighting anti-Semitism in America and of his efforts to defend the rights of Jews everywhere. Through the prism of humor and pathos as they relate to Jewish life, his experiences seek to inspire thought, laughter, tears, and debate.
Is there such a thing as conservative and reform Judaism?
How does Judaism view intermarriage?
Why do so many people feel alone in a crowded synagogue? Is there a solution?
What happens when religion and politics intersect in Israel?
Who are your Jewish superheroes?
The rabbi's early experiences gave him a lifelong commitment to Jewish survival and a zealous love of the United States. Judaism is central to his insights, and he approaches these issues with strong, often controversial points of view that he hopes will challenge your perceptions.
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Read an Excerpt
BURNT OFFERINGSA Rabbi's Memoir
By David H. Chanofsky
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Rabbi David H. Chanofsky
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE TITLE
On the one hand, serving as a Rabbi for fifty years, is worthy of being described as a Burnt Offering. The lifelong act of dedicating oneself to teach Torah and to care for the spiritual needs of families and their children is an apt example of a burnt offering. But, alas, that was not the real reason for the title.
Since the real reason involves my wife of fifty eight years plus, I think I should tell you how we met. Eventually, the meaning of the title will become clear. Our first meeting took place when she was about fifteen and one half years of age and I was about a year older. One fateful evening, as I walked on the Lower East side of Manhattan, on the corner of East Broadway and Clinton Streets, I heard a voice shouting over a loudspeaker. There she stood at the top of a flatbed trailer, next to a tractor announcing that this tractor was being sent to a kibbutz in Israel and she expected every passerby to contribute to make it happen. Heaven help the person who walked by ignoring her call. Later on, as a rebbitzen in congregations, this became known as being "Leahized". In 2004, while in Israel, we observed the Yom Yerushalayim Parade of Flags. Kibbutzim paraded their antique tractors from various periods of time. Suddenly, Leah jumped out of her seat and exclaimed "That's my Tractor". Leah's passion for Israel has never diminished.
Leah has some other very passionate agendas, but Israel is the first among them. Please, if you meet us do not ever say in her presence that you have never visited Israel. When she hears such a "calumny" I have to hold her back and reassure her that the people are planning to go as soon as they can.
Leah was a young teenager in 1948, when five Arab armies were about to invade the new born State of Israel. The British who had been the mandate power prohibited Jews from possessing weapons. The Jordanian Arab Legion, on the other hand was fully equipped by the British who also acted as the officers of the Legion. It was a miracle from God that Israel survived. Leah, however, was not about to depend on miracles. She felt responsible to supply Israel's needs singlehandedly.
She has other passions that transcend the self. It is second nature to her to help troubled hearts. She spent a lifetime reaching out to people and they, in turn, flocked to her to find inner strength and guidance. Also, many parents are today grateful to her that she had passionately urged and pursued them to send their children to Jewish day schools. She made a difference in many lives.
All this should have been enough reason to have crowned her with the title of burnt offerings. But, it is not exactly so. In truth, the very passions that made her tick also prevented her from doing one thing at a time. Now we come closer to what gave birth to the title of this book
In Genesis, the commentary Rashi explains that God sent three Angels to Abraham because each had a special mission to perform; that even an Angel can only do one thing at a time. That was irrelevant to Leah; she could simply not do one thing at a time, and the result was "Burnt Offerings". She became a great cook and would put on mammoth feasts for guests (she never did learn to prepare for less than fifty people although only two were coming to dinner), but inevitably one of the items was burned. And so, she became known in our community as a very "religious" person who always served "Burnt Offerings". I have to admit that I had a part in spreading this blasphemy and I enjoyed teasing her about it. In fact, hardly a Sabbath Service went by without some teasing comment being made before the congregation about Leah's "Burnt Offerings". She was a good sport and accepted it with laughter.
However, the title itself was spawned on one exciting day during our early years in Monsey, New York. These were the founding years of the Monsey Jewish Center and I taught Hebrew school classes in addition to being the rabbi. In the midst of a class, my secretary burst in to tell me that a neighbor was on the phone and it sounded like an emergency. "Rabbi", I heard the neighbor saying, "don't be alarmed but .....I just called the fire department; there is a lot of smoke coming from your house". I don't remember whether I put down the phone, I called to my secretary to cover the class and out I ran, literally jumped into my car. Somehow, I arrived at our house without getting into an accident, on time to see the front door being broken open, smoke filling the entire home. Firemen were everywhere with hoses and hatchets. All this, amidst hysterical laughter as one of the firemen emerged holding his hands up high, like a prize fighter who had just won a knockout. And the prize in his hands was the shriveled remainder of a roast. One can say it was "well done". This event took place on a Thursday afternoon. The next day's edition of the Rockland Journal News was displayed in the Synagogue at Friday night Services. The back page headline read "Rabbi's wife burns a roast, Monsey Fire Department was on the scene". So, Leah became the maker of BURNT OFFERINGS.
Baking was a particularly hazardous adventure for Leah. Baking requires attentiveness to one thing at a time and Leah has no patience for it. But she was determined to master it and the stories are legendary. Permit me to share some of those adventures with you.
Among our first visitors to our Vermont home was a mother with her about-to-be "Bar Mitzvahed" son. Since there were no kosher bakeries within fifty miles, Leah baked a cake for the occasion. The recipe called for a small amount of baking powder. Leah decided she wanted to have a big cake, one that would rise similar to others that she had seen. Thus she decided to put in a little more of the baking powder, and then a little more.... She also forgot about the time and it came out a bit blackened. The cake came out as big as she hoped it would. Leah served tea and a piece of cake. The mother took one bite and tastefully put it down. But, the young boy's response was precious and the more honest. After one bite he threw it down and exclaimed "Yuck, that's disgusting".
Later, when we arrived at my second Pulpit in Watertown, New York, Leah was immediately confronted with a crisis. The Hadassah group was having a cake sale. The president told Leah that each year the Rebbitzen's cake always sold for the most money and this was a long standing tradition in the community. Would Leah continue this tradition? Naturally, Leah confidently responded "of course it would be my pleasure; I would be delighted to participate". As soon as she came home, one look told me that something was wrong. When she explained he reason, I joined her in exclaiming, "OY VEY we are in trouble".
What to do? Well, we had a few left over cake mixes from Passover, it might not be the best but we had no better way, there were no kosher bakeries within eighty miles. Naturally, Leah never had the time to bother to read the directions, and even if she had read it, she would not have bothered to follow it. The cake emerged from the oven, burned and broken in two uneven parts and a bit concave. What to do about the two parts? The answer she decided is simple, you paste them together. Flour and water were mixed together, the cake was pasted. Leah was great at decorating, she made an icing to cover the incision and all was well, or so we thought.
That night, we met the Hadassah president and Leah asked her whether she would like to see her creation for the cake sale. She accompanied us to our home. As we entered, the storm door must have slammed shut behind us. Right there in front of us, the cake fell apart into thousands of crumbs. Would that we could have saved that scene in slow motion; it was like a great pyramid that slid down and became a pile of sand. . The president laughed and laughed and the story continued for years. The next day we drove to Syracuse, NY to buy a cake. I was relieved to know that they would never again ask Leah to bake.
Leah loves to make parties and if it is a Birthday party for someone, she "tries" to bake a cake. We had developed dear friendships in Watertown and we invited one of these couples to our home to celebrate the husband's birthday. Leah tried hard to bake a cake and it appeared to be successful even if it was "well done". The only problem was that it was only about one half inch high. She remarked, "if only these were Brownies". But, Leah is never at a loss, she will always find a way. She decided she would take a page out of how wedding cakes are made; most of the cake is usually superficial, a cardboard mold is placed on the bottom. So, Leah built up the cake she made into a beautiful looking specimen, covered with cream and cherries on the top. The candles were duly blown out, the celebrant lifted up the knife to cut the cake. He cut and he cut, he chopped and he chopped, too embarrassed to admit failure and too unsure of what to do, he became redder and sweatier, until one of his little boys saved him with a shout, "Hey dad, that's cardboard you're cutting". Leah was never fazed by these events, "Oh that was just for show, now I'll take the real cake out of the freezer". And indeed, she always had cake in the freezer. In fact, in Monsey she also became known as the "freezer lady", nothing was allowed to go to waste in the Synagogue; it all went into the freezer. After all, we came out of the great depression and food could not be wasted. The other people would wait until she left and then they would do the honors of throwing it into the garbage. They knew that the pain of seeing food being thrown out would be too painful for Leah to bear.
But Leah's coup de grace in the art of baking took place in another community. It was just before Purim and the sisterhood was going to have a "grab bag" and "exchange of gifts" event. The gifts were to be packaged and anonymous. Of Course, Leah decided she would bake a cake, she never gives up! She found a new recipe that called for bakers' chocolate. She had none at home and being as creative as she is, she found two boxes of Barton's candies left over from the last Passover, or maybe the one before that. As you know chocolate is chocolate, what's the difference? Well, in a strange way it actually came out looking like a cake, a very large chocolate cake, a bit hard, a bit burned, a bit heavy, but nonetheless it resembled a cake. That night at Services, I cornered two of our best friends and I said to them "I have a special favor to ask of you". "Rabbi, anything at all, whatever you ask". "Well, I would like to invite you to my house this evening for a cup of coffee and..... Leah baked a cake. I would like you to eat a piece of cake and then to ask for a second helping". "Rabbi they said, you know we would do anything for you, but now you are asking for too much" Nevertheless, they came and they did as I asked of them. When they ate the first piece, Leah stood over them with a victorious smile. When they asked for a second piece she danced a jig (as we used to say). On their way out that evening they whispered to me "you owe us big for this".
But that was just the beginning of this "cake" story. As I said, this was a large cake and you know where it was going, yes, to the freezer. She covered it with aluminum foil and put it into a very large carton; a cake box was not available. Into the freezer it went to await the grab bag party. Weeks later she took it out of the freezer, wrapped it beautifully, as only Leah can do, finished it with ribbons and it was a thing of beauty. The women would draw lots to determine the order in which they would choose the grab bag gifts. And who drew number one in the lottery but, "Mrs'S". She is the squeaky wheel; "The squeaky wheel gets the oil", a person who demands perfection. In every congregation, people trip over themselves to try to please the squeaky wheel.
Mrs. S. She scans the goodies before her, and of course, her eyes land on that beautiful package that Leah had wrapped. Someone should have told this woman that the Talmud says "Do not look at the bottle but at what is inside of it", or as the later copycats would say it "Do not judge a book by its cover" and do not judge a Purim package by its wrappings. And so it was that she brought the package back to her seat and started to unwrap it, to savor her "Metziah", her acquisition, indeed, her victory. Who should be sitting right next to her but the very maker of this magnificent package? So, Leah looked on as if she were Miriam at the Nile River with Pharaoh's daughter, to see what would happen with "the Child". The "S" lady opens the package and starts rifling through the entire lovely paper filling until she reaches at the real prize. She sees the aluminum foil which by now was well imbedded into the chocolate that covered the cake. It required a lot of peeling; the chocolate, the foil, the tissue paper have all become intertwined and inseparable as only Leah could have made it. Mrs. "S" feels the apparition (the cake) and it is still mostly frozen. She bangs at it with her fist and angrily says to the person sitting closest to her, Leah, "this is so disgusting, I would not even give it to my cleaning lady". Leah is very sympathetic and says "you are right, what a disgrace to put out something like this as a gift. "A Shande", this is shameful". The more Leah spoke, the more "Mrs. S's" anger grew.
The next day "Lady S" was playing canasta with a group of friends. One of the women looked at "Mrs. S" and said "by the way do you know who brought your grab bag gift last night? It was the Rebbitzen (the Rabbi's wife)". It was like a lightning strike and "Mrs. S" fainted.
So, now you have some idea of why I named this book "Burnt Offerings". More important you will understand that the worst thing with which my wife can threaten me is when she says "I am going to bake.
Chapter TwoWELCOME TO SMALL TOWN AMERICA
In my first ten rabbinic years I was a "country bumpkin". That is how I started my rabbinic career in 1956. Born, bred and educated on the sidewalks of New York City, the transition into small town America was bewildering. Little did we know what lay ahead of us. We had to relearn the English language, expressions, accents and points of interest. People were discussing grass and weeds. That was alien to our New York experiences. We had seen grass in central park but never paid attention to its quality and its weeds. It was strange to listen to guests discussing such "grave" problems at a Saturday night home gathering. Here we were in a new world and we wondered whether we would ever feel that we belonged. In time, I came to understand and to identify with these people. I also came to realize the important role that I could play in their lives. I was more that a Rabbi and teacher to them; I was their link to the Jewish world and to a Jewish identity. I also came to understand their inner selves; their fears and their hopes.
Here in this small town world, I was able to sense, that just below the surface, the American Jew carries hidden fears because we are a tiny minority in a vast Christian world. We are always trying to prove that we are real Americans and as normal as everyone else. It was an eye opener to me, in my interviews with Synagogue boards, that they felt it important for me to become a member of Rotary. That seemed to be a rather strange expectation of a Rabbi. In time, I came to understand they wanted me to be more than a spiritual leader to them; they needed me as their representative to the non-Jewish world. Indeed, they needed me to be the "face" of the Jewish community.
Small town Jews are very conscious of their dilemma. They get along well, they are respected, and they have friends in the general community. But fifty years ago, they were only on the fringes of the general community and they were never quite sure how secure they were in all this; they were always looking over their shoulders and worrying. Any publicity made them nervous, no matter how positive it might have been.
Prior to my first Passover in New England, I had organized a model Seder for all the children of the Synagogue. It was an all out effort and it was very successful. The local daily newspaper sent a photographer and a reporter. The next day a large picture appeared on the front page with an excellent description of Passover and of the model Seder. We had reason to be delighted and proud. However, the reaction of my congregation was the very opposite. The beautiful picture of their children in the local newspaper at a Passover model Seder frightened them. It revealed their existence as Jews to the townspeople, and that is not what they wanted; they felt safer when they were faceless.
Excerpted from BURNT OFFERINGS by David H. Chanofsky Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi David H. Chanofsky. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSection One The Early Years....................1
Chapter 1 – The Title....................5
Chapter 2 – Welcome to small town America....................12
Chapter 3 – What are we doing here?....................19
Chapter 4 – (Im)Practical Rabbinics....................23
Chapter 5 – Secret Signs....................27
Chapter 6 – Caring for the Heart....................32
Chapter 7 – Hester Park "Tremps"....................40
Section Two MIRACLES DO HAPPEN....................49
Chapter 8 – There is No Coincidence....................53
Chapter 9 – Never Again....................60
Chapter 10 – I had a Dream....................68
Chapter 11 – Mission Impossible....................75
Section Three MEMORABLE EVENTS....................85
Chapter 12 – It's Once in a Lifetime....................89
Chapter 13 – A Very Cold Voyage....................97
Chapter 14 – America's Split Personality....................106
Chapter 15 – The Explosive Cholent....................115
Chapter 16 – Adoption....................120
Chapter 17 – Unusual Weddings....................129
Section Four WEAK LINKS....................139
Chapter 18 – A Jewish Tragedy....................143
Chapter 19 – What is a Rabbi?....................156
Chapter 20 – The Lost Generation....................168
Chapter 21 – Laughter with Tears....................176
Chapter 22 – A Long Journey....................183
Section Five GREAT PEOPLE IN OUR LIVES....................195
Chapter 23 – The "Rav" and the "Rebbi"....................199
Chapter 24 – The World Series for Rabbis....................210
Chapter 25 – Our Chazzan....................216
Chapter 26 – Our Queen Esther....................225
Chapter 27 – Hitting Curve Balls into Home Runs....................233
Chapter 28 – Turning the Tables....................239
Chapter 29 – The Blessing and the Curse....................244