Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Review of Mensch-Marks by Rabbi Jack Riemer

A rabbi on rabbis and other mentschen


I think that every student who graduates rabbinical school should be given this book – and should be asked to read it twice.

Why twice?

Because the first time they read it, they won’t really believe it is true, or that it applies to them. They will think that the practice of turning the rabbi into some kind of a superman or some kind of a divine messenger ended in the Middle Ages, and that their rational and liberal congregants won’t do that to them … but they will. Just yesterday, I wished one of my congregants a happy birthday, and he replied, “Thank you. May your wish go directly from your mouth to God’s ears. After all, for you it is a local call, isn’t it?” I just winced inside and smiled. What else can you do?

To say that this is a book meant for rabbis is to limit it unjustly. It is meant for all those who want to lead a purposeful life and have not yet found the way to do so. It is meant for all those who have experienced love beyond their deserving and who want to share it with others without appearing vain – or even worse – ‘religious’. It is meant for all those who know how cruel this world can sometimes be, and yet want to do what they can to seek out and to explore the love that is within it.


I read this book twice: once as a rabbi looking for sermonic material, and one as a human being who hopes to become a mentsch.

The first time I marked many passages for future reading, for Joshua Hammerman is not only a rabbi; he is also a journalist, and so he knows how to write with imagination and skill. For instance, how do you talk about Halacha from the pulpit if you are a rabbi? Do you say that it is the term for Jewish Law or do you say that the dictionary says that it comes from a root that means ‘the way you should walk’? You can do that if you want to, but if you do, you will see their eyes closing and their heads dropping before you get any further, for they have heard you and they have heard other rabbis say these clichés many times. 

Rabbi Hammerman does it this way: He talks about how they trained their dog not to go into the yard of their next-door neighbor and cause havoc there. How did they do it? By buying him a neck collar that gave their dog a jolt whenever he tried to climb out of their yard. After a few tries, their dog learned to stay where he belonged … And that is the function of Jewish Law.

It sets off a jolt when the child reaches for a package of cookies in the supermarket, and then reads the ingredients, and reluctantly puts it down. It sets off a jolt when a father is tempted to buy a copy of the National Enquirer at the cash register and then realizes that he shouldn’t. And it sets off a jolt when a husband is tempted to engage in an extra-marital affair, and then decides not to, tempting as it may be. He refrains because, if he does, an invisible whistle goes off in his mind, and he remembers who he is and what he stands for, and what he can and cannot do… And that is what we mean by Halacha.

I bet his people sat up when he used this image to explain the purpose of the law. And I think my people will too, if I should ever quote it from him.
There are a great many such examples of creating writing in this book that will make the sermons of his colleagues much better. But that is not the main purpose of this book, far from it. The purpose of the book is to tell the story of how he gradually came to comprehend the role of compassion and love and menshlichkeit in his own life, and how he gradually learned how to share these insights with his people – both in words and by example.

The most moving chapter of the book, at least for me, was the one in which he talked about his own failure. He watched the football player, Tim Tebow, winning game after game, and he saw an almost messianic fervor among his fans. Tebow was a devout evangelist, and he and his fans began proclaiming that his victories were the work of God. Hammerman was so disturbed by this phenomenon that he sat down and dashed off a blog blasting fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and all such faiths as superstition.

And then came the reaction! He got hate mail by the hundreds on his computer. He got editorials condemning him for his bigotry in newspapers from coast to coast. Even some of his congregants turned against him for having offended their Christian neighbors. And he realized that they were right. He had written a hasty and a foolish blog, in which he had labeled whole communities that he really knew little about as backward and as potentially dangerous, and there was no way that he could make amends for it. He realized that the more he talked about it, the worse it would be.

Eventually, the affair blew over. The local ministerial association wrote a letter to the newspapers defending him. And people went on with their lives. But he decided to speak about what he had learned from this mistake that he had made on Yom Kippur. He spoke about it, not in order to defend himself and what he had done. He spoke about it so that he could tell his people what he had learned from experiencing failure, and so that he could tell them that they, too, would be better off if instead of gloating over their successes, they faced up to their failures. He brought examples from Silicon Valley and from other such places where people have learned from their mistakes, but he focused primarily on his own – and on theirs. And his people came away that night with two important spiritual lessons. The first was that their rabbi was human and could mistakes. And the second was that they, too, were fallible, and that their task – especially on Yom Kippur – was not to deny their faults and not to cover up their shortcomings, but to learn from them
Is that not a powerful lesson that all of us need to learn?

I know some powerful and successful executives and I know some powerful and successful rabbis who have not yet learned this lesson – but we should – and therefore, I urge all those of us who have ever failed – in other words – all of us – to read this book and to learn this and some of the otherwise lessons that it contains.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of two new books: “Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day That I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket.” Both are available from



Cantor Hammerman and his son Josh in 1978 COURTESY PHOTO
Cantor Hammerman and his son Josh in 1978 COURTESY PHOTO
I became a rabbi on a wintry evening in the late 1960s – a year or two before my bar mitzvah. It was Chanukah and my dad, a beloved, long-tenured cantor of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, had procured two coveted tickets to a Bruins game. Hockey was king back then and I had been anticipating this best ever Chanukah gift for weeks.

We headed to the game but needed to make one stop on the way – at a hospital in Chelsea to light the holiday candles. With each traffic light slowing the already snail-like traffic near the Tobin Bridge, I sensed that we might be late for the game. But once we reached the hospital, I was drawn like a moth to the dancing flames of those colorful candles, as reflected in the tearful eyes of the patients, many of whom were wheelchair bound.

When we finally got to the Garden, the Zamboni was preparing the ice for the second period. But for me, it didn’t matter that we were late. I felt so lucky to have shared that moment with my father. I can’t for the life of me recall the final score of the game, or even the opponent; but I’ll never forget how, on an icy evening along the shores of the Mystic River, my dad’s summons came through loud and clear.
Cantor Michal Hammerman
Cantor Michal Hammerman
“Be a mentsch.”
The last thing I ever expected to be was a rabbi. I had seen what being a clergy kid had meant for my family: life in a fishbowl, scrutinized from birth, talked about in the aisles of Marshalls, waiting in the car as Dad popped over to plot seven for a quick unveiling before heading to Grandma’s for lunch.

But his call became my calling.

On New Year’s Day, 1979, Cantor Michal Hammerman died suddenly of a heart attack. He was just 60 years old, and I was in the first year of rabbinical school. So his message to me, as powerful as it was while he was alive, became amplified exponentially with his passing.

“Be a mentsch.”

What is a mentsch?

Dr. Saul Levine notes in Psychology Today that a mentsch’s personality characteristics include decency, wisdom, kindness, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, benevolence, compassion and altruism.

But that’s not the half of it. If Eskimos have 50 words for snow, Jews have a single word that embodies at least 50 divinely inspired character traits, including optimism, curiosity, forgiveness, kindness, creativity, gratitude, discipline, enthusiasm, principle, perspective, love of learning, humor, bravery, teamwork, civility, social conscience and perseverance.

There’s more. You don’t need to be a saint to be a mentsch. To be a mentsch in fact means to be fallible and imperfect, but always striving to do better. To be a mentsch means having to say you’re sorry.

So you can see why it has become my crusade to naturalize this term so that it becomes as much a part of our vernacular as other Yiddish imports, like “kvetch,” “chutzpah” and “bagel.” Our world needs mentschen, now more than ever.

My dad’s greatest legacy to Boston Jewry went beyond his magnificent voice. Just a few years before he died, his effort to find a suitable long-term home for my brother Mark, who has Fragile X syndrome, culminated in the establishment of a community residence just across the street from Kehillath Israel. His work on behalf of people like Mark brought my father into close cooperation with religious leaders like Cardinal Cushing and politicians like Senator Kennedy and Governor Dukakis, finding common ground in their shared compassion for the disabled.

For years my dad lived with a debilitating heart condition, one that he knew would likely end his life prematurely. At times, he was embittered and impatient; fearing that when he died his work would remain undone. But he also possessed that particularly Jewish ability to laugh in the face of even the darkest situations. And as result of his resilience, the house he built for my brother 45 years ago is still Mark’s home today; it’s now part of the Barry Price Center.
On April 30, I appeared at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about my new book, “Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi.” For me it will be a return to the neighborhood that I last inhabited when I left for college – but it never stopped being home.

I’ve dedicated this book in memory of my father, on the 40th anniversary of his passing; and also to my mother, Miriam Hammerman, who died last October at age 95. Formerly a concert pianist, the ravages of Parkinson’s robbed her of her ability to make music, but never of her smile.

With my parents as inspiration, I’m hoping to help change the world, one mentsch at a time.

An award-winning journalist, Brookline native Rabbi Joshua Hammerman has served Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. for over 30 years.

Radio / Podcast Interviews for Mensch-Marks

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review on Alabama Radio Station

Book Bit for WTBF-AM/FM in Troy, Ala. For April 16, 2019

WTBF FM 94.7, AM 970 and FM 96.3 of Southeast Alabama will run the attached as audio this holiday weekend – this is part of the program “On the BookShelf.”

A book for reflection for the Festival of Passover:
“Mensch Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi” by Joshua Hammerman (HCI)

The author ,a rabbi of three decades, suggests that the word “mensch” is a Yiddish word that needs adding to the American lexicon. A mensch is someone who is righteous, decent and morally mature. It is a journey of faith and civility. For Jews, there is no greater honor than being called a mensch, and it’s a really wonderful way to recognize someone who has been growing as a human being. I think it’s a terrific idea.

“Mensch Marks” represent his personal Torah scroll, the sacred text of his experiences, the life lessons he has learned along his winding, circuitous journey. He uses the template of 42 steps, the number that Israel wandered in the Wilderness, and creates 42 essays organized into categories of character (Mensch marks) as stepping stones toward spiritual formation.

This is not strictly a religious book, but like in the Book of Esther God’s fingerprints are all over it. There are lots of very funny incidents from his career, but they also lead us to a deeper awareness of our own brokenness and of God’s incredible love for His people. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman reflects on the life and career of his father, also a rabbi, who died suddenly at age 60. His essays “cover crucial moments of failure and forgiveness, loving and letting go, finding deeper meaning in one’s work, and holiness in the seemingly inconsequential moments of everyday life.”  In the segment on “The Nobility of Normalcy”, he writes, “Everyday holiness leads to a life of enchantment and purpose.” He reflects on lovingly caring for his brother Mark, who is “intellectually challenged”. He sees the gentle, subtle hand of God in the childhood wisdom of Winnie the Pooh. Like him, I prefer a life of busyness to a life whose time is wasted doing nothing of significance.

As someone who has served as a bi-vocational Methodist pastor for almost 30 years, I found it powerful that our experiences have so much in common. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman’s descriptions of being humbled by his calling, his struggles to serve his congregation while not giving his family short-shrift, and his delight at seeing the Hand of God in nature and in occasional moments of human interaction, touched me deeply. I could really identify with Rabbi Joshua’s description of dashing back and forth between the ER rooms of a congregant and of his young son, desperately trying to bring the peace of the Almighty to both patients.

I wish we were neighbors. I’d like to think that we would be friends. And my new goal is to be the kind of person who deserves to be called a mensch, not so I could wear it like an accolade (hey! The Christian guy wants to appropriate a Jewish honor!) but to see it as a challenge, like being an Eagle Scout. It doesn’t stop with achieving the rank; getting it pushes you to live in such a way that you honor the rank by living its deepest truths. May it be truly said of each of us, if we seek to live in peace with God and each other. May you be a blessing to others this Passover.

Interview ‘These are untethered times’ Brian Koonz April 14, 2019 AP

AP Interview ‘These are untethered times’

April 14, 2019

For 25 years, legendary baseball announcer Mel Allen was the voice of the New York Yankees. He called games with the descriptive skills of a novelist and the lyrical cadence of a storyteller.
But in the summer of 1996, when baseball was in full bloom, Allen’s iconic delivery went silent.
His funeral was held at Temple Beth El in Stamford, where Rabbi Joshua Hammerman stood in front of the congregation while the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford sat with 700 others paying their respects.
During Allen’s eulogy, Hammerman spoke of an important legacy: “Mel Allen’s life was one long, extended, exhaustive, exhilarating, triumphant prayer. It was a call to all of us to see the sublimity in the smallest things, the pitch one inch off the corner, the stolen sign, the first seasonal shifts of the wind.”
The first seasonal shifts of the wind, indeed.
Life has always been about seasons, Hammerman understands, from the birth of children and the loss of loved ones, to the moments in between that make us human — and the opportunities they extend us to be a mensch.
Mensch is a Yiddish word, one that largely resists definition. But a consensus would agree that a mensch is someone who is selfless, decent and kind, a person of character, wisdom, integrity and humility.
Someone like Mel Allen. Someone like Joshua Hammerman.
This month, Hammerman’s most memorable and inspired writings have been collected in a new book, “Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi,” published by Health Communications, Inc. The 240-page book is available at local bookstores and through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.
“I always try to look for common themes when I write, keeping things real and down to earth,” Hammerman said in a recent telephone interview. “I like to go beyond the masks we wear and reveal who we really are, so we can help one another repair the world.”
At a time when differences have fractured a collective identity in America, Hammerman writes with a prescriptive catharsis. After more than 30 years as a rabbi — first in New York’s Hudson Valley and later in Stamford — Hammerman offers a theme of universality to his congregation and others who have read his work in the Stamford Advocate, The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine.
Ultimately, Hammerman puts it this way, succinctly and spot on: “These are untethered times.”
The rabbi looks to shore up this sentiment with essays and sermons over six themes in his book: Work and Worship, Loving and Letting Go, The Nobility of Normalcy, Pain and Perseverance, Belonging and Becoming, and Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness.
Through his own life lessons — the victories and the failures, the celebrations and the sadness — Hammerman has written a softcover road map for today’s hard-knock world.
“I’ve tried to set an example in everything that I do,” said Hammerman, who earned a master’s degree in journalism from New York University after earning a bachelor’s degree from Brown University. “I’ve never felt like I’ve been a shepherd, but rather, a fellow traveler.
“Writing is my lifeblood. It’s always fed into my work as a rabbi. My work with people, with congregants, had fed my writing. I honestly don’t think one can exist without the other. I write constantly as a way to spread a message of love and hope.”
But this message only works if it’s shared with others in abundance. Those people who reach out to pollinate the planet with love and hope do the calling of a mensch.
“The word mensch goes so far beyond being just a good person. You know how Eskimos have 50 words for snow? It’s the same thing with mensch, but with even more words,” Hammerman said.
“Everyone talks about the lack of civility today. Given the state of our world, we need to turn the word mensch — and what it represents — into something that is not a foreign import, but rather, a word that is trending, something that is the ‘Word of the Year’ that people adopt in the English language just like bagel and chutzpah.”
Hammerman grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. His mother, Miriam, was a gifted pianist. His father, Cantor Michal Hammerman, was a renowned vocalist and the dean of New England cantors. Together, their influence shaped him profoundly in his journey to become a rabbi.
Hammerman was a first-year rabbinical student in New York when his father died of a heart attack. Today, at 62, he is slightly older than his father was on that New Year’s Day in 1979.
“There comes a point when you want to make sure your life message is heard loud and clear,” Hammerman said. “You don’t have many opportunities to get that right.”
For Hammerman, “Mensch-Marks” is one of those opportunities, the chance for one book to speak volumes — some of it even in Yiddish.
Brian Koonz is a freelance writer and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.