SAN DIEGO – Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, as well as a journalist whose column appeared regularly in the Jewish Week of neighboring New York. This book is a collection of columns written for that publication and others. He divides the book into six thematic areas: Work and Worship; Loving and Letting Go; The Nobility of Normalcy; Pain and Perseverance; Belonging and Becoming; and Failure, Forgiveness, Justice and Kindness. Within those classifications, there are a total of 42 essays in all.
Hammerman’s style can be light, as one might expect in a weekly newspaper column. In an essay in Part I called, “Super Rabbi: The Flawed Model,” he writes about the O.B.R., the “One Bad Rabbi”: “All it takes is one and a Jew can be turned off to Judaism for life. Apparently, many Jews have had him or her, and all went to the O.B.H.S., the One Bad Hebrew School, where this O.B.R. used to rap knuckles and force kids to sing while screeching chalk along the blackboard with sadistic pleasure. Whatever this O.B.R. did, and it ranges from giving O.L.S. (One Lousy Sermon) to adultery, what matters is that he fell short of expectations and therefore so did Judaism. The O.B.R. is the one reason I hear more than any other for individuals having been turned off to organized Jewish life.”
Later in this essay, Hammerman suggests perhaps the rabbi wasn’t the culprit at all. Perhaps negative reactions to Judaism were fostered by parents, or by such emotions as “conformity, greed, fear, and self-hatred.”
In Part II, in an essay titled “The Dangling Knife,” he describes some heavy emotions—mixed with some Freudian psychology—as he prepared to circumcise his son. “There is no greater primal anger than caused by seeing another male in carnal contact with your wife, in this case the physical intimacy of mother and son. And there is no greater primal envy that that caused by looking down at the person who was brought into the world specifically to be your survivor. In traditional Jewish society, a male child is called a kaddish, the father hears a whisper that it is now all right to die.”
An announcement in 1998 by the Nabisco Company that its Oreo cookies now were kosher, elicited this reaction in a Part III essay “The Forbidden Oreo”: “We can’t understand most of what is on the label, but when we see a kosher symbol, many naively assume that a pious old religious guy personally inspects and gives God’s blessing to each item. While that myth is overblown, and kosher products might not always be healthier; Jewish dietary laws promote the type of self-control that often leads to healthier lives. They are based on a value system that sanctifies life, limits the pain of animals, and views the body as a temple; all of which places these ancient principles in confluence with the current zeitgeist and has made the kosher symbol into this generation’s Good Housekeeping seal.”
In Part IV, in an essay titled “Goodness and Mercy,” Hammerman reflects on Psalm 23, which is traditionally read at a funeral service: “I never found ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ to be a particularly comforting poem. If God is a shepherd, that makes the rest of us sheep. For Jews, especially after the Holocaust, with its pervasive imagery of the victims as sheep being led to slaughter; we don’t subscribe to the notion of being led through the valley of the shadow of death for 2,000 years simply to end up as a lamb chop on the plate of some Nazi. Jews don’t make very good sheep. We tend to resent being herded and manipulated.”
“The Wall and the Mall” in Part V took us to the Kotel in Jerusalem, which is typically guarded by Haredi men suspicious of any non-conforming prayer styles. “About twenty feet from the Wall, an updated version of West Side Story was being played out,” he reported. “A dozen Reform Jews from Miami, all men, defiantly sang “Lecha Dodi” in a circle while Haredim stared and caucused, figuring out what to do with them. One slipped dangerously close to the group, bending over to investigate the photocopied prayer booklet, as if examining a lettuce for bugs. The Reform service concluded. Triumphantly, they had reclaimed their piece of the rock. But this was a shallow victory, for there was no singing and celebrating, no holding of hands, only the holding of turf. Western Wall Story has become a classic American western, and Friday evening has become its High Noon.”
Finally, from Part VI, in “Going, Going, Gone,” Hammerman eulogized New York Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen in a sanctuary that was filled with such Yankee legends as Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Joe Pepitone, George Steinbrenner, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. Not the easiest crowd for a rabbi who had grown up rooting for the Boston Red Sox! Here’s what Hammerman said, in part, at that service: “A journalist once called him the Homer of homers. Now that can be taken in many ways, but the intention was to designate Mel as the Homeric poet of the home run. His magnificent descriptive talents were on display especially when the drama hit its heights, and this gift was matched perfectly with a team and a time that immortalized him as he immortalized them. Another journalist once exclaimed that his voice had been decorated by a florist. I can see that. It resonated with class, style, and a combination of Southern grace and Jewish irony. His fabulous sense of humor, well that was both Southern and Jewish. Night after night, October after October, Mel Allen composed the epic poem of baseball’s Homeric age.”
As can be seen from the foregoing snippets, the subjects of Hammerman’s essays are wide ranging, yet they have about them a Jewish tam or flavor. I charged right through them, but if one takes a more leisurely approach, his essays could last pleasurably for 42 days or 42 nights.