S Novim Godom!

Dear Friends,

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, New Year’s Eve was hands-down the most significant holiday for us. This is true for many, if not most, of the Russian Jews I know. We actually celebrated with a fir-tree, our beloved yolka – but don’t worry; it wasn’t a religious thing. The Soviet Union was a country where religious symbols were repressed, if not downright outlawed.

The tree was so beautiful, and I loved the smell that filled our apartment. We exchanged presents after midnight – and most importantly, New Year’s was the only holiday not linked to some State revolutionary or patriotic celebration. We could simply enjoy the holiday without feeling that it represented support for the oppressive government under which we lived. We had our rituals: watching a beloved movie, “The Irony of Fate,” and toasting each other with Soviet bubbly we mistakenly called “champagne.” We superstitiously believed that we would spend the rest of the year with the same people we rang in the year with.

But then I came to America where presents were exchanged under a Christmas tree by Christians on Christmas, and only then understood the religious origins of our seemingly secular holiday. Jews don’t do the Christmas tree thing in the US, so at some point my family stopped.

But if I can make a confession to you during this holiday season – I really miss it.

Recently, when the Vatican declared that we Jews are no longer required to convert to Catholicism, I secretly wondered if that meant we could also buy trees without the worry of being saved by the Church. Maybe we can even get the Chief Rabbinate, the Minister of Religion, or the Conference of Presidents to declare that trees are kosher for Jews but only for New Year’s celebrations?

Oh, wait!

We don’t have any such law-giving authorities in our faith. Lots that would like to be, to be sure – but there is nothing in our liturgy barring New Year’s trees and presents. Maybe we can start a whole new ritual. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. A wonderful new friend, Sofia (who is indeed wise) reminded me that her family (as did mine) waited until December 26th, when the trees were all free, to put up the New Year’s tree that first year in America. It was before we knew that after years of discrimination for being Jewish, in America this compromised our Jewish “credentials.”

I do still love that fir-tree smell! I picked one up yesterday ( afterShabbat, of course…).

Happy secular New Year!


Hating Leo Tolstoy

Dear Friends,

As a good stereotypical member of Russian intelligentsia, I was, of course, required to fall in love with Leo Tolstoy’s works. It wasn’t easy. The books were thick. A good deal of “War and Peace” was written in French (the language of Russian nobility). The sentences were even longer than our usual run-on Russian sentences, and the fate of Anna Karenina was not easy to relate to for a teenager living in the Soviet workers “paradise.” I did not love Tolstoy until I came across this paragraph:

“What is the Jew? … What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. What is this Jew whom they have never succeeded in enticing with all the enticements in the world, whose oppressors and persecutors only suggested that he deny (and disown) his religion and cast aside the faithfulness of his ancestors?! The Jew – is the symbol of eternity … He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”

Now Tolstoy had me. It was a time when I was just learning about who I was as a Jew. I recently heard about the Maccabees and Chanukah on the Voice of Israel. In spite of Soviet attempts to disrupt the transmission through interference, I heard the distant voice on the radio announcing my identity.

I then dug out a book from our library that my maternal grandfather inherited from his father. It was a first edition, beautifully preserved copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Circle of Reading. Tolstoy compiled a collection of stories, tales, sayings, and poems to be read each day of the year. I did it for two years running, adding a little inspiration and elevation to each day. It helped me understand the influence of reading on identity and the meaning of doing that daily.

This Chanukah I will give as gifts a book that reminds me of this treasure that I could not bring out of the Soviet Union with me 40 years ago. Take Your Soul to Work by my teacher, my friend, my thought partner and my co-author of a book on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown, contains a short essay for every day of the year and a compelling daily question on character building.

Chanukah also reminds us about the significance of daily inspiration. For each eight days we add light into our homes, expanding the amount of light as we progress. And if one day we don’t find ourselves in the holiday spirit, there’s always another one so we can try again.

Enjoy and Chanukah Sameah!


Thanksgiving Musings

Dear Friends,

I am grateful for all of you. Thanksgiving is coming, but I am not preparing a turkey (I leave that part to the experts!). Instead, I am preparing myself for this season of gratitude.

Thanksgiving is truly my favorite holiday. It’s the quintessential American day, though arguably more appreciated by immigrants than by those who were born here, and who often take America’s blessings for granted. I know that I don’t take those blessings for granted. Even after so many years, I find myself more thankful than ever to be living in this country – more thankful than ever to be the beneficiary of its freedoms and its possibilities.

I especially love the ritual of going around the table and sharing what we are grateful for each year. And in that department, this has been a banner year for me. I really have so much to be thankful for. On the top of my list is the opportunity to get to know my family again after five years of constant business travel. I will be going into Thanksgiving this year without the usual havoc of making my way home from a far-away place (be it literally or figuratively). I don’t know about you, but I have always found myself working harder right before a vacation – so that by the time it arrives, I really need one (and then afterward a vacation from the vacation).

I am also celebrating the 40th anniversary of my personal exodus from the Soviet Union, so Thanksgiving is even more poignant for me than ever this year. I want to thank all of you who have contributed to theHannah Senesh Community Day School to help me celebrate that anniversary – and to honor the memories of my father and my father in law. We have been deeply touched by this kindness.

But this year, the preciousness of what America has historically offered its newcomers – almost boundless opportunity, a welcoming hand, true hope for equality and acceptance – is particularly striking, and seemingly at risk. Recent events, all over the world, have ironically created a backlash against refugees who are driven to flee the ravages of criminal fanatics, and murder in in the name of religion.

The spectacle of the Presidential election has brought to surface many anti-immigrant sentiments, the kind that have no place on our Thanksgiving tables, and the kind that will certainly have no place on mine.

“Welcome the Stranger among you for you were a Stranger in a strange land.” This is what our Jewish tradition has taught us, and it is what America was actually built upon. Let’s be thankful for it. And let’s pass it forward.

Chag Turkey Day Sameach!


40 Years Since Exodus

Lech Lecha: Go forth from your land. 

Dear Friends,

For most of you, Chanukah is next-up when it comes to Jewish holidays.  But my head is already at Pesach!

There is actually good reason for that. I am writing this as I contemplate the 40th Anniversary of my family’s own Exodus from a different Mitzrayim—the Soviet Union. On November 11, 1975 my grandmother (Sofia Reingbald), my father (David Galperin), my mother (Irina, née Grinfeld, Galperin), my sister Vera, and I, all boarded a train in Odessa, thereby embarking on a journey to freedom.

We passed through the border town of Chop where Soviet customs agents strip-searched my 74 year old grandmother, poked and prodded my 8 year old sister, and threw everything out of our suitcases (we were prepared with sacks to regather our meager possessions). They split my 16 year-old teddy bear in half (yes, I still had a teddy bear) and emptied out the stuffing – and all of this took so long that we missed our scheduled train to Vienna. Needless to say, the experience made us that much more relieved to finally cross the border.

We spent the next night huddled in the cold of a train station in Koshevitz, Czechoslovakia, and were treated to Coca Cola (our very first!) and beer, by a kind Slovak, a fellow passenger on his way to Bratislava. With a total of $90 per person, we arrived in Vienna onNovember 13th and were met by emissaries from the Jewish Agency, the JDC, and HIAS. After two weeks on another planet, Austria, we spent four and a half months in Italy, and in April of 1976 – just before Pesach – we landed in another galaxy: Los Angeles, California.

I have written and spoken quite a bit of my family's journey since then. I have also devoted much of my professional life to ensuring that the magnificent Jewish communal enterprise that was there for my family will still be there for others when they need it.  And there is little doubt in my mind that it will be needed.  

So, on this 40th Anniversary of my family's personal Exodus, my wife and I will be making a contribution in memory of our fathers – Dr. Martin Guyer and Dr. David Galperin – to a scholarship fund at two of our children'sschool.  Our children attend the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, New York, where the Jewish values of mutual responsibility, community, pursuit of justice, and learning, are taught, lived, and experienced every day. Our parents, in ways different from one another, made this possible for each of us, and for our children. We would be very grateful to any and all of you who may wish to join us in making it possible for others.

As it happens, my father in law’s yahrtzeit this year aligns with the Gregorian anniversary of my family’s emigration, making this week a particularly emotional one for all of us. We are also aiming to make it a proud one. Unlike forty years ago, you can now make contributions online, in this case at http://hannahsenesh.org/support/.make a check payable to the Hannah Senesh Community Day School (342 Smith Street. Brooklyn, NY 11231). Please specify “scholarship fund/in memory of David Galperin and Martin Guyer” in the memo. 

With gratitude,


Different Days, Different Places, One People?

Dear Friends,

As we approach our first “normal” week without a mid-week holiday interruption – and I invite you to define normal – I want to share some observations from the past few weeks.

When I worked full-time, the holiday period was often frustrating. It’s hard to get anything done. I couldn’t call people or meet with people. It was the start of the year, but it was stop-start in terms of work. While I enjoyed the holidays themselves, there was always an irritating overlay. There were two days off every other week and then there were short work-days on the actual evening of the holiday. For a month, it seemed like everything was upside down. I can appreciate that in the days of the ancient Temple when people came for a lengthy pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it worked, but today, it’s hard.

I know this is a challenge for many people. I am not alone.

But this year, transitioning from running a large organization to being my own boss and only working on projects that I choose and like, I had a very different set of holidays. I did not have a staff who were relying on me for direction or board I needed to report to so I felt greater ownership of my time and it was easier to stop time as well.

Most Yom Kippur days in the past 25 years, I’ve spoken at a synagogue. I would often teach in the late afternoon tying together concerns in the Jewish world with a sense of our personal and collective responsibility on this holiest of days. I talked about the needy. I talked about Jonah. I talked about peoplehood. But this year, I spent my firstYom Kippur in Israel and, of all places, in a friend’s house in Herzliyah Pituach. You think I would have been in Jerusalem, shedding a tear or two at the Kotel. But this experience was, in some ways, even more profound for me.

In spite of having been to Israel literally hundreds of times – and more often than monthly in the last five years – I had never been there for Yom Kippur. I had no idea that it’s a festival of bicycles. Everywhere you turn there are people of all ages on bicycles. There is no driving at all, anywhere. Everything is closed. I contrasted this to my days in Manhattan where everything seems open all the time, 24/7, 365 days a year. Yom Kippurin Israel was not simply a religious holiday. It was a day unlike any other. I was too hot to bike, but I was happy to observe. Being in Israel is fundamentally different. Being Jewish in Israel is fundamentally different.

Fasting on Yom Kippur was the very first thing I did as a Jew at thirteen. In Russia, this was something you can do privately and no one would know. You can go to school or work and no one would guess you were observing a holy day. For this very reason, it was a more common observance in Russia that the Passover Seder, which is the number one ritual in North America.

In the United States, it is the day that more Jews appear in synagogues than any other, and in Israel it’s the day were more people get bicycle injuries than any other. I was struck by how profoundly different Yom Kippur has become for different Jews in different places. I am not making a judgment of what has more meaning – a one-day a year Jew in synagogue or a citizen of Israel who sees the day as a time for family and friends.

This contrast forces me to go back to my ongoing concern of how focused we’ve become on how different we are from each other and how little we pay attention to what we have in common. This example is no different. It was striking that the entire country – religious or not – was doing something different than they would normally do. Yet the divide between the nature of these different Yom Kippur activities is profoundly at odds and does not easily lend itself to finding a common space under the umbrella of peoplehood.

I am amazed by the fact that the entire country has a law that prevents certain kinds of activity on this day, but people interpret it in different ways. There are those in the rabbinate who liken riding bicycles on Yom Kippur to eating pork. This seems absurd but, no doubt, they understand the huge cultural differences that this kind of ritual presents. It would be nice if we arrived at a place of mutual reflection on Yom Kippur, whether inside or outside of a synagogue, but we are not moving in this direction.

What direction are we moving in? That’s what I struggle with most right now. And I don’t have an easy answer because I don’t believe there are easy answers. But if we don’t talk more honestly and deeply about the growing identity abyss among the Jews within Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora, there may be less and less to talk about together when it comes to shaping a shared Jewish future.