“Abraham and Sarah On the Way to Costco”

If scholars in several hundred years ever write the obituary of American Judaism, a key source document will surely be this piece from The Forward.  Its title says it all: Rabbis Go Hollywood for High Holy Day Sermon Tips: Same Rules Apply to ‘Mad Men’ Episodes and Rosh Hashanah Talks.

The piece concerns “the High Holy Days Seminar, the largest trans-denominational gathering of rabbis on the West Coast.”  And oh what a seminar it is:

“Rabbis want to be on the cutting edge,” said [seminar organizer Rabbi Jon] Hanish, who organized the Professional Writers Workshop for the August 16 seminar. Having dabbled in the movie business, Hanish attended the University of Southern California’s film school, sold a few screenplays and ran a postproduction facility before deciding to deliver sermons instead of pitching scripts. “My screenwriting classes taught me more about writing sermons than rabbinical school,” he said.

Hanish . . . by drawing on his industry ties pulled together a slew of star writers for the workshop. The impressive roster included [Janet] Leahy and colleague Lisa Albert, both writers for The AMC series “Mad Men”; Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning television writer/producer David M. Israel of Nickelodeon’s new series “How To Rock,” and Jason Katims (NBC’S “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights,” Fox’s “Boston Public”).

“We are all working on something,” Hanish said jokingly at the beginning of the session before directing the writers and rabbis to break into working groups of two and three.

The writers expressed some awe at the task at hand.

“The High Holy Days is like your sweeps,” Albert said, referring to the crucial weeks when TV ratings count most. “It’s like giving doctors advice just because you wrote ‘ER,’” another writer added.

David Weiss handed back to a rabbi a sermon whose theme was “This Is the Moment.” Words were circled on the page. He gently advised using more humor — “Top 10 lists, or taking the biblical and transposing it to the modern… you know, Abraham and Sarah on the way to Costco. Cheesy cheap tricks like that.”

It almost makes you wonder how thousands of years of rabbis could get by only on Torah.

What precisely is one supposed to feel about this?  Contempt for rabbinical programs that cannot give their charges any more than they have?  Or their admissions departments that can’t get better people?  Or the postwar generation of American Jews that hollowed out the religion so much that no one could appreciate the depth and power of the tradition?

When I was growing up, my favorite part of my synagogue was grassy area where the Sukkah would be raised every year. It was a great, leafy, glorious structure, covered with vegetables and gourds.  I loved it.  And then one year I came back from college and discovered to my horror that the area had been paved over and was now home to a gray, steel Holocaust memorial.  If that’s all you have from the tradition, and you don’t want to harp on the Holocaust, then I suppose all you have left is “Mad Men.”

I realize it’s a tough job market out there, but it seems to me that there are a few people who ought to be looking for another line of work.


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

14 thoughts on ““Abraham and Sarah On the Way to Costco””

  1. Or as Zora Neale Hurston said, “There’s many in the pulpit that were called to the plough.”

  2. The piece points to the fact that “organized” Judaism may still be adrift in “oy-land,” unable to understand why members are leaving their synagogues once the kids have been bar/bat mitzvahed, or the rest of the local yiddin are not joining at all! Seems like they figure: “if the Rabbi would only give a good sermon, all would be well!” My experience as one of the first four “Program Directors” under the auspices of the Koret Synagogue Initiative, precursor to Synagogue 2000, etc., was that #1 in importance is creating a space where people feel really, really welcome; where someone manifests the energy of being glad to see you – where there is some sort of “Community Development Director,” paid or from the membership. After that, spontaneity and aliveness – menaingful and fun – from spiritual leadership, even more than great sermons (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0NJ-wlh_10 – read background info for this video from the “mothership” Jewish Renewal congregation, the Aquarian Minyan, Berkeley – founded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, co-founder with Reb Shlomo Carlebach a”h of the Jewish Renewal movement); great programming including, but not limited to sermons, services and school; building a ‘web of connection’ among participants and programs, etc.

  3. Excuse my ignorance, but when did giving a sermon become part of the duties of a rabbi?

    I was once told that the German government organizes training courses for imams in Turkey planning to take charge of mosques in Germany. One of the topics is the changed expectations of second-generation Turkish Germans over the imam’s role. Traditionally, the imam has no pastoral function; he’s an authority on sharia, and leads the Friday prayers, that’s it. But in Germany he’s be expected to offer advice on family relationships, visit the sick and the like – functions adopted by osmosis from Christian ministry.

  4. PS: In defence of the Costco effort, an anecdote. The only sermon I can remember was one I heard years ago in Norwich. The batty old vicar recounted a night-time walk on Mousehold Heath, a city park. He had come quietly into a clearing and seen a large rabbit sitting still in the moonlight. The vicar had made a noise and the rabbit vanished. God, he concluded, is just like that white rabbit.

  5. Mark Kleiman says:

    “Or as Zora Neale Hurston said, “There’s many in the pulpit that were called to the plough.””

    That’s hilarious!

  6. It almost makes you wonder how thousands of years of rabbis could get by only on Torah.

    Did that actually happen? I’m decidedly ignorant, but my impression of Jewish practice was that Talmud was a major subject of study. (And some of Talmud is even less believable than anything in Torah, including the whole Judah and Tamar soap opera.)

  7. In defense of the seminar, both lifelong learning and writing sermons have been prominent rabbinical duties for centuries. Humor appears in the Old testament and all over the Talmud, and the illustrative joke in a sermon is a well-established tradition. And few who attend services can doubt that many rabbis have much to learn about writing sermons. Why not learn from the professionals?

  8. James Wimberley: wonderful anecdote! This is only semi-related, but one thing I really loved about the first 9/11 memorial was that no one said anything. No speeches. (I wish they would do that every year. Sometimes there’s nothing to say.)

    But what is so horribly about wanting to keep people awake during a sermon? My impression is that the rabbis just want to get better at pacing and structure, which are difficult for most of us. That doesn’t mean they are taking the meaning out!

    Now, not to be too much of a B here, but Zasloff, how do *you* prepare to give lectures? Don’t you look for a hook?

  9. I remember that grassy area. There was indeed something intensely special about having, in effect, a park in a house of worship and study. It was also a great place to take the kids at the end of the day when we worked as day-camp counselors at that synagogue. One thing that Holocaust memorial said to me was that there was no room for actual daily life in that building anymore. As Ms. Roekard says, it was no longer welcoming.

    I’ve spent considerable time hanging around Orthodox congregations in recent years, and there are a couple of things I’ve learned. First, although many Orthodox congregations have buildings and rabbis, neither is necessary, and if the Orthodox can do without, I imagine others could, too. Sabbath services include sermons, mostly based on passages from the weekly portion, and do indeed include humor and other writerly virtues, but they’re about gaining knowledge and (hopefully) wisdom. One congregation of my acquaintance now meets in a karate studio on Saturdays, and the “sermon” is generally delivered by a man who makes his living as a writer for television, but he’s not so foolish as to drag his day job into shul on the Sabbath. This is even more true in Israel, where you can find a local minyan in the basement of nearly every big apartment building.

    Second, this whole issue brings to mind the Biblical passage which speaks of the Jews as “a people that shall dwell apart.” In this day and age, that no longer means avoiding our neighbors, but I suspect this still means we must be very careful how we look to outside influences for our spiritual lives. This seminar isn’t necessarily a bad idea, and there’s nothing wrong with rabbis wishing to teach in a way that works for their congregations, but the seminar’s organizers seem to have forgotten the value of “dwelling apart”.

  10. In my experience, the tradition of Judaism has always involved tying talmud torah to the experience of actual people.

    Sorry if we don’t live in the stetl anymore and our lives do involve Costco. There’s just no way to make Southern California suburban life feel deep.

  11. I’m more or less with Arthur here. Rabbis do give sermons, like it or not, and my own opinion is that by and large they are terrible at it – pompous, trite, dull. The seminar will hardly solve all that, of course, but doing a better job of holding the audience is a start.

  12. @SamChevre — I just meant “Torah” as the corpus of Jewish learning, not simply the Five Books of Moses. So Talmud would be included.

    @arthur and Bernard Yomtov — the problem is that rabbis who don’t have much inspiration or feel for the tradition think that they can rescue their sermons by a couple of sitcom jokes. Bernard, you’re totally right about most modern rabbinic sermons, but getting a writer from “Mad Men” to help you isn’t going to make it any less trite or pompous (although maybe a little less dull). Remember, the organizers think that the sitcom angle is what makes it “cutting edge.” What’s cutting edge is that the rabbi feels passionate about God, Torah, and (the people) Israel, and can communicate that passion and its importance. Recall that “rabbi” means “teacher”. Well, many very good teachers are funny, and many very good teachers are not funny. But all teachers know what they want to communicate and why it’s important. If they don’t have that, a string of one-liners isn’t going to save them. “Why was/is this rabbi great?” I have never heard the answer to that question being “well, his/her sermons are so hilarious!”

  13. Jonathan,

    But plenty of rabbis who are passionate also deliver terrible sermons. This is unsurprising. There are lots of people, after all, including many academics, who are passionate about subjects and nonetheless are poor lecturers. If sitcom jokes or other techniques can help convey one’s message, that seems fine to me.

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