Steven Bayar

Go Team Latke!

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Over the past weeks, I’ve been criticizing the leadership of our Federation. To be fair, they are a wonderful and effective team — caring, aware of community issues and a positive force.

Why have I been talking trash about them from the bimah every Shabbat? They asserted that the Hamantashen is more important to Judaism than the Latke.

Yes, our congregation challenged the Federation leadership here in San Antonio to a Hamantashen/Latke debate.

The history of this debate goes to 1946 at the University of Chicago, and if you surf the Internet, you will find that the subject is fiercely discussed throughout the world this time of year. Wherever I am at Purim time, I’ve tried to further the discussion by issuing a challenge.

I’ve always thought of Purim as the safety valve for Jewish sanity. With all the chaos we are subjected to, with all the hatred we endure, and with all the existential angst in the air, we need a structured time with permission to enjoy who and what we are.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav made famous the phrase, “Gevalt Jews, don’t despair,” when faced with pogroms and persecution that threatened to destroy the sanity of his community. He had no strategy to defeat the forces lined up against us — but he admonished his congregation against accepting defeat.

In the former Soviet Union, I once met a refusenik, who when his wife asserted that they would never be able to emigrate, reminded her that Jews are not allowed to lose hope. “Whatever else we don’t have, we must always have hope.”

But how can we retain our hope when we face such insanity? We find ways to celebrate as a community within the confines of Jewish tradition. Purim is a time of pure merriment and frivolity.

And so we come to the lowly Hamantashen. Can there be anything sillier — or of greater import — to discuss than how the Latke is more important to Jewish life?

We have a great team of three lawyers with litigation experience. We will have groggers to drown out the name of “Haman” every time the word “Hamantashen” is said. Most importantly, we will hear a beautiful song from a 7-year-old in duet with her grandfather. But please don’t let Team Hamantashen know about this — it will be our secret!

The Midrash teaches that the holiday most similar to Purim is Yom Kippur. In Hebrew “Yom Kippurim” can also mean “a day ‘like’ Purim.” I’ve always thought that after Yom Kippur, the most important holiday to Jewish life is Purim — for that is the time when most unaffiliated Jews attend the carnivals and services in search of family and child friendly clergy and congregations.

I have found most Jews demand affiliation, in agreement with Emil Fackenheim — Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi — who taught that we cannot give Hitler a posthumous victory. But Judaism has to be more than that if we are to teach the joy that can be found in its observance.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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