Category Archives: Adventures of a Chief Rabbi

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Curious and Carefree

Thursday May 23, 2013

Curious and Carefree

These are two traits that have helped my writing. Curious and Carefree. However, it is also a trait that will lead me into trouble, or worse, into positions of authority and responsibility. Let this be a warning (or an inspiration) to those that would explore the world around them. I will explain a bit of the inner workings of my mind with an example from this morning.

I started the morning with my first chavruta (Torah study partnership) with Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, the Chabad Rav who has been a pillar of the Jewish community for over 28 years. After the thrilling study of Tanya (perhaps the most important text of Chabad Hasidism) I took a bus towards work.

It was a different line than the one I’ve typically taken and I got off close to the office but wasn’t sure if I needed to go a block south or north. I looked south towards the hazy sea in the distance. I looked north and noticed a park I’d never seen before. You guessed it – I went towards the park despite the sense that the office was towards the south.

The park was cute and I quickly realized I was going in the wrong direction, but continued anyway to explore the park. It took me to the main street of 18 de Julio. I then noticed a congregation of police motorcycles in the middle of the intersection with their lights flashing. I walked towards them, getting further and further away from my office.

As I approached the police I heard the constant blasting of a bus horn. I passed the police ensemble and proceeded west on 18 de Julio. Small flyers littered the empty main street. I saw large flags waving in the distance. I finally reached the source of the horn blasting. A line of buses was parked on 18 de Julio while another line of traffic was attempting to cross the main street with limited success and much frustration.

I passed the loud intersection and reached the crowd. I normally have an instinctive distaste for crowds. There are probably a host of reasons. I fear a mob mentality. I fear the danger of being trampled despite the trampeler’s best intentions. I fear that people chanting angry slogans can easily turn into people doing angry things. However, despite the black and red flags and the angry rhetoric shooting from the loudspeakers, my curiosity overcame my mob-phobia.

First of all, how dangerous can a mob be where a significant percentage of its members are carrying tea? Yes. Montevideo must be the biggest Tea-Totting Town in the world and I really want to elaborate on the custom of constant drinking of what they call Matte, to the point that people are regularly walking around with a thermos under their arm and in their hand carry a special mug with the Matte leaves and the special straw that looks like the stem of a smoking pipe.

There was something festive about this demonstration. I discovered afterwards that today was a teacher’s strike, which amounted to a day off. Most people were respectfully facing the speaker’s podium several blocks away, but the majority were talking with their friends, buying food from the many streets vendors that were having a field day and of course, sipping Matte.

I kept moving through the crowd, taking pictures of Matte drinkers (future post) until I came within sight of the podium. Impassioned speeches were delivered that were highlighted with small fireworks from time to time and the jeers, cheers, applause, disinterest and Matte-sipping of the crowd.

For a moment I felt like I was in a scene from Ferris Buller’s Day Off where he takes over the parade. I had a momentary thought of approaching the podium, introducing myself and offering to say a few words about teacher’s rights as the Chief Rabbi of the country. I decided that I didn’t know the political ramifications well enough, nor what they were protesting about and what might have been a fun publicity stunt, could have signaled the support of the Jewish community of the death penalty for truancy or something of the sort.

I turned back and started to make my way to the office, keeping an eye out for interesting pictures. Then I came face to face with a momentarily frightening, yet an exciting modern and poorly known representation of civil disobedience.

I stood in front of “V”. For the few sci-fi geeks out there, you may recall the movie (based on a comic book – all good things come from comic books…) “V” is for Vendetta. So there was “V” with his grinning and thereby scary mask, all in black garb. It’s well enough for strange things and costumes in the movies. I did not expect to see “V” live and so was taken by surprise, despite the thematic appropriateness of the venue. I got over the shock rather quickly, as “V” was about two feet shorter than the movie version and I think she was female, though hard to tell under the black loose garment.

My New York instincts kicked in and I quickly walked past “V”, fearful of the potentially contagious effects of any nutcase walking the streets. By the time I stopped to think what a great picture it would make, she was already out of camera sight.

I finally made it to my office to deal with more mundane issues of Jewish identity, divorce and mediation between Jewish litigants, which as I’ve stated before I will not discuss in any further detail. All in a days work.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Pasta Heaven

Wednesday May 23, 2013

Pasta Heaven

In the heart of the neighborhood of Pocitos, on Avenida Libertad off the corner of Espana sits La Spezia, a pasta house that has been around for 75 years and has been run by three generations of the Speranza family, immigrants from Italy. Even before you walk in the door you realize this place is special. In a town that is more likely to have graffiti on the walls, they have an unmarred mural by their entrance with a painting worthy of Michelangelo.

Prepped and ready for work
Prepped and ready for work

Inside, the store is spotless, with a pleasant smell of fresh pasta being made. What is of particular interest to me today is the run of kosher pasta La Spezia is preparing. Our trusty mashgiach (supervisor), Moshe Silberberg arrived early to clean all the equipment, utensils and surfaces that were to be used for the kosher run. Not that these things were dirty, for La Spezia runs a very clean operation – however, they are not necessarily as thorough, diligent and exacting as Moshe is, nor are they particularly troubled by mixing meat with milk or others rigors of kosher requirements – nor should they be.

Team folding the dough
Team folding the dough

Moshe makes sure that all of the ingredients that are being used are kosher and also that all products are fresh and from new packages or bottles. Then, like a hawk, he watches the continuous process of pasta-making, insuring that from beginning to end everything is kosher. The ingredients, the utensils, the equipment, the surfaces must remain exclusively kosher.

Cutting the folded dough
Cutting the folded dough

One might take such a situation for granted, or assume that once the process has been set in motion there should be little to worry about. One would be wrong. Less than a foot from the kosher line is a container of treif (non-kosher) sausages waiting to be included in a later run of pasta-coated meats. It would be far too easy for non-kosher ingredients to be inadvertently mixed in the kosher run, or for non-kosher utensils and equipment (really non-kosher) to be used. Hence the need for full, constant, close supervision during these special runs. Hence also the added expense of the kosher La Spezia pasta as compared to the exact non-kosher versions.

Moshe keeping an eye on those sausages
Moshe keeping an eye on those sausages

Not to besmirch in any way the quality of the non-kosher La Spezia products. I had the opportunity to spend time with the owner, Juan Pablo Speranza, grandson of the founder. He unabashedly stated that their products are made with love and I believe that is completely true – and that it affects the taste of the food. I then told him of my love (and longing) for my wife’s chicken soup and chulent. I didn’t elaborate on the chulent – it’ll probably just be easier to invite him over.

Together with Juan Pablo
Together with Juan Pablo

I have been in many businesses and factories over the years. La Spezia has probably around 30 workers, most of them preparing by hand large batches of pasta in multiple variations and combinations. You look at the workers and there is a quite joy and determination about them. The place is bright and airy and filled with an undertone of happiness and the scent of fresh, delicious food. Juan Pablo is proud to be able to provide his quality products to kosher consumers as well and is happy to assist in the creation of further kosher products.

It has my name on it -- I just wish I knew how to cook it...
It has my name on it — I just wish I knew how to cook it…

He then wishes to give me a gift of kosher frozen pasta, ravioli and other pasta-based products. I ask him to wait until my wife arrives as she will appreciate it much more knowing how to prepare it. I’ve been told it has to do with boiling water, but I’m content to limit myself to food that can be cooked by pushing a minimal amount of buttons on the microwave, or at most the instant add-boiling-water, wait-two-minutes, mix-if-you-must variety. Anything beyond that pushes my domesticity way beyond what my mortal cooking mind can grasp.

He looked at my quizzically. I guess Italians learn how to make pasta from a young age. He then smiled politely and promised to give the present to my wife upon her forthcoming visit to the palace of pasta. May it happen speedily in our days. Amen.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Bus-hawkers

Friday May 17, 2013


Today, for the first time, I ventured onto Montevideo’s public transportation. They don’t have subways, but they do have what appears to be a reasonably efficient bus system. The bus stop is conveniently a few meters away from my new bachelor pad (perhaps more on the apartment another time). I wasn’t sure exactly where to get off, but I had informed the driver of my destination and hoped for the best.

On the following stop, a man jumped onto the bus with a bouquet of leggings flowing out of his hands. He immediately proceeded to give his song and dance as to the quality of his merchandise, as to the special price and that due to his injured arm this was the best way he could make a living. If I closed my eyes I would be transported to the subways of New York. He even had the same rhythm of voice, the same practiced pitch of feigned excitement that was suitably ignored by all the commuters. Some things are universal.

One woman however did buy a pair of the warm-looking leggings. I felt that hawking on a bus was somehow a greater invasion of privacy (harder to ignore?) and yet more effective for the salesman.

The successful merchant got off at the next stop, and was quickly followed by an old man selling bandaids. He was less successful and also got off a stop later, not surprised or moved by the lack of clients.

Anxious to find the street I needed to get off on, I got a good look at the main drag of Montevideo, Avenida 18 de Julio. It reminded me very much of London’s Oxford Street with an eclectic mix of fancy stores and modern stores interspersed with older, more rundown cousins, underneath offices and apartment buildings. Various street-vendors were thrown into the mix. There are two main differences though between 18 de Julio and its British counterpart. The Uruguayan version is much more rundown, with unartistic graffiti sullying the walls.

The second difference, and I think I finally figured out part of the special charm of Montevideo, are the statues. This is not a scientific study, but I get the sense that Montevideo probably has a higher per capita presence of statues than other comparable cities. The classic architecture of Montevideo is European with a hodgepodge of different eras next to each other. In general it gives the city a pretty character beyond the more modern or utilitarian buildings. However, interspersed throughout the city and often in unexpected nooks and crannies, one will find a classic bronze statue. I don’t know if there was a sale decades ago on bronze statues, but for the most part they are very well made, some quite stately and noble looking, though rusted and dirty. One statue reminded me of the scene from Lord of the Rings with the gigantic stone statues guarding the approach to Minas Tirith.

In any case, despite my enrapture with the local scenery, the bus driver remembered my request and told one of the other passengers, who told me where to get off.

But now, back to things Jewish and Rabbinic.

Shavuot was wonderful. It’s been many years since I’ve celebrated a two-day holiday (besides Rosh Hashana), but there was something nice about an additional enforced day of rest. The holiday was filled with fantastic energy in the all-night learning, delicious food, generous hosting and thought-provoking theological discussions. I ended up giving a lecture on the questionably adulterous origins of King David (always a fun and popular talk). The first time around I gave it in English to a small group. Later in the night I received another request and gave it again. The following day word of further interest got around and I gave it in Spanish to a larger audience. I think the talk actually improved as the languages got harder for me.

Next week should be the first normal week on the job for me and I am looking forward to it, though I suspect there is nothing “normal” about this job…

Shabbat Shalom!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Ingredients of Trust

Tuesday May 14, 2013

Ingredients of Trust

Picture this. The Chief Rabbi of a country, one of whose main responsibilities is the Kosher certification and supervision of products in the country. I finally went to a local supermarket for the first time. Now those who know me may remember that I am particularly poorly domesticated, and that supermarket shopping is fairly low on my list of transferable skills. Thankfully, a member of the community graciously offered to accompany me on my inaugural visit to this prosaic though life-sustaining establishment.

This woman keeps a Kosher home and knows by heart most of the products that are Kosher. As opposed to Israel or the US, there are no signs, logos or any other distinguishable feature to designate that an item is Kosher. However, for the odd items that are not part of their usual purchases, she was able to look up via her smartphone the online list that I’m responsible for.

So here I am, the guy responsible for Kosher products, with no idea as to what I can buy, relying on a woman, who is relying on a list of products that someone that I rely on in my office (Moshe Silberberg – highly reliable) says is okay.

Perhaps by coincidence, this woman’s family was commemorating the Yartzeit of her husband’s mother that day. As part of the commemoration, the family sponsored this year, as they have in previous years, the printing of a new booklet with an updated list of the Kosher products available (under the auspices of yes, my office). By another coincidence I was asked to speak in the synagogue instead of the regularly scheduled Rabbi. I choose to speak about some of the theological aspects of keeping Kosher (before the impromptu supermarket outing) and how keeping Kosher is a foundation of Jewish life, that on one hand separates us from the other nations, but on the other hand unites us as a people. But last night I realized something else that keeping Kosher does – it builds trust.

Chag Shavuoth Sameach and may everyone enjoy their Kosher cheesecakes!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Seduction of Insanity

Reader feedback, from my good friend Egbert Pijfers of Norway on the halacha of not cooking meat with oil that was previously used to cook fish:

“Dear Bentzi, you made a very good decision from a nutritional point of view, because when vegetable oil is heated, many of the poly- and monounsaturated fats turn into saturated fats. You don’t want to fry meat in saturated fats, because then you get cholesterol-bombs.”


Sunday May 12, 2013

The Seduction of Insanity

There is something scarily compelling about insanity. I was walking from my hosts beautiful apartment, overlooking the ocean, towards the Maimonides synagogue where I was to give my inaugural sermon. I was walking across the street from the Rambla. Suddenly, a few meters in front of me, bags and bottles clang onto the busy street. Cars honk their horns and my first instinct is to assist.

But then I saw the man who had dropped his things and in a fraction of a second I understood he was homeless. Perhaps more than homeless (or perhaps the two unfortunately often go together) – he was deranged. He was shoeless and the only possessions on his thin tanned body were a pair of shorts and a baseball cap worn tightly at an abnormal angle. The youngish man (20-30s?) had an unkempt thick dark beard and the hair that stuck out of his hat seemed as he may have tried to cut it himself in the past.

My New York/Caracas/Rio de Janeiro instincts kicked in and I kept walking rapidly, passing and distancing myself from the troubled man. He picked up the things that he had dropped and then proceeded to throw them again at the fast-moving incoming traffic of the Rambla. Cars screeched, honked and barely avoided the man and his garbage in the middle of the road. The man repeated the exercise, yelling at the cars and the world, like a mad conductor directing a discordant symphony of metal and trash.

I kept walking, but had trouble pulling my eyes away. I was agonizingly curious as to what the man’s fate would be. Would some less than alert driver run him over? Would he fight with someone? At the same time I didn’t want to remain close to this obviously dangerous man.

I kept moving and reached the Maimonides synagogue. There was a crowd of around 120 people, more than had been in the synagogue in many years. I had made calls before Shabbat to a list of people inviting them. Synagogue members also made calls to their own list and there was also a Bar-Mitzvah this Shabbat which always brings more people. Perhaps inspired by the insanity I had witnessed, I tried something different for my sermon. I called up the Bar-Mitzvah boy to the podium at the beginning of my talk. I announced that he represented the camp of Israel in the desert. I then called up his father, mother, brother and uncle and had them represent East, West, North and South respectively. They became living and fairly successful visual aids for my sermon, based on something I wrote on the parasha (which you can conveniently read about here on my blog). Not sure what trick I’m going to do next time…

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Mid-air Rendezvous

Thursday May 2, 2013

So I’m sitting in my seat, minding my own business. It’s the last leg of a three-flight journey. Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo. I was blessed with a whole row in the first leg and an empty seat next to me in the two other flights (the flights were otherwise all packed).

The woman comes up to me purposefully and without introduction asks: “Are you Rabbi Spitz? The Chief Rabbi of Uruguay?”

“Yes!” I answer, not surprised by the content of the question, though unused to being so recognized.

She had seen the ad in the local Jewish weekly announcing my arrival. We then conducted the requisite Jewish geography game and scored a 10 as within a minute discovered that she is the cousin of one of my Madrichim (counselors) from the time I grew up in Rio. That practically makes us family. I met her husband and son and proceeded to get their take on the Jewish history and issues of the Uruguay community as well as how I’m going to make it all better.

I was greeted warmly at the airport by the President and Vice-President of the community who dropped me off at the Kosher hotel, the Armon Suites. I recognized from my previous visit all of the staff, including the mashgiach (Kosher supervisor) of the restaurant, who formally is part of my staff. It was interesting to see my signature on the hashgacha (Kosher certificate) on the wall.

Tomorrow is my first day at the office and then the fun begins!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi, May 10, 2013

Friday May 10, 2013

Rules of the Game

Rabbis are privy to a whole gamut of personal issues, domestic anguish, political intrigue and other sins and scandals that are just below the sensors of the general public. These are often dramatic stories, historical novellas and enough juicy material to make a tabloid blush.

Being the formal Rabbi of a country may brings these themes to a whole new level.

Inquiring minds however, will be disappointed. I will not be sharing much of the filth, dirt, backstabbing, idiocy, lunacy, pig-headedness and outright insanity that are the purview of successful newscasters. I will not divulge any story where there is the slightest possibility of either the innocent or the guilty being identified, or where a member of the community will find offense. It gives me very limited use of my material…

However, I am a writer. The need to write is in my blood. I look at the world with the eyes of a writer, noting setting, context, texture, story, details to populate the page. And there are wonderful stories here.

I want to write a story of the people of the Rambla, the miles-long boardwalk that to me represents the ease and tranquility of the city. Couples jogging, lovers walking, families strolling, fisherman casting their lines to the sea with faith and hope that their measly bait will entrap a scrumptious dinner. I noticed a number of people with their backs resting against the red-stone pillars that are spaced every few meters along the edge of the seawall. They were writing, drawing, sketching, listening to music. And some just sat there looking out to the sea. I don’t know what they sought there, or what they had lost. Perhaps just the soothing rhythm of the waves lapping the edge of the city gave them solace after a long day.

There must be an architectural school nearby, for there were a few people looking exactingly at seafront buildings over the top of their pencils.

But back to the Rabbi business. I had my first real halachic (Jewish law) question this week for which I did not have a ready answer. The mashgiach (Kosher overseer) of one of the Jewish schools which is under our supervision was asked if oil that was used to cook fish can thereafter be used to cook meat. We’re talking about industrial-sized cooking and a lot of oil. He had instructed the school not to, but was not sure. I suspected that he was right, but did not recall the source myself. Thanks to the support and responsiveness of other Rabbis that have agreed to be “on call” for me, I received a rapid answer. It turns out we were right. One cannot use oil that was used to cook fish for meat afterwards. For those halachically oriented some sources include Yoreh Deah 116:2, based on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 77B. Also, שות דברי שלום ב, קיב; קנין תורה ה, צא. (Special thanks to Rabbi Don Channen of Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim and Rabbi Michael Rubinstein, Rabbi of Yavne, Montevideo).

Part of my job, is the religious leadership of what some have termed a “non-observant Orthodox Jewish community”. For those that have grown up in a strictly Orthodox environment and even for those who choose to move from a secular life to one that is more in tune with an Orthodox lifestyle, the concept of a non-observant Orthodox community may seem perplexing. And indeed, there is a built-in dichotomy that can be maddeningly incomprehensible, illogical and even contradictory. However, it is the reality and it works to a certain extent. I believe that it requires a mental and existential balance that will only function via practice. It is probably a good thing that I have been a part of Yeshivat Har Etzion and been an avid consumer of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings where dichotomy, apparent contradiction, differing philosophies and viewpoints can find peaceful coexistence. Hopefully, I’ll write much more on this in a politically sensitive way in the future.

This just in. Have been invited to Yitzhak Perlman concert this Sunday night. Rank Hath Its Privileges!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi, May 7, 2103



The “Rambla” boardwalk of Montevideo

Monday May 7, 2013

Loving Montevideo!

So I have to admit that I was becoming resigned to a less than pretty neighborhood. The street I had become used to walking from the hotel to the synagogue was dark from tall somber trees and I needed to keep my eyes on the ground because of the highly uneven sidewalks littered with dog residue. I figured that’s just another price of shlichut (the Hebrew term for going abroad on a conceptually noble mission to do something for fellow Jews).

But then two things happened. I was invited to leave the not-inexpensive hotel and temporarily move in with an extremely hospitable family until I could find more reasonable accommodations.

The second thing was that I was tiring of taking taxis to the not-that-far office. So I bought a bike. I haven’t really biked since my biking accident when I broke my ankle over a year and a half ago. Only after I schlepped the new bike up to my office did I realize I only have my suit on and not my usual biking gear and I needed to transport my briefcase and trenchcoat as well. To make a medium-length and unusual-looking story short, I took to the streets of Montevideo with my briefcase over my shoulder, my trenchcoat tucked precariously between the straps and my tie flapping in the wind. The streets were mine!

There is no better way to discover a city than to get lost, and there is no better way to get lost than on a bicycle. I made it from the semi-commercial area of my office through older semi-abandoned areas of the city to the boardwalk. The boardwalk is wonderful. It doesn’t have the classic busyness of Copacabana or the energy of Tel-Aviv. It’s more of a rustic laid-back boardwalk, with brick-red tiles making an unusual contrast with the grey sea flecked lightly with white breakers and the occasional jogging couple. Nonetheless, at that moment it was majestic. There is nothing like a cool salty breeze blowing through your hair as you speed down the beachfront with the Atlantic by your side.

I eventually made it to my hosts’ house, dropped off my briefcase and trenchcoat and proceeded to get lost again on my way to the synagogue. But what a beautiful detour! I discovered parks and fountains and elegant streets. Beautiful apartment buildings, fancy stores and pretty houses. It turns out those few measly blocks I was walking from the hotel to the synagogue are probably the ugliest I’ve seen in Montevideo – and I thought that was what the rest of it looked like!

I think I caused of little bit of a stir as I rode into the synagogue complex on my bike. After people got over the surprise, they smiled and one said it was entirely appropriate for Uruguay.

In sadder news, yesterday a mother of four in her mid-forties passed away. In Montevideo, they’ve developed an unusual custom of sitting shiva (the 7-day Jewish mourning period) in the synagogue between the afternoon and evening prayer, as opposed to the almost universal custom of sitting shiva at home (more on the reasons in a future post, perhaps). There was quite a large turnout for the shiva. There were people in the crowd who had probably not been to synagogue or participated in prayer services in many years.

In contrast to the hominess I’m used to in a shiva house, I think there may be some advantages to the greater structure and formality of this synagogue shiva, especially for people who are more distant from religious services. Rabbi Michael, the Rabbi of the synagogue was masterful in conducting the services and in his sermon, giving true comfort to the family.

This past Sunday was also the “Classico” which I learned meant a match between the two popular local soccer teams. As a dutiful guest I participated in watching the match on TV together with the male relatives of my hosts. It is quite enjoyable to comment on the skill or lack thereof of players, coaches and referees and to moan and groan at the action. It turns out this was a highly valuable exercise as this was all most males have spoken about today and I have already chosen which player to pick on in my comments on the game (Novick of Peñarol).

For those who might be thinking I am shirking my rabbinical duties, rest assured that I am being kept busy with all matters rabbinic. Today was the inauguration of the community’s revamped clothing gemach (charitable organization) at which I was the keynote speaker and I also had a meeting with the community board to report on my assessment and plans for the rabbinate. And it’s only Monday!