Archive by category "Exploring God's World"

Az der Rebbe Geyt: A Rabbi At Sea

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Over the past few years since I entered my 80s, I have been contemplating retirement (I seem to have actually “retired” several times from my several careers, but then, drawn by the attraction of a compelling new interest, I keep on reinventing myself as only “semi-retired”). In the process, I have come to believe that a rabbi never completely retires. Maybe that’s true for many seniors whose passions lie in other fields. In any case, as a non-retired, retired rabbi, I have served as Guest Staff Rabbi for both Passover and the Jewish High Holy Days on a number (seven now) of delightful, lengthy cruises. It has afforded me the luxury of travelling, accompanied by one of my four daughters, to many fascinating, faraway places in the world that I could never have otherwise visited.

As an American, pluralistic rabbi, it has given me the opportunity to explore Jewish communities in other countries, many of them now only a memory recorded in a small museum or a series of plaques, or a “Jew street” where once its inhabitants conducted commerce.  A few communities are small but still vibrant, maintaining customs different from the ones I am used to celebrating at home. Some are still Jewish – despite. I have visited countries like Indonesia where Judaism is not one of their six official religions, and where people with Israeli passports cannot disembark. I have also visited Jewish communities that are still substantial and thriving, such as Australia or Brazil. Or countries like Spain (with a time limit) and, more recently, Portugal (no time limit) which now offer citizenship to Jews who can show ancestry to relatives expelled or persecuted at the time of the Inquisition; or, Morocco, which, in an appealing new spirit of harmony, now welcomes all religions, putting aside the fact that most Moroccan Jews – who had migrated to that country even before the Spanish Inquisition and lived peacefully with the Berbers —  were shamefully persecuted and thus forced to flee when Israel declared itself a state. And I have visited Rhodes in Greece where a tall black memorial records the death in the Holocaust of the 1600 Jews who once lived there. And so on.

So I was taken aback when a more stationary American rabbi asked me a rather startling question the other day: “Do people on cruise ships really want to attend a religious service?” he asked.

“When you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without sight of land — just seemingly endless waves — for a week before reaching a port,” I replied, “it certainly puts you in a receptive state of mind to find some time to have a conversation with God.”

Actually the passengers on board who identify as Jewish (in my experience, anywhere from 24 on a smaller ship to 68 on a larger ship) welcome the chance to celebrate a sacred Jewish ritual together as a “community within a community.” For me, it is a joyful experience to welcome people who come from different countries, speak various languages and practice diverse traditions, but are still delighted to celebrate on an ocean-going voyage with other Jews. This year at Passover, I asked for volunteers to read “The Four Questions” with Yiddish, French, Spanish, Ladino, and English translations at hand, symbols of some of the countries in which Jews dispersed from the Holy Land had lived for centuries if not thousands of years. Then all the “congregants” at the Seder tables read them together in Hebrew (transliteration provided).

And although the meal was kosher (I spend a lot of time working out the menu with the always cooperative Director of Food Services and the talented Executive Chef), and the wine chosen was an excellent kosher Baron de Hirsch brand, I knew someone would pipe up with, “I usually have Manishevitz,” and of course we did have that square bottle of VERY SWEET wine too.

The tables were gorgeously set with “kept only for Passover” dishes, beautiful scrolled menus, flowers, white tablecloths, place cards, a Haggadah at each place setting, and wine glasses, of course, which the waiters made sure to fill four times on cue. Ceremonial platters containing the symbols of Passover were on each table of eight. The ship’s techies had arranged a microphone for me so that everyone could hear the service and my remarks.

For me, one of the most moving moments occurred before the Seder when a non-Jewish couple asked if they could attend. “Our daughter converted and is married to a Jewish man, and our son-in-law invites us to their home every Passover,” they explained. “We’re far away now, but we’d like to feel close to them.” So they came to the Seder – despite the fact that Good Friday coincided with Passover this year, and there was a priest aboard to lead Easter services — and they enjoyed it immensely. As well, we had a Messianic couple (considering conversion to Judaism) also in attendance.

For the second night, I held a discussion group on “Counting the Omer,” and to my surprise, a considerable group attended. Soon we would begin to stop at ports every day, but people still attended the “Yizkor” (Memorial) service on Friday night, which I coupled with Holocaust remembrance. I invited the priest to recite the 23rd Psalm, which he was delighted to do. He had been a missionary in North Africa for many years and was now the Director of his country’s missions in various places.

We did have one controversy aboard as to whether Passover should be seven or eight days. We settled on seven days (which is the modern norm in Israel and also Reform congregations), but if anyone preferred eight days, that was okay too. We still had plenty of matzah at hand.

Lots of good, often very accomplished people. And, oh yes, since we had a passenger aboard who was born in Morocco, we had a Mimouna, something I had never celebrated before. It’s simply a celebration to mark the end of Passover and features lots and lots of delicious pastries, Moroccan style. In Israel, Mimouna (the name honors Maimonides) is marked by a general Open House, and people go from house to house sampling all the desserts.

So the answer to my fellow rabbi’s question, is “Yes, it’s really possible to conduct religious services on a cruise ship, and many people are happy to come – and, indeed, grateful that these services are provided. Of course, not every cruise line provides this service (unless it’s specifically a Jewish-oriented cruise), and in most cases, it’s left up to the passengers to conduct their own services if they wish to do so.

And no, my friends, I don’t get seasick, and I love being at sea with people from many lands.

Real Estate on Mars?

Real Estate on Mars?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


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In the spring of 2017, I was visiting Guatemala on a cruise stop-over. I stood in the very field – actually a games-playing site: a ball court — that marked the birthplace of the long-lost Mayan civilization. Considerable additional archeological excavation could be done on the adjacent fields if not for the fact that they are now private property. They belong to people who have built their houses and businesses there. No way they want them excavated. However, from the ball court, we could get the general idea of the vast Mayan culture. We could look into the distance and see the ring of fire – the volcanos – presenting a misted but ever-present danger. Add to the recurrent eruptions the earthquakes and other natural disasters that wreak their vengeance from time to time in this area. Add to that, the desperate poverty these disasters inflict. If you live here, you would do well to be God-fearing.

Or, when human-inflicted evils, like the mayhem of drug cartels and vicious gangs, are added to this mix, to flee.

The Mayans are long gone — although some remnants of that ancient people, now melded with Mexican culture, still profess to derive from that civilization. Our 21st century mathematicians still marvel at the complex astronomical knowledge of a proud people who sacrificed individuals to propitiate the fierce deities they invented to explain the volcanic eruptions: At the very same time they were exhibiting advanced mathematical knowledge and building complex structures, not to mention growing abundant crops on the fertile land, the prosperous Mayans were tearing out human hearts on the sacrificial altars of their religious cult.

And then they were gone. Although there are many theories, no one really knows why. Did an especially disastrous earthquake or volcano eruption occur, destroying everything in its wake? Were they carried away into outer space by aliens? Did the crops fail, so that they relocated? Apparently, the upper classes of Mayan culture disappeared, but the lower working classes remained. Similarly, when the ancient Jews were carried off to exile in Babylonia, only the upper echelon of society and the priests were taken; the “people” were left to fend for themselves.

* * * *

As I sat comfortably on a bus on my trip through modern day Guatemala, the poverty of the surrounding countryside was evident until we approached a small city on the way to Antigua. Here huge efforts were being made by the population to upgrade their way of life. We stopped at a new cultural and educational center of which the people were extremely proud. It featured, not unsurprisingly – astronomy being indigenous to their culture — a beautiful planetarium and a theatre. We tourists were also treated to traditional dancing and singing – and some modern compositions too.

The artistic side of Guatemalan life was further enhanced when we visited the Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua, which is actually three museums featuring different aspects of Guatemalan culture and combined in an aesthetically-conceived complex presided over by Dominican monks. For me, the most striking exhibit was a large display featuring ancient Mayan sculpture. Each sculpture of antiquity was accompanied by exquisite modern day sculptures (lent to the exhibit from galleries around the world) with the same themes – themes common to every culture in every generation: the elements, nature, motherhood, love, grief.   My daughter and I spent the entire day at this extraordinary Casa, itself surrounded by beautiful gardens. We drank wine, though, at the excellent restaurant because Guatemalan water is advisedly not for tourists who have not yet developed sufficient local microbes in their systems to avert intestinal disaster.

We also felt physically secure inside this complex because, in addition to the violent ramifications of the dangerous drug cartels and gang violence the population feared, Guatemalan borders were being besieged by desperate Venezuelan refugees seeking to flee the multiple disasters of their own corrupt country – including armed conflict at the border.

Over-population on a scale we do not know in the U.S. or Canada is a huge problem in Central America, in Southeast Asia, and in other parts of the world that I have visited. Why? Because these countries do not have the resources to cope with the needs of their own population, let alone the re-settling problems that so many new people bring in their wake. Their governments can’t handle it. Not while gangsters run their countries.

Maybe the Mayans of old knew what they were doing when they studied the planetary universe with astrological knowledge astonishing for their time. We earthlings may need the resources of some of those planets sooner than we think.

Anyone selling real estate on Mars?


Getting the Balance Right

Getting the Balance Right

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

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When I was an “Honors English” undergraduate student at McGill University so many years ago, my concentration was mainly on theatre and drama, along, of course, with literature. History, too. I still remember how upset I was to learn about Armand Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. It was indeed a cruel message for a young girl who had entered university at 16 years of age, and who believed that, ideally, the role of the arts was to convey not only life’s beauty – and yes, its vagaries and sorrows — but also to inspire, and, in so doing, to reach for the essence of the divine. I didn’t know when I was a teenager that one day, much later in life, I would become a rabbi.

Who was Armand Artaud?

His thesis, a dramatic one indeed, was that nature is cruel, the ultimate cruelty, and that no matter what human beings build or create, no matter how much they think they have conquered the desert or the jungle, or the sea, no matter what great civilizations they build, nature will persevere in the end. Just as Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) postulates in the Bible, everything is ephemeral (a better English translation of the Hebrew word “hevel” than“vanity.” That is what Artaud’s plays purported to show: Eventually, it is only a matter of time, nature takes it all back. Like sand castles washed away by the tide, as we discover in childhood, to fragmented Torah texts or pottery shards or valuables secreted in tombs, or even whole cities unearthed centuries later, we learn that nature takes back by what is later revealed.

Artaud’s theories have seemed quite credible in the last weeks. Terrifying volcanic eruptions and lava flows that still continue at this writing have been raging in Hawaii. It’s easy to understand why the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands invented a goddess of the mountain named Pele who needed to be propitiated so that she would not erupt.

My children and I walked on those same black lava beds when we visited Big Island some years ago, so the videos and oral reports of Kilauea’s eruption seem almost beyond belief to me today. True, red embers were visible through the fissures even then, and we were permitted to stay only a few minutes because of the sulphur gas constantly emitted. However, the capable rangers and the knowledgeable geologists had it all under control then. Each day they checked their up-to-the-minute scientific information and reconfigured where it was safe for tourists to be. When two of my children strayed too long, their throats were very sore the next day. In recent years, access has been more limited, I am told.

As if in response to Kilauhea’s fury, echoing volcanic disasters have erupted in other areas of the world. In Guatemala, surrounded by “the ring of fire” of its enveloping mountains, volcanic fury has also been raging. I visited there only last year, enthralled by the fact that this land, these mountains cloaked in mist just beneath their summits, represent the birthplace of the almost lost Mayan culture.

Why do people stay? Why do people choose to live near volcanos in various parts of the world – near Pompeii for example, in Santorini?  Perhaps it’s because inspiration couples with the possibility of destruction there. Perhaps it’s because somehow, in the enormity of what happened, what can still happen, it feels close to God.

Even now, as I watch the film clips of natural disaster still raging in Hawaii, I remember sitting in the mystical vortex between two crystal-embedded mountains there and hearing the mountains echo with sound, like giant radios. What were they transmitting? What messages have they still to convey?

And I remember walking (a little apprehensively, I admit)) through the long lava tube that cut right through the Kilauea volcano. Remarkably, nature had made it into a beautiful rain forest, filled with green plants and gorgeous flowers. Right there in the middle of the volcanic mountain, the rain forest had all the natural ingredients it needed to flourish.

In God’s world, creation coexists with destruction. Our task is to get the balance right.


Kiss a Whale — And Lick Cancer?

(When Corinne Copnick, now an ordained rabbi, contemplated moving from Toronto to California, she sent a number of stories about her experiences back to The Jewish Tribune, a national Canadian newspaper, for which she had written a weekly column and other stories for several years. This true story was first published in 1998. She has made a few small changes here.)



The Whale Enjoyed it Too!

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


The biblical Jonah didn’t know about it when he inhabited the belly of a whale, but kissing a whale can lead to an easy recovery from cancer surgery. It may not be in the medical text books, but that’s what Jane (not her real name)   believes. She is a retired Canadian businesswoman now living in coastal California.

The encounter between Jane and a young Pacific grey whale took place in the warm, salty waters of San Ignacio Lagoon on the western coast of Baja California. This area is the mating and birthing grounds of thousands of Pacific grey whales who divide their time between Baha and their feeding grounds near Alaska.

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After their encounter – a friendly kiss — Jane, who teaches yoga, felt as if she had journeyed through a mystical experience. Apparently, the whale enjoyed her kiss too, and it may even have been partly the whale’s idea. Richman weighs a little over a hundred pounds. The whale weighs in at fifty times more.

“The young whale came right up to the boat, and his head came straight out of the water,” Jane recounted excitedly. “I leaned over and kissed him.” At the time, she was one of several dozen members of a whale-watching expedition sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Diego.

Her husband (now late husband), Mark (not his real name), had arranged to take her on the whale-watching trip three days before her operation for thyroid cancer. Jane was dreading the operation because previous thyroid surgery had involved a very painful recovery. But after kissing the whale, she claims, both the surgery and the recovery were a breeze in comparison to her previous experience. She credits the awes-inspiring whale encounter with giving her such a positive feeling about life that it affected the aftermath of her surgery.

It is not only Jane who believes the whale kiss helped her lick cancer. Her husband felt the same way. In fact, he filmed his wife’s interaction with the whale, as well as another two hours of the whale-watching trip. The behavior of these “friendly” whales, he pointed out at the time, is particularly astonishing “when measured against the savage, bloody history of mankind’s interaction with the Pacific gray whale.”

It is not known exactly why whales in these protected lagoons actually seek out physical contact with humans. According to a report in California’s Westside News, “the young whales in particular swim right up to small boats, pop their heads out of the water, look around with eyes the size of baseballs, and then, like dogs wanting to be petted, nuzzle up to the boats and the outstretched hands of the humans aboard. They seem to enjoy the contact. With the mother keeping a watchful eye nearby, some of the young whales will frolic around the boats for half an hour or more. Sometimes the mother will even nudge her off-spring toward the boats, as if eager for the young whale to get a look at the strange creatures inside.”

Just in case you’re already reaching for your weathered copy of Moby Dick for a whale refresher, the story of Jonah, which traditionally we’ll be reading on Yom Kippur afternoon, is even more enthralling. When he got a long look at the inside of that strange creature, the whale, he underwent a complete spiritual overhaul. Just like Jane says she did when she shared a friendly kiss with a young whale on the west coast of Baja California. In that mystical moment, she understood the interconnectedness of all living creatures. She tickled the insides of the whale’s cheeks too, and he loved it.

Blow With All Your Heart!


Blow With All Your Heart!

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


Did I tell you that I can’t blow the shofar? I have tried and tried. But I’m a rabbi who can’t even blow up a balloon without getting winded. I could excuse myself by saying, “Oh well, that’s what happens when you’re well into your eighties.” Instead I keep trying.

So first I bought a small one, direct from Israel, a ram’s horn with a kosher sticker (it’s still on the horn). And then I tried and tried to blow it. Not a sound.  Over and over again on many occasions, I have tried to produce at least a little noise with my shofar. Nada, as we say in California. Nothing.

At this point, it’s only rational – right? – to think that the fault was not with my blowing ability but rather with the shofar. What kind of a kosher shofar was this short, white horn, sticker and all? That’s when I went shopping and bought a pretty, ebony black, Yemenite shofar. Also kosher, very curvy, and from Israel as well, it came from an antelope, not a ram. It’s skinnier than the ram’s horn, like a shofar that’s been trying to lose weight. “Aha!” I thought. “This looks like a shofar made for me,’ and, without a second thought, I bought it.

Sadly, I couldn’t produce a single sound from it. Not one, even though I tried to blow the shofar many different ways. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Why couldn’t I get ANY shofar to sound for me?

Just then, my sixteen-year-old granddaughter, entered the room and saw me huffing and puffing away. “What’s wrong, Grandma?” she asked, concerned.

“Can you get any kind of noise from this shofar?” I asked her. “It’s from an antelope in Yemen.”

She took the shofar from my hands, put it to her mouth, and drew from it a long, soulful, teenage blast. “Sure,” she said. “It’s easy.”

I took the ram’s horn from its place in the cabinet. “How about this one?”

She put it to her lips, and again drew from it a deeper sound than the first one. “No sweat,” she said. “It’s easy.”

So it wasn’t the fault of the antelope, not the fault of the sheep, nor the people who put stickers on.

Then my thirteen year-old-granddaughter became alarmed by all the noise and came running into the room.

“Here,” I said, handing her one of the shofarot. “Can you blow these?”

She gave me an adolescent’s reproving look. “Grandma, I’ve already had my bat mitzvah!”

On the first try, she blew strong, firm blasts from the shofar she selected. And then from the other one. The blasts were so loud, they sounded like a ship’s horn making it way through the fog. Or maybe a shofar – ram’s horn, antelope’s horn, straight, curly, it doesn’t matter — sounding exactly the way it was supposed to. You could hear it from a mountain top.


* * * *


The fact remained that my granddaughters with powerful lungs and musical ability were not coming with me on my High Holy Day assignment on a cruise ship. And now I knew that there was nothing wrong with my either of my shofarot. Well, on a cruise ship you have to improvise. Maybe I would be someone who could play the trumpet on the ship, or at least a wind instrument.

When my little “congregation-at-sea” assembled on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I asked if, by chance, anyone could play the shofar or a wind instrument. To my surprise, a short, middle-aged man spoke up.

“I can play the trumpet,” he offered.

Of course I was delighted. I explained that our Rosh Hashanah trumpet would be a shofar, if he could blow that too. The ancient sound of the shofar is supposed to be like the trumpet-blasts acknowledging the coronation of a sovereign – God.

“I’ll try,” he said. “My name’s John.”

While I couldn’t produce a sound from the shofar myself, I did know the pattern of sounds that a shofar should produce for the High Holy Days. So the two of us spent an afternoon in the nightclub on the top level of the ship. Normally, it wasn’t used during the day, and we were able to fill its quiet with lots of shofar noise, while John got used to the sound patterns this shofar could ably produce. During the actual service, I explained, I — as the rabbi — would call out one at a time the Hebrew words meant to evoke the pattern of sounds that John would then draw forth from the shofar. The shofar’s sounds are intended to stir our consciences, individually and collectively to confront our past mistakes.


Tkiyah   Shevarim  Truah  Tkiyah

Tkiyah   Shevarim  Truah  Tkiah

Tkiah     Shevarim  Truah  Tkiyah


As we practiced the sounds together – word call and musical response, I could see that John was very moved. “If we miss the mark, we can always try again,” I told John. And he blew his practice notes of the Tkiyah Gedola, the long, long blast of the Great Shofar until he was so red in the face, he looked like he would burst – with joy, I thought.

During that meaningful afternoon, John poured out his heart to me. He was not a Jew. Although he had been born a Christian, he had always felt drawn to Judaism. Eventually, he had become a Jew for Jesus, a Messianic Jew.

We talked for a long time. John was a deeply soulful person who had read widely. He had a highly developed brain that interpreted the world mathematically and was attracted to Gematria. On his own, he had studied and developed an appreciation of many of the mystical precepts of Kabbala (not the red string kind!), but he was in spiritual turmoil. He longed to be accepted by the Jewish community.

“You need to study with a rabbi, John,” I said. “Jews believe in one God. If you say that you are a Messianic Jew, that means you accept Jesus as divine. You have to decide, and I think you need some help to do that.”

We spent a couple of hours on another afternoon addressing some of the issues that concerned him, and the differences between Judaism and Messianism. I made some further suggestions as to whom he could contact for further study, and what readings would help him in his spiritual quest.

“Take your time,” I counseled. “In order to become a Jew,” as he now claimed he wanted to do, “you would have to convert, and to give up the divinity of Jesus, your belief in him as the Messiah. To become Jewish is a serious commitment. You will have to think about it long and hard.”

When it came time for the Rosh Hashana services, I was a little uneasy. In order to blow the shofar at services, you are really supposed to be a Jew, so I eased my own conscience by thinking of him as a Jew-to-be. “I want to become a Jew,” he told me before the service. “I’m sure of it,” he added with sincerity.

“Time will tell,” I replied. “When you blow the shofar tonight and tomorrow, John, I want you to blow with all your heart. I want you to blow for the Messiah to come. Our world is in turmoil and surely needs one. It won’t matter if he – or she – is coming for the first or second time. Blow for peace in the world.”

John smiled. And when he blew the shofar, not only did his face get red, but tears of happiness shone in his eyes. It turned out to be a terrific Rosh Hashanah.