From Rabbi Amitai Adler
Mashehu L’Hagid (A Li’l Somethin’ Somethin’ To Say)
Since I am now officially Temple B’nai Israel’s rabbi, I wanted to take the chance to introduce myself a little more extensively, especially to those of you I haven’t yet met.
Although I like to joke that being a rabbi is the Adler family business (my father is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who got his ordination in Skokie at Hebrew Theological College, my mother is a Reform rabbi and professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles—I got my ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Conservative rabbinical school in Los Angeles), I actually didn’t start off as a rabbi, or even intending to be a rabbi.
I’m from Los Angeles, though I spent a big chunk of my childhood in Minneapolis, MN. I went to college in Santa Cruz, CA: I studied a lot of things there—I nearly minored in Celtic Studies, and did minor in English Literature. I was going to major in English Lit, but ended up falling in love with the theater, and that’s what I got my degree in. I’ve directed for the stage, and written plays, but acting was my first love. I got trained as a method actor, mostly Meisner method, with a little Stella Adler (no relation) and Lee Strasberg thrown into the mix.
For those who’ve never studied theater, it might be surprising to hear, but it turned out that being trained in method acting was perfect preparation for being a rabbi. Meisner method teaches the actor that everything needed to create a complete character lies within: to become someone else, one must first know oneself totally. And it also teaches that real acting is living: if you’re reciting memorized lines, you’re not doing it right. You have to internalize the dialogue completely, so that it flows naturally and spontaneously from you in the moment.
Those are perfect models for spiritual living and davening (praying).
To live a truly spiritual life, open to deeply connecting with others and with God, one must know and accept oneself completely. How can one truly accept others if one doesn’t accept oneself? How could one truly love and value another if one doesn’t love and value oneself? And how can one permit oneself to be truly open to God if one doesn’t trust oneself enough to allow oneself to be vulnerable?
And as it turns out, davening from a fixed liturgy (as we Jews do) is the ultimate manifestation of the method actor needing to completely internalize dialogue. The first, best reason it is so critical to learn Hebrew, to study the prayers and understand them, is so that one can internalize them, and not have to be thinking about the words while one is saying them. The freedom given by entering into prayer prepared with full comprehension and familiarity is the realization that the words of our liturgy are beautiful and elegantly crafted empty vessels: they are there to be filled with whatever kavanah (focus, intention, direction) our hearts and souls may require in the moment of tefillah (prayer).
Of course, I found out that one really can’t be a working actor or director while one is shomer mitzvot (observant): the show must go on, and usually that means Friday nights, Saturday afternoons, and days on which our holidays fall. So as I became more shomer mitzvot (I was raised Modern Orthodox, but spent my late teens and early twenties not observant, leading a secular life while I “found myself”), I had to give up the theater, and I spent some years working in nonprofits, especially around the Hollywood film industry, and doing some miscellaneous teaching as well, before I finally realized that the way I wanted to contribute to the world was by being a rabbi.
Outside of work, I am a writer: fiction and poetry, these days, though I have written plays. I read a lot: I’m a natural speed reader, so I go through quite a bit of reading material. I meditate (when I get the chance), I have dabbled in learning to fight with a broadsword, and I cook seriously (I spent a lot of time working in restaurants and reading books about food: I almost chose culinary school instead of rabbinical school). I am a sci-fi and comic book geek, and sometimes a bit of a pop culture junkie. And, of course, I am lucky enough to be married to the amazing Rabbi Julie Adler, with whom I have two great kids: Michael 2 ½) and Maya (5 months), and with whom I share a small dog technically named Pumpernickel, but who answers to Little Dog.
Hopefully, we will all come to know each other well as time passes. I have already enjoyed meeting so many members of the community, and coming to know some of you a little. I am looking forward to even more. The Temple B’nai Israel community is special, and I am excited to try and help it flourish and grow. I believe the role of any rabbi, first and foremost, is to teach, and to empower other Jews to learn more, to master the skills of our ritual life for themselves, to be able to actively participate in service leadership and communal ritual practice. To that end, if any of you have things you want to study, to learn, skills you want to sharpen—I encourage you to come to me. I’ll be giving regular shiurim (seminars or workshops), and I encourage everyone to try and attend when possible, especially the upcoming High Holiday preparatory shiurim. And, of course, I’ll be available for all the other usual rabbinic resources: answering questions, providing a sympathetic ear and such advice as I can, visiting the ill, helping with or facilitating lifecycle events, etc.
As I said, I’d love to get to know you all, and those I’ve already come to know a little, I’d like to know better. So I encourage each and every one of you to make an appointment with me: either to come in to my office and hang out a little, or to let me take you out for coffee or tea.
I couldn’t be more excited to be part of the Temple B’nai Israel community: I think it’s going to be a terrific year ahead!
Rabbi Amitai Adler