08 April 2009

The List: Dayenu

I was trying to figure out what makes me uneasy about our synagogue being selected by three entertainment and media leaders and Newsweek magazine as one of the 25 most vibrant synagogues in the country. (Last year I was on the list for rabbis but this year seem to have lost a few vibrant steps, due in no small part to a series of muscle spasms in my lower back which comes with age, alas.)

It dawned on me last night while sitting right inside the liberal Jewish echo chamber--Jon Stewart's Daily Show monologue. Stewart was going after Fox News (appropriately) for their whining and carping about how President Obama is building a dictatorship in the United States. Absurd as it may be, this kind of rampant conspiracy "group-think" plays very, very well to people sitting at home on couches, racking up ratings points which networks and advertisers take all the way to the bank.

I was reared on this stuff. My dad sold television ad time for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee when I was growing up and before the shades were removed from my eyes, I thought television was all about entertainment. Then one night an ad's placement was aired incorrectly and my dad got up from the couch, went to the phone, and proceeded to investigate rather vigorously (berate) a staff member for the mishap. It was brutal stuff but thousands of dollars were at stake and this was serious business. Going back to the show was never the same after that--a kind of smokey fire burned and (to mix metaphors) the bloom was off the rose. (I'd say the plume was off the peacock but that was NBC.)

My dad was the son of an immigrant from Minsk. She landed in Milwaukee as a girl, was babysat by Golda Meir, met her prince charming, a first generation Jewish doctor, and they did quite well for themselves, raising two sons, belonging to a couple shuls, and retiring comfortably before age and illness took them to next world.

Like many men of his generation, my dad's outlook was about escaping Jewishness to a degree: it was not worth much practice though it was certainly worth defending, and so at the very least one didn't deny he was a Jew, he just didn't do much about it. Except get an excellent secular education and get ahead. Fiercely. That sense of competition fueled at least two if not three generations of American Jews, a fuel whose elements were made up of the material of proving oneself constantly to the doubting insider who knew in his heart that the outsider, the Jew, didn't belong. Remarkable, really, when you think about it, how much that sense of competition has brought us to great achievements (and with Madoff, for instance, no small amount of cruel and pathological self-hatred.)

That sense of hunger for validation still speaks volumes today. Look at William Daroff of the UJC and his quote about President Obama's decision to host a White House Seder:

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the United Jewish Communities Washington office, said the seder was scheduled on the second night so as not to disrupt first night family seders and is "a testament to how far we have come as a Jewish people in America.

"Jews are a vital component in the mosaic that is American culture and society," he said. "Our welcome through the front door, and the dining room door, of the White House speaks to the inclusiveness of today's America and of President Obama. This night is indeed different from all other nights.

Ironic, no? The Right Wing played up false rumors of Obama being a Muslim; the Jewish community did not rush to support him (though a well-run campaign won over more than 70% of the Jewish vote) and more than 100 years after our own mass arrival on these shores, it is an African American President who welcomes us to the White House at a Seder meal. Extraordinary. (Of course, really, one should talk about coastal hesitations with Obama--Chicago's Jewish community knew him well and spent the first part of the campaign scratching its head over why the coasts were taking so long to embrace him.)

But to return to the point, or more accurately, the spot on the list.

The media echo chamber of American Jewish life now has its own trio of men who for the third year in a row have created a list, which I gather is meant to create "buzz," so that the disaffected Jews who don't like to affiliate or associate with Jewish life can at least feel like their forays into Jewish life will be validated in their own right by their somewhat (let's admit it) shallow propensity to go to things that are on "the list." Magazines have been doing this for a long time, working in tandem with industry and business publicists to create lists--best doctors, best lawyers, best restaurants, best spas, best gyms--whole forests have been cleared to make room for our competitive prioritizing.

But seared into my memory is the question one must ask: to what end with the synagogues and rabbis list? Who really benefits? It's not like the phone rang off the hook this week with people saying, "Hello Rabbi Bachman, I read about your synagogue in Newsweek's Top Twenty Five Congregations list--how do I join?" And I don't even think there's a business strategy for calculating how much ad revenue was made by hits on the Newsweek site--wait, there is, but it's got to be insignificant, right?

So why do it?

Mostly it's because in America, the tail IS wagging the dog. Media is God and through the "burning bush" of laptops and desktops across the land, the Voice of God cries out, "Moses, Moses," and we all answer, because that's where we're looking, "Here I am."

But unlike a call from the first Burning Bush that demands liberation, justice, freedom and equality, we only hear the sound of our own voice, and only see the faint reflection of ourselves, caught up in the hungry trap of getting ahead, getting on that list.


The hungry remain in the land; millions remain in chains; those in pain, requiring comfort, should top all our lists.

The rabbis in their wisdom associated leaven with the ego and understood the Festival of Passover to be a fast from the ego, from the self, from the inflated sense of importance we derive from being on someone's list, from seeing one's name in lights, or from the comfortable validation of a warm computer screen or buzzing television through which one falsely finds warmth.


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