26 June 2009

Marvelous in Structure

The building is alive.

We had that realization yesterday when our plumber returned to face another in a series of clogged pipe and aged-out waterways--this one in the back of the Temple House, which in the last several rainstorms had developed into a nasty swamp of rancid water, filth and roof renovation debris. The contractor who had replaced the roof came back last week in order to clear the alley of any last items and through the valorous bravery of some of our maintenance men, we were able to clear a pathway to the drains.

The result after today's visit was a seething mass of muck that had the plumber running from the alley to the street, waiting wisely for it recede and then watching, miraculously, as it melted away, washed back down the drain with a simple hose.

It was part comedy, part drama--perhaps Cecil B. DeMille meets John Landis. It was then that we realized: the building is alive. It's speaking to us. Literally moving its bowels.

I know this sounds graphic but I have come to realize that in a community, all aspects of its manifest reality have a life of their own. There's the way one is greeted by walking through the doors; the paper and the graphic presentation of who we are as an institution; the manner of discourse; the light that pours into the windows; that state of the glass that filters that light; the bricks and mortar that house our holy aspirations; and yes, the pipes which deliver our water and waste to and fro.

There is a morning blessing in the Siddur in which we thank God for removing waste from our bodies:

"Praised are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are you Eternal, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways." (Siddur Sim Shalom)


25 June 2009

The Jewish Ceremonial I Prefer

Moritz Oppenheim's Sabbath Eve

"This series of pictures should strike a deep emotional response in the heart of every Jew. No matter how far we have traveled from the observances that were practiced by our fathers, we have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves, and a respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion."

So begins a small volume published in 1930 by the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods called "The Oppenheim Pictures..Depicting Jewish Ceremonial Life." This gem was found in our library by two wonderful graduate students from the Pratt Institute who are getting their degrees in Library Science and spending the summer helping us to re-organize the synagogue library. Like a lot of corners and even open areas of the Temple, the Library had fallen into a fairly severe state of neglect. Its original architecture and design had been built over with cheap plywood and ugly florescent lighting; its collection languished during an era in which new Jewish studies exploded; and, like libraries in general, reading became privatized and computer-based, leaving the room in the shul with books to be, well, a room in the shul with books. These two remarkable young women simply won't tolerate that--and so they're having a go at looking at each book on each shelf in an effort to determine their value and relevance. It's been pretty fun sitting next door to them these last several weeks and having them appear with various volumes like the aforementioned Oppenheim Pictures.

Moritz Oppeheim was a German Jew, born at the dawn of the 19th century and as a contemporary of Goethe and Heine, achieved elevated status as a painter depicting both Biblical and contemporary Jews. His most loyal patrons were the Rothschilds, whose support helped spread Oppenheim's Romantic depictions of Jews throughout Western Europe. In his classic work, "Jewish Icons," Richard I. Cohen writes about the painter, "As observed by Oppenheim, Jewish tradition blended well with occupational exigencies, while relations with the surrounding society lacked stress and discomfort."

Speaking of stress and discomfort, no sooner had this volume warmed my hand then I was confronted by a congregant asking to explain myself about why I was requesting the shul to pay a parking ticket that the city had given me for having parked in front of the synagogue I serve. Most DOT officers and congregants welcome the presence of my vehicle in front of the shul where God's name is charmingly misspelled; but lately, some new officer with an excess of zeal has been issuing tickets with the buzzing frequency of malarial mosquitos in the Hula Valley during the First Aliyah. I'm not aware of any written record of Alternate Side Parking for Horse and Buggy in Hamburg circa 1832, so I wasn't sure how Oppenheim would have depicted this grisly scene of attempting to explain why the rabbi should be able to park in front of the synagogue unmolested by taxing meter maids. "If this were the suburbs, I guess I'd have a spot with my name on it" was the best I could come up with and let's face it--reaching for the suburbs in this case was really an act of desperation. I was kind of shocked that I was even having the conversation. With reluctance, the stay of execution was granted and I returned to my study to retrieve the ringing phone.

There are two types of reverence for the Jewish ceremonials in our community: those who engage the rabbi in the Jewish Ceremonial of Torah (the source of this reverence is Torah, and not the rabbi) and those who engage in the Jewish Ceremonial of seeing the rabbi jump through hoops (the source of this reverence is ego and power, and not the rabbi, either.) Guess which type of reverence for Jewish Ceremonial I prefer?

On the other end of the ringing phone was another congregant, well into his eighties, whose family line reaches back straight across Brooklyn, over oceans and to Jerusalem, where he traces his roots to a time at the dawn of the 19th century when Moritz Oppenheim was but a glimmer in the eye of his Rothschild. A couple weeks ago I shared a sushi lunch with this congregant, a retired professor, and talked about history and the Hebrew language, the state of affairs in Israel, and the many faces of our congregation in his own affiliations with Jewish life in Brooklyn over the past sixty years. He knew I'd be heading off to Israel next week and wanted to share how nice it was to have lunch together and could we do it again in August when I returned.

"With pleasure," I offered. "I've got a couple interesting books I think you'd like to see." He said, "I'd very much like that, rabbi."

When I go see him in August, I'll take my bike, leaving my car in front of shul. Hopefully its sign in the window that says "Clergy" will instill in the meter maid and the parsimonious parishoner a "respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion."

A ride across the park on a warm August afternoon. A book from 1930 in my backpack that no one had ever checked out of our Library until two library science students--23 and 24 years old respectively--dusted it off and shared it with the rabbi, who has already found another reader to appreciate the pictures of Moritz Oppenheim. That sounds like a good day.

May God bless the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, 1930.

24 June 2009

The Real Power to Save

Well, so much for the Twitter Revolution.

It was just a matter of time before the Regime in Iran employed something that our handy little devices can't overcome: murder, brutality and raw force. They may be totally illegitimate and their time may come but the electronic helpmates to the overthrow of a corrupt regime are powerless when the power gets shut down. It's fitting that one of the last enduring images is that of they dying and then dead Neda, a youthful and hopeful 26 years old and left on the ground beside her screaming father while the world watched in horror. For me, her death was eerily reminiscent of the early beheadings that made their way onto the internet after 9-11.

Tom Friedman makes a good point today, namely that the real change will come when Iran is deprived of the source of its power--oil income. Our willingness to change our habits is what actually has an effect on power--not tweets and twits, which gets the word out only so long as the power chord is connected. But when the regime decided to pull the plug, silence. And we all return to our usual order of business, gravitating in google-land to the next entertainment frontier.

The Digital Dead. It's on our faces, in our hands, the disconnected nothingness of our lonely walks down the street, distant gazes on subway cars, distracted navigations turning corners in our cars. The entertainment and media companies must be thrilled at what suckers we are, diving deeper into our pockets to fulfill our habits for surfing the surface of the latest this or that. There is something about the current revolution in Iran that brings into broad daylight the absurdity of our reliance on technology. Twitter informs us of rallies and demonstrations; of those shot down and those defying power; but ultimately, power itself will define the course of events--either an unabated power from the regime or the absolute willingness of thousands and thousands to die before an internal struggle among the ayatollahs changes the course of events. Will the electronic tools have advanced that cause any more than other modes of communication advanced the cause of justice in prior wars and struggles for national liberation? Humility in the face of history and humanity's incredibly profound propensity for causing harm to one's fellow human being demand the emphatic answer.


From the silent screams of the lonely walker, eyes locked in the glassy embrace of his hand-held tool, to the noisy nothings of blabbing cellphone talker-walkers, enthusiastically alienating their fellow "citizens" on the precious remaining space of neighborhood sidewalks, we all are touched by the Digital Dead, salving our existential uniqueness with the numbing heat of charged battery power.

But the real power to save is in our hands. Our free hands. And in our eyes, which despite their weakened state, may still be able to conjure a look into the eyes of a neighbor, asking, "What can I do to help you?"

23 June 2009

The Jewish Agency

To the best of my knowledge, there seems to be a big confrontation brewing among American and European Jewish leaders and leaders in Israel over the new leadership for the Jewish Agency, the pre-state "government" of the Zionist project that never adequately figured out what it's role should be once the State of Israel was established in 1948.

Michael Steinhardt's essay in the Jerusalem Post makes the case for electing former Russian dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky as Jewish Agency head. Steinhardt employs a bizarre historic analogy--that of the Romans laying seige to Jerusalem 2000 years ago--to argue that only Sharansky can "unify" the Jewish people.

"When Rome laid siege to Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the city were starving. Every contemporary account of the suffering, tells a story grisly enough to both sicken and sadden us. The ravages of hunger reduced once proud men and women to cannibalism. Our people eventually capitulated, and the Romans sacked the city, burned the Temple and exiled the inhabitants."

This despite the fact that most historic accounts credit the Rabbis with saving Judaism, most significant Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai's diplomatic maneuvers with the Romans to create the space for a Jewish enterprise without a physical center. Steinhardt seems to be arguing that Sharansky, whose career as a dissident in Russia is heroic but whose accomplishments in Israeli politics are without distinction, is our Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. The argument fails to persuade.

Sharansky was named in April as Netanyahu's nominee.

Beneath the surface is a broader fight over who will control money that the Agency is charged with doling out.

This article illuminates things as well.

Jacob Berkman's summary is helpful, too. This issue completely falls off the radar screen of most American Jews even though millions of dollars are at stake.



21 June 2009

Well, I Think, In the Game of Life

For the second time this year, I officiated at a wedding between a Chinese American and and a Jewish American. These relationships are quite common in the United States and while at the beginning of my rabbinic career my policy was not to officiate at such weddings--between Jews and non-Jews--over the course of time I changed my policy, so long as the couple agrees to an exclusively Jewish wedding and raising children exclusively as Jews.

Today, however, I was truly struck by the depth of similarities and abiding respect that the Jews and Chinese have for one another--the long-held traditions; the profound sense of connection to ancestors; the generational links to wisdom; and, more recently, the similar paths of acculturation and assimilation into American life. Tonight after the wedding (my second of the day, third of the weekend) I had some food and shared a drink with a Thai woman (an OB-GYN) married to a Chinese surgeon, each of whom came to the United States nearly 40 years ago. Their two children are grown--one is a PhD, the other, an MD-PhD, and I couldn't help but marvel at the stunning similarity to a similarly exceptional Jewish pursuit of immigration, education and advancement.

America, as we all know, has been the place of refuge and opportunity for countless millions. And as the rabbi who often presides over the life-cycle moments of great consequence to family narrative, especially when the product of Jewish immigration meets Chinese immigration, I am keenly aware of role as arbiter of the generational connection, the Validator, as it were, of the decision to remain Jewish.

The Ketubah--marriage contract--for tonight's wedding was in Hebrew and English and had one Chinese element: the sign of "double happiness" in Chinese characters which a Jewish uncle pointed out at the Ketubah signing was like "double chai!" (Chai meaning "life" in Hebrew and "double-life" being a sign of particular fortune.)

The Chinese surgeon and Thai OB-GYN were interested in talking to me after services to ask several questions and comments: Did the Jewish word "amen" predate Christianity? Did I realize how much the Chinese guests appreciated connecting "double happiness" to "double life?" And, if my Congregation takes a trip to Israel anytime soon, can they come along? (Absolutely!)

The surgeon then pulled me deep into a conversation about Confucius,and we had a good time talking about similarities between Confucius, some of the Hebrew prophets, Ezra and Nehemia as well as Hillel and the early rabbis. If, as David Byrne imagines correctly, the "bar is called Heaven," then it's a place we all would have been very comfortable having a drink.

Of course, there was an Elijah moment. A tap on my shoulder from a wedding guest revealed that there was a relative from the Jewish side who was a rabbi, and he was eager to speak with me. I didn't know what to expect, especially since the rabbi was clearly my senior. Had I offended? Was my service syncretic, an unacceptable melding of cultures to an older generation? But the rabbi, in his late eighties and in a wheelchair, reached for my hand and kissed it--telling me I had done well. I had addressed concerns, shown respect to Jewish and Chinese traditions, and had conducted a Jewish wedding with honor and integrity.

I say Elijah moment because, well, my most significant teachers have all died. It's very rare these days that an elder teacher appears and offers judgment of any kind on my activities as a "teacher in Israel."

I was humbled. And proud.

I walked downtown to the train, in a respite from the rain. People ate and drank in the cafes of Tribeca; families and individuals moved lightly as Sunday wound down. Clouds and rain and sunshine battled for domination on a summer horizon that has been more wet, but richer, than anticipated. I checked my blackberry to see how my teams had done--poorly in the game of baseball, but well, I think, in the game of life.

20 June 2009

Go See For Yourself (and Get It Right)

If you're like me, or someone who cares about our buildings at CBE, you always quake in fear (the non-religious kind) whenever it rains.

And so with rain falling yet again, I wonder what new damage will be revealed to our Sanctuary at 271 Garfield. Standing since 1909, this magnificent space has absorbed generations of prayers, confessions, hopes and dreams; it has also celebrate births and weddings, memorialized the dead, and served as the space in which children receive their names, become bar and bat mitzvah, graduate to college; finally, it has been the main dedicated space for sanctifying time and the historical moments of memory for our people--the Festivals and Holy Days on the calendar in which we thank God for our existence and pledge ourselves to be beneficiaries of God's protection for another year of life and blessing.

But when it rains--well, the plaster can fall from the ceiling; new peeling paint can reveal secret messages spelled in the firmament; or a slow process of decay and neglect can, beyond our best determination, continue on paths of destruction we have yet to discover.

Having just finished our Temple House Roof Replacement, we have taken the first of many, many steps to renovate our facilities and put them in the proper condition for another century of service to Brooklyn. But we are not yet in the Promised Land. There is a long, long way to go.

And we need help.

Our House Committee, a terrific group of individuals, is working up a priorities list to present in full-form to the Board of Trustees and the entire Congregation, with the idea that we can all begin to share a sense of responsibility for the care of our buildings. And I've seen the drafts--so believe me when I tell you there will be something for everyone: that's how big the list is.

Some of the work is simply deferred maintenance. The problems have plagued the Congregation for decades and only now is it finally time to face them once and for all. Until, of course, another generation faces them. That's the nature of old buildings.

This week I was reading Annie Polland's wonderful history of the Eldridge Street Synagogue--Landmark of the Spirit.In this book, Polland melds architecture and Jewish history to explore the important community decisions that informed the Eldridge Street Synagogue's founders to make the choices they did about their building, more than a century ago. And today, during services, I was moved to begin spontaneously talking about what differentiated Reform and Orthodox communities a hundred years ago that mitigated toward certain factors of space that continue to haunt me--like tall bimas removed from the people in their ordered pews. I found myself wishing to be in the midst of the people, as the founders of Eldridge Street decided when they built their building. I thought of this as I watched the rain fall outside during the service and then moved my eyes heavenward ("I lift my eyes to mountains, what is the source of my help? My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth." Psalm 121) But God willing my help will come from architecture schools at Yale, Harvard, Cooper Union, and Pratt, too.

In this week's Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, we read that "the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, 'Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them." (Numbers 13.1) The rabbis insist on translating "shelach lecha" as "go see for yourself," meaning, God had already promised the land. It was theirs to take. But they had fears and doubts and in frustration God said, "So go see for yourself." With a hint of exasperation, God seemed to be saying to Israel, "Your fears are only delaying the inevitable work required to own the sacred space I'm giving you."

And so it is with us, folks.

We need men and women, boys and girls, to "go see for themselves." We need ideas and creativity; we need hearts beating with commitment, souls searching for peace and comfort in a sacred space; and we need money--lots and lots of money.

So over the course of the summer, as you walk past our buildings, stick your head inside. Sit in rooms, inhabit and own the experience of being a part of history. Go see and experience for yourself what YOU think about sacred and communal space and how that interfaces with what our founders thought a hundred years ago.

And prepare yourselves for an exciting Fall, when we gather again after a brief relaxing summer to rededicate ourselves, in our Sanctuary's 100th year, to fix it up and get it right.

13 June 2009

The Only Lighthouse We Got

A kindergarten trip to the Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge was an opportunity to contemplate what happens when a community rallies to save a precious piece of architecture from the 1920s and insist that provide the "light" it was meant to provide.

The banks of the mighty Hudson River, the cliffs of New Jersey, the slow flowing current and the sense of history one feels, especially inside the lighthouse, protected from the elements and transported through space and time to contemplations of nature and history.

It had me thinking of our building on 8th Avenue and Garfield Place, which, while it's true that we just replaced the roof at some considerable cost, is still in need of major repair and just as significant, reconceptualization for how its space is used on a daily basis.

So last night I used the line from Numbers 8.10, where the children of Israel bestow upon the Levites the mantle of leadership for care of the sanctuary. While it may seem counter-intuitive in an ancient religious society for the people to bestow power on the religious leaders, the rabbis in the commentaries are quick to observe that the elders do have that power to convey "leadership" by virtue of their own. If the Levites were to ensure that the Eternal Light would always burn because the people made themselves responsible for making the Levites responsible, so it should be in our own buildings today--where the leadership of the the Children of Israel--those who come to our synagogue as members, be acutely aware and responsible for the condition of our sacred buildings so the Eternal Light of Torah, Community, and Prayer can always emanate from our 80+ year old buildings.

It's the only Lighthouse we got. We should treat it that way.

12 June 2009

And the Rain Continued to Fall Outside

Yesterday morning began at the Mikveh on the Upper West Side--the only Mikveh in New York City that allows non-Orthodox rabbis to conduct conversions--bringing into the Tent of Abraham and Sarah a 72 year old man and a two year old girl. By 10 am, I had emerged into the rain to retrieve my phone at the 72nd Street station (where City Councilman David Yassky was shaking hands in his race for the Comptroller of New York City promising to help clean the city of some of its corrupt politicians)in order to hear the news that someone had died of a stroke.

I began planning a funeral while riding downtown on the bus, staying above ground to remain connected, and crawled past the new Alice Tully Hall, Times Square, and eventually wound up in Washington Square Park, beautifully renovated and landscaped, leaving me to wonder briefly why exactly it's a problem when a treasured institution is made BETTER but still people complain. In the new Washington Square Park with its fountain functioning and centered with the Stanford White Arch, the trees and flora--particularly in the grey, rainy fog--seemed particularly vivid. I was heading to lunch with my old boss, Naomi Levine, who lives and works on Washington Square, and is an ever-present, inexhaustible and brilliant mentor. Naomi had gathered for lunch the four people who have run the Bronfman Center at NYU since it opened in 1996 and she ran the conversation, ranging from the Constitution and Health Care to birthright israel, synagogues and Jewish camping, the Madoff scandal, Google, Microsoft and artificial intelligence, to the challenging lack of Jewish literacy, which of course led to the classic debate between public schools and day schools and the incredible expense of simply being Jewish in America.

Being with Naomi always makes me miss Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg--another mentor and intellectual iconoclast whose ideas I mull over daily as a kind of filter on my view of the world. Riding back to Brooklyn on the train, I couldn't read but instead sat in wonder at how luck I've been during my life in New York. The people I've met as I've made my home here and how much influence they had in shaping my view of the city and the course of my career. Some have died and I've helped bury them; others, thank God, remain very much alive. And each of them are a kind of living Torah that I unroll and read from whenever I can.

I walked into CBE through the Garfield entrance and stopped for a brief moment in front of the memorial plaques in the dark, arched entry way. During most entrances this vestibule is a conduit of constant flow--parents and nannies pushing strollers with young children; deliverymen and plumbers coming to deliver and plumb; electricians to wire; and Jews and their families coming to the synagogue for any number of reasons, to pray, learn, console and be consoled; pay a bill; start an argument; see a friend.

I stood in the entry way for a brief second and tried to feel the burden of the vaulted ceiling bearing the weight of the dead who are memorialized there. I thought of one night sleeping there, and wondered if in the dark of night those souls would arise and tell stories long forgotten. There are names of congregants who were veterans in the U.S. Armed Forces, remembered in specially designed patriotic plaques; and then the others, if you will, remembered in wood and bronze. Jewish names to be sure, but, it seems, with each passing day, their essence fading into anonymity.

The midrash teaches that the Children of Israel were saved from Egypt because they remembered their Hebrew names, a teaching somewhat impossible to escape from at that very moment. The Talmud says a person's words are the monument to their life and I wondered what these names said, what letters these names wrote, what lives they led. My reverent musings were interrupted by a delivery and I headed back to my office for a meeting with clergy, two bnei mitzvah students, a bat mitzvah rehearsal, greeting the marchers in the Children of Abraham walk (where one bar mitzvah student, Jacob Sweet, was extraordinarily mature and poised in teaching the marchers who visited our Sanctuary about the symbolism of the Synagogue)and then ran off to a fundraiser for the Osborne Association, to learn about their good work.

Before leaving CBE, I got an update from my sister about B's condition, talking through and weighing options. I leaned low, down in the pews in the back of the Sanctuary during a quiet moment where I could be neither seen nor heard for one brief moment, and listened to my sister's familiar voice. In back of me, more memorial plaques, more names, waiting in line to be heard. And the rain continued to fall outside--I could hear that too.

Despite the mixed news, it was the best moment amidst a long and complex day.

11 June 2009

Exile and Home

Talking to B yesterday about what to do during the next visit home and we agreed that a trip over to Spring Green and a drive around Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's Wisconsin headquarters. "That would be really nice," she said, and I could hear in her voice not just how nice it would be but how soothing. I shared with her my impressions of the Wright exhibit at the Guggenheim and she talked about the William Drennan portrayal of Wright in Death in a Prairie House. "Certainly another side to the man," she deadpanned.

There was a brief pause in the conversation in which I imagined my perspective on things from inside one of his early houses and I apologized for spacing out and told B why. "Sounds good," she said.

Later, that got me thinking about architecture, how I came to be so interested in it, and the idea that I live with inside my head of architecture as both exile and home. "Exile" because the very idea of architecture seems to come from a place of exile, of not being home, and aspiring to a sense of place that is not yet realized. And "home" because, well, when done right, that sense of place is achieved.

I often trace my first real sense of exile in the world to the day we sold our house after the parents divorced. I loved that house, it's roof, which was great for just hanging out, the double garage with a paint job always in need of touch-ups from baseball, basketball, and tennis ball marks, the variety of trees in the front yard and back, the garden, the lilacs. We moved on a warm Fall afternoon. I remember building one last fire in the fire place to have a symbolic moment of "destruction." I was 14 and not at all aware of theories of exile but I think I was tapping into something I would later understand as a characteristic of all breaks--the burning but regenerative spirit of loss.

No place after that quite matched up until I began finding other homes--South Hall on Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin; the dumpy old Hillel on Langdon with its classic mid-century sloping glass veneer; the rooted but lonely vista from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem; and now, the quiet mornings the den of our apartment--generally between 5 and 6 in the morning, when Flatbush Avenue is not too loud, when I can hear birds awaken in the berms across the street, and when Brooklyn is just waking up.

Just rising Brooklyn is home.
Wide awake Brooklyn is exile.

That's just the way it is for me.

But this inside the head nature of occupying space is often where I am at inside CBE, the synagogue I serve in Park Slope. We are two buildings in need of great repair, holy spaces of intent that have suffered years of neglect. And I live in a state of constant awareness of the exilic experience of occupying what sometimes feels like a ruin. Despite the Rambam's warning in the Mishneh Torah that one should never prayer inside a ruin, on a certain level, we operate a robust, vibrant, growing and historic community from inside a ruin. There's no rhyme or reason to the entry way of the Temple House, built in 1929 as a monument to early 20th century Jewish Deco. The Garfield entrance, by intent a service entrance, has become the default gateway--leading one past dark, cavernous memorial arches dedicated to the dead, past a utility closet, a distinctively unsoothing florescent lit stairway, and past two moderately clean bathrooms. I'll leave descriptions of the odor to the imagination. It's a bit like running the gantlet each day.

Turning right, down a hallway toward my office, I see the outside walls of the Social Hall, the largest room on the first floor, and I daily imagine ripping down those walls and replacing them with glass. The room is a constant hub of activity, acoustically intolerable but socially one of the greatest spaces in Park Slope. Tots drop-in center; after-school hang out place for older kids; weekly Weight Watchers meetings; Shabbat celebrations; weddings; brises; holiday kiddushes. The craving we have for transparency demands that those moments be seen by passersby. "Mr. Garfield, tear down this wall!" Across from the Social Hall is the After School office, whose main feature seems to be it's elasticity. It holds more desks and communal servants than any space of its size in New York City. It's a minor miracle.

The Social Hall actually connects to the Library, another abused space, a secret gem of comfort and knowledge, which connects to my study. These three rooms should be a contiguous whole and I pray that one day they will. The spaces lean on one another conceptually and that original intent needs to be restored. My office, afterall, isn't really an office, except if you were to imagine me as the Dean of College Campus (which reminds me of another sense of home: Dean Paul Ginsberg's office in Bascom Hall, Madison, Wisconsin.)

There is a large an ornate Lobby, evoking what our member, the architect Michael Wetstone refers to as Babylonian Deco, which glows when the 8th Avenue doors are open and light pours in. This is the place of entry which the architects intended and I am working toward making that the permanent entry. In the dusty library, one can find bookplates which actually refer the synagogue as the "8th Avenue Temple," an early 1930s attempt at re-branding.

There's a Board Room--dark, forboding, wood-paneled, which has housed the Executive Director for the last twenty years. And then the Office. Painted a blinding blue, made glaringly obvious by the (yellow? green?) florescent lights that hang, by chains, from the ceiling.

The Chapel I orient myself toward from the back--though people enter it from the front-mostly because coming from my office, that's the way I approach it. It is a humbling and peaceful space--also quite dark but its interior seems to have absorbed the spiritual and psychological dreams and aspirations of the last several generations. Its one drawback is the seating--linear, overly rational, crowded pews. They've got to go.

They've got to go.

"There you go again."

Why Ronald Reagan has appeared, ghost-like, in this set of thoughts is beyond me. But for the next few days I intend to explore our synagogue space, floor by floor, and root the thoughts in this tension between exile and home.

It's seven a.m. and Brooklyn is awake.

I gotta go.

10 June 2009

What Can Be

The choice between truth and love.

So it goes in an early midrash about the creation story that I've been studying with bar and bat mitzvah students over the last couple weeks. It's text that evokes great discussion about the formation of one's moral universe, though I've yet to meet a seventh grader who proclaims that his or her moral universe is in formation.


Rabbi Simon said: 'When the Holy One was about to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and companies, some of them saying, "Let him be created!" while others urged, "Let him not be created!" Thus it is written in Psalms, "Love and truth fought together (met), righteousness and peace combated each other (kissed)." (Psalm 85.11) Love said, "Let him be created because he will create acts of love." Truth said, "Let him not be created, because all of him will be falsehood." Righteousness said, "Let him be created because he will do righteous deeds." Peace said, "Let him not be created, because he will be all strife."

What did the Holy One do? He took truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels said, "Master of the universe, why do you humiliate your own seal--since Truth is the Seal of God? Let truth rise up from the earth! Hence it is written, "Let truth spring up from the earth." (Psalm 85.12)

The elder Rabbi Huna of Sepphoris said, "While the ministering angels were parleying with one another and disputing with one another, the Holy One created Adam and then said, "What are you talking about? Man is already made!"

I love this text for its theological realism. While on one hand it leans heavily on the idea that God seems to cast truth to the ground, relying ultimately on love and the measure of mercy (in Rabbi Simon's opinion), the elder Rabbi Huna seems to be arguing that the two qualities--truth and love--are and forever shall be in opposition or at least a dialectical tension with one another. (Again, it bears repeating, I've yet to meet a seventh grader who articulates a dialectical tension in his formative religious outlook but it's there! It's there!)

There are multiple ways in which this tension reveals itself in a religious community. There could be workplace issues; needs for therapeutic and pastoral intervention; unkind behavior or comments from one member to another--any number of scenarios in which the tension exists between truth and love as construction tools of building and forming community that require a precise hand in choosing which to use at the right time.

Interestingly--so go grab your Bibles, people--Psalm 85 is about the poet imagining God's critical decision to turn back His anger from the people and restore them to the land. What the rabbis do with it in the midrash above is take the words, to some degree, out of their context and use it to make a theological argument. The Psalmist, however, expresses gratitude that God didn't obliterate the people all-together for their generally abysmal behavior and instead, in restoring the people to the land of Israel, united love and truth, peace and justice. Rashi points out that this is an imagined vista in which an ideal society is made by the wedded views of peace and justice kissing one another! He references Isaiah 33, a prophecy all about reconciliation with God after sinful and abusive behavior.

Why do the rabbis in the midrash take "meet" and "kiss," the words clearly used in the Psalm, and choose to translate them as "fought together" and "combated each other?"

I think it has something to do with the overly familiar and often-times to intimate and even disdainful engagement that we Jews have with one another. Ordinary encounters, meant to be rooted in acts of lovingkindess, became settings for passive-aggressive behavior, outright anger, and sometimes even abuse. It's one of those dark corners of organized Jewish life that bears shedding light on because it can be restorative to admit what goes on in the hopes that the process of making a holy community can be restorative.

The rabbis, ever realist, know what IS. Isaiah and the Psalmist strive for what CAN BE.

The Psalmist: "Love and truth meet; justice and peace kiss. Truth springs from the earth; justice looks down from heaven. The Eternal bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce. Justice goes before Him as He sets out on His way."


09 June 2009


All great wishes to Alana Newhouse and her staff at Tablet, the new nextbook.

Go give it a read!

Mazel tov!

08 June 2009

Where's the Library?

We have two library science interns working in our library here at CBE. We found them by writing to one of the local training centers for such skill sets and boy, did we get lucky. They are extraordinarily helpful and using this occasion to enjoy their own discovery the quirky curiosos of American Jewish literary life of the late 19th and early 20th century.

It's caused us, as we occasionally meet over old books, found maps, first editions of Heschel's the Sabbath, an autographed copy of Elie Wiesel's Ani Maaamin, with composition commissioned for the artistry of Darius Milhaud, and many other treats, to enjoy fully a collection that has gone too long uncelebrated and to also begin to think of ways to recast it as our congregation grows and yet again embraces a new generation of Brooklyn Jews in search of meaning and identity.

What is the role of Synagogue library? What was it historically? What should it be moving forward?

A century ago the library was to Americanize and open up to a generation the vistas of non-traditional Jewish life, while retaining a foothold in the old. Mid-century, there remained the need for literacy while embracing the fully utopian ideals of an American life. And now--with media supreme, one hears of dvds and web-based learning, making, to some degree, the library obsolete. That's not a direction I want to go in.

Why even generally--our own neighborhood's Brooklyn Public Library on weekends is increasingly less hospitable to quiet learning and contemplation because in the summer months, bands blare from the library steps. So to be clear, the role of the library in broader culture has shifted. What of it in Jewish life?

My friend Rabbi Avi Weinstein once said famously, "Libraries are anti-semitic because you have to be quiet and Jews make noise when they learn!" That was a joke, in case you're wondering.

But what of the library? What should it be? Where should we be going?

I'm wondering what you think?

04 June 2009

Faces in a Book

Yesterday, between meetings and phone calls, I pulled an old favorite article off the shelf, the late historian Gerhsom Scholem's essay entitled, "Who is a Jew?" Originally an address he gave to the meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis at their Jerusalem conference that year, Scholem's essay is a favorite of mine for its bold willingness to think beyond the classic definition which comes from Jewish law--a Jew is defined as a Jew when he/she comes from a Jewish mother.

Scholem was given to thinking in radical historical terms, a personal perspective which led to his becoming a Zionist, an historical and ideological position that then further shaped the thinking in this article.

Two favorite quotes from the piece:

"During the last hundred years, following the full achievement of emancipation in Western world around 1860, there has set in a new historical process which has profoundly changed our self-definition as against that of the Halakhah."


"The question is whether the definitions found in sacred books are really decisive for most Jews in the determination of a personal affiliation to the Jewish group."

In any case, in a quick gesture, I posted to my Facebook page the quote: Andy Bachman is re-reading Gershom Scholem's 1970 essay, "Who Is A Jew?" If you don't have it, I'll send it to you. Great stuff.

In moments, I had nearly twenty responses requesting the article along with several private emails asking for it. It was an astounding example of the power of this tool not just for social but for intellectual organizing (an oxymoron?) The challenge here will be to see if and how people respond and to figure out how, if at all, we all talk about the content of the article.

Maybe no discussion will ensue--that would be a loss and proof of one of the great overblown exaggerations of the connected on-line world--or maybe the pdfs will fly and others, across the land, connected by their faces in a book, will take Gershom Scholem's words and have a great talk somewhere that will lead to something and we'll all be the richer for it.

03 June 2009

Keep On Telling the Truth

Thomas Friedman's brief interview with President Obama is the subject of his column today in the Times and it is worth a look. The President says something to Friedman that is one of the best indicators of the quality of his leadership and is an open look into how he intends to try and forge a Middle Eastern peace.

By the way, for another interesting take, see Aaron Miller's op-ed at CNN, where Miller argues Obama may be trying to take down Netanyahu's government by drawing clear lines on settlements.

Friedman on Obama: "It was clear from the 20-minute conversation that the president has no illusions that one speech will make lambs lie down with lions. Rather, he sees it as part of his broader diplomatic approach that says: If you go right into peoples’ living rooms, don’t be afraid to hold up a mirror to everything they are doing, but also engage them in a way that says ‘I know and respect who you are.’ You end up — if nothing else — creating a little more space for U.S. diplomacy. And you never know when that can help."

There is no small amount of hope that the President's approach--determined and respectful public honesty--will be a new way of going after an old problem that may provide some light in a dark world of hatred and fear.

As the President heads to Cairo to deliver his talk to the Arab world, we should pray for his success.

02 June 2009

Earthbound and Heavenbound Religious Architecture

I spent last Friday afternoon up at the Guggenheim, walking through the new Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit--an experience I recommend highly. Wright was a true American genius, exuding a creativity and vision that was both soothingly humble and soaringly aspirational. Without a doubt the occasion of walking through the retrospective of his career inside the Guggenheim itself, which he designed, only heightens the time you spend there.

Nicolai Ouroussoff's review from the Times
is a helpful guide.

Paul Goldberger's review from the New Yorker is here.

My favorites, no surprises here, remain the houses he designed early in his career--those one finds primarily in Wisconsin and Illinois and Pennsylvania. The Prairie School stuff. I just love it. Growing up in Milwaukee, I have very fond memories of spending time at a friend's house which was designed by Wright; and each trip home over the years always occasions a drive past a few Wright favorites. It's just what I do to orient myself to that sense of being at home again--and it's remarkable how much, even from the outside, great architecture can do that to a person.

I thought of that in particular when looking at a comparison of Wright's houses of worship--his Oak Park Unity Temple, the Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin, Beth Sholom Synagogue in Philadelphia and the Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Each has it's own unique characteristic while sharing Wright's skyward gaze, and therefore each was cause for a meditation on religious space and what it means.

In order:

The Unity Temple (1904-1906)

The Unitarian Church in Madison (1947)

Beth Sholom Synagogue in Philadelphia (1954-59)


Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa (1956)

By the fifties, Wright seemed to be exploring outer space, in contrast to his more earthbound aspirations of earlier decades, and one really sees that in the exhibit with the masterly architectural models of a few of these houses of worship. Whereas the Unitarian Church in Madison, rooted in the earth, also evokes hands praying heavenward, by the time one gets to the synagogue in Philadelphia and obviously the Greek Church in Wauwatosa, the concern moves exclusively skyward--Beth Sholom up toward both Sinai and the Starship Enterprise, with the Greek Church playing the role we used to assign it as kids driving past--a Flying Saucer.

Much of this was on my mind yesterday as I posted a question on my Facebook page: "Should the Synagogue have a green roof?" The responses were overwhelmingly in favor, a quick poll that demonstrated the power of this social networking tool but also responses that had me again thinking about Wright and the earthbound v. heavenbound religious visions of communities and their architects.

For a green roof on a synagogue arguably says, "We gather in this place fully cognizant of our Earth and our covenantal obligations to guard and protect it."

As we move forward in the ongoing work of repairing and re-visioning our synagogue spaces, the trip to the Guggenheim serves as an inspiring reminder that the various decades of the American religious era have produced varieties of aesthetic models for how one gathers in community and the ways in which space design forms ones perceptions of self, community and God.

A CBE trip to the Guggenheim for a tour and a conversation is my idea of a good time.

I wonder what you think?