30 October 2009

One Beyond the Self

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter and one of the great sages of the Mussar Movement, shares some powerful Torah with regard to Abraham emerging on the scene in this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha. More on the Mussar Movement HERE.

With Abraham comes the unique covenantal aspect of the nature of the relationship between God and the Jewish people--an intellectual idea that some feel is outmoded or chauvinistic but nonetheless, impossible to ignore in the text itself and therefore worthy of our attention. God has relationships with Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel, and with Noah and his family; but with Abraham and Sarah, the particular aspects of the Torah narrative--the Jewish people and their ongoing encounter with the invisible God of the Law--is born.

Elevated status is accorded to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the Patriarchs of the Tradition and for R'Dessler, this is due to the elevated status of their character.

Relying on classic Mussar methodology, R'Dessler claims that three basic forces exist in each of us, and through these forces we can attain our spiritual goals: Lovingkindness, Fear of God, and Truth. In one of his sermons, he talks about how each of the Patriarchs exemplified one of these strengths over and against the other. Abraham's greatest strength was Lovingkindness; Isaac's, Fear of God; and Jacob's, Truth. And their particular achievement--which we can only "strive for," is that they were able to channel their one greatest power in order to develop the others that were deficient.

A sign of spiritual advancement is demonstrated by the ability to first know which is one's dominant character trait. As an exercise, I recommend trying it. It's not as easy as you think. What primarily motivates you? What is the essence of your character? And then, in theory, once you know that, the challenge becomes employing your greatest strength for the benefit of developing your other traits.

Watching athletes get injured on occasion, I think back on my Little League baseball coach, Bruce Cohen, who used to make us do calisthenics for what felt like an eternity before we could ever touch a bat or ball before each practice. At the time, I found it at first perplexing and even annoying, until I noticed that we were consistently winning more games than other teams and staying focused and disciplined later into the season. We did stretches and exercises with arms, hands, legs, feet, back and stomach--all in an effort to utilize all of our bodies toward the obvious task of hitting and catching balls. Didn't the Yankees fire their strength coach last year or the year before? Maybe the Mets should consider that, too.

But the point is clear: a whole approach to living requires attention paid to the many aspects of our lives, not just the greatest and most obvious strength.

With the introduction of Abraham and Sarah, Torah--from now until next Sukkot--moves into the realm of the personal. It truly become our book, our manual for the soul.

Like Abraham and Sarah, may we practice well what is our true essence, while using that quality to shine light on the unattended areas of our being and gain new strengths in those pursuits.

Kindness, Faith, Truth in balance is a lifetime pursuit. It requires constant vigilance, a willingness to err and start again, and a clear-eyed determination to live with a mind and heart united, pulling in the same direction: service to One Beyond the Self.

Breaking News: Jews Try to Be Cool!

CNN rides the New Jew wave.

Read that HERE.

29 October 2009

To Continue and Renew

"The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth, from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you."

The rabbis teach that leaving his "father's house" is one of the first great tests that Abraham received--a challenge of considerable scale and proportion because it asked him to move into both real and previously unimagined territory "alone."

This state of existential aloneness, of a willingness to distinguish oneself from one's family, from one's most intimate place of upbringing, is an elemental part of the developmental process for every human being. We all "grow up" and "leave home."

What is particularly fascinating in the case of the rabbis applying this basic psychological insight to the spiritual journey is that while on one hand the Jewish tradition relies upon practices continued from one generation to the next, there is the implied understanding that we are also called upon to journey beyond the land, birthplace, and parental home of our tradition and "go the land that I will show you."

God calls us in our own unique ways, each generation, continuing and giving new life to a tradition in every age. The delicate balance for every individual and by inference, every community, is striking a healthy balance between holding on to past practice while also charting new territory and new perspectives on a timeless relationship with the Source of Life.

Our synagogue has grown by more than 250 families in the last three years, joining the ranks of a stable and committed membership of the more than 500 families who comprised CBE prior to this latest growth spurt. Without a doubt, we are daily charting new territory, while simultaneously drawing water from wells that have nourished our community for two and even three generations. It is a great case study in how cultures meld and inform one another, while joining hands in the sacred work of Torah, Spirituality, and Deeds of Lovingkindness.

It is, without a doubt, one of the characteristics of my work that makes me very grateful for the privilege of work each day.

27 October 2009

The Real Gornisht

So we're hanging our hat on a few kids who got married? A whopping 57%?!

Wow! Have they had kids yet? Changed a diaper? Taught their kid the Kiddush? Chosen a school? Where's a guy to turn when the funders buy the academic departments and pay for the studies that interpret the direction of Jewish life?

I just don't get it. Why, even among the supposedly older and more dispassionate population, do academics stand at news conferences and release studies in academic institutions and departments paid for by the very philanthropists funding the projects being studied and the studies themselves--and pronounce them an objective success so soon after their purported launch? Academic perspective and historic conclusions about 18-26 year olds from 5-8 years ago? Is our attention span that corrupted?

Professor Len Saxe's "Generation Birthright" study looks at kids who went on birthright from 2001 to 2004 and concludes that because 57% married in, the trip is a rousing success. Could be. Who knows? After all, isn't that more accurately determined 50 years from now, based on what kind of kids they raised, what kind of lives they led, what kind of philanthropy they themselves practiced? Why all the need for instant statistical gratification?

Do we really know enough yet, from an historical perspective, to draw real conclusions? Or are we more interested in selling products for selling's sake? Michael Steinhardt, one of the great exemplars of irrational anger and odd pronouncements in the Jewish world, apparently said at the press conference, “Jews around the world should be appalled by the level of education in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. It has to be very different, and I don’t hear anything different today. You ask about the impact of Jewish philanthropy -- well, the impact has been 'gornisht.'

Several times in the past few years I actually asked Michael directly for funding aid to our growing community in Brooklyn (his native borough) and he declined, arguing that his focus was on other matters. Too bad. Solid investors know that there's a difference between quick profits and long-term gain and hard as it may be for the Steinhardts of the world to admit, the most long-running institution of Jewish life that has existed for nearly two thousand years has been the synagogue. To some, she's the ugly bride of the Jewish world, neglected by those ambivalent about their own relationship to Torah and God.

What is the difference if 57% marry "in" if there aren't adequate resources to teach Torah to young couples and their children should they be so blessed? The continued neglect of this crucial population is proof that the understanding of many funders for the real investment frontier of Jewish philanthropy is "gornisht."

Show me in real dollars the philanthropic investment in synagogues at the same level that we have seen for birthright, and I'll shut up. In the meantime, we are being condescended to and it's insulting.

Why Stop Making Sense?

Okay, I'm going to admit something.

I was Hillel director on the NYU campus for seven years and nearly every time there was a pro-Israel rally or an anti-Israel rally on campus, I kind of didn't care. Alright, that's a bit of an exaggeration--perhaps what I mean to say is that I didn't fully believe that the rally--either "pro" or "con" would matter. Mostly because I never saw a movement afoot as much as I saw two intractable sides putting on shows for their own satisfaction, the entertainment of others, and, in the worst cases, the deluded ideas that their demonstrations were going to change anyone's minds. It rarely works that way--maybe once in a generation, like when a towering political or social figure hits the scene and actually turns heads. In the meantime, most people go about their business. And with regard to Israel on Campus, that's generally my view. The only thing that ever really worked was real education, something very few people had the patience for.

It's not popular. And it cuts against the grain of many communal resources being poured into "advocacy" campaigns on campus. But I just don't buy it. Never have, never will.

I'll give you an example.

In the spring of 1988, I had finished up school in Madison, and the first Intifada was in full swing. I had been back from a year in Jerusalem, where I PAID TUITION! (this was before birthright) to study at Hebrew University. I want to repeat: IT WASN'T FREE!!

Anyway, I spoke at a rally on the UW campus in favor of a two-state solution. While I thorough enjoyed doing what I wanted where I wanted in my travels throughout the Biblical Land of Israel, it was clear that I was living in two states that was acting like one state. I knew that needed to change, I didn't know how, and the first Intifada was an awakening that at least provided some hope that Palestinians would attempt to responsibly take their fate into their own hands.

At that rally, a epithet was hurled in my direction that a professor friend of mine has never let me forget, if only for the sheer audacity, stupidity and hilarity of it. Madison had two guys who were virulent supporters of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane, and at that rally they stood in the crowd and shouted at me, "PLO FAGGOT!" which to this day has become THE "go-to" insult whenever debate gets heated with said professor. During my seven years at NYU, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg would call me weekly and when I answered the phone, he'd always say, "Hello, Andy? This is Yasser Arafat!" I told him once about being called a "PLO Faggot," and he launched into a long disquisition about Israeli press office officials sharing Mishnaic Hebrew curses in 1948 when he was trailing Ben Gurion around just after the founding of the State. "If you can't laugh," he said, "it ain't worth it."

Sunday evening we pulled up in front of the Grand Hyatt where J Street was meeting in DC. A couple of weirdos with "J Street = Nazis" signs were standing out front and my daughter was appropriately disturbed. Quoting "Blazing Saddles," which she's seen, I said, "You know...morons." And she got the point. But later that night, while we were deconstructing the day, she also said, "Dad, I don't see the problem, Israel won the '67 war. It's our land now! That's life, that's war." So much for indoctrination! She reached those conclusions entirely on her own and our dialogue about them continued throughout the day and on the train ride back from DC.

That's the way it rolls.

In a microcosm, that's the way it ought to be: an argument about Israel's future being played out among those who love Israel--regardless of any difference in views on what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, these last few days have yielded far too much demonization of J Street's views and not enough dispassionate engagement with possible ways forward--but that's what we need.

During those years in the late 1980s in Madison, when walking through the student union, there were three bands I remember hearing: U2, REM, and Talking Heads. Stop Making Sense was still all the rage and a big movie hit on campus. It's interesting: in the original trailer, the Talking Heads decided to frame the film as "Why Stop Making Sense," and that's the way I feel about two states for two people. As ugly and difficult as it may be, I just don't think any other alternative is truly possible. As hard as it may be too get there, as impossible as it may seem, we Jews will be haunted by this conflict until we try to resolve it once and for all.

"Once and for all." Naive words indeed. Because even after agreements are reached, challenges, struggles, difficulties will continue. After all, here in America, 45 million people lack health care. What's so perfect about us?

Q.E.D., as Rabbi Hertzberg liked to conclude, Two States for Two People. Why Stop Making Sense?

26 October 2009

Remembrance for Gratitude

There is a lit walkway at the National Gallery, a walkway of light, that takes you from the West to the East, or, the East to the West.

I thought of this during my morning prayers, when I recited Psalm 100, a song of thanksgiving, which over and over again asserts a challenging truth: that we are to give thanks at all times in all ways because "God is God, God made us, not us."

Finding joy in the ultimate humility. Our source of life is beyond us. Only to a degree are we in charge of our destiny. Our mortality hounds us, sometimes like an attack dog; and other times, like this morning, with a playful happiness. One of the most challenging truths to face in life, and one in which I fail miserably all the time. When recovery from failure can begin with the simple act of gratitude.

And when it works, and one is in sync with this truth, it has a lightening, joyous effect, and one feels moved along by it, having given oneself over to this reality. Of course, even this humbling joy can be blinding, and the surrender of one's autonomy is also a warning that a too close proximity to the light has its challenges, too.

So one moves along, like on the walkway at the National Gallery. But eventually the ride comes to an end and you live life on your own, putting one foot in front of the other. Just you, existentially alone, but with a remembrance for the gratitude, and the elemental truths of existence.

25 October 2009

My Talk at J Street Sunday October 25

At the opening to the J Street Conference tonight down in DC, I was one of three people who spoke about how the "younger" generation deals with Israel. My prepared comments came from notes in my notepad but I'll try to reproduce them here.

First, I gave credit to my amazing daughter Audrey, 12, who traveled down to DC with me. This is her Bat Mitzvah year and it was important to expose her to a piece of Israel advocacy and social organizing. Plus, she's a very charming travel companion.

My comments focused on a few thoughts.

One, the younger generation of Jews engages their Jewishness more from the perspective of the universal than the particular. I used, by way of explanation, a recent video I saw on about Jewish high school students and their campaign to raise awareness about Darfur.

Solomon Schechter Day School Students. Young Judea, the venerable Zionist Youth Movement. And the concern? Genocide in Darfur. It's not that it's not Jewish to care-it's just that the moral lesson of Jewishness is that we are obligated based on our understanding of history not only to care for ourselves but to care for others as well.

The move from the "outside-in," from the "universal to the particular" was first articulated by Franz Rosenzweig at the founding of his Lehrhaus in Frankfurt at the beginning of the 20th century. For an assimilating German Jewry, Rosenzweig sought to articulate that the way toward Torah was the necessary choreography of an assimilated generation. One wonders if the way back "toward" Israel is through younger Jewish American's concern for universal values of justice.

Second, the current generation of young Jews knows little about dates, viscerally, prior to 1990. Which is to say that the epic and cataclysmic dates of 1948, 1967 and even 1973, are facts in a book, but not felt deeply in the gut. That's significant.

Third, one cannot easily dismiss the effects of intermarriage rates on the development of Jewish connections to Torah, Hebrew language, land and people. All have been arguable weakened and to not take stock of this is a huge mistake.

Fourth, there a couple interesting surprises of the last ten years. The first is that Pluralism has truly won the day--influenced in large part by the experience of Jewish development encounters in Israel, which, because of its rich Jewish diversity, models pluralism differently than America, which is still too strongly organized by denominational divides. Year abroad programs along with service and learning programs, have richly influenced Jewish identity. Second, birthright israel has created a class of more than 200,000 individuals who are undeniably excited about being Jewish. Interestingly, few want to make aliyah. But engaging them on Jewish questions is crucial--and with regard to encouraging their interest in the question of two states for two people, well, it's not a birthright agenda item, per se, but J Street would be remiss not to go after a large portion of these Jews who care deeply about Israel's fate while also freely acknowledging the Palestinian claims to homeland as well.

Fifth, coalition politics and values politics a generation ago are very different than they are today. The Obama supporters of the current generation saw Obama as a more articulate and important "Jewish" values leader than Netanyahu. That speaks volumes about how Jewish coalition politics may form--if at all--in the next generation. And here J Street has a role to play as well.

Finally, I closed with a couple interesting thoughts from Rashi about this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, in which Abraham receives his call to inherit the Land of Israel. "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." The ultimate Zionist text.

Soon after the call, Rashi reminds us, Abraham goes into Shechem, where he offers a prayer that Jacob's sons should be victorious in battle against the residents there. But Rashi also reminds us that Torah was prophesied in Alon Moreh, which the rabbis understand as Shechem as well. In other words, Defense of Land and Torah are intertwined; one can't escape either the "birthright" or the moral obligation to be righteous in the pursuit of a home.

So I shared a re-reading of the text, in which the "land," "birthplace," and "father's house" of the text could be understood as challenging our own willingness to move beyond only the inherited narrative and add to it our aspirations for a righteous and just encounter with others who make a claim on the Land. Yes, God gave us the Land in the Torah narrative--on condition that we live there righteously. Articulating both visions can be a way forward for J Street, 18 months in to its own political action--so young and already having an impact on how we American Jews talk about Israel.

22 October 2009

Open the Window Which You Make

What's with God forgetting?

I hadn't exactly remembered the first time God forgot--usually associating the Divine re-engagement with the Exodus from Egypt, "...and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them." (Exodus 2.23-25)

But God remembered he forgot earlier, with Noah, after the rains of indignation had covered the earth, wiping out all of early human civilization, except of course for Noah, his families, the fortunate animals, birds and beasts that made it on board the Ark. "And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the Ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped and the rain from heaven was restrained." (Genesis 8.1-2)

There is something to this business of remembering what had been forgotten--just in time--before the earth is completely destroyed beyond repair; or before a people is so downtrodden and defeated that they are never to rise again. Why does this Hebrew God take us to the brink of disaster before bringing us back--not only from the edge but toward a new horizon of possibility and redemption?

This is a perennial Jewish question that speaks to our sense of impending doom followed by the rising sun of possibility. We're most productive, it often seems, in the face of disaster. As a people in crisis, we usually rise to the occasion. That sort of thing.

But reading through Noah today, I was struck by how deliberate the language is, how methodical the construction of the words. Their order so fully conscious of Torah's earlier narrative--the Genesis story--and the way in which massive destruction followed by regeneration happen so quickly. Less a puzzle and more a pattern, which makes it easier to understand--especially if one is led to understand that this is in fact a truth about life.

"And the waters returned from off the earth continually," the translator writes for Genesis 8.3, where the Hebrew for "continually" is הלוך ושוב, which Cassuto translates as "forward and back" or, "in steps." Or stages.

I remember one time sitting with my dad, sharing a meal. I was 17 and annoyed with the world. He was 56 and, well, more realistic. "Son," he counseled (about Reagan and the USSR and Afghanistan and Central America and Nuclear Weapons and War for Oil) "Life is two steps forward and one step back. Be patient."

הלוך ושוב

Forward and back.

A few verses later Noah "opened the window of the Ark which he had made," let the raven go forth and then the dove, which first returned and then the flew again, this time returning, at evening, with an olive branch in its mouth. Even then, in this tightly constructed narrative, the olive tree a symbol of hope, regeneration, and peace.

I thought of the window for the first time in a whole new way. As in, "there was a window on the Ark?" What kind? Did it have shutters? A shade? On one hand it may seem obvious to us--of course there was a window. But why? It's not like in all of God's deliberate directions to Noah at the onset of the flood He had required a window. It's not there earlier in the text. We know its measurements. We know its height and width. We know it has a door, and floors. But the windows are not in the directions. It's only after the flood that we learn that Noah "opened the window of the Ark which he had made."

One imagines, in an act of desperation, Noah, hammering away one day or night during the flood, creating a window. Restless, impatient, radically committed to escaping his destiny, by going beyond the plan and bringing a window, light, and therefore new perspective on the pre-planned story of disaster and redemption.

Maybe that's why God remembered. Because Noah expanded the plan, struck out on his own, went above and beyond. For sake of comparison, when does God "remember" in Egypt? When Moses has struck out on his own, far from Egypt, in Midian, with a new wife and new children, living in flight from the Egyptians, as a refugee, because he chose to defend his own people.

Reading these words today, their ancient timeless cadences drew me in. The familiar Hebrew of the creation story being told over and over again felt both known and new. And I looked at my fellow citizens--on the train, on the sidewalks, in the stores, at Shul, and I wondered if their lives felt known and new. I wonder how possible it is, as often as we should, to feel always on the verge of redemption. Always almost gone, to be saved just in time. Or perhaps it's better to go step by step, in stages, הלוך ושוב. Two steps forward, one step back.

I don't fully have an answer. Though I do like making a new window whenever you may need to. Not a bad way of living when you come to think of it. What you see, who comes, and who goes, may bring a set of perspectives you never quite knew existed before.

21 October 2009

Assimilation Exchange

JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer and Adam Bronfman, Managing Director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, have this important exchange in the Forward.

Give it a read.

20 October 2009

Blind, Blind, Blind

Today, while riding into the city for a meeting in my efforts to raise money for the synagogue (if you haven't heard, a section of our ceiling collapsed in the Main Sanctuary, precipitating the beginning of a serious set of decisions about raising serious money for a serious over-haul of our facilities) I noticed for the umpteenth time how woefully digitized our culture has become. The levels of human alienation have reached new lows, I have to say, as eye contact on the trains is truly a premium, not because of fear or suspicion but because of the huge sucking noises being made by people brought down, down, down into the netherworld of their digital objects. Fewer people read books, I observed, and more flick and twit and click their way along the clickety clack of subway lines in electronic oblivion. It's almost as if eye-contact is too revealing, like ape-children finding one another after centuries being lost in the wilderness. The light of day is too crushing. The maddening draw of mammalian contact too threatening.

It's a bad situation.

It seemed appropriate that I found sustenance in ancient narrative. Like last year at this time, I have chosen to travel around with the Hebraist Umberto Cassuto's commentary to Genesis. I find his analysis, and his modern Hebrew, to be the linguistic equivalent of brushing my teeth with Tom's Spearmint Toothpaste. Call me nutty but it's that cleansing, that good.

Here he is:

I was reading his analysis of Noah, that "righteous man in his generation" and Cassuto pointed out, in keeping with Judaism's classic tradition, that Noah was righteous in "his" generation but when compared with Abraham, he might not be so valorous. Why? Because when God threatened to destroy the earth, Noah obeyed God's commands to build an Ark without questioning whether or not any innocent people would die in the Flood while Abraham, on the other hand, immediately commenced arguing with God about the justice of God's desire to destroy Sodom and Gommorah.

I knew immediately that I wanted to test a thesis. If I did a compare and contrast of these texts with my ninth graders later that day, would they "log into" as it were, the essential Jewish way of thinking? Would they see Abraham as the Jew?

I came back to the office after lunch with emails, phone calls, and various urgencies waiting. But my mind was set on testing the thesis and sure enough, by 6.45 pm, when the learning began, it was only a matter of minutes into the compare and contrast when one student, Eli, said, "Wait a minute. Why didn't occur to Noah that he wasn't the only 'righteous' person on earth? How could he have been the only one?"

The Jewish question, the Abrahamic question, had been asked. Umberto Cassuto smiled from the page. "Vengeance is mine" says Moses in Deuteronomy 32.35, in a passage from his final oration. In my excitement that the unmistakable Jewish mind had emerged into the discussion, I immediately sought the context. And so reached for the text, which I herein quote in full:

"Ah, the vine for them is from Sodom, from the vineyards of Gomorrah; the grapes for them are poison, a bitter growth their clusters. Their wine is the venom of asps, the pitiless poison of vipers. Lo, I have it all put away, sealed up in My storehouses, to be My vengeance and recompense, at that time that their foot falters. Yea, their day of disaster is near, and destiny rushes upon them." (Deuteronomy 32.32-35)

Crossing the street between classes, I saw our security guard who, this time last year, was beside himself with superstition and excitement about the 2008 Presidential elections and it suddenly occurred to me that it had been awhile since we stood in the street and shouted "YES WE CAN!"

So I did. And we laughed. And then I thought: "What happened to that? What grotesque self-satisfaction took over our lives that we simply elected a man to the White House but forgot to remember what it was WE ALL WERE SUPPOSED TO DO?"

Before God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, he says to the Divine Self in Genesis 18.17: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?" God here consciously draws Abraham into his deliberations, asks for him to weigh in on the efficacy, if you will, of the Divine Justice, as it is to be meted out.

This is the Covenant. A privilege to Abraham. Noah's lack. Our destiny. As a people. As a generation. Our instruments, our iPods, our Blackberries, our Idols of denial in the face of a great evil that lurks in the land, calling out for our acts of justice and lovingkindness.

The loneliness of this faith. The power of its reality.

I wondered if they'd ever wash away in a flood. Or if they would be instruments of righteousness. Or idols, mere idols, of our refusal to eradicate injustice from the world. Sitting with the students, watching them, in real time, bring Torah to life, I thanked God for the train; and the book; and my fellow citizens, lost in the darkness of their digital objects, faces turned down, in, toward a light that burned blind, blind, blind.

19 October 2009

The Scarf and the T-Shirt

Minna wore the Macabi Tel Aviv scarf.
Lois wore the Macabi Tel Aviv shirt.
Each were gifts to them I bought at the terminal store in Ben Gurion Airport back in 2002 when I led a birthright trip.

They looked great.

The game itself, yesterday's scrum between the unremarkable New York Knicks and the significantly non-Israeli Macabi Tel Aviv team, to benefit the Israeli charity Migdal Ohr, was sloppy but fun.

The flying Israeli flags were a hoot; so was opening with Hativkah before Nachum Segal, of JM in the AM fame on WFMU, sang the National Anthem. We listen to Nachum most mornings and seeing his face light up the MSG scoreboard was a special satisfaction.

So why was the day at the Garden so, well, dissatisfying?

Three things:

One, the strange announcement midway through the second quarter that "former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert" was present. I admit it, I booed. And proceeded to explain to the kids that he was a "former" Prime Minister because he was chased from office for taking bribes. I quickly scanned the crowd, looking for his benefactor Morris Talansky. I was trying to work up a joke about boosting his courtside side by sitting on a pile of cash but he was gone and forgotten soon and the kids and I went to get something to drink.

Two, there was the small matter of Macabi coach Pini Gershon's refusal to leave the court after being ejected by the non-union refs for two technical fouls. He had to be convinced to be a good sport and head to the locker-room by a rabbi, Yitchak Dovid Grossman, who had the quote of the day:

"I explained that this is not a regular game and the kids are watching and [it's] important that there will be peace and forgive him," Rabbi Yitchak Dovid Grossman said of his discussions with the officials. "If you forgive him, I can speak to the children and say, 'You also forgive. If you have a fight, you forgive.' But he says this is the law, that you must obey."

By that time, the kids and I were back at the bathrooms (the sodas are so large at sporting events, people don't realize, they necessitate several trips to the bathroom for most normal kids' bladders.) Lois caught some of the argument on the closed circuit tv behind the popcorn machine, rolling her eyes at the sight of a guy from Tel Aviv stubbornly arguing a call. It fit the bill but diminished the moment. It almost made it all seem cheap.

Three, this latter question didn't hit me til today, when a friend wrote asking why I crossed a picket line with my kids to attend the game. I have to admit, I am ordinarily sensitive to this issue but didn't apply to the game, in part because I feel so jaded about the NBA in general that I simply failed to distinguish between the union refs, who are on strike against the league, and their replacements. For my own relationship to the issue and my kids, I say here an "al het" (recitation of sin) for neglecting another potential moment to teach.

I wonder, upon further reflection, if Rabbi Grossman, who adjudicated the rift between Gershon and the refs, had stopped action completely and engaged the mostly Jewish crowd in a text study about workers' rights, what would have happened.

I jest--and having been on the rabbinic side of a text, taught when people just want to do what they got together for, isn't always the most well received.

But with a team from Tel Aviv coming to town to raise money for a Jewish charity with Israeli flags flying in the stands and a frum guy with a radio show singing the National Anthem and names of countless Jewish organizations and synagogues and day schools and camps flashing on the MSG scoreboard--what exactly were we there for?

A shamed former prime minister?
An angry, ejected coach?
Crossing a picket line?

I'd like to press re-start on yesterday's experience.

Of course keeping the scarf and the t-shirt.

18 October 2009

Never Been and a Map to Nowhere

I recently got a letter in the mail inviting me to a conference of cool Jewish media types and at that conference I would be promised a discount in figuring out the genetic make-up of my Jewish ancestors and all the cool things they did. I sat staring at the letter, moments after reading it, and wondering why it was important to be genetically connected to people I'd never met, as opposed to being, say, morally connected; or historically connected. And the only response I could conjure, over and over again, was that I kept thinking of Nazis.

I know--I admit it--it's an extreme reaction. But the obsession with Jewish genetic ancestry seemed relevant in two ways: for Jews, to understand and cure ourselves of genetic diseases; and for Nazis, to locate and eradicate the Jewish gene.

But the notion of locating Jewish genes in order to, well, celebrate them for existing, seemed downright narcissistic. And not particularly relevant to anything. Except the biology of it all, which doesn't ring any bells for me. After all, the Rabbis who founded Judaism long ago dispensed with the Priests politically--and even though geneticists out there still convey deep satisfaction with research that shows linkages over generations between Cohens and Lemba Tribes of Southern Africa, it doesn't prove a whole lot except some genetic codes last a long time.

I dunno. Maybe this whole new fangled celebration of long-lasting genes is a reaction to the utter vacuousness of our own digital age when nothing lasts more than second. Or two. Three and I'm bored. Bye!

23andme, the guilty party which promises Ancestry Painting ( a cute nod to Margaret Mead and indigenous, tribal marking?) is a company which promises to place one of its costumers on a "global similarity plot" which, for a guy like me is another name for the grave. How's that for global similarities?

Is it my naturally sunny disposition? The fact that in Wisconsin, the land of my more recent ancestry, my teams always lose, or the fact that as I get older I just have a lower and lower tolerance for bullshit?

I wonder if I'm related to Hillel's contemporary, Akavya ben Mahalael? I wonder if it matters? "Reflect upon three things and you will not come within the power of sin: know where you come from; where you are going; and before whom in the future you will have to give account and reckoning. You come from a fetid drop (that's sperm and egg.) You are going to a place of dust, worm and maggots (that's presuming the "cool" thing at death is still burial.) And we will all have to answer before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be God." Never a comfortable proposition. And less autonomous than 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Call me stupid for not realizing that there was a genetic answer to eradicating poverty, war and greed but it seems to me that Jewish gatherings that encourage genetic marking so that insights into Jewish identity can be celebrated are nothing less than a monumental waste of resources. And hey, people have the right to spend their money in whatever way they want, right? Right!

So here's my deal, full disclosure. At my shul we don't care where you come from. We care about where you're going. And if you want to invest in that, great. Be present.

We offer a swab-free shot at being who YOU are, in our Jewish community in Brooklyn.

In the meantime, I'll leave it to the Sander Gilmans of the world to figure out what kind of sick joke it is that some communal professionals play with philanthropic dollars by mapping the Jewish gene pool for a super hip continuity game. It's not too far removed from the shmuck who gets off the train at Union Square with his iPod at full throttle, in blissful, digitized ignorance of the outstretched hand that asks for food or, perish the thought, money.

Some maps, on a grid, lead you to another space, on the grid. And other maps, on the pages of a book, or experienced in community, lead you to places you or anyone else you've ever been related to, has never been.

Between "never been" and a "map to nowhere," I wonder where you stand?

08 October 2009

Our YK Appeal Letter

Dear Friends,

After our meaningful High Holy Days, we look to you to give generously to Congregation Beth Elohim's Yom Kippur Appeal.

You can do so by clicking on this link and making your donation through PayPal, or by mailing a check to our office (memo: YK Appeal).

As you already know, October has presented us with some profound challenges:
A significant portion of our Main Sanctuary ceiling collapsed demanding that we hold our Yom Kippur services at Old First Reformed Church.
After an immediate review by a structural engineer we determined that several other portions of the ceiling are at risk and there are also elements of the exterior of the building that demand our immediate attention.
Our foremost concern is replacing the roof of the Main Sanctuary as we have just done for the Temple House.

Simultaneously, we are in the process of completing renovation of the men's locker room in the Temple House.

At an October 5th meeting, our Board of Trustees voted to close the Main Sanctuary and begin repairs immediately. With your help, this year's Yom Kippur Appeal and Annual Fund will not only address the ongoing support of our successful programs but will also enable us to begin this exciting journey together for the repair and restoration of our historic buildings.

Furthermore, the synagogue leadership is developing a plan to launch a Capital Campaign, an important measure in our continued growth as a community realizing its full potential. I look forward to communicating with you every step of the way as we collaborate on this exciting endeavor to strengthen CBE.

We are inspired by the words of Rabbi Tarfon: "It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it." (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

Once again, our goal is to achieve 100% membership participation. As we look to restore and renovate our buildings, and seek support from foundations, it is essential that we demonstrate that we are all committed to our congregation and its future.


David Kasakove
Congregation Beth Elohim
274 Garfield Place
Brooklyn, NY 11215

07 October 2009

CBE-Old First Sukkah Text Study: 7.30 pm Tonight

Join us tonight for an Interfaith Response to Homelessness in New York City

Text Study with Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim & Reverend Daniel Meeter of Old First Reformed Church.

CBE Sukkah, Rotunda Space, 271 Garfield Place, Brooklyn. 7.30 pm.

06 October 2009

Which Having Been Must Ever Be

Why do we pick books to read? Why? What goes into that decision. It's such a big one. You've got the "favorite author" option, the no-brainer, the one you don't hesitate for at all. Like, I picked up somewhere, I don't remember where, that Philip Roth has a new book out in November. Can't wait. Then there are reviews in the Times, Post, NY Review, New Republic (for me. You may have your own sources.) And then there's the displays--wherever you go shop for books. Strand. Barnes and Noble. Community Book Store. This is, arguably, the most shallow, but sometimes it works--how it's "presented" or "marketed." The color. The graphics. The blurb. The first paragraphs and the last (n.b. Mom always reads the end of a book before she buys it. I love that about her.)

Anyhow, inexplicably, I found myself confidently buying Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, a remarakble story about a man from Burundi who escapes to America to build his life after the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda (and Burundi).

For me a sign of a great book is what happens that you both expect and don't expect. So I expected great writing; great reporting; but I didn't expect to be transported, during Sukkot, to a new moral reckoning of the refugee, to be given a window into the soul of a man who suffered a great blast of immorality and triumphed, inexplicably. During Sukkot, I found myself being given new insights into homelessness and despite no assurances of a roof over one's head, of the necessity for a moral light, a guiding principle of narrative and law and justice that animates the soul. I found myself thinking of Jewish book groups reading Kidder's prose in Sukkahs throughout the Land, the Clarion Call, as it were, of what it means to be Refugee.

I should have known.

Kidder served in Vietnam--between Harvard and the writing program at the University of Iowa. There is an uncompromising and honest realism that informs his writing that I deeply admire. And I have to admit--in our sick and brutal world, with so many U.S. soldiers having died this past week in Afghanistan--that my respect for his decision to serve our country is a manifestation of commitment that is, frankly, missing from a lot of "experts" today.

Kidder opens his book with a Wordsworth poem, important to consider in so many ways:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through deah,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

--William Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"

Today I went to visit an elderly man--90 years old--at Mt Sinai Hospital. He has a broken hip and is in recovery. We talked about books and shared our love for non-fiction. When I showed him Kidder's book, the title turned him off. It seemed too spiritual at first glance. "That's just the marketing," I told him. "It's actually about genocide, and recovery."

He was intrigued. Precisely at the moment that a nurse came to ask him about his health and a physical therapist came to get him to walk.

Just to walk:

"We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering."

A Tutsi in a book. An old Jew in a wheelchair. On Sukkot. Conjoined, as one, like the Etrog and the Lulav, beneath the Sukkah.

Is it just too much to write that the name of the character in Kidder's book is Deogratias--"thank God?"

For freedom? On Sukkkot?

"In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be."

What he said.

02 October 2009

Sukkah and Interfaith Study on Homelessness: Wed at 7.30 pm at CBE

Here are some pictures of our Sukkah, designed and build by Gia Wolf and John Hartmann, with heartfelt assistance from Adam Iarussi and Dan Silverstein.

It's an original and a deep expression of creativity and generosity of spirit in perfect keeping with the Festival.

It's raining now but is open all week and Wednesday night, Rev Meeter and I will lead a study session there at 7.30. Gia Wolf and John Hartmann will be there, too.

Gilad Shalit's Video

Here is Gilad Shalit's video, made September 14 in Gaza it seems and aired in exchange for 19 or 20 Palestinian female prisoners.

It's a sad and disturbing picture but he is alive, which must be of tremendous relief to his parents.

01 October 2009

We Are So There

The Sages taught that King Solomon began building the Temple in Jerusalem during the 4 days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, so it's only fitting that as a community, we begin thinking about how to repair and restore a Sanctuary built originally in 1909 and poised to be conceived of anew for the next 100 years of its existence.

What a week it has been. 7 days ago we were absorbing the news of a section of ceiling falling in and were received so warmly by our friends at Old First. And now we are taking the deliberate and important steps of making the right set of decisions so that ours and future generations will worship and learn in comfort and beauty.

The Sages further taught that if an opportunity to perform a mitzvah presents itself==rush to do it. Well, the mitzvah of "build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within it," echoing God's word in Torah about the Tabernacle in which would reside the Tablets of the Law seems a fitting quote to use when thinking about the gravity and the urgency of the matter at hand. Our house of God is calling for repair and so as a community we are urgent about doing what's right, at the same time that we are aware that our careful and studied deliberateness will aid us in the long-run.

And finally, the Sages taught that the fulfillment of the commandments should have an aesthetic appeal--there should be beauty and beautification involved in the carrying out of God's will. I think of Gia and John and Adam and Dan laboring in our alley to build an original Sukkah, for the Festival which comes in tomorrow night. I think of the countless people who have called and emailed in the past few days, talking about the beauty of our community, the gratitude that people feel being a part of something so special, responding and being responded to with warmth and intent and purpose that reaffirms the choice of community people made in order to live here in Brooklyn and be a part of what we're doing. And I think of all of those over the years who have put in hours of labor and hours of love in order to be a part of a social aesthetic of caring and giving that make our nearly 150 year old synagogue such a special place.

We have a one hundred year old building that needs a new roof and when all is said and done will likely need a whole new interior Sanctuary; we have an 80 year old building that likely needs an elevator, a new kitchen, a renovated ballroom and roof access. All in an economy that is less than favorable to non-profits.

And yet we possess, like our founding inspiration, the Biblical Jacob, the product of what happens when one sets one's head on stone and dares to dream: a House of God. What that actually means as we embark on this journey will be a sight to see.

And to quote a more modern Sage--just one from two hundred years ago, the world may seem like a narrow bridge that we are crossing: teetering, unstable, uncertain. But the most important thing of all is not to be afraid.

The other side of the dream that night in the desert, for Jacob, more than three thousand years ago, was daylight and following realization:

"How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven."

We are so there.