31 December 2009

Let's Get To It

The Pagans had the day first, with a Saturnalia of sorts in commemoration of the beginning of the counting of the New Year. In Roman Jerusalem it was known and celebrated by Jews and Pagans and even early Christians as well until it was banned with special fasts and masts of forgiveness. It wasn't really until 1582 under the leadership of Pope Gregory XIII, whose calendar reform made January 1st the New Year on Continental Europe. So all this kissing in Times Square tonight--FEH! It's of recent vintage.

The Feast of the Circumcision works for me. Do the counting yourself--8 days after Christmas, what else? A bris! The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church claims that the observance of the Feast of the Circumcision goes back to the 6th century, spreading up to Spain and Gaul and in fact adopted by the Roman church only in the 11th century. Popes couldn't very well introduce another feast since the Saturnalia happiness (or the the Jews, a good schmear) had been going on already for centuries. In fact, according to the ODCC, "many early Missals provided a second Mass for use on that day against idolatrous practices." But nothing about 2010 glasses, alas.

I've simply never liked it. Auld Lang Syne, Guy Lombardo, champagne glasses, televised kissing in New York City--it struck me since early childhood as a weird voyeuristic journey into another culture's denial of death.

2010 has great symmetry though, and alot of people are talking about "hoping this will be a better decade than the last one."

That'll take a lot of work. So when the champagne bubbles and headaches wear off, let's get to it.

What do you say at a bris? Torah, Huppah, and Maasim Tovim--Learning, Partnership and Good Deeds. That'll make a better decade for sure.

30 December 2009

The Holiness of Nowhere

I hadn't fully realized how in the middle of everything Wisconsin was until I got to Jerusalem for the first time in 1985. It was during an early morning of no-sleep, 4 or 5 AM, I don't remember which, that I wondered around the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus and felt, for the first time, that I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I was right in the middle of something, with no horizon in sight. There seemed to be very little distinction between earth and sky, a feeling of great comfort and radical, religious terror. In the midst of that sense of aloneness, I felt God. Certainly not for the first time but in a way that would be inextricably linked to a sense of land and fate that, oddly, was similar to the sense of God I felt as a kid, in the middle of the night in Wisconsin, with a clear black sky lit by a stars and a moon and the voice of wind rattling windows. I used to think that if I were in a prairie teepee somewhere, I'd have been taught that these were spirits talking. But I am a Jew, and so, while reared in the prairie, I found my way the source. In Jerusalem, in the middle of the night, the Voice came through Psalms, articulated in the rocky poetry of the Bible, or, as Mel Brooks put it in the 2013 year old man, the "Sand Language."

A language that roots you to the earth.

I don't know what that is for you but for me it's language that is both visual and spoken. The spoken part, if you will, has two elements. One, there's what you hear. Cadence, intonation, accent, and in the case of where I come from, humor. I was so keenly aware of this yesterday, visiting with my uncle who turns 80 next month--a man of such indomitable spirit that every encounter with him since my youth leaves me in wonder at the soul and strength of those ancestors of ours who moved to America more than 100 years ago. While quintessentially American, this dear uncle of mine also represents an unbreakable link back to Europe, and therefore, to the navel of our existence as a people, Jerusalem. We talked football, fitness, and family, each of which were under-girded with the language of strength and honor, values that have remained unreconstructed in him these past 80 years. It's an amazing and humbling thing to see. I think we laughed every five minutes, an interpretive lens that can never be over-estimated.

The words in Hebrew that I associate with these encounters with my uncle are גבורה and כבוד--strength and glory, heroism and honor. He's my dad's younger cousin and I believe has outlasted him, in large part, because there's alot that he got right where my dad came up short, God love him. This is my uncle who boxed, played football, succeeded in business, and remains physically active, despite a stroke seven years ago that left him partially paralyzed. Yesterday, three minutes into lunch, he boasted of his ability to leg press 175 pounds at 60 reps--with his bad leg.

We were talking about that perennial obsession of Wisconsinites--Brett Favre--and my uncle summed up his views with perfect clarity: "It's not that I don't like Favre, it's just that he forgot about his loyalty to the team." Sublimation, one might say, is essential element to the understanding of גבורה and כבוד.

Being outside has always meant alot to my uncle. The open air, the place to be physically active. And yesterday he mentioned that when in Madison, he could never understand how my dad stayed inside playing bridge with his buddies on a beautiful day. And then it occurred to me that one of the essential elements of understanding strength and glory is found in our encounter with the horizon.

And last night, walking to the car after leaving my uncle's house, I looked up at the stars and moon hanging in a black and frozen Wisconsin sky, contemplating the middle-of-nowhereness of it all, and remembered doing guard duty on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem on a cold winter night in 1986. I walked around with my roommate, on the lookout, charged with the task of reporting suspicious activity. And at one point in the night, sat on the hard, cold Jerusalem stone and looked up at a thin sliver of moon hanging above the campus. The university buildings were hulking masses, blending into the earth, which seemed to be radiating a power greater than anything I had felt. "The holiness of this city is this irony," I thought. "It's in the middle of nowhere." My roommate, an African American from Harlem, turned to me, intuiting the moment, I guess, and said, "Where the fuck are we?" My own reverie broke and I said, "Jerusalem." And after a long silence we burst out laughing.

That's when language is visual: when what we see can be translated into an understanding that we can articulate with an approximation of what we had just experienced.

I find God in such moments. The הנני--hinneni--here I am--of God's encounter with those in Torah privileged to be called. Especially in the middle of nowhere. It's where true values emerge, like family, loyalty to a team, and the language of "home."

The ironic holiness of the middle of nowhere, my two spiritual centers, Milwaukee and Jerusalem.

28 December 2009

Vaporous Oneness

I had an extraordinary experience yesterday at a friend's house to celebrate the baby naming of their new daughter. Being a rabbi in Brooklyn for the last twenty years, there's scarcely an opportunity to experience liberal Judaism in the Heartland, where Jews are a distinct minority and there is even more "translating" of what Judaism is all about than there is, even in a synagogue like ours with a high percentage of those congregants--Jewish and not--who require an explanation of what is going on when we gather to do Jewish ritual.

My friend and his wife and had bought a new house and so were not only celebrating the arrival of their daughter but were dedicating their home as well by publicly hanging a mezuzah. And so with nearly half of those in attendance wearing some kind of Packer gear (the Packers would be kicking off 90 minutes from the start of the service which was all impeccably timed to accommodate this other essential ritual) we first gathered on the family's new front porch and a terrific cantor led us through a series of readings dedicating their homes to the eternal values of the Jewish people. She read, "We affix the mezuzah to the doorpost of this house with the hope that it will always remind us of our holy duties to on another. May God's spirit fill this home with a sense of kindness, consideration and love for all people."

Maybe half the people on the front porch were Jewish but all were nodding in sincere agreement, tears welling up in their eyes at the humbling moment of dedicating a home, welcoming a new child, cognizant of a generation present that was moving, inexorably, toward the closing chapter of their lives. Liberal Judaism in the Heartland must adapt to its setting and here you saw a kind of Jewish version of an all-American moment. That the cold snap of weather revealed everyone's breath, hovering on the porch, in a strange kind of mixture of human essence--the breath, the soul of life--made for an oddly mysterious, almost cinematic moment.

The cantor led everyone into the living room, where, in short order, we heard beautiful, heart-felt speeches about past relatives from both sides of the family who were remembered and honored by their mention in this service to bestow a name and a history on this new life, bundled and beautiful. From Canada and upstate Wisconsin to Italian Catholic Brooklyn, Milwaukee's East Side, Poland--including Auschwitz--the layers of history and particular events of Jewish history were given voice. And the conductor was a female cantor, translating this Jewish ritual of bestowing name and blessing upon a child for everyone present.

There are realities to Jewish existence that the generations who came to these shores never in their lives could have possibly imagined. All too often we mourn what was without stopping in wonder and gratitude at the iterations today of what is. In a world of billions, another Jewish name was added to the list of those staggeringly precious few million who have maintained those names for nearly 4000 years.

In New York, where Jews are a significant and yet sizable minority with a strong influence as, arguably, one of a few dominant cultures, we are blessed with a kind of luxury of ethnic affinity which allows for the cultural expressions of Jewish life to prevail at times over a sense of religious ritual that has a more powerful ability to unify people from all corners of the earth.

Hanging a mezuzah and naming a child, rituals supported by the utterance of blessings in God's name, I felt keenly that moment when God spoke to Abraham, calling him to "be a blessing" and to live a life where the other nations of the earth would in fact be blessed through Abraham. Abraham and Sarah, we might remember, are are understood by the tradition as having "converted souls" to monotheism before they left Haran for the Land of Canaan. The Torah says they left with the "souls they acquired" and the Sages understand that as those they converted to the idea that God is One.

What a miraculous moment yesterday: the breath of lives, hanging in vaporous oneness, bearing witness to unity, tolerance, and understanding. And what a paradox: Vapor dissipates. In order to be able to see it, one needs to keep breathing.

26 December 2009


When Judah approaches his brother Joseph in the Torah that closed for this Shabbat, Vayigash, Judah, in an act of reconciliation with his brother says in Genesis 44.18, "Please, my lord, let Your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant. But the Hebrew, וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי, יְדַבֶּר-נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי allows for a very interesting opportunity to purposely misread the text and see the formal "lord" used by Judah as in fact a reference to God, which may render the text, "God is with/in me and your servant speaks directly to God." The Slonimer Rebbe, in his text נתיבות שלום says that especially in times of trouble, we learn that God doesn't answer our prayers directly--especially our direct requests for specific, material things--as much as God is with us, present, in our turmoil and pain. There is a logic to this--that since the days of the Mishnah one is taught that "acceptable" prayer should be made without any distraction and what is more distracting than a person is suffering, unable to move beyond his or her pain in order to focus on Divine matters beyond the self. But when Judah, in prayerful words to his brother, says, בִּי אֲדֹנִי, he is saying in fact that he can offer his prayer of pain in a non-distracted way specifically because he figured out that in fact God is with him.

Joseph needs to hear this confession--and he is about to return the favor, overcome with emotion himself--in order for the brothers to be reconciled.

A sibling relationship that began with rivalry, jealousy, and competition and that led to a staged "murder," being sold into slavery, falsely accused, sentenced to jail and only then freed by the very power that was the source of jealousy in the first place--Joseph knew well his own suffering and the ultimate source of his gift to interpret dreams. In his own confession to his brothers he says, "So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt." Whereas he once saw himself as the sole source of his own strength and inspiration, he has the humility and presence of self in relationship to the Divine to create room for reconciliation.

Presumably, the Slonimer Rebbe is saying to us that we each have this potential to learn, through introspection and prayer, that in fact in our darkest struggles we are not alone, that God is with us, not rescuing us materially but abiding, present. It means that pain is a natural part of our existence but that it yields great wisdom when we are able to simply understand that transcendence is not an instantaneous proposition.

People in therapy get these insights once in a while and once in a while they come through daily prayer as well. They are hard earned moments, building blocks for our own moral and psychological development.

25 December 2009

The Light

Last night I participated in the Christmas Eve service at Old First Reformed Church, having been invited by my dear friend the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter. I will admit to both externally accepting the invitation with great joy while internally contemplating for a few weeks the symbolism of the gesture and I want to share some of those thoughts with you, dear reader.

The first thought is about the practice of being able to accept the gift of hospitality. A friend invited me into his home--his spiritual home--and on one of the holiest days of the year, no less. The intimacy of this gesture is great.

The second thought is that the music for Christmas Eve is just out of this world--and being so close to it, watching the cues, behind the scenes, as it were, made those aesthetic moments that much better.

Then the third thought dawned on me: I'd be wearing a kippah in the church on the holiday that celebrates the birth of the messiah I do not accept. I wondered if this was hypocritical; or syncretistic; or confusing for those witnessing the event. Would theological lines be crossed?

The text I was invited to read was from Torah. In years past, members of CBE had read or chanted the lines in Hebrew and I would do the same. They are the lines spoken by God to Abraham after the Binding of Isaac. Isaac is spared the sacrifice and in his place, the ram is offered to God. But because of Abraham's faith, God rewards him with the following blessing from Genesis 22:15-18:

"And the angel of the Eternal called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said, 'By Myself have I sworn, said the Eternal, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven and the sands upon the seashore and your seed will possess the gate of your enemies and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have listened to My voice.'"

Sacrifice your son, your only son. Uh-oh. This I had to figure out. Here is a text that Jews and Christians simply read differently. The son: Isaac. And the Son: Jesus. I could hear Hank Williams "We Live in Two Different Worlds" singing in my head. Isaac's suffering has been read by Jews for centuries to be a particular suffering of a particular people and a particular reward for a particular people. Jesus' suffering, on the other hand, is on behalf of all people for all time and in fact is seen as a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham.

I felt stuck.

And then I realized something very profound. Back in September a hunk of our synagogue's main sanctuary ceiling caved in and before I could call him, Daniel Meeter called me and asked what we needed. Before I could even ask he said, "If you need the church for Yom Kippur, we can make it ready for you."

Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. Where Jews round the world afflict their souls with fasting and deep introspection, poetry and prayer for our past deeds, begging God's forgiveness and the opportunity to live another year of life. In traditional Judaism, the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning is Leviticus 16, the story of the sacrificial goat, which bears the sins of the community of Israel upon its head and then is sent into the wilderness, expelled, as a symbolic gesture of expiation or cleansing of communal sin. Without question, this text too informs the Christian understanding of the figure of Jesus, who, like the original scapegoat, bears the sin of humanity for all time. Another text that Jews and Christians simply read differently. But here we would be, our community, bringing that reading, our reading, into the church on our holiest day of the year.

I suddenly became un-stuck.

And the salve, the balm, as it were, was all about the gift of Torah and the incredible blessing of America. It seemed vitally important, axiomatically important, that peace could never be achieved if we couldn't read one another's texts openly and with great meaning as a gift to one another, as an expression of ultimate respect, even sacrifice, by making room for one another in a world that so desperately needs to see that divergence can be tolerated, embraced and ultimately, redemptive.

We met our other Jewish friends last night for Chinese food at 6. I had hot and sour soup and General Tso's tofu with broccoli. White rice. I arrived at church by 7.25 and was handed the service and a candle. In a brief moment of trepidation, I held the candle and thought: "This little light of mine...who's light, exactly?"

"The soul of a person is the light of the Eternal." Proverbs 20.27.

With pride of place I held that candle; with pride of place I read Torah at a Christmas Eve service; and with pride of place I thanked God for the friendship of the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, whose hospitality invited us into his home when our shelter needed repair, affording us, in an act of uncommon generosity, the opportunity to atone in our way at our time of year.

There was a point in the Christmas Eve ritual, toward the close of the service, when we were all supposed to extinguish our candles--liturgically, Jesus had been born at that moment. I didn't want to do that. I wanted the light to keep burning, because for me it meant wisdom, love, and Torah. There was a kind of unity in understanding that felt very real. But the divergence had occurred. When the candle went out, their Messiah had been born and we Jews continued waiting for ours (if that). In other words, on a certain level, intellectually, theologically, we had found ourselves again on separate paths.

But then afterward, Daniel said, "Thanks for the gift of Torah." Which the Sages of blessed memory always understand as the Light of the Eternal.

We Jews. We tiny, tiny people. A fraction of the world's population. Give the gift of Torah to another nation, that multiplies into many nations. And one, a descendant of Dutch Christians, receives again that gift and returns it to us in favor, with hospitality.

Long before Abraham ever had Isaac, God visited him, told him to circumcise himself, and then sent three angels to announce that he and Sarah would indeed have a child. Abraham, upon meeting the angels, asks Sarah to make a meal for them and she bakes cakes and prepares lamb and cheese--hardly a kosher meal. The rabbis wrestle with this text but ultimately conclude that for Abraham and Sarah, the expression of hospitality--cooking for their visitors what they would have wanted--was more important than the observance of the kosher laws!

Or, more succinctly: How great is the commandment of hospitality! We should bend in our supposedly intractable principles for the sake of welcoming another into our home.

Because in each of our homes is the light of learning, the light of each one of our souls, and therefore, the light of God.

Thanks for your friendship, Daniel. May each of our communities know the peace and understanding they so truly deserve.

24 December 2009

Save Jen Austin

A neighborhood friend, Jen Jones Austin, is suffering from leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant. You can help by following the links here at Save Jen Austin.

Jen is Senior Vice President of Community Investment for United Way and was formerly New York City's first Family Services Coordinator in Mayor Bloomberg's administration.

Jen and her family are remarkably kind and generously hearted people. Please do what you can to help.


In my father's high school yearbook, the Shorewood High School Copperdome from 1941, the year he graduated at age 16, he is described for his senior picture in the following way:

Monas Bachman: "Trustworthy Tony known for his cheerleading and dramatic work, is also known as "Monas the Manager" or "Monitor Monas" for he was a Hall Monitor in his junior year and has been track manager the last two years. He is a senior editor of the Copperdome and member of Quill and Scroll."

When I was a kid I studied that page like a sacred text because it was a window into the self-reflective world of my dad--as a kid--beginning to shape his own story as a young man. Forever linked for all time on a page along with people named Ted and Dawn and Kitty Lou, this class would soon be called to national service a brief half year after graduation with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My dad would turn 18 in the service, like a lot of young men of his generation, and when I was growing up this yearbook, along with his hundreds of Polaroids from the war would be the images upon which he would construct a narrative of sacrifice. It was always an oddly sentimental experience to look through the book and the pictures, to hear the familiar stories--mostly because the images were in black and white, set forever in shades of gray that were more revealing for what the man in front of me, in living color, did not become.

For much of his adult life my father was consumed by an undiagnosed depression and in clinical terms, a variety of unresolved issues that because they were never adequately addressed and so made manifest in fits of rage and led to a successful yet unstable professional life, a failed marriage, and an early death. In his "seven years of famine"--from a divorce and job loss in 1976 to a heart attack and death in 1983, he was remarkably reflective. It was during those years that the books came out, the pictures got spread on the floor of his apartment where I visited him on weekends, and he attempted, for the first time in his life I believe, to re-write the story he had edited for himself in that 1941 yearbook.

When I got cut from the basketball team my junior year of high school and we both had to admit that his vicarious desire to see me be a player he would have "cheered for" as a kid himself, we shared a kind of mutual loss, celebrated my own athletic achievements beyond his, and then started sharing books and ideas together. On one particular afternoon I remember coming home to his apartment and finding him listening to Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" and excitedly explaining to me the connections he heard between Elvis' and Cole Porter's lyricism. During Camp David there were reflections about his grandfather's unfulfilled Zionism, practiced from Milwaukee's Jewish East Side middle class, and lines drawn from Golda Meir to '48, '67, '73 and then this peace with Egypt. I was astounded to learn, however briefly, that he not only paid attention to Israel but cared. That he chose not to educate his children in these matters earlier remains a mystery.

In 1981, with Reagan in power and a fear that the Selective Service draft would return, my best friend and I gathered around a kitchen table with our dads--both of whom served in the Second World War--and listened to man who resisted the Vietnam draft, fled to Canada, and only recently had returned to the U.S. My friend and I were dead set against the draft--not wanting to fight, as we put it, in Reagan's wars for oil in the Middle East or against Communism in Central America. However, in order to get student loans for college, one had to register for the draft. It was a dilemma my dad and I talked about over and over again and I can remember first telling him I'd resist, absorbing his disappointment, and then, later, upon reflection, deciding to register. While I made that decision alone, I always appreciated how we prepared for that moment together.

That was the last real big decision we made together as father and son, save one.

Two years later, during my sophomore year in Madison, a massive depression sunk in. I found myself unable to take notes in class, unable to read, unable to sleep. I had never felt it before and was shattered by its sheer force to prevent me from accomplishing anything productive. I remember seeing my friends, like balloons, drifting happily through their lives while I remained tethered to the cruel, cold ground. Backed into a corner of failing all my classes, I went to see an exceptionally compassionate dean and dropped out, literally at the 11th hour, salvaging a semester. The fear that was coursing through my veins when I walked back to my apartment to call my dad was quite profound. But not as great as the warmth and understanding with which I was received on the other end of the line when I called him in his apartment back in Milwaukee.

I remember the tone--loving, full of humor and understanding, even hopeful. And then, with a pretty good dramatic effect he said, "You know son, before the service I had a couple terrible semesters in Madison. I was really immature--nothing like you--and I dropped out too. This is your chance to figure out who you are and what it's all about." I was so relieved.

I'd see him that Thanksgiving and again on Christmas Eve, at the holiday party we went to every year where we gathered as a family, it seemed, with every other family made from a Jewish man who grew up in Milwaukee in the 1920s and 1930s, married a non-Jewish woman and had kids.

Dad was really angry with me that night because when I showed up at his place to take him to the party, I was wearing a grey and red sweater, jeans and basketball sneakers. He was wearing a camelhair jacket, shirt, tie and slacks. He found my manner of dress disrespectful. And exploded in a decidedly non-festive rage. At that point his career was over, his health was slipping, and within three months, at age 58, he'd die of a heart attack in bed.

We drove to the party separately and only later, when he saw that all the other kids in college were dressed similar to me, did he relax his stance toward me. I remember squeezing into a chair next him, eating and sharing a drink, and talking about a variety of things. We looked silently across this room filled with people, Christmas Eve night, a room filled with men he grew up with, shared business with, lived in a community with, and the mixture of achievement and loss felt like a heavy and precarious balance. As he darkened I reminded him that the sweater I chose for that night was red and gray, his Shorewood High School colors. My high school colors, I reminded him, were blue and white, so he could "at the very least show some appreciation for my homage to his cradle of civilization."

He gave me a knowing glance for the sarcastic comment and I could feel him relax into me--a last moment with him that I'll never forget these twenty-six years later. I reflect on that gesture, that of father leaning into the son, as the last one we shared before he died. I'm sure there were other hugs that winter break but none that I remember like this one. It has the force of a generational tide shift, in real time, though it seemed to be lost in the noise and tumult of voices in a home at a party. Lives in disarray often don't afford the neat good-bye. So I took this one.

Driving back to Milwaukee for Dad's funeral that March with my uncle, in stunned silence, the only words spoken in the car were, "You know, your dad worked on jeeps during the War but he never looked under the hood of his own car."

And that metaphor has propelled me these last twenty-six years to introspection, self-examination, prayer and service to God, and the study of Torah that can lead to a more just and redeemed world. One of the most enduring lessons I learned from his depression and death is that the call to serve doesn't last a few years. It lasts a lifetime and it has as many glorious mountain tops as it has deep, dark valleys. Sometimes in life we have the opportunity to "cheer." At other times, it's all we can do to "manage." And whenever possible one should try to minimize the "drama." Unless it's a good movie or book.

Trustworthy Tony known for his cheerleading and dramatic work, is also known as "Monas the Manager" or "Monitor Monas" for he was a Hall Monitor in his junior year and has been track manager the last two years. He is a senior editor of the Copperdome and member of Quill and Scroll.

I salute you, Dad.

22 December 2009

Light in the Darkness

I had this exceptionally strong feeling the other day that I might die--not really, but for sure an enduring sense of mortality that hung with me all day long. And why not?

Three times a day I open my siddur to read the words, ברוך אתה ה מחיה המתים--Blessed Are You Eternal One, Who Gives Life to the Dead. Each day we are living and dying, or, more accurately, each day we die and each day we are brought back to life, re-animated, as it were, by our relationship with the Divine, our cognizance of the Source of Life.

So why was that day different from any other day? I'm not sure. It may have had to do with the fiction of Hanukah's "increasing" light: the more we lit the menorah, the more it was apparent that we were "whistling" in the dark. Naming the painful truth sometimes alleviates its suffering reality.

It's often when in such mournful states that my mind cleaves to the memory of mentors. I re-imagine lessons learned; I remember guidance given, dispensed advice, and I embrace the inevitable decline with a reviving hope for what will endure: ברוך אתה ה מחיה המתים--Blessed Are You Eternal One, Who Gives Life to the Dead.

Over the next few days, I'd like to reflect on the figures who were critical to my own growth and development. In part as a testimony to the kindness they showed me in their teaching and also because as I've found in my life, when death rears its head and wants to speak, one should be prepared with the best acquired wisdom one has.

Reader, be not alarmed. Thank God I'm healthy. But there are times in our lives when death speaks. In Job for instance, the Satan is less the cartoonish, evil figure of popular imagination and more, as he's sometimes translated, the Adversary, posing another perspective on things, as it were. Throughout the rabbinic literature, there are angels that seek to subvert the hopeful process of living, wreak havoc, even attempt to take lives--and the challenge of the imagination is to meet those forces head on, prepared, brave and strong. This takes discipline. And the spiritual hero is the one who prevails in such encounters.

Two nights ago I couldn't sleep and so around 4.15 am got out of bed, read for a while, then flipped open the laptop to see what was what. I got a message from a friend who said her grandfather was dying and so in the course of the next hour, we chatted and then began to put together a eulogy for her to deliver. Not the most *normal* conversation for 5 in the morning--but in the moment I felt no hesitation and only the need to share a perspective on facing the inevitable, God willing, can be helpful at the right time.

Later in the morning, I got a copy of the eulogy in an email and it was beautiful--the joint product of our pre-sunrise efforts. I saw my words, her words and truthfully, words that belonged to neither of us but useful words, eternal words, words that say there is much more to life beyond us--before us and after us--and therefore words of enormous power and comfort.

That happened because of readiness. And the first person who taught me readiness was my Little League baseball coach. For three seasons I learned the game of baseball from him but equally important I learned the skill of readiness, which I am going to separate, for sake of argument from preparation. Whereas readiness requires a kind of hyper-awareness--taking the proper stance, eyes forward, ready for any kind of ball at any speed to come your way--preparation is the slow food corollary, laying the groundwork behind the scenes that no one really sees. (I remain challenged in that department.)

But I'm quick on my feet. Ready.

John Dower, a professor of Japanese history in Madison
(who's now at MIT) once told a story about a Zen master who passed his test to be a Zen master when he walked into a room and as he opened the door, reached up and grabbed a rock from the lintel that had been balanced there to fall on his head when the door opened. He *saw* the rock from the other side of the door, anticipated its presence, and before it even teetered, gently moved it out of the way.

I used to review that story in my mind, over and over, thinking, that's a great way to live life. And then one day while watching a baseball game, saw a third baseman seamlessly pick up a ball and throw out a runner by a step with virtually no effort at all. Except there was great effort. And it was evident through the principal of readiness.

Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in his Paths of the Upright (1740) refers to readiness as *watchfulness." הזהירות. In contemporary Hebrew one might say, "Be careful." But the word suggests light in the darkness, or, to bring us back to baseball, thoughts of spring training in darkest December.

An email at 4.30 am about a dying grandparent is that rock above the door; it's the ground ball that hits a rock in the grass, takes a funny bounce, but still lands in the glove. You don't just know how to do that--someone teaches you readiness. How to stand, watch, and pay attention.

It's a way of seeing, even in the dark.

16 December 2009

Though He Tarries, I Won't Wait

For the last year or so, a small group of people across a few generations have been studying Maimonides "Book of Love," the medieval rabbi/philosopher's work on the laws of prayer and Jewish ritual. We meet on Saturday mornings, before services, for about an hour each week and in the course of that time we manage to work our way through at least one and at most three paragraphs of text. There are people in the class who grew up Reform; there are people in the class who grew up Conservative; there are people in the class who grew up Orthodox; and there are people in the class who grew up as members of another faith altogether. Most of the 12-15 regular participants are members of CBE, which for nearly 150 years, has identified as a Reform synagogue. I lead the class and I was trained at HUC, the Reform movement's rabbinical school. We use the "tools" of Reform in applying them to the class: men and women participate equally; homophobes are frowned upon; and we try, to the best of our ability and literacy, to think historically and critically. As far as I'm concerned, no one can mess with our Reform bona fides.

Having said that, Reform is not really on the agenda. Maimonides is. And so is prayer. And ritual. And this makes for a much richer discussion, far less limited than one particular movement lens about what a sage of Judaism has to teach about the reality of the human encounter with the Divine, how it is assimilated into one's attempts to come near to God and how it is that one can develop one's own practice of remaining close. We do grapple with Reform, in particular the early Reformers propensity to remove from ritual those practices which they deemed "primitive" or "anti-rational." Sometimes that has been one of the more enjoyable aspects of the learning--applying the critical-historical lens of Reform to Reform--and seeing where it all comes out.

This is not new. It's been going on in the Reform movement for nearly 90 years. No sooner did the first Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 get written before responses were already being formulated to react to, if not undo, some of its supposed advances. By 1937, in Columbus, Ohio, another platform was written--most famously to restore the timeless relationship of the Jewish people to our historic homeland in the Land of Israel. Zionism and anti-Semitism alone had demanded this addition to an increasingly dire situation in Europe; and, as Eugene Borowitz and Michael Meyer pointed out in rabbinic school, Columbus represented the beginning of a shift from a German-based Reform movement to one with increasing numbers of its leaders coming from Eastern Europe, where a more "traditional" hold on Judaism was practiced.

Put another way, fifty years after Pittsburgh in 1885 the movement shifted, based on historical corrections and contemporary demands; and such a shift took place again 40 years later in San Francisco and then again in Pittsburgh in 1999. Each step along the way has led, over the course of the century, to a more nuanced, tradition-centered focus, and a de-emphasis on the principle of "removing" those traditions leaders have found "not in keeping with Reform" and an emphasis on embracing practice and ritual with an historical and critical perspective. In the Reform movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s, this was rather un-romantically referred to as "making an educated choice," which unfortunately quickly shifted to "choosing" or "doing whatever you want" until it devolved in the last 15 years to its worst manifestation, when you occasionally hear someone say, "oh, I don't do anything--I'm Reform."

At the core of the issue for me is that I chose a school for rabbinic training that would see Judaism as an inherently evolving tradition; that would treat women and men equally; that would ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis; and that would always apply the critical-historical lens to our studies. Ergo: Reform.

But in my day-to-day work; in my ongoing encounter with Jews from all walks of life; and in my own practice (kashrut in the home, tefilin in morning prayer, for example)--I simply do my best as a Jew to represent the tradition to those who are seeking its wisdom. I don't ask myself, "What does Reform have to say about this or that?" I don't find that question to be particularly useful on most occasions, except for those that I've already delineated.

I occasionally hear from the edges of the synagogue I serve, "Oh, he's not really a Reform rabbi." Or, "Oh, he's trying to make Beth Elohim a Conservative synagogue." Nope. Nothing of the sort. I'm actually quite happy as a Reform rabbi serving a Reform synagogue.

These are often reactions without dialogue, where labels drive the conversation more than the substance of encounter, which is the point of the Maimonides class on Saturday mornings. With all due respect to the greatest minds of Reform theology in the 19th century, the Rambam has a leg up by several centuries of wisdom and practice and that, simply put, is a far richer set of texts with which to contend.

As a kid, I found myself occasionally at a Reform and a Conservative shul with my grandparents and for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. In Madison, I gravitated toward more traditional expressions because that's where the action was at Hillel. At Hebrew University, the Israeli encounter with Judaism obviously didn't follow the American model of denominational breakdown at all. So by the time I got to HUC, I was already a kind of hybrid, liberal, non-orthodox Jew. And I'm a dime a dozen. And in our digitized, hyper-unique-ified world of be what you want to be as long as you or anyone else can pay attention, it's only getting more atomized. Which, again, as far as I'm concerned, is all the more reason to rely on the Sages and not the 19th century ideological movements for guidance.

The JTA recently ran a story about a "Classical Reform Revival," which, when you read it, doesn't really come off as a revival as much as a reaction to a fait accompli--Reform Judaism, however defined, is not sitting still. And if there's anything we learn from critical-historical thinking, that's the nature of Evolution. It keeps on evolving and doesn't wait. Ideologically speaking, that's good.

Not unlike Zionism and other utopian visions of the late 19th century, Classical Reform delivered for its time and then necessarily gave way to other forces that picked up the torch and carried the light in new directions. With the exception of Chabad Messianism and the Settler Movement in Israel, the Jewish people today are decidedly non-ideological. We've stopped waiting for THE solution and are merely focused on what our enduring Tradition has to teach us about living better lives and making our world a better, and more peaceful place. Non-ideologically speaking, that's good.

15 December 2009

Weinberg on Hatch

Conan's drummer Max Weinberg responds to the Orrin Hatch Hanukah song in a damn good way.

Here you go:

Haim Watzman's Blog on CBE Visit

Here's a really nice synopsis of Haim Watzman's visit to CBE last month.

It was great to have Haim join us for a study of Rambam's Book of Love--which we actually used as a segue to study the articles of faith of Reformed Society of Israelites of Charleston, South Carolina circa 1830.

Later that morning Haim did his performed monologue about his journey into Zionism and Israel which was really great and those in attendance loved it.

You can read about it here.

11 December 2009

Might, Power & Spirit

David Brooks nails it in his column today about Hanukah--what a rich and complicated festival it is and how, when one scratches beneth the surface of its message of "religious freedom" by celebrating with candles, dreidels, latkes, chocolate and jelly donuts, one sees a moral and historical object lesson in religious reform and extremism that still plays itself out today in real ways.

Alarmingly, one can see, for example, in today's Haaretz, a story about settlers vandalizing a mosque in Yasuf in the northern West Bank, part of the payback policy that settlers are carrying out in retaliation for PM Netanyahu's ordered freeze on settlement expansion and construction. The settlers' guerilla tactics are disturbingly reminiscent of Macabi attempts to cleanse the land of "foreign" elements.

One wishes, in fact, that Brooks, who bases his reporting in large part on the work that Jeffrey Goldberg is doing in writing a new book about Judah Maccabee, based on and expanding in his own inimitable way, as I'm sure he will, an earlier Schocken publication by Elias Bickerman on the same subject. In short, what we tell the kids just ain't the half of it. By the way, if you haven't seen or heard, here's Jeffrey's story behind the famous Orrin Hatch Hanukah song that Tablet launched this week.

It makes one think how a community should systematically tell the story across the ages: the dreidels and treats up to a certain age of development; and then, as the mind and heart grow more prepared to handle life's complexities and brutal truths, to reveal the ugly underside to crusading war of religious purification, unfettered from any fear of using violence in the name of religious reform. Such complexities are too much to bear for most, so we nibble on chocolate gelt, which thankfully, Brooklyn's own Leah Koenig places in just the right context. You can read it here.

The Rabbis in the Talmud avoid most of the history and really are credited with giving us the 8 Day Miracle story, arguably in a valiant effort to bury the dreadful violence and elevate the spirit of light and freedom.

Looking around this world, they have given us something to continue to reach for: the Sages chose the prophet Zechariah's vision of the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. And as Zechariah reports his prophetic dialogue with an angel, where the angel tells the prophet God's vision for the Temple: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit."

When we are old enough and wise enough to absorb this lesson, the inherent tension involved in it, we may be then ready to assimilate Hanukah's real lessons.

09 December 2009

Angels Update

Let me start by saying how impressed I was with patient support at Methodist Hospital. From the moment we walked in yesterday, it was simply excellent.

Triage: excellent.
Nurse: excellent.
ER Resident: excellent.

My only complaint was watching the medical staff fill out form after form after form on-line. As I wrote yesterday--not their fault but the "system," however large and unwieldy it is. It really puts the negotiations in DC into a whole new perspective. The massive enterprise, universe, really, known as the Health Care Industry, is a beast that may never be tamed. The glimmers of humanity were welcome, necessary, and appreciated. Well done, Methodist!

That continued into today.

My daughter went to school with her crutches and a note from the ER doctor NOT to participate in gym and other physical activity. But for the first hour of the morning, the office at MS 51 wouldn't let her go to class because it wasn't a different note that said she could be on crutches. Figure that one out for me. The kid shows up with a signed note from an ER doctor at THE local hospital but according to the Department of Education administrator at the school it wasn't the wrong note, per se, it just wasn't the right one.

While texting with daughter on the merits of many of George Orwell's observations about bureaucracies, I called Methodist, where the ER administrator snapped into gear, contacted our pediatrician, and got the ball rolling. The two biggest frustrations? The office at MS 51 and the office at our pediatricians' office, each of whom were filled with excuses for the delays and not deeply committed to finding creative ways to resolve a situation.

Here's what drives me nuts: when customer service isn't a top priority, the whole experience unravels. The MS 51 administrator cited a Department of Education regulation but when I said I was on its website and could find no such policy about two different notes for crutches, she said, "I'll have to get back to you." At the pediatricians' office, it was an argument over how long my daughter was waiting in her office at school for their office to fax over the doctor's note. When I explained that it was thirty minutes of waiting, the receptionist said, "No, more like five." When I answered that in fact it was considerably longer, she said, "Sorry, we got busy here."

Cities like this claim that such bureaucratic gruffness is charming when in fact it's the sign of an aging dinosaur going extinct.

Some years ago, I had an experience in the Methodist ER that was less than okay. Yesterday and today my experiences were stellar. Adaptation wins the day. A public school and a pediatrician get two big thumbs down.

At least for my kid missing class, thanks to the adaptive tool known as a cellphone, we texted back and forth about the great English satirist of bureaucracies and their rules. From my perspective, she passes the class she missed.

08 December 2009

What the Angels Couldn't Steal

In the opening of the Torah narrative about Joseph, a character narrative that will span more sections of Genesis than any other character in the Torah's opening book, we learn that Joseph is described as his father Jacob's בן זקונים--the child of his old age.

The medieval commentator Rashi notes that "whatever Jacob learned during his years of study in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever, he taught in turn to Joseph."

I sat contemplating these lines last night and the next day while in two different hospital emergency rooms waiting for some attention to a bumped knee on one of my kids. Our pediatrician had sent us into the city, to the NYU Hospital for Orthopedics, thinking that the x-ray would get shot and interpreted quickly. Three and a half hours and few blown fuses later, we had yet to get seen, so we left in frustration. The following morning we went to Methodist, our local hospital, where we zipped through triage and then waited two hours to be seen and another 45 minutes before the x-ray was taken and read (diagnosis: big bruise, no break), the knee wrapped and the child crutched. Back outdoors, to a sunny day and a quick lesson in using the little aluminum devils.

"My whole life I wanted to be that kid walking down the sidewalk in crutches," my daughter said. "Until now. This isn't so fun."

We passed the time in the car last night, walking down the street today, talking about past injuries and what was done to overcome them. And while in the waiting rooms at both NYU and Methodist, we each had the tools of our trade--she, her cellphone, her iPod and some school work; me, the blackberry and Da'at Hamikrah, a terrific collection of commentary both traditional and historical to Torah. Between my own outbursts of prophetic annoyance at the abysmal condition of the health care system in our nation ("Wow, Dad, it's REALLY fun hanging out with you," she deadpanned, before convincing me to go for a walk and get us some supper.)

Thai noodles from 2nd Avenue and 17th Street. Another dad was sitting with his daughter in the restaurant, their plates were empty at the table. So was his glass of red wine. The daughter was diddling with his iPhone. There was silence and benevolent smiles between them. The waiters behind the bar were organizing drink glasses and in off moments, checking their cellphones. I sat with my blackberry at the ready, in case my daughter, holed up in the emergency room across the street, needed me--after all, she was in the "emergency" room.

Where did all the talking go?

When I got back to the hospital, we cracked open our noodles and my daughter exploded in narrative--about the little person who slept in her chair and the other woman who kept trying to console a crying Russian mother with the offer of taking her to sing Christmas Carols on an upper floor of the hospital. Across from us sat a group of African American women, waiting for their cars to take them home after a long day of work. They were exhausted but had the day's news and holiday wishes and all sorts of gossip to get out of the way before parting for the night. It was a very rich scene and for a moment I forgot that I was annoyed with the health care system in our country and instead I was a student of the human body and soul, in a place which treats both, and whatever I had learned in my 46 years of existence I wanted to pass on to my daughter.

So I told her about Jacob and Joseph, and how one of the things that made Joseph's brothers so jealous of him was that Jacob favored Joseph in passing on the family wisdom to him and not the others. In fact, when Torah reveals that the brothers hatred for Joseph was rooted in their perception that Jacob loved Joseph the most, it says, "they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him."

And then we started telling stories. My injuries. Her sisters'. Her mother's. On and on. It was a real tale of woe. And we shared the pain, really feeling it for one another. Suddenly, we decided to go home and try again at a different hospital in the morning. Which we did. And when the x-rays were complete and all we had to reckon with was a bruise, a knee wrap, and some temporary crutches, we could begin to pivot toward a different day than we had been having since the night before.

And I have to say, I emerged from the hospital more the patient than my eldest daughter. At one point during one of my deeply annoying monologues about inefficiency (though I still think my point is valid--the young doctor was spending more time filling out forms on-line than he was examining patients, not his fault necessarily but damn all this process!), my daughter says, "You know, Dad, instead of telling me your boring stories about what's wrong, why don't you just come stand here and tell me a funny story."

I dare say the kid taught me a lesson. A credit to her mother. And here I had shlepped my Torah commentary into the hospitals to teach her something, only to discover that I had more learning to do.

The Sages say that before a person is born, God tells them the entire Torah and then when we're born, angels gently wipe our mouths and remove the learning, leaving the small dimple above our top lip as a sign that the Torah was once present. We spend our lives re-obtaining that innate wisdom.

As I grow older, I have to admit to the certain joy in passing on what I know to those who will succeed me in this world; but this experience reminds me of an even greater and richer joy--to learn the simple wisdom from those who still retain a relationship to its purer origins, the small remnant that the angels couldn't steal, saving it up for children to use on their parents, when they could stand to do a little learning themselves.

07 December 2009

Eluding Words Like Delete or Burnt

In our increasingly digitized world, I suppose it's no surprise these days that more and more people are opting for cremation of the dead. It makes sense. The dissipation of matter--verbal, video or virtual--into the smallest of component parts; the corollary relationship between the fire of disintegration and the heat of a laptop battery; even the very act of absence itself: yes to cremation and not burial? Sign here. End of conversation? Press delete.


Just like that.

I don't like it.

My friend Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet, wrote today after having to listen to me complain about it. "Honestly, it's not the cause I'd take up, if I were you," she said. "Let's work on this world. Olam Ha'bah has to be someone else's problem." In the spirit of Hanukah, I accused her of being an Epircurean. I should have also pointed out that some of the Epicureans' most important papyri were found among the "charred" remains of Herculaneum--how ironic!

Cremation as a new Jewish response to death and the body has the feeling of a force to be reckoned with. There are many reasons for this.

1. Increasingly mobile populations no longer have a relationship to particular places as home--whether that home be temporal and of this world or eternal and of the next.

2. The growing awareness of the "environment" and an inherited sense that burial is a waste of useful land.

3. The vague relationship of contemporary spiritual culture to Buddhist and Hindu notions of the body's non-essential, ephemeral nature and the fact that these spiritual ideas are so enmeshed with our popular culture that they take precedence over Judaism's mandated Law against such practice.

4. Cost. I dare say, the great monkey on the back of Jewish life--going back at least 40 years--is the mistaken (and irresponsible) notion that being Jewish should be free. And if not free, than cheaper than it is. So, by that measure, it's cheaper to burn than to bury.

This is not good for the Jews.

Everything about burial, from my experience as a rabbi thus far, surpasses the cremation process. Mourning itself, we might say, gets a better leg up when the body goes six feet down, when there is a direct engagement with death and burial.

1. Burial takes longer than cremation, proving that death and its attendant responsibilities, mundane and earthly as they are, cannot and will not be rushed. It is a process.

2. Death is related to place: earth, six feet below (a similar address or valence for us all), with a stone and a name and a date and, if we're lucky, an epitaph, pithy or otherwise, links us, engraved in stone like the very word of God on the Tablets, to one another on the space/time continuum.

3. Death is related to history: there is a narrative to the experience; there are whole cemetery sections dedicated to homelands once claimed, now forgotten, yet recorded, in stone, in the countless gates of Landsmanschaften throughout Jewish cemeteries across the world. (During one recent trip to a cemetery in Queens I was told that there over 1300 Jewish burial societies represented in that one place. Remarkable!) Our very names reflect our origins. Where else are they written in stone?

4. Burial is more humble. It seems like it's not. I hear the voice that says "But you take up space! You erect monuments!" I hear you. But to cremation I'd say, "You burn! Such a destroyer of life!?"

There is a quietude to burial. A humbling. A "laying to rest" that has an inherent beauty and slowing of time--especially when one contemplates the decay of the body in the cold, dark ground. It's true: the decay is a frightful thought. Disturbing, depressing, even morose. But on the other hand, it's natural, liberating, and slow.

Slow enough to question the life, its structure and meaning. And the man or woman or boy or girl who occupied its form. And like a season that arrives not quite when we're ready, so too does death march into our lives at its own pace, never really controlled by us; only sometimes managed; barely understood but if at all, with patience and time.

Which is as it should be. After all, it's the end, and the start of something else.

Eluding words like "delete" or "burnt."

02 December 2009

Progress Valley Authority Corps! Attention!

:::from the language archives:::

I've been thinking about how de-valued our language can be with regard to dealing with our economic crisis and in particular, how that de-valuing can lead to some interesting and troubling conclusions about where we may be headed.

These thoughts came to me last night during a panel discussion about whether or not all the stuff for "free" for young people in the Jewish community is "good" for the Jews. In talking about birthright, for example, one young man said to me, "Think of all the equity we're creating by inspiring two hundred thousand young people to be Jewish!"

"Human equity." That's one.

And then my mind drifted to:

The Bailout (money)
The Stimulus Package (money)
Cash for Clunkers (money)

And then I was depressed but oddly inspired by the remarkable confluence of money being used to buy our way out of trouble.

Reading a very disturbing article about Ashton Kutcher in Fast Company had me even more troubled: "When I have a conversation with someone and they say, 'I'm not worried about monetization yet,' that scares the shit out of me," he says.

Strange what keeps some people up at night.

Anyway, it had me thinking about another conversation I had recently, with someone claiming that one of the greatest achievements of the 60s Generation was abolishing the draft. "But what did you replace National Service with?" I asked. It's a serious question that we have to reckon with, and one that, left unanswered, will only allow rampant individualism to continually run roughshod over any hope of building a democracy rooted in values and the collective.

So I took my list:

The Bailout (money)
The Stimulus Package (money)
Cash for Clunkers (money)

and compared it to the projects conceived by the Greatest Generation:

The Civilian Conservation Corps
The Works Progress Administration
The Tennessee Valley Authority

and I found myself pining for an earlier time and a more rooted imagination--an imagination rooted in "corps" (the body politic); "work" and "progress" (cos who can argue with that?); and "authority" (is there such a thing as too much autonomy? seems a question worth asking when millions starve without work, shelter or health care).

If I were 18 years old, risking my life to repair our world would be a pretty alluring proposition. Losing my life into a virtual reality?

I'd just feel punk'd.

The Home and Heart Paradigm

I moved back and forth twice today between Manhattan and Brooklyn--once to see a mentor in the city and the second time to be on a panel before "young Jews" who are at least 10-15 years younger than me and in both trips, under the water and through the tunnels, I was acutely aware of how important and irrelevant was the role of history.

With the mentor, history was a strong, loud voice, laying down principles that could guide us, shed light, and prove a way forward. With the young ones, I'm sad to report, there seemed a greater interest in the invention of language for a new era, the coinage of phrase for a paradigm as yet unseen. Classic. Each generation craves (at its own peril) it's own originality. Yawn.

I shared a panel tonight with a philanthropy professional who was exceptionally smart and self-critical, along with a young modern Orthodox rabbi who is trying to define "kosher" in the context of living wage and health care. Sitting across the room was Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who has built a liberal yeshiva where Torah is being learned each day. Charity, justice and learning were all represented, fully, with integrity, and I was filled with hope.

At the same time, the audience was predominantly observant, we were preaching to the choir, and one had to ask: "Of those among the masses, who's listening?"


Having said that, maybe it doesn't matter.

What impact, after all, can we really expect to have?

On the aforementioned two journeys to and from Manhattan, I read from the historian Linda Gordon's new book on the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. Dorothea Lange had polio and in one of her seminars, in the 1950s, she asked her students to compose self-portraits with narrative which she participated in as well--a rare expression of her own interior world which caught Gordon's attention. Lange shot her own foot, contorted by her disease but nonetheless an evocative photo of the record, if you will, of its power to both create impediment and draw inspiration and therefore narrative to overcome its crippling challenge.

When Lange was teaching photography to students in 1959 and chose to describe her own self-portrait in the context of all her other students' portraits she wrote, "By the time we have looked at them all, we ought to feel that our own homes and hearts, by the view we have been given of the homes and hearts of others, are not just what they were when they began."

Being able to see into the "homes and hearts" of others is an experience that creates empathy and compassion--two essential elements for the redeeming of our world.

As in, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Or, "You shall honor the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt."

In other words, while rumbling through the tunnels on the way home tonight, I thought not of outreach but of history; not of innovation but renovation; not paradigm shifts but simply paradigms.

Love. Compassion. Justice.

01 December 2009

Gelertner v Neusner: Blogosphere Cage Match!

Sara Ivry's Vox Tablet podcast this week is with computer scientist David Gelertner who waxes on about the superiority of observant Judaism.

For an argument, check it out here.

Interesting to consider this in the context of Jacob Neusner's Forward piece last week, championing Reform Judaism.

As for me, I'm not triumphalist about any denomination and the need to claim one stream of Judaism over another seems a bit of waste of time.

If we spent more time learning, moving beyond ourselves, and carrying out acts of lovingkindness, we'll all be better off.

A Shovelful

I grew up in Wisconsin, where the Jewish cemeteries have the distinct trait of being tracts of land that are designed to blend in, not stand out, you know, be just like everyone else--but Jewish. Here in New York, the Jewish cemeteries represent a certain cast of proud, differentiated sacred history: broad shouldered, complex, even loud. A loud cemetery seems ironic, I know, but it's true. When you spend as much time in them as I do, you begin to hear voices among the trees and stones, calling forth ages long past. Not passively in repose, mind you, like Thornton Wilder's Our Town. We're talking Jewish cemeteries, where death is only a state of mind.

Like many social situations in Jewish life with the living and the dead, food is required. So if the procession requires a trip down Coney Island Avenue, I stock up for the ride with Israeli food as I gather my thoughts for the graveside service. Lately I've been stopping at a small restaurant called פול-Time (Full-Time) punning on fava beans. I order a zatar bread and feta sandwich, two potato burekas and Israeli fruit nectar, exchange some street Hebrew with the frum owner and Latino staff, and then zip out to the burial. I've learned over the years to eat well, since, given liberal Jews increasing distance from the dirt-under-the-nails reality of Jewish burial, I often do most of the heavy shoveling. Having eaten well makes me like a bear preparing a den for a long winter--someone else's cold, dark winter.

When my grandfather died in 1973, I stood above his frozen grave at age 10 and tasted for the first time the bitter reality of death. My grandmother, in the Eastern European style, wailed furiously. I remember her throwing herself to the ground. And as my father and uncle retrieved her, she had earth and snow on her coat and dress. This was the image of mourning. These days, as the officiating rabbi, I'm very conscious of what people are wearing and how it effects their movement--of the choreography, if you will, of burial. I notice how a purse falls down from shoulder to wrist and impedes the ability to shovel; how certain shoes work near a six-foot deep hole and others don't; I notice who tears his shirt in front of his dead and who does not. And most of all, I watch them with the shovel.

The shovel was left there by the men--Mexican, Irish, African American--who dug the grave with a tractor, covered the mound of earth with green turf, and then neatly lined up the tools for us to grab and use as the last act of kindness one human being can perform for another--חסד של אמת--lovingkindness of truth.

Today's Jews are too delicate with such truths. I try to model the act--heaving three heaping shovel-fulls of earth down into the hole, echoing off the casket with a rocky finality that is meant to awaken us to the painful reality of this experience. But most pass. They take hold of the shovel briefly, gently penetrate the mound of earth, and sprinkle, like an adornment, the final curtain. After a few moments time, as the line of participants thins, I wade back in, grabbing hold again of the shovel, and hammer away until the casket is covered. Sometimes my kippah falls off in the fury, and when I retrieve it from the ground, covered in dirt, I think back to my grandfather's funeral, and the earth and snow.

One time, at a very small graveside service, the family elected not to shovel any earth. There was the bulldozer standing at the ready, just in the distance, and it seemed logical to call it forward. So the family left and I said I'd stay behind til the job was finished. Four men stood guard while one steered the dozer into place and with a startling lack of skill, spent several minutes maneuvering his machine into place for just the proper replacement of sand and rock atop the deceased's already decaying body. I took the opportunity to address the men, all Latino, presumably not Jewish, and just about to take their lunch break, explaining to them that I had eaten, on Coney Island Avenue in fact, and if they didn't mind, while they watched their co-worker nudge his tractor into position, I would take a few minutes to perform a "good deed" on behalf of my God and my people. They nodded a distant nod and watched as alone, shovel in hand, I buried an old woman, one shovel-full of earth at a time.

After, I stopped at the restroom and then to wash my hands, joining at the cup of blessing a small group of Hasidim who were also engaged in the mitzvah of hand-washing after visiting a grave. I couldn't tell if our silence toward one another was the result of the seeming distance between our two Jewish lives or if the silence was simply our humility in the face of death. But then I decided that it wasn't silence at all between us but the sound of intention, of having fulfilled what is required, a sonic counter-weight to the engraved stones calling out to be read and the cold earth, falling on wood, bringing us closer to the end.