30 April 2010

President Obama's Declaration for Jewish Heritage Month

The President's Proclamation for Jewish Heritage Month, sent around to synagogues and Jewish institutions by the White House today.
THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release    April 30, 2010

In 1883, the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus composed a sonnet, entitled "The New Colossus," to help raise funds for erecting the Statue of Liberty. Twenty years later, a plaque was affixed to the completed statue, inscribed with her words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." These poignant words still speak to us today, reminding us of our Nation's promise as a beacon to all who are denied freedom and opportunity in their native lands.
Our Nation has always been both a haven and a home for Jewish Americans. Countless Jewish immigrants have come to our shores seeking better lives and opportunities, from those who arrived in New Amsterdam long before America's birth, to those of the past century who sought refuge from the horrors of pogroms and the Holocaust. As they have immeasurably enriched our national culture, Jewish Americans have also maintained their own unique identity. During Jewish American Heritage Month we celebrate this proud history and honor the invaluable contributions Jewish Americans have made to our Nation.

The Jewish American story is an essential chapter of the American narrative. It is one of refuge from persecution; of commitment to service, faith, democracy, and peace; and of tireless work to achieve success. As leaders in every facet of American life -- from athletics, entertainment, and the arts to academia, business, government, and our Armed Forces -- Jewish Americans have shaped our Nation and helped steer the course of our history. We are a stronger and more hopeful country because so many Jews from around the world have made America their home.

Today, Jewish Americans carry on their culture's tradition of "tikkun olam" -- or "to repair the world" -- through good deeds and service. As they honor and maintain their ancient heritage, they set a positive example for all Americans and continue to strengthen our Nation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do
more I hereby proclaim May 2010 as Jewish American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate programs, activities, and ceremonies to celebrate the heritage and contributions of Jewish Americans.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of April, in the year two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.


Omer 31: Reverently Irreverent

Omer Day Thirty-One

The dream that led me, in part, to the rabbinate had to do with sumersaulting down a mountainside in Israel.

Let me explain.

In this dream, I am walking in the bowels of a football stadium in Madison.  I follow the crowd and emerge into the light, assuming I'm going to see a game, only to realize I'm in the Galilee, atop a rich, fertile hill, and children are rolling in the grass, laughing.  I join them by kneeling down, grabbing handfuls of fertile earth, and stare in wonder at my good fortune.  Rabbis start yelling at the kids for being too rambunctious and from my position I reach up, grab hold of a rabbi's coat and say, "Leave them alone.  They're home."

That was back in 1984 and upon awakening, I became convinced that I needed to get to Israel.  Classes were boring; my dad had just died; seemed like a good plan to me.  I went to see the Dean of Students, Paul Ginsberg.  He was warm, thoughtful, and deeply compassionate.  I  knew from campus legend that he had helped build the state as a young man before coming back to Wisconsin to pursue his doctoral work and serve the university.  "Relax, Andy," he said.  "Israel doesn't need another dreamer, running around looking for meaning.  Prepare yourself better, then go."

It was great advice and has often served as an important buffer to my own perceptions of religious re-awakenings.  A healthy amount of skepticism makes for a more rooted journey.

And while it's true that not heading off to Israel based on a dream was solid advice, I've often gone back to the dream as a touchstone for a healthy amount of reverent irreverence.  The idea that in the ego-less dream space, with inhibitions diminished, my first encounter with Israel was one of play, has always intrigued me.  As a rabbi, it has always been Israel's secular creativity that has drawn me deeper into Jewish history and ideas.  The Jew--liberated from the singular definition of himself as an exclusively religious being--was one of Zionism's many goals and paradoxically, this maneuver has continued to inform my own deepening connection to the faith, piety and textual traditions of Judaism.

I had these thoughts in mind recently while reading the spiritual journal of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of Pistezna, who died during the Shoah but left behind an extraordinary collection of diary entries that reveal a truly unique voice of early-mid 20th century Polish Jewry.
When a Jewish person reveals from within himself his inherent holiness with which to serve his Creator, then every act that he does for God, self-initiated service, becomes for that while actually holy.  And these physical acts, done in divine service, will in turn sanctify his physical body.
How else can you explain why I became so enthused when I decided to somersault in honor of the Sefer Torah?  Why else did my whole body  become so energized when I saw the place where I would dance and my whole body shook with excitement?
Frequently a Jew's yearning is ignited far beyond the normal level of his great service.  His soul then yearns perform some great act for God, but his heart is broken from the reality of his normal service.  And even when his soul is not inflamed to actual self-sacrifice, it yearns for self-transcendence:  if only now I were able to perform some act that would lift me out of myself.  If only now I were able to extract my very being from my normal self, I would soar up straight to the heavens.
"If only now I were able to extract my very being from my normal self, I would soar up straight to the heavens."

The combination here in Shapira's thinking--the melding of the desire for the transcendent with the necessity of play--brought me to laughter and tears earlier today when I read this.  "I know this feeling!" I practically exclaimed, reading it underground on a speeding subway car, beneath the East River, hardly sweet honey from the rock but redemptive waters nonetheless.  I looked at the faces of all those riding the car with me--mostly men, absorbed in phones, digital devices, magazines, books, or simply staring straight ahead.  Transported, it seemed to me, broken-hearted by the reality of normal service.  While their presumed broken hearts are nothing more than a conceit, the metaphoric premise remains that we are often transported often without transporting ourselves through those moments--whether in life or work or faith or love.  It is only smothering inhibition that holds us back, a restraint I've always struggled against in my own life.  That Shapira is writing these words as the noose tightens on Polish Jewry is nothing less than completely remarkable.  What spiritual bravery and resistance!

His journal records a moment of intrusive self-doubt.
Do you really think it matters to God whether or not you do somersaults?  And perhaps you might even hurt yourself or damage your health.  Will you not look like a fool doing somersaults in front of all those people. 
To which he answers his own repression.
Then, from the depths of my heart I screamed at this voice, 'God destroy you, forces of evil!  This is no time for second thoughts--the moment is great, it is unique, and it is passing.  To do some act of self-sacrifice for God is what I want, and you have only helped me to find it.  The very act that you seek to intimidate me from doing because of health or personal reasons, that is the act I choose to do and I now hallow myself in preparation.
To grab a piece of earth.  To roll in the grass.  To allow self-sacrifice to be joyous, playful, reverently irreverent.

29 April 2010

Omer 30: Sacred Learning

Omer Day Thirty

Following my father's death in 1983, I began studying with the Wisconsin Hillel director, Dr. Irv Saposnik, of blessed memory. From June 1984 until the following June in 1985, we met to study Genesis for a couple of hours each week. At those sessions we tore apart the text in Hebrew and English; we brought to life several generations of the commentators in our own debates; and we interrogated the patriarchs and matriarchs, transported them, it seemed, into Irv's study, so that their motives and ideas and personal relationships with God could be understood in a scrutinizing light. Those Friday study sessions always ended late in the morning and then a few hours later I would be back at Hillel, participating in the Friday night minyan, saying Kaddish, learning to lead the service, and slowly, bringing my mourning to a close.

The journey into Torah study began as an intensely personal experience, mirrored, in a way, by the equally personal relationship that the patriarchs had with the God of Genesis. My own understanding was precisely that--my own. And looking back over nearly three decades, I have always understood that those first steps into Torah had to be the sacred steps of an individual. In some ways, it's the only way any of us can receive "the call."

But it was when Genesis ended that one of my first true sacred moments occurred. One morning, three weeks before I traveled to Hebrew University that year, I proposed to Irv that we start studying Exodus. "No," he offered. "Exodus is a shift into the communal. Here the People Israel are born. Here will be slavery and freedom; Sinai; the obligation to others and the stranger; and here we start a journey as a nation, to a land. This will require another year altogether, just to absorb this new perspective." I realized then that another "death" (that of the individual in radical, solitary relation with God) had occurred and that this would yield an even more profound sacred insight.

Though unlike the loss of my father's life that prompted the search into personal meaning and sacredness, this loss was the beginning of a new path on the journey as much as it was the end of one particular segment of my learning: from the sacred call of an individual in relationship with God to that of being a member of a covenanted community. That I can close my eyes today and in an instant be transported back in time to that office, to that speech, and see my teacher before, is proof to me that I had the good fortune of experiencing that sacred moment in time.

28 April 2010

Omer 29: Two Different Worlds

Omer Day Twenty-Nine

Today in the back and forth I kept thinking of my Hank Williams gravestone (conceived and rendered by my pal Jon Langford) neatly tucked next to our music collection in our living room.

A grave stone in a living room.

For me it feels right.

"Rabbi Jacob said, 'This world is like a vestibule before the world-to-come: prepare yourself in the vestibule that you may enter the banquet hall.'" (Pirke Avot 4.16.)

Living rooms; vestibules; banquet halls; gravestones.

My conversation with a congregant in the morning was about a reality that we don't talk about adequately enough in the Jewish community--what to do about cemetery policies with such high rates of intermarriage. A large number of our members--like so many other liberal synagogues--are married to someone who is not Jewish. We don't judge that and in fact we welcome them equally and honor their decision to affiliate with the synagogue and raise their children as Jews. But what they don't really talk about is the end-of-life policy that when death occurs, the vast majority of Jewish cemeteries will not allow the burial of a non-Jewish spouse. And rather than confront this policy and work toward a solution, we tend to bury the conversation until it's too late. This leads to sublimated strife, deep-seated resentments, and represents a missed opportunity to create some creative solutions for our communities different set of circumstances from those communities who built the cemeteries here in New York 100-120 years ago.

While it was once a time that Jewish-run burial societies made all the decisions about who was buried where as an internal mechanism for securing one's place in the world-to-come, it's now a completely different operation with big businesses facilitating the move from death to burial (or cremation) and very little to no interaction with locally run Landsmanschaften or Benevolent Societies which were usually linked to either European places of origin for immigrant communities or collective associations formed on these shores.

This particular member was appropriately concerned and could articulate quite well the dilemma: No one wants to really talk about where they'll be buried in general. How much more difficult is the conversation between a Jewish and non-Jewish spouse when they're facing a cemetery policy that won't allow the burial of a non-Jewish body? Seems like a problem calling out for a solution.

It seems clear from the evidence in Torah that non-Jews traveled with the Israelites between Egypt and the Land of Israel; and given the 40 years of wandering, it seems obvious that many people died and required burial along the way without regard for Jewish or non-Jewish plots. It strikes me as a perfect metaphor for our own day, when Jewish families, uniquely configured and making Jewish choices, ought to be afforded the opportunity to be buried together, in death, to honor the Jewish lives those families lived, in life.

After our conversation I went to officiate at the burial of a 92 year old woman who was laid to rest by her 88 year old husband who actually IS the president of his burial society. Once a robust organization that owned nearly a thousand plots and that met regularly to deal with cemetery issues, dole out charitable contributions, and honor the memory of those who came from Europe, the society is now reduced to two individuals, most of the plots are sold and in use, and a profound chapter of American Jewish history is drawing to a close. The next generation and the one after that is surely making different choices about falling in love and getting married. And despite originally coming from two different religious backgrounds, most that I encounter--certainly once they've joined the synagogue--have made Judaism the organizing principle of their communal existence.

But the policy of separate burials remains in place. And what that will do, once people wake up and pay attention, is drive people further from the Jewish cemeteries and more into the non-sectarian cemeteries so that a new history will be written in stone.

Most, sadly, will shrug their shoulders and move on. Lost in the process, however, will be the chance to make it possible for those intermarried couples to from the living room to the vestibule to the banquet together. Instead, they'll be assigned for eternity to "live in two different worlds."

27 April 2010

Omer 28: Sacred Humbling

Omer Day Twenty-Eight

I was speaking with a young Latino man recently who discovered about five years ago that his family was actually Jewish. Conversos dating back since the time of the Inquisition, the family had melded into broader Spanish, then broader Latino culture, until mysterious Catholic practices yielded to questions and research and the realization that in fact he descended from Jews.

His observance began to change and with great excitement he began to display outward signs of his Jewishness. And though he can trace the covenantal lines down through his mother's side, he nonetheless wants to go through a formal conversion process in order to fulfill the completion of a journey.

It's a beautiful story.

We were speaking recently and he talked about how at the beginning of his journey, he was very judgmental of those generations that converted "out" of Judaism. He didn't understand their decision, what he identified as their lack of courage. But then, no surprise, as he began to dedicate himself to learning, he understood on a much deeper level the tremendous physical suffering that was endured by those who chose the martyred life and he knowing what he knew--that his line was maintained while for centuries his family went underground, as it were--he began to see their choices in a whole new light.

He laughed at his earlier position and dedicated words of somber respect for those who had made the choices that they made, preserving life and planting the seeds for his own discovery.

The Sages taught that when God commands the Children of Israel to put tzitzit on the corners of their garments, what they are really doing is "completing" that garment with a sign of the covenant, serving as God's partner in making life dedicated to the pursuit of goodness and kindness. God's tallit--"He covers himself with light as a garment" (Psalm 104.2) is completed by the commandment to humans to make tzitzit--"Speak to the Children of Israel and say it to them that they will make themselves fringes upon the corners of their garments for the generations of their descendants..."(Numbers 15.38)

It's interesting to imagine this particular mitzvah being given in the desert, on the escape from Egypt toward an as yet achieved habitation of the Promised Land.

I thought of the young man on his journey--and how each of us remain, to a degree, incomplete, until another generation comes along, perhaps centuries after our own lives, to complete work that we began.

26 April 2010

Omer 27: Pain of Growth

Omer Day Twenty-Seven

Do not underestimate the gravity of an act that hurts no one else but you. Do not say, "I have not sinned, or even overindulged in an innocent pleasure," because the truth is much graver than that. You have sinned against yourself, your very essence, against the holy soul with which you were born. And as toward an obvious sin that you would always regret, you should repent for having wronged yourself. This is the meaning of King David's words, "My sin is always before me" (Psalm 51.5) Even if my sin is only before me, it will always be a sin for me.

These are the words of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of Pisetzna, outside Warsaw, during the Shoah.

His piety, in the midst of calamity, is one of the great spiritual records of Jewish history and his words are always worth consideration--if you dare.

Part of the march from Egypt to Sinai is about spiritual daring, about having the courage amidst the regenerative springtime to assess and re-assess who you are and what you stand for. It's counter-intuitive--precisely as we escape from the prison of winter, we want nothing more than indulgence and celebration. But the counting is there--as an actual accounting--for who we will be in this regeneration, in this rebirth.

Here Kalonymus Kalman challenges us to remember that the mistakes we make are not against a distant maker but against ourselves--which, in the classical language of Judaism, are vessels for our Divinely given souls.

This is a difficult message. Knowing my own faults, I feel like a hypocrite writing these words. But that's the point, perhaps. Even in the midst of spring to allow ourselves the pain of growth.

25 April 2010

Omer 26: Wisdom

Omer Day Twenty-Six

All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged by grace, yet all is according to the amount of one's work. --Rabbi Akiva, Pirke Avot 3.19

We wear watches, check our handhelds. We go to bed at a certain time, rise when the alarm goes off. We live, eat and work according to a schedule. We even time our exercise and relaxation. This gives us all the illusion that we can control time.

When Rabbi Akiva teaches that "all is foreseen" he is staking a claim to the idea that we actually live in Eternal time--with no beginning and no end. An endless ocean of time. Placing ourselves, our lives, our actions into this context allows one to see that all is indeed foreseen: it can't help but be so. Over this reality we have no control, each of us is too small to effect change on the scale of Eternity.

However, freedom of choice is given. In the moment to moment, the day to day, the strength and potential impact of our actions are immeasurable. We lack the strength to "hasten the end" and so plow ourselves into the work. A humbling, cumulative exercise in choosing, earning grace, and being judged accordingly.

That Akiva didn't begin his learning until he turned 40; that he tilled the soil in his first career; each of these facts of his life seem to inform his faithful outlook. During the slow counting of the Omer, we have an opportunity to consider Akiva's sense of perspective.

In our age of information there is so much we think we "know." How paradoxical that in fact we spend 49 days between Passover and Shavuot "not knowing," until we arrive at Sinai and ready ourselves to receive the Manual of Knowing. Perhaps this explains why the Community of the Children of Israel exclaim to God, "We will do and we will listen." In the journey from Egypt to Sinai, they have learned a crucial lesson we are often too quick to forget--that our actions really ought to outweigh our wisdom--and that this itself is a great expression of wisdom.

Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, in Pirke Avot 3.12, thought so: "He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure."

24 April 2010

Omer 25: Neighbors

Omer Day Twenty-Five

A man held the Torah today but this was no ordinary man.

He had traveled to Brooklyn from Holland to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a Jewish boy, born to a Jewish friend of his who was hidden by his grandparents in a Dutch farmhouse during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

The story he told me after the service, when he wanted to hold the Torah again and have his picture taken, was that as a young boy he heard about his grandparents agreeing to a request from the Dutch resistance to take in a young Jewish girl. They grew up together as friends, she was reunited with her parents (also hidden) after the war, and the young Jewish girl eventually left for America. After 40 years she returned to Holland looking to express her gratitude for having had her life saved by these righteous Gentiles and that's when she re-met our friend, our neighbor, who today held the Torah for the first time in his life.

Does it surprise you, dear reader, to be reminded that in this week's Torah portion, God says to children of Israel, "Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal?"

It's been a long time since I've seen a man love Torah so much.

A love of history, fate and friendship.

The kind of love that really ought to be shared among neighbors more often.

23 April 2010

Omer 24: Brothers Under the Skin

Omer Day Twenty-Four

The continuation of the laughable tale about the Park Slope Food Co-Op contemplating taking legal action with Barney's Coop over the use of the term "coop" brings to mind a classic exchange, long forgotten, no doubt in this age of people's faces stuck to screens for laughter and entertainment, when Groucho Marx and Warner Brothers were embroiled in conflict over use of the title, "A Night in Casablanca," a title which Warner Brothers infamously opined would violate its rights with regard to the Bogart-Bergman classic "Casablanca."

To celebrate comic genius and literacy, here are some gems from that exchange--all in Groucho's voice.
I just don't understand your attitude. Even if you plan on re-releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don't know whether I could, but I certainly would like to try.

He then writes:
You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about "Warner Brothers?" Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were. We were touring the sticks as The Marx Brothers when Vitaphone was still a gleam in the inventor's eye, and even before us there had been older brothers--the Smith Brothers; the Brothers Karamazov; Dan Brothers, an outfielder with Detroit; and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" (This was originally "Brothers Can You Spare a Dime?" but this was spreading dime pretty thin, so they threw out one brother, gave all the money to other one and whittled it down to "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?")

Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well, it's not. It was used long before you were born. Offhand, I can think of two Jacks--there was Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.

and toward the end, Groucho concludes
I have a hunch that this attempt to prevent us from using the title is the brainchild of some ferret-faced shyster, serving a brief apprenticeship in your legal department. I know the type well--hot out of law school, hungry for success and too ambitious to follow the natural laws of promotion. This bar sinister probably needled your attorneys, most of whom are fine fellows with curly black hair, double-breasted suits, etc., into attempting to enjoin us. Well, he won't get away with it! We'll fight him to highest court! No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin and we'll remain friends till the last reel of "A Night in Casablanca" goes tumbling over the spool.

22 April 2010

Omer 23: Enough

Omer Day Twenty-Three

I remember coming home from the library one night in Madison and a guy on my floor was tripping on LSD. Being a responsible sort, I was asked to sit with him while he traveled on his journey, which started at a Grateful Dead show at the Dane County Coliseum. (Talk about being "reduced to a cultural stereotype.") Hallucinogens never interested me--local beer seemed to do the trick--and at the time I was convinced of a run for office so refraining in general seemed a good position to take.

This guy was in someone's dorm room--not his own--and he was sweeping the rug over and over and over again with a broom. He claimed to be seeing particles of dust that no one else could see, not too exciting a "trip" if you ask me, but there you have it. A few of us were able to convince him to end his tidy tirade, take a seat, and listen to some music for a while until things resumed normal speed, which lasted a few more hours. We had a laugh about it the next day but I always had in the back of mind, God forbid, that horrifying headline of a college student, on a trip, convinced he can fly, taking off from a roof-top somewhere and meeting the pavement in a tragic, terrible end. That fate we escaped that night and the shared sense of responsibility is something I've never forgotten.

This story came to mind last night while beginning to frame the Wednesday night Torah study group's discussion of Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf. One of the source texts which served as an inspiration for the novel comes from the Talmud's tractate Hagigah and describes the Sages exploration of theosophy thus:

Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the Garden, namely Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, say not, 'Water, water.' For it is said, 'He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.' Ben Azzai cast a look and died. Of him scripture says, 'Precious in the sight of the Eternal is the death of his saints.' Ben Zoma looked and became demented. Of him scripture says, 'Have you found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled, and vomit it.' Aher mutilated the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed unhurt.

On the simplest level--if one can utter those words about such a concise and disturbing tale--we generally understand the "Garden" to be the place of inquiry into the nature of God, the meaning of life, and the very causes and definitions of existence. That two die, one denies Torah, and only one emerges "unhurt" is the Sages classic object lesson on the inherent dangers of such inquiry. In the contemporary culture of the early rabbinic period, the Greek system of thought, of philosophy and mathematics, represented another journey into truth that clearly represented a potential threat to the cohesion of Jewish life. If only one in four could emerge whole, the implications were clear. Don't look--or, at the very least, proceed carefully with an able teacher and reach no conclusions on your own.

We talked about whether or not this was in part Steinberg's agenda, writing for his audience in the early mid-twentieth century--an assimilating class of American Jews, melding the process of Americanization and modernity with traditional forms of an Eastern European Judaism that was rapidly adapting to a new life in a new land. We often lose track in the paces of our own lives how completely disorienting the Americanization process was for an earlier generation and what can happen when the process gains control of an individual.

We see such concerns expressed with radical changes that overtake those who become newly religious, adopting a fundamentalist approach to their faith and identity that comes from the opposite direction (radical faith v. radical reason) but reaches the same end--a dangerous denial of what was for an embrace of an illusory, alternative reality.

On a recent walk home in the rain, I met a young student who was interested in developing avatars for the Sages. He asked me with remarkable fervor and excitement what I thought of the idea of being able to interact on-line with Rabbi Akiba in his sandles, walking around the Garden. Before I could answer he had quickly moved on to another topic, the flow of words mightier than the rain.

I never had a chance to respond.

But when I got home and put the kids to bed, I picked out a copy of Pirke Avot and under my favorite lamp, read from the book. I felt the paper, smelled the ink, celebrated the date of publication (1962) the layout, the choice of font (this was the Bloch edition, compiled by Hyman Goldin.)

This was enough--as it's always been.

21 April 2010

Omer 22: Eye, Ear, Book

Omer Day Twenty-Two

"Know what is above you--a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are written in a book."

Rabbi Yehuda Ha Nasi is credited with this statement in Pirke Avot, as concise a view of one's reality of God as I could ever convey. In psychological terms, I guess one might say that this is a definition of God as "conscience," and on a certain level that would be true except for the "written in a book" part. Unless we want to talk about a Freudian notepad, in which case we will have hit the trifecta.

But the book here is the metaphoric idea that there is a record of our deeds, that despite our best efforts to erase the tracks of our deceits, there remains, somewhere, evidence of all we have done. This is a powerful idea, terrifying really, and one which these days is manifest in people's concern for the trail of information they leave for themselves online: passwords, postings, numbers of identification and the like. So we do concern ourselves with the recorded legacy of our accounting but it's mostly related to protecting personal information and protecting our finance from the wolves and jackals of bright-screened universe.

But the Sages notion of a seeing eye and a hearing ear was not an idea based on deceit; rather, their image here is one of exposure, leaving us out in the open wherever we are, even when we are hidden or hiding ourselves *from* ourselves.

As an idea of God, I find this rather comforting. While I sometimes struggle with issues of personal privacy, even in such moments where I bristle at my own exposure as a public person, I hear the voice of God questioning my reactions. And after a momentary battle (Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein" comes to mind--"Destiny! Destiny! No escaping that for me!") submit to the rule of Eternal time that marks my progress, moment by moment, as a being conscious of his soul's status.

This can be a function of Omer counting as well. We ordinarily think of the Ten Days of Repentance in the Fall as an exclusive time for marking our soul accounting but the 49 days provide another, perhaps more subtle and steady experience of taking stock progressively over time. Over 49 days one feels the pressing weight of scrutiny, desires rebellion against it, but then relents to its attentive observation.

20 April 2010

Omer 21: Showing Up

Omer Day Twenty One

Yom Ha'Atzmaut~Israel Independence Day

I have been searching for words for a couple days, feeling an ache in my heart that I am not in Israel right now, in fact, an odd feeling, since the creation of Israel was meant to heal that wound of absence.

For now I'll say that one of the most important things about our relationship to Israel is related to "showing up."

Here's a family picture from our first year together.

It ain't citizenship but it is an annual, albeit temporary, presence. That's a start; and a source of life for each of us.

19 April 2010

Omer 20: "It is No Dream"

Omer Day Twenty
Yom HaZikaron

We made our own ceremony last night before dinner, each child lighting a memorial candle for those who gave their lives in battles for Israel. But since the kids have only lived in Israel for five weeks that past three summers, they've yet to really have direct experience with loss (thank God) and so each child chose to remember experiences they've had in Israel for which they're grateful.

One child expressed an annual feeling of fear and excitement--incredible anticipation with a deep concern in the back of her mind if *this* is going to be the visit to Israel in which "something bad happens." Another child talked about the Emek Refaim Pool in Jerusalem, and in her particular her profound gratitude for a seemingly endless supply of chips. A third talked about her early confusion--is Israel her first home or her second home? She eventually worked it out, she told us, by declaring it her second home with a stern warning to her father--"We live in Brooklyn, Dad. Don't get any ideas."

I do have ideas, alas.

After they shared, I told them a brief story of Independence Day--the UN vote granting partition, the declaration in Tel Aviv, war and eventual statehood. This rehearsal of facts seems increasingly important, as times moves on and distances are created between those who built the state and those who show up, 62 years later, to visit and eat chips by the pool.

This spontaneous ceremony before dinner had me thinking about the varieties of pedagogic relationships that our children have with the "myth" of Israel--its creation, it's battles for survival, its existential struggles with faith and history.

We have come quite some distance from the time in which a Blue Box stood in homes and the seemingly clear-eyed principle of building a state with pennies was a child's relationship to the Land of Israel.

Sixty two years later we have children attempting to grasp Israel's myths and complexities in summer camps, Hebrew schools, community programs, news online, family trips, and peer adventures. A complex world of experience and education and rhetorical lines of defense have been erected to deal not with the singular task of building but with the radical complexity of living and governing.

I'm so grateful for our last three summers in Israel primarily because away from the *curricula* of being Jewish we are able to immerse ourselves in another reality of being Jewish that is just similar enough but still completely different from the reality of Jewishness that the kids know here at home, in Brooklyn.

The music, the food, the radio, the geography, the immediate and ancient layers of history, the fatalism, the faith, the danger, the promise. The quickened pulse of identity.

More than a century ago, some early Zionist thinkers were aware that besides building a nation, they were also building a laboratory for diaspora Jews to travel to and be built up in their Jewish identities through meaningful, albeit temporary visits to the land. Away from the impassioned and often self-righteous fires of every genius who knows how to solve the conflict, today is a day to merely give thanks for Israel's miraculous existence, for another reality of Jewish life and history that it represents for world Jewry, and for the sacrifices made by those fallen in its wars and terror attacks in defense of one of the most important ideas of the last two thousand years.

In a world of increasing fundamentalism, it's important to remember that there's a difference between fundamentalism and a determined, optimistic idealism. Today, we honor those who really did dare to dream, sacrifice and build.

18 April 2010

Omer 19: Listen

Omer Day Nineteen

Shabbat was class, two bat mitzvahs, dinner and bed. At some point I'm pretty sure two of my kids walked on my back, which helps the morning run.

The two young women who read Torah each encountered very challenging texts from Leviticus--one the blood and gore of Torah's inherently unequal view of men and women with regard to blood at childbirth for a male and a female; and the other chose to take a simple Torah law, "love your neighbor as yourself" and challenge herself to admit how difficult that really is.

It's no secret that, generally, girls mature at a faster rate than boys--especially at the age of becoming bat mitzvah and while it's absolutely true that our boys are writing great bar mitzvah speeches, the girls often seem to have more at stake.

They are aware that even in 2010, they're still the first girls in their family line to be called to Torah; and with 21st century eyes, they are respectfully but strongly taking issue with an ancient document which would appear to view women differently than men. And they don't like it.

Unlike even a prior generation, girls today increasingly see no limitations on their advancement in our society; so when they encounter a potentially limiting view in their own tradition, it's cause for concern. What I loved so much about yesterday was the organizing ethic of the experience was not to throw away the problematic text but to take it on, re-read it in the light of knowable, contemporary existence, and insist upon seeing the evolution of human experience inform one's understanding of the text.

In this context, Torah unfolds as an ongoing, developing tradition, whose troubling texts teach us about a troubling past while pointing the way forward to the continued resolution of questions and challenges that arise. This is a vitally important principle to help a kid develop--you can think and therefore creatively find your way to a solution that, upon first glance, you didn't think necessarily existed.

There is a spark in the eyes of these girls that says, "Come on, boys. Let's debate Judaism." I like that drive for a little intellectual competition. I've seen that spark in my own daughters' eyes.

And felt the results of their walking on my back. So I generally listen.

17 April 2010

Omer 18: Metaphor

Omer Day Eighteen
The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth--for your love is better than wine.
Your ointments have a goodly fragrance; your name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love you.
Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in you, we will find your love more fragrant than wine. The upright love you.
So opens Song of Songs, the Bible's love poetry of the highest order. The Sages downplayed its overtly sensuous and sexual elements, choosing instead to understand the poetry as an allegorical tale of love between God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva famously said if all other books of the Bible are holy, than Song of Songs is the "Holy of Holies" adding further "the whole world attained its supreme value only on the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel."

With the Giving of Torah at Mount Sinai symbolizing the Ketubah given at the covenantal marriage between God and the Jews, reading the Song of Songs between Passover and Shavuot is a springtime ritual for many. It's also traditionally read each Shabbat--the phrase "we will be glad and rejoice in you" finding its way into Yedid Nefesh, sung each Friday evening. Metaphors abound.

My studying yesterday took place late in the day, on the subway, between a funeral in Queens and a visit to Sloane in the late afternoon. From the grave to a hallway of rooms where for many life hangs in the balance, I was fixated on another teaching of Rabbi Akiva's from Pirke Avot:
He used to say: Everything is given on a pledge, and a net is spread for all the living, the shop is open, the shopkeeper gives on credit, the ledger is open, and the hand writes, and everyone who wishes to borrow, let him come and borrow; but the collectors make their rounds continually every day, and exact payment of man with their consent or without their consent, for they have that on which they can rely; and the judgment is a judgment of truth; and all is made ready for the banquet.
We live on borrowed time. This is a truth that we often ignore. It's not a statement of desperation but a perspective on reality that we'd do well to make a focus of our attention. The classically non-metaphoric God (big guy, beard, throne) is not who Akiva is describing here. Rather, he might be saying that the God whose name is "I Am that I Am" and is the Author of All Existence provides us a window into a transcendent reality that our own lives--however long they are lived--are expressions of time "borrowed" from the spectrum of all time.

Clearly, the "store" is this world; and its "goods" are made available to us to use as we see fit--though there is judgment and truth to be had in those choices that we make.

I fundamentally believe this. And often think about my teachers, some long-dead and some more recently, who I one day hope to encounter at the Banquet.

But as I read Akiva's words with the train rattling along the tracks, I couldn't help but think of the eulogies at the funeral--keep the soul of the dead alive by recounting her kindnesses, her decency, her insistence on seizing whatever she could from the time she had been given to live. The woman I buried yesterday couldn't be with her family for Passover but she made sure to be on the phone for the 4 Questions of the Seder, to make sure that the youngest at the table would be reciting them correctly. That generational continuity in the face of death is nothing less than pure inspiration.

Similarly, the immediacy of life's needs and the clear-eyed expressions of love that one sees on cancer floors is also pure inspiration. While it's obvious that time is borrowed for those struggling to maintain their place in this world, time judges all of us with its inexorable truth--"exacting payment with or without our consent."

You can't fight City Hall, they say.
Another metaphor, perhaps. It fits, too.

16 April 2010

Omer 17: Reflection

Omer Day Seventeen

At the beginning I got up and drank coffee.

Within an hour, I was drinking more coffee and waiting outside the kids' school for the annual PS 321 Go Green! walk for environmental awareness.

I turned back to shul for a morning meeting on membership for the young and then headed out to Long Island to conduct a funeral and bury a woman in her sixties who died this week. The burial was in Montefiore Cemetery, in Elmont, Queens and the men at the graveside were very sensitive and respectful today--not that they are usually not but they seemed particularly kind. A young girl, experiencing her first funeral, cried greatly, clutching a teddy bear. Down in the remaining earth yet to be removed back to the ground for the ritual of mortality displacement, I saw a small lizard. I didn't know that lizards inhabited Queens but now I know. One of the gravediggers told me that they lay eggs in the ivy and when they go to clip the ivy, sometimes a whole bunch of lizards come scurrying out. Imagine that sight!

I drove home, grabbed my iPod, requested that it play all my Mekons songs, and headed to Sloane to visit a congregant, struggling with metastatic breast cancer. Sloane is a remarkable place--uncommonly humane. She couldn't be getting better care.

I sat in her room with her and her husband and we watched their wedding video and talked about love. And promise. And commitment. And generosity. And we cried some.

After, it was back to the train--the Shabbat clock was calling. I bought the Friday Haaretz for news from Israel. The issue between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day is particularly rich.

My mind was lost in Israel. I was, temporarily, at peace.

I got off the train to the Mekons singing "Empire of the Senseless" (ranked very high up there for me) and I saw a young Jewish man asking a Lubavitcher *not* to put his hat on his head and *not* to try to make him put on tefillin. The young man was gentle but firm; the Hasid was persistent. And each moved on.

I'm upstairs at my desk, looking out on Grand Army Plaza, listening to cars go by.

And in that moment of reflection, now gone, I'm off to Shul.

Shabbat Shalom.

My Response to Ronald Lauder's Letter

Here we go.
I figure this is the only way to respond to this letter.
15 April 2010
Dear President Obama:
I write today as a proud American and a proud Jew.
Jews around the world are concerned today. We are concerned about the nuclear ambitions of an Iranian regime that brags about its genocidal intentions against Israel. We are concerned that the Jewish state is being isolated and delegitimized.
Mr. President, we are concerned about the dramatic deterioration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel.
The Israeli housing bureaucracy made a poorly timed announcement and your Administration branded it an “insult.”
This diplomatic faux pas was over the fourth stage of a seven stage planning permission process – a plan to build homes years from now in a Jewish area of Jerusalem that under any peace agreement would remain an integral part of Israel.
Our concern grows to alarm as we consider some disturbing questions. Why does the thrust of this Administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks? After all, it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.
Israel has made unprecedented concessions. It has enacted the most far reaching West Bank settlement moratorium in Israeli history.
Israel has publicly declared support for a two-state solution. Conversely, many Palestinians continue their refusal to even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.
The conflict’s root cause has always been the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Every American President who has tried to broker a peace agreement has collided with that Palestinian intransigence, sooner or later. Recall President Clinton’s anguish when his peace proposals were bluntly rejected by the Palestinians in 2000. Settlements were not the key issue then.
They are not the key issue now.
Another important question is this: what is the Administration’s position on Israel’s borders in any final status agreement? Ambiguity on this matter has provoked a wave of rumors and anxiety. Can it be true that America is no longer committed to a final status agreement that provides defensible borders for Israel? Is a new course being charted that would leave Israel with the indefensible borders that invited invasion prior to 1967?
There are significant moves from the Palestinian side to use those indefensible borders as the basis for a future unilateral declaration of independence. How would the United States respond to such a reckless course of action?
And what are America’s strategic ambitions in the broader Middle East? The Administration’s desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well known. But is friction with Israel part of this new strategy? Is it assumed worsening relations with Israel can improve relations with Muslims? History is clear on the matter: appeasement does not work. It can achieve the opposite of what is intended.
And what about the most dangerous player in the region? Shouldn’t the United States remain focused on the single biggest threat that confronts the world today? That threat is a nuclear armed Iran. Israel is not only America’s closest ally in the Middle East, it is the one most committed to this Administration’s declared aim of ensuring Iran does not get nuclear weapons.
Mr. President, we embrace your sincerity in your quest to seek a lasting peace. But we urge you to take into consideration the concerns expressed above. Our great country and the tiny State of Israel have long shared the core values of freedom and democracy. It is a bond much treasured by the Jewish people. In that spirit I submit, most respectfully, that it is time to end our public feud with Israel and to confront the real challenges that we face together.
Yours sincerely,
Ronald S. Lauder
World Jewish Congress

and Shabbat Shalom to one and all!

15 April 2010

Omer 16: Going Out and Coming Home

Omer Day Sixteen

There are two faces toward death--one is fear and the other is acceptance. We have seen them both.

The first look--fear--I saw in the eyes of my father three months before he died. He was in poor health, not getting any help, and in an irrational moment we had a stupid fight about whether or not I was dressed appropriately for a family event we were going to. I was a sophomore in college and I certainly wasn't backing down. At the end of our fight, as the smoke cleared, we stared at each other and without being able to put it into words, I knew I was seeing the eyes of the man who was afraid of his own death. He was gone, by heart attack, within 90 days.

I didn't understand it at the time but a couple years later when speaking to a mentor he told me of a similar experience he had with his dad. And gave me the language to understand "the look."

The second look I've seen as a rabbi when sitting beside terminal patients who know they are going to die. And though they don't *want* to die, they are also facing it with a transcendent truth and equanimity that is profound and inspiring. Recently, one patient asked me for a Jewish prayer to accept her condition and I recited Psalm 121 in English and then in Hebrew.

"A Song for the Ascents

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot slip; your Protector will not sleep.
Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
The Eternal is your Protector, your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night.
The Eternal will keep you from all evil; God will guard your soul.
The Eternal will preserve your going out and your homecoming, from this time forth, now and forever."

As I looked at her, listening to the words, I saw her look off into the distance and it appeared as if she had, for a moment, transcended the body, the cancer, the intravenous fluids, the catheter, and she was in another place of going out and coming home.

I held her hand and we talked about courage more than faith--but both came up, to be sure. It felt like the right balance.

Psalm 121 was my grandma's favorite, a Psalm she too could recite from memory and likely did to calm her own soul, which had inhabited the earth for nearly 100 years. She transcended the murder of her husband in 1939, never dated or remarried, and so tragically yet beautifully she was forever looking up to the mountains. She lived with dignity for nearly a century, waiting patiently to go home.

I was thinking about the poetry that must have been written in the desert between Egypt and Sinai--the words and expressions that surely anguished the people as they made their way to a moment in time that could never have anticipated--a covenantal apocalypse of transmitted duty and law.

Which writer in the desert knew what the Law would really do?

"God's precepts are right, delighting the heart; the commandments of the Eternal are pure, giving light to the eyes." (Psalm 19.9)

Surely people died along the way between Egypt and Sinai--people who knew slavery, tasted freedom, but never got to the "end." But what is the end? Where? And for whom?

The fearless gaze at death teaches that on a certain level there is no beginning and no end. There is only transcendent existence.

Going out and coming home, now and forever.

14 April 2010

Omer 15: Sing

Omer Day Fifteen

The excitement last night at CBE in the seventh grade and high school program for the season premiere of Glee was thick as Fox fog. The kids were jumping out of their skin. It's a clever show, I'll admit, and with three daughters and a neutered dog, if you think I'm going to avoid being made to watch, you're mistaken.

Yesterday with the seventh graders I again "gave voice" to their doubt, allowing them to set God aside as a requirement for their engagement with Jewish ideas and let them name for me the things they like about being Jewish. The class was 9 seventh grade guys and to a man they said, "I like all the different ideas and the main point is that it's okay to disagree." A couple of guys shared stories about how their Catholic friends "never get to do that" which I found interesting. It means that they actually talk about their faith and what it means when they're not in Shul. Cool.

The high school kids and I set to work after dinner planning the Shavuot service--in 35 days--and the task at hand was picking out various melodies for the prayers. We went page by page by going through the catalog of all the songs they know. And four of us sat there for about 40 minutes of singing. Three guys and me. Singing. It was pretty powerful, I'll admit. And restorative, in a way, to the notion that high school kids are too wound up in the exigencies of status to sing Jewish songs with their rabbi.

We ended up with several versions of Mi Chamocha, settling in for a repeat of Carlebach's melody, a rousing, table-pounding affair. It'll be interesting to see what happens next week.

I got home last night to considerable excitement about Glee. My seven year old had a sign on our front door: "Glee macks (sic) Glee. I'm talking to YOU Mr. Bachman!" I said hello, took a quick detour to my prayer corner for Maariv and counting the fifteenth day and then settled in to watch high school kids sing.

I can relate.

13 April 2010

Omer 14: Possible Utopias

Omer Day Fourteen

My daughter is tutoring in a charter school--it's part of her volunteer effort as she prepares to become bat mitzvah in the Fall. I went there yesterday to drop her off and while I waited in the office, I had the opportunity to observe the environment--the students, the teachers, the administrators and the parents and care-givers who came to pick up the kids when the tutoring sessions came to an end. I spoke with the security team as well.

To say that I was at the Burning Bush of the re-making of education in New York City is an understatement. It felt like Sinai. Time stood still when the focus of the teachers and administrators adhered in a seemless expression of the education mission at hand--teach the children to read and to reason; to compute and comport themselves as the future of the city. There was a radical discipline to everything: to their hospitality extended to me as a parent bringing a kid to the school; to each student who entered the office with whatever stated need they arrived with; to tardy parents, being found on the cell phones and respectfully confronted about the fact that they were first fifteen and then thirty minutes late in picking up their child from school. And the mutual respect that the teachers showed one another solving a curricular, operational or technological challenge.

Their work was mission driven and I was blown away.

I wondered what certain segments of Bnai Yisrael must have appeared like, wandering in the desert so soon after the Exodus from Egypt--some scarred irreparably from their servitude, numbed by their miraculous freedom while others simply led, clear-eyed, filled with vision, able to not only imagine but actually *see* the promised land though it would reside in an as-yet-realized distance, even a generation away.

I wanted to bring them with me; invite them, like that small, saving remnant of the 600,000 who stood at Sinai, to re-build our synagogue--A Charter Shul!--with their optimism, their vision, and yes, their youth.

Youth as a mind-set of possibility. Youth as a mind-set of mission. Youth as a mind-set of holding to dreams and believing that it's possible to see them through.

I don't believe we have language for this in the Jewish community. Language for what happens when the vision and mission of youth culture collides with...what? "The.Way.Things.Have.Always.Been?"

I understood in that moment the generation of Sinai. And I understood in that moment the dreamers of the Hebrew Enlightenment and the dreamers of Zionism and the dreamers of the labor movement. For a brief moment, on a sunny April day, as my 12 year-old navigated the parting waters of relating to the world through the language of commandment and obligation, I knew that utopias were necessary, even possible.

As we left the school to head back home in the car, we walked past a storefront where a couple of impoverished men, held down by too much trouble and too much alcohol, stared into nowhere as time passed them by. The radio played a song through speakers, resting on the storefront window, and then the wind blew, knocking the speakers off the ledge, severing the wire from their source, and sending them crashing to the ground.

"Oh, shit!" one of them said. And it seemed like an eternity before he moved to simply reconnect the wires.


If not possible then at least necessary. But God I hope they're possible.

12 April 2010

Omer 13: and counting

Omer Day Thirteen: Holocaust Remembrance Day

written in pencil in the sealed railway car

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

==dan pagis, 1930-1986

11 April 2010

Omer 12: What Counts

Omer Day Twelve

"It is a sad privilege of man that he is able to love and fondle every creature and yet to hate those of his own species! Hatred between man and man arises from the fact (1) that one has in fact injured the other with wrongful word or deed and so has really endangered his existence; or (2) that they have come into conflict in the pursuit of the same objective, and so apparently frustrate one another." == S.R. Hirsch, Horeb.

Don't laugh but I think of this quote whenever I walk the dog around the neighborhood and alight upon another resident (one might even say a 'neighbor') of this urban idyll who coos and jiggles with joy over encountering my dog, but just can't muster up the energy or the focus to greet his fellow human being.

There are days when I chalk it up to just plain old urban alienation--we are so lost in the element of the great city's cacophonous busy-ness that by force of habit we look past what we expect (another face in the crowd) but still relish the exotic, the unusual, or in this case, the jovial countenance of the canine. Of course, that may be too benign. There is likely some misanthropy involved--some barely sublimated competition for a piece of sidewalk, even a for a hipper, competitive edge.

Walking down Vanderbilt Avenue in the warm sun these days with my kids, I like to mischievously point out how all the hip individualists dress the same. Their uniqueness a shared pride, I guess.

Speaking of *The* Vanderbilt, we finally tried it last night--Prospect Heights' newest restaurant, with a robust Smith Street lineage, owned by Saul Bolton. The beer was cold and delicious (my bias for Six Point, made by two guys from Madison who opened up a brewery in Red Hook recently) and the food was quite good. But the service really got to me. There was always a commotion, with too much hovering, and every time a plate had less than a third of its original content, some eager waiter or waitress was descending upon us and offering to sweep it away.

I thought the point of a *tapas* bar was to linger, eat, drink, converse. You know, in a moderately relaxed way. But what I find in my neighborhood is that the experience of many places isn't about the experience but it's about the *experience* in an annoying, overly self-conscious way. I was practically expecting to be greeted by a cheerleader with a big V on her sweater, claiming "OH MY GOD YOU HAVE A TABLE AT THE NEW RESTAURANT IN PROSPECT HEIGHTS THAT IS OWNED BY SAUL, A SMITH STREET PIONEER!"

Rather than having the privilege of serving a customer, I felt that I was supposed feel privileged to be there. And that, my friends, annoyed me. It made me feel like a dog, expected to be happy for a treat tossed my way while my owner--the wallet--paid for time in the kennel. Each clean plate swept away; every fork and knife magically made to disappear. No dessert? Not a problem--we have more dogs to sweep into this cage once we clean it of you--Cutey! Smoodgy woodgy!

I was ready to go; and as long as I can get a cold Six Point brew somewhere else, I won't go back.

OY! Feeling the hate! Rabbi Hirsch--Why? Why? "They have come into conflict in the pursuit of the same objective, and so apparently frustrate one another." It's true, Rabbi. I chose to live in this city; in this borough; in this neighborhood. It comes with a price--the veneer of *cool* which rears its head, even when you walk around the corner for a meal with your family. What did I expect? And so I push, push, push to understand.

Walking home, we stopped in at Unnameable Books, lingered, and went home with a bag full of books for ourselves and the kids. I found a copy of Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. I remembered one time Ben saying that the interesting thing about walking around New York after a certain number of years is coming to the realization that you've seen two or three or four iterations of a space at the same address during your years of walking around. It made me wonder about those memories that linger in some places, animating voices that remain long after its inhabitants have gone; and it made me thing of those places that never created the right atmosphere to allow for stories to be told there, memories to linger, a legacy to form.

The counting of the Omer, I think, offers up that reminder to us--that experiences are to be had, so that they can be remembered, and counted--recounted--for future generations.

10 April 2010

Omer 11: Plurals

Omer Day Eleven

Last night at Shul after counting out the 11th day of the Omer at services, a member walked up to me and asked if we had hidden a key in the challah. I had only vaguely heard of the tradition before and could shed absolutely no light on the subject. But he went home and sent over this link, a nice explanation of the Shlissel Challah.

My drash on Friday night was one small portrait of my vision for a pluralist Reform synagogue. I used the example that on Friday we had two brises at CBE, both of whom for two new families in the community who plan on being actively involved in the synagogue, though each have many Orthodox relatives. In musing about the supposed inter-denominational conflicts in Judaism, I mentioned that most brises are conducted by Orthodox mohels and what an opportunity it is to create interdenominational dialogue around the notion of Covenant and peoplehood when multiple expressions of the People are present. I believe this deeply. And believe even more strongly that the future of many synagogues depends upon their ability to be open Jewish centers for those seeking a connection to Jewish life regardless of affiliation. Working in the pluralistic setting of Hillel for seven years and teaching for the past three summers on the Bronfman Youth Fellows program really proved it.

The sense of multiple perspectives and approaches is actually inherent to Jewish study and expression. Reform maintains its relevance to me in its openness to interfaith families; to gays and lesbians; to an equal role for women in leadership; a critical understanding of the authorship of scripture; and in its undying commitment to social justice. But fundamentally I consider myself to be a rabbi in the Jewish tradition, not the "Reform" Jewish tradition and this walk from Egypt to Sinai for these 49 days offers a daily remind of that truth. I don't find myself searching for a "Reform" answer to the Omer count--simply different Jewish perspectives. Period.

After the first bris, the mohel drashed on the meaning of the upcoming Hebrew month of Iyyar and in his drash, mentioned that God's name--symbolized by two *yuds*--appears in the name of the month (aleph-yud-yud-resh). A young Haredi man attending misunderstood the mohel's drash and told him he had spelled the month wrong. It was an awkward moment. And in the gentlest of ways, the mohel asked me how God's name was abbreviated (I said with two yuds) and the correction was made, by the "Reform" rabbi in an intra-Orthodox disagreement.

The gesture, though seemingly insignificant, was enormous.

A great way to go into Shabbat. Let the Shlissel Key unlock the gates of pluralist sustenance for the people.

09 April 2010

Omer 10: wcw

Omer Day Ten

What better day to celebrate the number ten!


On Each

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

beside the white

==william carlos williams

I have spent the bulk of the these ten days
and counting
and running
and eating
and working
and reading

thomas lynch's 'the undertaking: life studies from the dismal trade'

and what gets me through

is his humor
and love of poetry

and that gentle reminder that more than once a year

dr williams is worth listening to

08 April 2010

Omer 9: Reading

Omer Day Nine

"From when onwards are we to read the Shma in the evening? From the moment when the priests come home to eat of their priest's due up to the end of the first watch. This is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, but the Sages say 'Until midnight.' Rabban Gamliel says 'Until dawn.'"

So opens the Mishnah Brachot, the first tractate of them all.

This morning, I counted the Ninth Day of the Omer just before the sun rose, awakened by birds, it not yet light outside, and a good hour before the alarm went off. I said to myself, "Oh! I forgot to count the Omer last night before I went to sleep!" and then remembered this Mishnah and said to myself, "Apply it, son."

So I did and counted day nine.

I learned this Mishnah from Rabbi Charles Feinberg, on a warm spring night in Madison, with a couple of other students inside his study at the Conservative synagogue on the West Side when I was a student there.

I gave thanks for that lesson, from 25 years ago, and for having learned to read Hebrew and explore Judaism as an adult. Rather than celebrate the legal "save" as the sun began to rise, I instead uttered a blessing for a literacy we all might one day enjoy, if only because the gift of reading makes life that much more compelling.

07 April 2010

Omer 8: Steps of Gratitude

Omer Day Eight

Last night my friend woke up, thank God, and a team of very able doctors are now trying to solve the puzzle of why hearts sometimes stop and then start again. Soon again he'll be draining threes up and down the coast!

While feeling the mystery and randomness of it all, I sat with a couple this morning to talk about their wedding. In first meetings I often like to know about who these people are, sitting with a rabbi, inviting him to stand under the chuppah for a sacred family moment. And as one of the soon-to-be-wed started describing her background, I realized that her grandfather was a mentor and dear friend to a mentor of mine from back in college and the world shrunk to a perfectly reasonable size in an instant.

It allowed me to tell a couple stories of this mentor's kindnesses--one when I was contemplating not registering for the selective service draft--a requirement of the Reagan Administration if one wanted to be awarded financial aid for education--and the other, soon after my father died, where, in a rare show of human emotion upon hearing the news said, "Oh, to lose a father!" the mentor arose from behind his desk and smothered me in a paternal hug which was profoundly heartfelt and rare.

The advice about the draft, by the way, was, as he liked to say, axiomatically true. "The probability of being raped in prison for not wanting to be in the army is higher than the chances of being drafted. Register and finish school!"

Since professors were my commanding officers, I obeyed.

I cannot adequately describe the gratitude I felt sitting with my mentor's mentor's granddaughter this morning, talking about the rabbinic view that a marriage between two people is an opportunity to bring more peace-loving beings into the world, but I was thanking God every step of the way.

06 April 2010

Omer 7: Pull Through

Omer Day Seven

Word came through tonight that one of my oldest, best friends had a heart attack--he's not yet 47--and as a few of us got on the phone or chat of some kind or another, time seemed to slow to a crawl, as it usually does when such news arrives. Life hangs on a thread, a truth we now know that much more than we did when we all woke up this morning.

My youngest sat next to me on the couch as I got an update and her insistent curiosity demanded answers. I've learned to temper such revelations to my kids with gentleness, truthful but veiled, so that their proximity to painful realities of life don't serve to traumatize them with a kind of fear that every time the phone rings at home, they're a part of a family that hears this kind of news all the time. There is something to be said for not dreading the receiving of a call. I wasn't always that way--I used to believe not only in the heroism of my work but of the drafting of everyone else into that work, too. Until some wise people--like my wife and a shrink--suggested that discretion was the better part of valor.

In a somewhat absent-minded way, while one friend and I were chatting about how it was possible that one of us had a heart attack, he suggested I take a look at the WikiLeaks video of U.S. soldiers killing Iraqi civilians in 2007, a deeply disturbing set of images chronicling the dehumanizing hell of war. Journalists with cameras mistaken for AK47s; children shot in a van arriving to rescue the wounded; and way too much laughter and macabre joking around while lives lay dying. The instant I started watching I regretted it; and yet, war and conquest are as wrapped up in the implications of the Passover story as anything else. The clean narratives are the truths observed and fixed at a distance. In real time, their slow-going evolution is a bloody, complicated mess.

My mind drifted back to my pal, laying in a hospital bed somewhere, dreaming, God willing, of playing hoops. When I last saw him we talked about this war in Iraq--its horrible dilemmas; its unclean lines; and what it does to everyone, guilty and innocent alike. We talked about this while the NBA All-Star game played and as I remembered this, I was reminded that the NCAA championship game was being played so I flipped on the television just in time to catch a commercial for a digital video game about the Iraq war. For the life of me, I couldn't tell the difference between the WikiLeaks video and this game. I knew my pal and I would love to have a laugh about that. He's not one to really show his rage as easily as I do, so laughter, like discretion, is the better part of that kind of valor.

When the game ended I went to the kitchen where I keep the siddur from which I count the Omer. Page 236 in Siddur Sim Shalom. It's been a week of counting, I thought, and as I uttered the words, I said prayers for my friend.

"Heal him, God. Protect him." And, "Why'd you let this happen in the first place?"

A weak protest. As if we have the power to stop such things in their tracks. Life is its own force. We bet against its probabilities and at best offer the palliatives of hope and faith; of love and friendship; of support and meaning. I stop the protest and pray for strength--for strength to give and share where it will be needed in the days and weeks ahead.

The dog needs to go outside. The night air is uncommonly warm; the sky is clear and black and beautiful. The trees are redolent with spring.

On one bench, facing the Grand Army Plaza arch, three Israeli Chabadniks sit, speaking a casual Hebrew, wary of my dog. One wears a Moshiach kippah. I wonder about their counting--how are they numbering their days? I round the corner and there sits a solitary African American man, quietly lost in thought and eating a bag of chips. He's lit by the lights radiating from the Richard Meier building. Further on, rats scurry in the bushes and trees of the berm, tarnishing somewhat this charmingly gritty neighborhood pastorale.

Nearing home I see an elderly man walking his dog. He's in his seventies, the dog appears to be a puppy.

"Who's this?" I ask.

"This is Andy," he says, "Andy the One-Eyed Shitzu."

Now, the God I believe in has a wicked sense of humor. And as I bend down to behold this one-eyed dog, I learn that he's only nine months old and lost his eye to a cat very recently, just before his elderly owner had to give him up because she had a stroke. And so now Andy the One-Eyed Shitzu is in the decent and able hands of a real gentleman, who greeted me with kindness, exchanged pleasantries on a warm spring night, as the more discreet matters of our mission (allowing our pets to relieve themselves) remained unspoken.

There's one man who'd appreciate this scene with no need for elaboration--and I plan on telling him this story when he fully recovers. He'll need (and deserve) a good laugh. It will be the umpteenth time since we met more than 30 years ago that life's radical absurdity needed some illumination and laughter. And because his ease has always tempered my rage against life's stupid injustices, I will admit to not being ready for anything less than a total return to playing condition.

I love you, friend. Pull through.

05 April 2010

Senator Eric Adams: Stop the Sag

This is great from Senator Adams.

Daily News take is here.

NYT is here.

Omer 6: Truths in Fiction

Omer Day Six

Let me recommend two powerful books, whose Omer message is, let's say, when all else fails, tell the truths you know.

1. Aharon Appelfeld's Blooms of Darkness


2. Orly Castel Bloom's Human Parts.

04 April 2010

Omer 5: The Matzah Fast

Omer Day Five

The consumption of matzah is a fast, not unlike Yom Kippur. It helps to view it that way. When we view it as a celebration of or commemoration of our having been freed from Egypt, we run the risk of depriving it of its power to shape the particular Jewish worldview of nationalism.

Yesterday, David suggested in his comment that the Passover story is too 'hubristic' for his liking and that at next year's seder, he's going to 'take apart' the story. That's exactly the point of the haggadah, some of which is written under the yoke of Roman rule. As the text itself develops in an ever-widening circle of Jewish diasporas, the hubris of the straight reading (we won, they lost) is meant to give way to the philosophical introspection about the nature and value of freedom, nationalism, and their incumbent responsibilities. Adding to this complicated mix is the historical reality that Jewish communities for the following two thousand years lived under a variety of forms of government, making the engagement between the Passover story and the host cultures of Jewish communities even more interesting.

Over on Facebook, Professor Allan Nadler added in his two kopeks on Bontshe the Silent, and his reading of the story as "a damning caricature of the minimal expectations of the politically passive and oppressed Jews of Peretz's time and place. The second time around, (he) read Bontshe not as 'peshat' but as a 'midrashic' nationalist parody, very much in the spirit of the Zionist critique of the Galut mentality."

Internal self-critique and questioning is essential to the experience of Jewish reading; how much more so is it essential to our reading of and understanding of the haggadah?

What did it mean to contemplate our freedom under ancient Roman rule? In early medieval Babylonia? During the Crusades? In revolutionary France and America and Russia? In the Warsaw ghetto? Or today, in Israel with an army and nuclear weapons and an irredentist Palestinian movement? And then of course, there is America, an ongoing experiment in democracy in its own right and the most open and friendly diaspora host culture the Jews have ever known.

This is to say that there are no easy answers to what it has meant, what it means, and what it may mean to future generations. That is, after all, the origin of the word "haggadah"--to tell. "You shall tell it (the story of the Exodus) to your son (children)." How we talk about it is the matter at hand.

Back to the matzah. In the Biblical text, we seem to eat it because it was consumed during a springtime ritual in ancient days; and, in order to remember that the Israelites left Egypt in haste. But the Sages spiritualize its consumption and turn the ritual into a fast from leaven, which they understand to be the physical representation of the desire to do evil. Rabbi Yerucham of Mir argued that even the candlelight search for leavened goods in one's home on the evening before Passover begins is nothing less than a descent into the darkest corners and recesses of a person's soul, with the candle serving as the only expression of light and goodness in an otherwise dark and forbidden place.

In an article in today's Times about the impending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens,
one of quotes immediately comes to mind. Speaking of the fact that he is the only sitting Justice now to have served our nation in the Second World War, Justice Stevens said, "It really was a unique period of time, in the sense that the total country, with very few exceptions, was really united. We were all on the same team, wanting the same result. You don’t like to think of war as having anything good about it, but it is something that was a positive experience.”

Collective narratives can be unifying both for the shared experience as well as the shared ethic of critiquing that experience. My parents always reflected back to me their pride in having passed the Great Depression and the war years with having learned to live with less. It's no different with the fast from leaven--matzah--at Passover time.

03 April 2010

Omer 4: Unbroken Spirit

Omer Day Four

We took a break from our study of the Rambam's Mishneh Torah this Shabbat morning and read YL Peretz's classic tale, "Bontsha the Silent," an examination of the quality of meekness and silent suffering taking to an absurd extreme.

The "kotzer ruach" or downtrodden spirit which the Israelites were said to suffer under Pharaoh's service ultimately had to end with rebellion, an essential step toward a realized human dignity that was required for redemption. Humility is one thing; silent suffering, on the other hand, for no other higher purpose, yields, for Peretz, nothing more than mockery and derision from, of all places, the Heavenly Throne.

Our main character Bontsha has nothing and asks for nothing. As a result, his lifetime is spent in unimaginable suffering. And yet, at the end of his life, when he dies and stands before the Heavenly Court and is offered anything in the Kingdom of Heaven for his unmitigated, life-long suffering, he asks for a warm roll with butter. His meekness is understood as a kind of pathetic derision. There is laughter--the only response to such tragic nothingness.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us, in an essay on the Omer, that the Jewish worldview is not divided radically between two extremes--pure meekness and pure saintliness but rather melds the qualities necessary for redemption in a perspective rooted in the here and now.

Acquisition is necessary for economies to function, but they needn't be bogged down in total greed. The human being creates boundaries, limits to one's desires, but needn't eradicate them totally to live in a redeemed world.

Desire when channeled recognizes that we accumulate goods and experiences in order to satisfy our own urges but also to serve others and allow them to be satisfied as well.

Generosity, therefore, becomes the operating principle, even in a world where things are acquired, if one recognizes that the ability to acquire--both the desire to have and the object sought--derives from the Source of Life.

That our own desires spring from the Source of Life means that one can learn to transcend one's "kotzer ruach" or "broken spirit" on the way to finding one's place in the world as we know it and in the world as it ought to be.

That we left Egypt once is a testimony to an unbroken spirit. To boldly assert our place in the world and role as agents of history to bring further redemption is our mandate, during the Omer period and beyond.

02 April 2010

Omer 3: Perspective

Omer Day Three

Did Pharaoh drown in the Red Sea the other night? We sang of it twice; we counted out those plagues; and yet, he and his madness persists. His pyramids pop up in all sorts of places, even at one of my favorite places of refuge, Storm King, where the family took our annual Pesach walk yesterday.

We went to see Maya Lin's Wavefield, particularly poignant in the transitions of spring before it reaches its full growth later in the summer; and since we didn't make it to Storm King last summer to see it, we wanted to get up there yesterday. Yesterday it was particularly rich in the "idea" of the installation. Several areas were blocked off for seasonal seeding and it had the effect of having just opened. Areas of brown, yellow and green converged in their colors to make it appear as if one was standing above a mountain range, spreading out north and west before one's eyes.

I found myself contemplating this perspective the rest of the day, which made standing under Mark di Suvero's "Pyramidian" that much more challenging (and hilarious.)

During the Omer, we really are not yet free but rather, are in transition between slavery and freedom. One of the Sages great truths is that we cannot be fully free without the Law, which makes our stopover at Sinai totally and utterly elemental to the project of redemption. We liberal Jews often speak of having gone from slavery to freedom and if there is a transition, it's the 40 years we spent wandering in the desert before we reach the Promised Land.

But Sinai is essential to that narrative. Sinai gives structure to the ongoing enterprise of maintaining one's freedom--with morality, with ethical mandates, with a relationship to a Being beyond the self. Sinai gives us the Law, without which we would return to the Chaos of pre-Creation.

And so we count out the days--one through 50--in an exercise of introspection which asks of us to accept the challenging notion that passing through the parted waters of the Red Sea is only one step on the journey to true freedom.