30 June 2010


Answer us, Eternal, answer us on our Fast Day, for grievous trouble has overtaken us.  Consider not our guilt, turn not away from us.  Be mindful of our plea and heed our supplication.  Your love is our comfort; answer before we call.  This is the promise uttered by your prophet:  "I shall answer before they have spoken, I shall heed their call before it is uttered."  You, Eternal, answer us in time of trouble; You rescue and redeem in time of distress.  Praised are You, Eternal, who answers the afflicted.
This paragraph is traditionally inserted into the Amidah prayer on Fast Days.  We had occasion to recite it this week on the 17th of Tammuz, the day on the Hebrew calendar that is understood to be the day on which the Romans breached the walls of the Jerusalem before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 AD.  This time period begins what are known as the "3 Weeks" of mourning that lead to Tisha B'Av, the Fast Day to commemorate the Temple's destruction.  The breach of the walls during the First Temple's destruction occurred in Tammuz as well, as did Moses' breaking of the Tablets.  It's a rough time.  For observant Jews there is a reduction in the pursuit of pleasure--live music, eating meat and drinking wine (except on Shabbat) and weddings are all restricted. 

The prayer is excised from the Reform movement siddur, a loss for the movement, I believe, precisely because it separates Reform Jews from the liturgical and historical prayer narrative of other Jews.  I prayed it that morning but didn't fast; I'm doing a wedding this weekend but I have marked the time on the calendar, am counting the weeks off until Tisha B'Av.  One might consider ways to live with the paradoxes and contradictions of being a non-observant Jew without simply editing certain words out of the Tradition, but that's a matter for another time.

The lynch pin of the prayer are the words from the prophet Isaiah: "I shall answer before they have spoken, I shall heed their call before it is uttered" and come toward the end of one of Isaiah's most noted and quoted passages because of its evocative messianic imagery.
Before they pray, I will answer; while they are still speaking I will respond.  The wolf and lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent's food shall be earth.  In all my sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done, said the Eternal.  -- Isaiah 65.24-25
So these words we prayed on 17 Tammuz link us to Isaiah's idea that calling out, hearing and being heard, can be understood as a trace of the messianic. 

That night, as the fast day ended, I used these words to thank Rev Daniel Meeter and the leaders of Old First Reformed Church here in Park Slope at a reception our home with leaders from Congregation Beth Elohim.  As many people know, Rev Meeter and Old First's leadership called out to us before we could even call them on the day a section of our ceiling collapsed last September and offered us the use of their sacred space for Yom Kippur--the most sacred of all our fast days.  We were heard before we even called.  Being cognizant of that helped me understand better the Divine attribute of grace, perhaps what we might call more contemporaneously "being in sync." 

When communities work together; when its leaders are friends; and when those communities' congregants realize that in a room together on a warm summer evening there is a greater narrative that binds us beyond our individuated theological frameworks, then we are in the place of prophecy voiced by Isaiah centuries ago. 

A place of truly One God:  not yours, not mine but ours.

29 June 2010

I Choose Everything

One red cardinal.
One black squirrel.
A chipmunk eating seeds.

This scene passes before my eyes as I run along the path inside Prospect Park, near the back of the Boat House lake, underneath the bridge which bears a sign saying I shouldn't be going there.  I don't even think of *not* going there, since *there* tends to be a place I've leaned toward my entire life.  I've never much paid attention to signs and rules, finding such a set of strictures to be contrary to my nature.  And since I've yet to throw a punch or shoot a gun or cause any real damage, it's generally worked for me.  In addition, I have to admit to feeling a certain kinship with whomever had to make the determination that the purpose for the sign at the bridge, which was put there in order to warn passersby by of the bridge's implied instability, was to, well, warn passersby.  And maybe create a legal comfort zone in case--like the branch in Central Park or the cement parking garage slabs in Milwaukee--God forbid, someone should be killed.

Yeah, I know those signs, I said to myself, and then barreled past them, continuing on my run while thinking about those who die, with and without signs or portents or warnings when things fall on them.  One time, I met a woman whose brother *almost* died because a street sign fell on his head, completely randomly.  We met several times over the course of the few months that he was under several doctors' care and besides listening to her concerns and worries--would he ever walk or talk again--we attempted to understand why a God of the Universe would allow such random dangers to strike at innocent people.  And as he began to heal we agreed that randomness was all a matter of perspective.  After all, branches should be trimmed and bridges should be watched and parking garages should be attended and even close to home, synagogues should be kept up.  Vigilance can be an antidote to randomness; but a watchfulness that's too close can be suffocating.  So we ease up, which can become neglect and then, when you least expect it, tragedy strikes.

Noah was righteous in *his age*, which is a distinction, the Sages say, from Abraham who was told to *be a blessing* and *walk before God*.  God decides to destroy the earth in a flood and Noah obeys God's command to build an ark and save himself along with his family and some animals.  Abraham hears that God's going to destroy a whole city and he argues with God, engages the Judge of All the Earth in a disputation about the questionable results of collective punishment.  Noah *seemed* righteous but in reality allowed the decay to occur; Abraham steps past the boundaries of obedience and questions the assumptions of the engagement.

The age in which we live requires the best manifestation of our understanding of Abraham's character.  There is simply too much that is going wrong and while it's easy to point a finger away from ourselves with often correct assessment that the mess we're in is not our own, the reality is, it is our mess to own and to clean up.  That's just the way it is.  And the sooner we embrace the epic nature of the problems at hand, the sooner we'll be on our way to fixing them.

Esau had red hair and his black haired brother Jacob emerged just after, clutching Esau's heel.  My late grandmother-in-law gave birth to twin sons (a red head and a black haired child) and used to remember to us her doctor saying when they were born, "one red, one black, one red, one black."   Esau and Jacob fought forever and the Tradition generally holds that they never made up.  Though you can find midrashim that say they did.

I recently sat with my uncles-in-law and concluded after a few minutes what I always conclude--despite their differences, their love is deep and they are enormously close.  In life, and in the text, there's what is, and then there's what happens.

One red cardinal.
One black squirrel.
A chipmunk eating seeds.

To me, the chipmunk eating seeds was the great synthesizer.  The cardinal appeared first--right before my eyes, bold, loud, you know--he *announced his presence* as cardinals often do.  The squirrel, shaded by the trees, didn't reveal himself to be black until he darted out into the sun, and I thought of my old Israeli friend Issi who once came to visit in Madison and wanted to hike in the woods because he had never seen a squirrel before and when we found a black one he was beside himself with joy.  And then I thought of black and red, red and black, and the critical role they play against one another in color theory.  But with my mind caught up in *type* I came across the chipmunk, on ground, at my feet, eating seeds left by someone who had also broken the rules and passed the barricade.

This moment said everything.
And nothing at all.
I choose everything.

27 June 2010

The Elusive Simple Truth

It has been told thee, O man, what is good
And what the Lord doth require of thee:
Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah, 6.8)
The Bat Mitzvah kid yesterday talked about Balaam and the difference between false and true prophecy.  She weighed aloud her understanding at this stage of her intellectual development the Biblical notions of time and history with what science and archaeology can tell us, and she talked about her aspirations to continue learning and pursuing the truth, wherever it would take care, having faith that the real conclusions, the right conclusions, would leave her forever linked with her people and her community.  I love giving these kids the opportunity to question it all--what better place to do that than in the synagogue, which then values their questions and hopefully keeps them connected to this important idea of Judaism.

Testing the historical or archaeological veracity of something is only part of the pursuit of truth.  The other test is whether or not the lessons and values stand the test of time.  So many of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah services now take place in the Temple House Chapel which has three stained glass windows with the words Justice, Mercy and Humility represented and this Shabbat it was particularly gratifying to connect the architecture with the moral archaeology of the prophet Micah's words, which closed the Haftarah.  I thought of all the babies and parents who come to Shir l'Shabbat each Saturday morning and wondered what questions those kids will ask about God, Torah, and Israel.  Look at that, I said to myself surveying a room of happy little kids--look at all those future questions!

Like we do at the end of each service, before Kaddish, we read names of yahrzeits in the Shul as well as names of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last week.  The names of soldiers this week were:  Russell Madden, Eddie Turner, Claudio Patino, Kevin Cueto, Andrew Looney, David Miller, Scott Andrews, Timothy Serwinowski, Brandon Silk, and James Hunter.

Ten names.  The pain that these ten names evoke is perhaps best described by Damon Winter's moving portrait on the cover of this morning's Times of Sgt Brian Keith with his wife Sara and son Stephen, just before Sgt Keith's deployment to Afghanistan.  A stirring, humbling image.
After services we made Kiddush, shmoozed, I dropped by a baby naming for wishes of mazel tov, and then went back for another Kiddush, joining Alt-shul briefly for theirs.  I saw so much joy and celebration on the Shabbat this week but felt troubled for some reason all day long by the ten names I read at Kaddish.  I don't know if it was because the week began with the President firing McCrystal and therefore opening up yet again the burning question of why we're in Afghanistan (because the Taliban is evil); or the anticipation of Netanyahu's trip to the White House and what new demands and questions those demands will yield for Israel; or the nonsensical hysteria of xenophobia that has taken over whole parts of the country when it comes to immigrants and the deafening noise of the discourse from politicians and commentators that makes me wonder if we'll ever be able to remain calm enough to find a solution to the problems that we face.  I have questions about Albany's enduring corruption.  Questions about what budget cuts will do to a city without pools and without bus-lines and with what we know will be over-crowded classrooms next year.

I mean, seriously:  there are so many problems.  Just pick one and work on it for awhile.  It'll be better than what we got, that's for sure.

And when you're confused about why you're doing it, remember that  in the heat of the Judean Hills more than 2700 years ago, a prophet of humble roots, who saw political and religious corruption all around him, cried out the obvious:
It has been told thee, O man, what is good
And what the Lord doth require of thee:
Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
 How does this simple truth continue to elude us for so long?  Another question, I suppose.

25 June 2010

Why Can't We?

When Balaam chooses to bless Israel in this week's Torah portion, rather than curse them as his leader Balak would have him do, his words unleash an ancient poetic form that our ancestors adored so much they made it the opening liturgy of a formal morning prayer service:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwellings O Israel
Like palm groves that stretch out
Like gardens beside a river
Like aloes planted by the Lord
Like cedars beside the water.
Unable to curse, Balaam blesses, brought to his own knees of realization by a speaking mule, a beast of burden of the working man and woman, not unlike the primitive modes of transportation that move people from treacherous inlands to guarded borders and maybe, luckily, to the safety and opportunity of what a new land can offer.

Balaam's blessing enrages his king Balak:  "I called you to damn my enemies and instead you have blessed them these three times!  Back with you at once to your own place!  I was going to reward you richly but the Lord has denied you the reward."  But Balaam will have nothing of it and he tells Balak that such words are false in the face of the truth he's realized:  "What the Lord says, that I must say."

"Back with you at once to your own place!"  Is this an order of deportation?

With the news today that twenty other states are considering passing immigration laws similar to those laws passed in Arizona recently,  I think about the shameful ways that certain Americans are caught up in damning those who would see our groves and gardens and sing their praises, forcing them, at gunpoint and with the specter of arrest, to go back to their own place.

In preparing some material on our community's historic burial plots in Queens for my High Holy Days sermons, I re-read some favorite passages from Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism, and Hasia Diner's the Jews of the United States.  I was looking for the particular feeling of optimism and possibility that our ancestors expressed in starting life anew in America and how critically important it is to the continual regeneration of our country that those not born here seek a new life here, if only to reinvigorate the very ideals upon which this nation was established.

Walking around the Canarsie Cemetery earlier in the week, I read the names on the stones--English, Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, and now, reflective of the neighborhood's ever-evolving demographic, West Indian.  The particularities of who we are as Americans is always changing; the values and ideals is what we represent, not what we look like or where we come from.

Late Friday I received an email alert from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, my favorite Reform institution.  The email encourages Americans to write Senator Charles Schumer, urging him to introduce Comprehensive Immigration Reform Legislation.  I'm going to do it and I encourage you to do the same.
How fair are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwellings O Israel
Like palm groves that stretch out
Like gardens beside a river
Like aloes planted by the Lord
Like cedars beside the water.
 That's what Balaam said.   An American born poet Emma Lazarus, whose Spanish-Portuguese Jewish family had been in America since the Colonial period, wrote the following:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
 If an American whose roots are in the Colonial period can welcome the immigrant, why can't we?

This Mess Is Ours to Own

From the looks of the sleeping arrangements along Grand Army Plaza tonight in the light of the nearly full-moon, General McCrystal isn't the only one out of work this week.  A lot more men are camping out these days, signs that although we are beginning to feel the spasms of optimism with a recovering economy, the pain and dislocation persist for millions.  There is no denying that.  Sort of.

With tonight's NBA draft out of the way, all attention will focus on whether or not Lebron James will come play for the Knicks or the Nets and from a quick tour around the internets, it appears that one industry hot on the trail of the cager sensation is the Real Estate Industry, which has its brokers jumping through hoops all over New York City trying to have various fans of the game or fame licking their gossipy chops in anticipation of a new neighbor.  I don't know how he does it, but Lebron has apparently seen alot of real estate in Manhattan and Brooklyn but wouldn't it be something *yo* if he came to town and built a few shelters with his extra resources for all the men who are, as it were, sitting on the end of the bench.

What happened to that *narrative* from a couple years ago--"Yes We Can" and "Our Time Has Come?" Did we get that jaded that fast?  Did we lose the focus in a flash?  I walked past Aroma again today and saw hundreds of people lined up along Greene Street in Soho, stretching as far as the eye could see, down the block, toward the Apple store on Prince Street.  I'm going to go way out on a limb here and guess that the iPhone 4 went on sale.  And then I'm *not* going to go out on a limb here and guess that people weren't lined up to volunteer to feed, house or clothe people.  "Yes We Can."

While it may seem cliche for a rabbi to write that people aren't doing enough to save the world a mere 18 months after people pulled a lever in a voting booth to save the world, that's the way the cookie crumbles (to express another cliche.)

Our endless gusher in the Gulf is the metaphor to end all metaphors.  Our world's seemingly endless mess keeps spilling forth; and while one surely understands the human impulse to escape it all in the illusory fantasies of who will come to Broadway or Atlantic Avenue to play basketball, I will admit to sometimes being consumed by the fear that we've lost our grip on reality.

I think it's why I find myself in cemeteries lately.  Ariel Levy's incredible New Yorker profile of Mike Huckabee and his views (among them Huckabee's deep fundamentalism and inexcusably shallow homophobia) reminded me of the importance of measuring principles with reason and humor.   But it also reminded me that the Creation story--while its literalist view is indefensible--is nonetheless a powerful framing metaphor for life.  "We are created as Divinely formed clay, animated by the breath of life; and after a time, return to the Earth for decomposition and eternal rest."  If anything, regardless of where one stands on the faith spectrum, this is humbling stuff.  The Sages were even more graphic:  We come from a putrid drop; we go to a place of worms and maggots.  It's not untrue.

The cemetery gives me perspective, something I've always sought since my youth.  In class as a kid I used to daydream and take apart my Bic pens, leaving all their component parts on the desktop as I stared at them and thought, "This was once a pen that could write."  Old radios, baseballs, dandelion flowers on a hot summer day:  I could sit in the shade and take them apart, one component, one layer, one petal at a time, until their essence was reduced to a seemingly random collection of individuated parts that, divided from their whole, deprived them of their essentialness.  As a teenager this led to a kind of mopey, angst-filled depression that later became, in college, *critical thinking.*

But now, when I wake up in the morning and discover each day that after relieving myself the body still works, its parts joining together in order that its conscious whole can praise his Maker, I experience both a sense of gratitude and obligation.  Gratitude and obligation from the consciousness one has of "making a mess."  That's downright ironic.

I married a couple at Shul tonight--it was the second marriage for each and this time around, it seemed to me, they really figured out how to do the Seven Blessings.  They asked groups of their friends and family to come read them under the Huppah and with each articulated piece of sacred liturgy there was an ever-increasing emotional trajectory of appreciation for having simply made it to this point in life.  The Huppah's transparent walls seemed by design to say, "See, when you've been through what we've been through, sharing is all the more easy to do."  After each set of people blessed the wine, they then spontaneously blessed the couple and I heard whispered wishes and expressions of love I rarely hear under the Huppah.  It was really inspiring.

Nathan and I went walking late tonight and the moon was bright over Grand Army Plaza.  There was  a cool wind to ease the day as we passed our neighbors sleeping on benches I whispered promises of assistance in the days ahead.

This mess is ours to own.  We have no choice but to keep cleaning.

24 June 2010

The Boycott of Love

I opened up my email this morning to see one of those Boycott Israel emails from Brooklyn for Peace.  The boycott movement is targeting Ahava Products, which will never work--I can guarantee.  Any tourist to Israel can tell you that and I would be willing to bet that whatever Ricky's or Nordstroms sells pales in comparison to the deals you get at tourist spots in Israel.  They don't make shopping carts big enough to handle the near riot conditions when my people start shopping!

Even more galling is the disinformation that gets spread and the ways in which this nutty boycott and divestment movement is seeking to use the language of the End Apartheid movement and delegitimization in order to carry out its goals. 

Here's the language from the Brooklyn for Peace email:
Don’t buy AHAVA beauty products!
AHAVA, an Israeli cosmetics company, is violating basic principles of international law by profiting from the occupation of Palestine. Using resources from the ancient waters of the Dead Sea, which is part of the Occupied West Bank, the products are made in a settlement factory in an illegal settlement (Mitzpe Shalem). AHAVA means “love” in Hebrew, but there is nothing loving about this company’s practices. In fact, they violate international law. It's a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention to exploit resources in  for profit any resources in an occupied land.
Click here for more information and what you can do.
Start now! Don't buy AHAVA beauty products!
Brooklyn For Peace is committed to working for a negotiated solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Read our statement.
Work with our Israel-Palestine Committee.
E-mail is.pales@brooklynpeace.org for next meeting date and location.
Mitzpe Shalem, though west of Jordan, is in that murky area of the Jordan Valley.  In the peace agreements that have been written and re-written over and over again and that all reasonable people are waiting for leaders on both sides to have the political courage to sign,  Mitzpe Shalem residents are split--some will leave for peace, others want to stay.  Camp David and Geneva Initiatives each grant that there will remain some Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, to be determined at final status talks.  But in reality, at least as I see it, Mitzpe Shalem is like many of the Jordan Valley areas that represented settlement policy as a true protection framework against threats from the East--and Israel certainly had legitimate concerns following the Six Day War.

But "movements" don't appreciate nuance, and so words like "illegal" and "violation" and "occupied land" take a general weight whose aim, I would argue, is to increase the perception that Israel has no legitimate claim to any part of the Land of Israel.

Check out this stuff from Codepink/Stolen Beauty. 

I'd be willing to bet the Ricky's on the Island of Manhattan and Nordstroms on Long Island and in New Jersey, are likely built atop Native American bones.  Our pure-minded neighbors might consider cleaning up their historical messes closer to home.

23 June 2010

Complicated Rivers

After another hot day I walked home from Shul tonight and decided to stop in for a beer at Ace Supermarket, a Park Slope institution for more than 40 years.  Ace, for those who may not have noticed, is undergoing a minor facelift, exposing, for the first time that I can remember in twenty years living here, the interior of the store through its windows.  Usually those windows are covered with beer ads--they certainly have been since 1990--and it was really refreshing to see inside the store.  On my way back to the beer cooler, I passed the display of Sabra's Hummus collection--offering a great variety of choice ( I remain partial to Hummus Abu Ghosh. ) I took notice, chose my beer ( Brooklyn Summer Ale--tasty) and then headed to the cash register to pay.

The guy behind the register rang me up and then we started talking about the windows, the sign in front of the store (painted in 1969 and currently the source of debate over whether or not it should be preserved or replaced) and from there we had a brief but meaningful conversation about varieties of troubling trends with preservation in general in New York.  I shared some of my insights about spending a day in Philadelphia last week and the great appreciation for Revolutionary War history that one encounters in certain sectors of the city, an experience of history that is hard to come by in such a clearly laid out and educational way here in New York.  ( I sometimes wonder if part of the virulently powerful sports rivalries between New York on one hand and Boston and Philadelphia on the other has its source, in part, in this rivalry over who *owns* the Founding History. )  In addition, I shared briefly my experience today walking around the Canarsie Cemetery and how that journey had me talking with friends about the burial plots at Mt. Carmel and New Mt. Carmel and how history in some places is preserved quite well but so few people actually take notice.  If death and history are so complicated, how much more so life?

Walking around Canarsie with my friend Nick, who runs Green-Wood Cemetery, I learned that during the Second World War, a lot of the cemeteries around New York donated to the War effort some of the metal used to surround private family plots.  Many of the carved cement posts--works of art in their own right bearing family names and designs--were then buried or discarded, losing to history the stories and representative legacies of past generations.  "Regrettable," Nick said.

I remember the first time I walked into Ace Supermarket wearing an Israeli t-shirt.  It was 1990, we had just moved to Brooklyn from Jerusalem, and it felt very much at home to walk into a Palestinian grocer in Brooklyn to buy my Shabbat candles, Yahrzeit candles, cold beer and hummus.  It's been that way for twenty years now.

A couple weeks ago I got a call on a Saturday afternoon from another friend who lives in the Village and she was walking past Aroma Espresso Bar and saw a "Boycott Israel" demonstration outside on the sidewalk at the Houston Street Aroma.  "This is just nuts!" she shouted into the phone.  "Regrettable," I said.

As the world mildly retreats to its benign and moderately veiled anti-Semitism (as opposed to its blatant form just after the Gaza Flotilla debacle) it makes me realize, in this brief moment of calm, how ridiculously unrealistic so much of the current discourse on Israel really truly is.  How little room for nuance there is for those who truly care; how the deep and complicated rivers of history get ignored; and,  how demonstrations of grandiose solutions get privileged.  Words in our digital age get cut and pasted all over the place.  From blogs to posters, from pamphlets to emails:  massacre; fascism; colonialism; illegitimacy; state terror.

Most people actually don't know what they're talking about.

But the Palestinian who sells hummus and yahrzeit candles gets it.  He advocates for a sign from 1969 because it tells a story.  And sells beer and memorial candles to a Jew.  And together, they commiserate over the destruction of history that so few have the time or patience to really understand.

11 June 2010

Music for the New Moon

There have been a great variety of musical styles at CBE since its founding in 1861.  A German speaking group of founders; those who moved the synagogue to Park Slope in 1909 and installed a massive organ (which no longer works); and the American twentieth century, where popular musical styles and forms seemed to change every 10 years surely had an impact on the spiritual aspirations of those sitting in the pews year after year. 

From formal cantorial pieces to folk-inflected Yiddish melodies; from Mizrachi and Ladino settings to the Jewish summer camps of the 70s, 80s and 90s--what Jews listen to and what Jews want to listen to when it comes to Jewish music in a Jewish context has rarely remained the same. 

So last night many of gathered in our newly configured Chapel (reviews on new seating arrangement:  excellent) to hear from the many different individuals who will be helping to lead our music in the coming year as we embark upon some new musical directions in search of a cantor and new musical leadership. 

Performers included Cantor Samantha Natov, singing classical cantorial hazzanus and Gershwin's Summertime; Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer, singing straight klezmer and Jewish folk-rooted liturgical music which required dancing, hand-holding, hand-clapping and a fairly raucous re-dedication of our new seating arrangement; Toby Singer, a local composer, who two melodies he wrote for piano and voice--a Disco Shma and a meditative Eliyahu Ha'Navi; our Revson rabbinic intern Marc Katz sang two of his own songs, one composed for a college open-mic and another for Jewish kids at camp (along with Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle"); Galeet Dardashti, who will be leading the Main Service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, sat with her drum and talked about her Persian grandfather, whose voice in Iran would draw Muslim neighbors to hear his singing, shared his melody for Psalm 23 as well as El Norah Alila, a closing hymn from the Neilah service on Yom Kippur; and finally, our Music Director Rose Moskowitz led the CBE Singers, a volunteer choir, in a setting of Steinberg's Oseh Shalom as well as Ale Brider. 

When the night I ended, we took note of the fact that Saturday night ushers in a new moon--Rosh Hodesh Tamuz--and that we really ought to use the occasion on a monthly basis of highlighting and celebrating the enormous talent we have in our synagogue and in our neighborhood for traditional, non-traditional and original contemporary work.

The enthusiasm in the Chapel and over drinks and food after was truly infectious and I look forward to planning next month's musical celebration.

A special thanks to all our musicians and singers for a great night!

Roger Cohen in Today's Times

Our member Roger Cohen writes about Israel and makes mention of his daughter's bat mitzvah at CBE last weekend. 

10 June 2010

Tony Judt & Ari Shavit Worth a Read

Tony Judt's Israel Without Cliches in today's Times.

The follow-up with Judt, for those interested, is found on Tablet.

Ari Shavit's Before the Bomb in today's Haaretz.

Really worth a read.

09 June 2010

Laying Around All Day

Nathan was really excited for the season-ending episode of Glee--an event he had been talking about all week, actually.  He was concerned about what was going to happen with Quinn's baby, and really wanted to know if Puck would raise his game, rise to the occasion and be the dad he ought to be.  Additionally, Nathan was concerned about what kind of emotional resolution there would be between Rachel and her mother.  I have to say that the moment the show ended, he seemed upset and wanted to go for a walk.

We walked a long, long time last night.  We talked about the new bike lane all along Prospect Park West (at least THAT we could agree on...I had wanted to watch Celtics-Lakers) and how much we are looking forward to its completion.  Brooklyn is a bikers' borough, after all.  And with the BP disaster not resolving itself anytime soon, the more we can do to minimize our paralyzing dependence on fossil fuels the better--his words, not mine.  Still, hard to argue.

Summer nights along the Park are really great.  The few others dogs out and about are a fairly sophisticated bunch and generally get along, which makes the strolls relaxing and always enlightening.  Gus, a West Highland Terrier, shared with us his general excitement about the new Arcade Fire album due out in August and was very animated about downloading the first couple songs from the Merge Records site.

Just then Otis walked up to us, they deployed their olfactory senses toward their collective cabooses, and a huge discussion broke out about the "No Offshore Drilling" vigil that was in Prospect Park earlier in the night.  From a programming perspective, there was some disagreement about whether or not scheduling it the night before Norah Jones was a good idea--Gus being strongly of the opinion that leaflets before Norah Jones was a more powerful mechanism for social organizing than standing in the grass the night before with candles.  Nathan suggested that Norah Jones show be acoustic--an homage to maximizing the "green" aspects of the event which both Otis and Gus found laughable.  When Nathan then suggested that that's precisely what New Directions would have done, his friends left--just like that.  Dogs can be that way sometimes.

We walked up to the Pavilion and turned around the Veteran's circle, making note of the three men sleeping on the benches.  "Though the economy is lurching back, it's a sign of the real dislocation going," Nathan said.  "Also, if I were Garry Winogrand, I'd have my camera.  This is a very moving depiction of our times, is it not?  It really pisses me off when I forget to bring it!"  "Good boy, Nathan, I said."  I patted his head and we set off for home.  You gotta love a dog with a crusading social conscience.

We moved along in silence for several blocks until Nathan asked about Shul.  "Didn't you move the pews in the Chapel?  How's that working out?"  I showed him the pictures and he seemed impressed.
He was really curious how people would react and was eager to know if the configuration would move people in new spiritual ways.  "That remains to be seen, buddy," I said.  You gotta love a dog with a sense of the sacred.

When we got home, Nathan wanted to check scores--Brewers and Mets won, Celtics lost; the young pitcher for the Nationals made some waves--and then he asked me to wake him early so he could follow the blogs on the UN Security Council vote for sanctions against Iran.  Nathan is strongly pro-sanctions.  He feels an unchecked Iran remains a great danger and the sooner Israel can get to two-states with the Palestinians, the sooner it can rebuild its alliances and confront productively the existential threats from Tehran, the better off we'll all be.  Sometimes it feels that time's running out and that's very stressful.

I'd like to go back to laying around all day, he said to me as we called it a night.

07 June 2010

May a New Light Shine Upon Zion

A difficult and challenging period ahead for us Jews, as Israel navigates what seems to be the rapidly shifting tide of opinion of the world, coalescing around the idea that Israel alone holds the power and the key to unlock the Gordian Knot of Middle East Peace.  Turkey's realignment with Iran, which unabashedly marches toward nuclear power and the open threat of Israel's annihilation, has seemed to signal once and for all that the despite Hamas, despite Syria, despite Hezbollah in Lebanon and despite the mystery of what would happen if the Hashemite Kingdom or Egypt ever lost their hold on power in their countries--despite all that, the world has embraced the notion that Israel holds all the cards for peace in the Mideast.  As someone who's advocated two states--Israel and Palestine--for nearly thirty years, I admit to quaking in fear at the prospects that two states won't make the existential problems go away and yet it seems the options have run out.  Had we built two states ten, twenty or thirty years ago, we'd have head a big lead on building trust in the relations between the two nations.  And now, a truly radicalized world has caught up to us.  The pressure being brought to bear on Israel--overdue and warranted in part--remains a gamble with unpredictable results.

We don't know what will be.

I imagine it is the exact dilemma felt by the Israelites when the stood at the border between Jordan and Israel, ready to send spies into the land to survey its inhabitants, and were forced to hear the "reports" that the land was filled with giants and the spies were but "grasshoppers in their own eyes."  Fear had diminished their own stature, a lesson the dimensions of which the Sages are quick to understand.  Great risk is involved not only in 'conquering a land' but in ruling oneself once settled there; and the spies' sin for seeing themselves as grasshoppers speaks, to a degree, to calculate risk while not diminishing one's own stature.  Ironically, the more small we feel in the face of a threat, the greater the threat and therefore the greater the risk of an adverse reaction.  Instructive Torah, indeed.

Later in the text, Moses confronts an angry mass that demands water to slake its thirst and infamously, he strikes a rock, bringing forth water, but neglects to invoke God's name.  Maimonides is quick to point out that Moses' sin was obvious--he had expressed great anger, a terrible example for a leader to set, and therefore had to be punished accordingly.  His extreme anger, the argument goes, prevented him from achieving national and territorial redemption.  This is particularly important for us Jews to consider, of course, but equally important (should they be reading our sacred texts) for Turkey and Palestine and Iran and Syria to be considering as well.  That heightened anger in general never seems to end well is axiomatic (generally); all the more so when that anger is coupled with state power.  God makes an example of Moses the leader specifically because leaders ought to know better.  His punishment is an example to us all.

Nachmanides disagrees with the Rambam and takes another equally interesting and challenging tact, expanded upon by Joseph Albo.  He says that Moses was punished for striking the rock because he had lost faith in God, giving the appearance that the power to bring forth water was his.  The lack of faith here symbolizes a kind of chaos, a disorder, and the abrogation of the societal structures, rooted in the relationship to the ethical and the Divine, that undermines the very essence of the relationship between the people Israel and their leader.  This erosion of faith in God (demonstrated by not sanctifying, by not giving credit where credit is due, wears thin the body politic and for this Moses is punished.

What object lessons:  don't be grasshoppers in your own eyes; curb your anger; have faith in a greater power than yourself.

Such concise lessons, so seemingly simple, and yet, on appearance, so nearly impossible to achieve.

And look at us now:  3300 years since the Exodus from Egypt, sovereign in our own land and yet still under threat--from without and within--and not yet fully redeemed.

May a new light shine upon Zion and may we all swiftly merit its radiance.

06 June 2010

Normal Isn't So Impressive

I noticed on the Times website that Michael Chabon's essay, Chosen, but Not Special, is the number one emailed article right now.  It affirms, in its title alone, that thorny position we Jews have been in since Abraham heard the call of his God and decided to start a new people.  The uncomfortable reality of our inherited sense of uniqueness.  Some Jews have been trying to escape chosenness for centuries, others have attempted to re-write its meaning, while still others embrace it with pride.  It's ur-text?   Living at the time in what today is Iraq, Abraham was told, "Get out of your land, your birthplace, your father's home--and go to the land that I will show you."  (Genesis 12.1, a text which no doubt eluded Helen Thomas this week.)

There Abraham was told, "I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  And I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you and through you will all the families of the earth be blessed."  The Jewish Biblical idea of chosenness makes quite an impression right out of the gate and seems presciently cognizant of the future reality that both Christianity and Islam would emerge from the Jewish ideas of ethical monotheism.  Though not Jewish themselves, billions on our planet who adhere to the teachings of Jesus and Mohamed can trace their roots back through to Abraham and the call he received from God.  I'll admit to being really proud of that.

To take nothing away from Michael Chabon, clearly a very clever fellow, Abraham was never told to be intelligent.  God's first words were to "be a blessing," and later, at Sodom and Gomorrah, as God and Abraham argue about whether or not a town of evil people should be destroyed, Abraham famously asks of God, whose wrath is ready for pouring, whether innocent people might be killed along with the guilty.  Abraham's character is less confident in its own intelligence than in its inherent sense of justice, and so Abraham asks God the rhetorical question we all have wanted to ask on one occasion or another, "Should not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?"  (Genesis 18.25)

It's equally true of Judaism's next great Biblical leader, Moses, who ascends Mt. Sinai and brings the Ten Commandments and the entire Torah tradition down to the people, a text that more observant Jews say is the basis for the 613 commandments we are meant to fulfill--but being intelligent is not among them.

Even Woody Allen seemed to understand it back in 1988, in his New York Times essay decrying the IDF's "bone-breaking" tactics then being encouraged by Yitzhak Rabin, in the first intifada--the bone-breaking and the rubber bullets meant to be a "less lethal" approach to crowd control than live fire.  Allen's essay caused a stir, because mostly, like Chabon, he voiced what made so many liberal Jews terribly uncomfortable--the Jewish use of power (lethal or not) to put down what some began to see as a just rebellion against an occupying power.

Chabon repeats one of the classical tropes of several early leading Zionist thinkers and the Declaration of Independence--that the goal of revitalizing the Jewish nation was to live, as he puts it, " 'to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state,' then the inescapable codicil of this natural inheritance is that the Jewish people, 'like all other nations,' are every bit as capable of barbarism and stupidity."

While Zionism's end remains just--it was never meant to be driven by intelligence but by justice.  That's where Chabon makes a wrong turn, I believe.

Ehud Barak, who takes apart watches for fun, is famously intelligent.  But his decision as Defense Minister to sign off on a very poorly executed raid of the Gaza flotilla, was a demonstration not of stupidity but poor judgment; not a lack intellectual intelligence but a lack of military intelligence.  And the rehearsal yet again of the struggling moral conscience of the liberal Diaspora Jew who comes dangerously close to worshiping at the altar of his own cleverness--"I thought Jews were supposed to be so smart!" (repeated by the way over the last decade on Larry Sanders and Glee--check the references, folks, it's an old joke) is beside the point.

A smart guy like Chabon too easily passes over a three thousand year Jewish tradition of learning and privileging education that has produced a disproportionate number of high-achieving, pride-inducing successes from science and math to music and art--that deserves to remain a great source of pride for a tiny people the world can't seem to shake off.  And surprisingly, he fails to acknowledge that until 200 years ago, the principle source of that literacy and learning was in the very moral and ethical tradition that Abraham began, passed on eventually to Moses, and brought down to us in this day.

But even here, Torah won't let us off the hook.  It's not how much Torah you know--it's how you use it.  Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariyah said so:  "He whose wisdom surpasses his deeds, to what is he compared?  To a tree whose branches are abundant, but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and uproots it and overturns it.  But he whose deeds surpass his wisdom, to what is he compared?  To a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are abundant; even if all the winds of the world come blow upon it, they cannot move it from its place."  (Pirke Avot 3.17)

The great rabbi then quotes the prophet Jeremiah, hounded in his own day for calling attention to the corruption of Judea's kingdom and priesthood:  "For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat comes, and its foliage shall be luxuriant, and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, neither shall it cease from yielding fruit."  (Jeremiah 17.8)

Yes, there are smart Jews and dumb Jews and I have to say, more often than not, I can't tell the difference when it comes to doing good deeds and living a life of righteousness.  The point is not how smart you are; nor is it to say to the world, "Ukh, leave us alone.  We want to be normal, just like you."

I cross the street every day thinking about how exceptional it is to be in a tradition that demands of me goodness, righteousness and peace.  Normal--with its fair share of deceit and laziness and violence--isn't so impressive.

In this regard, I'm with Shammai, Hillel's great foil, who said with a bit of impatience, "Say little, do much."

Let's leave it at that.

04 June 2010

Two States Now

I don't think I'm alone in saying that the role of the Jew this week was to explain himself.  That's certainly what I ended up doing alot and from the looks of everyone with a voice or a blog or an email list or a column in a newspaper or magazine, we were doing a lot of explaining.  We were explaining ourselves from the left and from the right and from the middle and from the edges to the center of exasperation.  We were explaining ourselves on every continent, in every country, in every language, to each and every generation.

The Israelis themselves have a special word for explaining--hasbarah--and even that strategic use of information has been scrutinized and criticized beyond recognition for whatever it is it may officially or unofficially be trying to convey about the Gaza Flotilla 2010.

With the Rachel Corrie heading for Gaza as of this writing, its passengers having rebuffed a joint Israeli-Irish compromise to sail the vessel to Ashdod's port for inspection, Gaza Flotilla 2010 will continue to sail along into the Turbulent Waters of Explanation.

And as I prepare for Shabbat, I have one conclusion:  the explaining doesn't help solve the problem at hand. 

Two States, the only solution which requires no explanation but talking and risk taking and negotiation, is the only reliable answer to this week's events.

Israel is the only body that has the power to say and its Prime Minister should have the courage to say:

"We get it.  We want peace.  We'll lift the blockade of Gaza now.  We'll sit at negotiations now.  We will support a Palestinian state on modified pre-1967 borders.  Let's agree to free each other from this terrible mess and work together to build a peaceful region."

They could even say, "We sailed into a trap.  You got us.  You drew us in and made us look bad.  Well done!  A victory for you!  But in declaring two states dedicated to living side by side in peace, we both acknowledge battles we've won but this is a war where we are both declared the victors.  A war that ends with two states."

The explainers will say, "But they want our eradication!  They'll never accept our right to exist!  The rockets will continue!"

And if they do, well, we know what Israel is capable of responding with.  More pain.  Which will require more explanation.

Two states needs no explanation.  It's an action that is 43 years overdue.  And if the Palestinians reject it now, let them explain themselves for a while.

I'm tired of talking.

03 June 2010

Reading Borders

(from Michal Ronen Safdie's Vapor Trails at the Andrea Meislin Gallery)

Last night at the ICP, listening to Maya Benton and Alana Newhouse talk about the Vishnaic Archive, I was struck by an obvious thought:  to read the margins back into photography is a Jewish endeavor.  Not unlike a folio of Talmud or Medieval Commentary, we need the margins to fully understand any text, whether that text is verbal, literary or an image.  That we Jews see many layered meaning not only in what is written but what is not written is a necessary axiom for navigating our way through life.   Why it struck me as I sat among those listening to Maya and Alana's presentation has to do, I suppose, with something George Mosse taught me in Madison more than twenty-five years ago:  that images tell stories, powerful ones at that; and when a broader context invades the border, it has the potential to wreak havoc, if not completely undermine, a prior meaning attached to that image.

I took a ride into the city today on my bike to check out the new Michal Ronen Safdie show at the Andrea Meislin Gallery.  I love visiting Andrea's gallery.  We always have a good chat about life and politics and kids and Israel.  And since Andrea is the premier gallery of Israeli photography in New York, visits there always give me a chance to think about George's maxim and to contemplate and interpret image.

After lunch I headed downtown to the Strand for some books.  There I saw Art Spiegelman among the buyers, looking very much like a cartoon version of himself:  deep in thought; wearing his trademark vest; and a pack of cigarettes conspicuously tucked into a vest pocket.  Our clothes are images, too, of course and I looked at myself:  Milwaukee coffee shop t-shirt; ragged khaki pants; Brooks trail shoes; bike helmet and back-pack.   I was being *that* person, particularly necessary when one has to navigate the tumultuous octane waters of Manhattan streets on two wheels.  In game mode, I was ready for anything.  So was Spiegelman, since given his pose, I certainly wasn't going to interrupt his study of texts.

Riding back home on the Brooklyn Bridge, I was nearly hit several times by tourists taking pictures.  Mind you I was riding quite safely, mindful of my assigned areas, staying within my designated borders, when, with an unnerving mindlessness, some shmoe and his digital device walked into my path, lost in the glassy, miniature *television* of his instantaneous digital delight and damn near had us both killed.  "There are borders here!" I wanted to shout, but realized I was fighting a losing battle.  The digital has won and it has successfully obliterated borders and boundaries that once held certain rules of transport between the boroughs we inhabit.  Everyone wants to create their own experience--and even preserve it with a camera--from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to the waters off the coast of Israel.

Weaving in and out of human traffic, riding defensively, "looking out for the other guy," as Dad once taught, I thought back to a conversation I had with an Israeli this week about the Flotilla.  "We are losing the PR campaign," she noted.  "If we had better PR for the past twenty years, we'd be in better shape."  I pointed out that Oslo pretty much started twenty years, a city that represents the idea that there still may be a negotiated two-state solution.  "That idea is breaking down the borders," I said. While on the Bridge I stayed in my lane.  I obeyed the law.  I didn't hurt anyone.  But had I let my anger fly toward those in my path--my rightful path--I would have wound up in jail.  That's just the way it is sometimes.

Other people want the same view we want; and sometimes, despite ourselves, we have to make accommodations.

02 June 2010

A New Narrative?

I had the chance to spend lunchtime with several New York area rabbis to hear the thoughts of J-Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami and Israeli Ami Ayalon, who has a highly decorated career of naval service to the Jewish state.

I'd summarize the conversation as an open and important opportunity for rabbis to speak on behalf of their various communities and for J-Street to articulate it's message and response to the recent events in Israel and Gaza.

J-Street's position remains that the events were a tragic error; that the blockade of Gaza is not helping the situation--that more arms have entered Gaza through tunnels in Egypt than were present before Operation Cast Lead--and the blockade should be lifted.  Therefore, with that logic, the commando raid on the flotiilla never should have occurred.

Ayalon said the action was mistake and that the error was in the Israeli Cabinet to order the raid; and that once the order came down the chain of command, the soldiers had no choice but to obey the command.  And tragedy ensued with a grave embarrassment to an elite unit of the IDF and a loss of life for those involved.  Ayalon said that he had proposed on Israeli radio that the Navy should have sent sailboats with signs calling for Gilad Shalit to be freed and sailed with the vessels directly to Gaza and demanded Shalit's release along with the delivery of humanitarian aid.  Interesting, utopian idea.  Certainly would have been less tragic.

Ayalon also said one needs to wait until Friday to see how things truly unfold.  That as the Muslim world responds following its prayers this week, we'll begin to understand what to expect from the Arab world.  In addition, as each society grows increasingly polarized, there is little room for a center to forge a strategy for peace, and this development is cause for great alarm--though to be sure, Ayalon continually emphasized the need to an opportunity for peace, even in the face of tragedy.  

The other thing that Ayalon said that I really took to heart was conveying that Obama really needs to visit Israel.  That Israelis are feeling completely abandoned at this stage and that it is upon him to assure them that as we move toward peace, it's on Obama's shoulders to visit Jerusalem and hold Israel's hand while he wrings concessions from them.

I have to admit to a feeling of powerlessness coming from Washington--a feeling of oddly orchestrated events--first a foot on Netanyahu's neck; then back-tracking with Netanyahu gloating; Wiesel's visit to the White House; the celebration of Jewish culture at the White House to show off his love for the Jewish people, which felt both genuine and manipulative; and now the debacle off the coast of Gaza, with no seeming ability to gain control over a terrible situation.

One rabbi present made a very wise remark.  He said in his observation of watching Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren speak recently, both espoused the classic Jewish narrative of us against them and this rabbi asked, "Is it possible the narrative is hurting more than it's helping?  And if so, what might a new narrative be?"

Everyone nodded their heads around the table but it remains unclear what that new narrative ought to be.  Is it any better than what the Sages came up at the time the 2nd Temple was destroyed?  And can it any longer be the narrative articulated by early Zionist thinkers from more than a century ago?  One can't exactly go out and get a new narrative!

As I left the midtown building, I could only be uplifted by the idea that at critical junctures in our history as a people, when the times demand, we create a new story to move us along life's path as the Jewish people.  The question is:  are we there?  And what will that narrative be?

Questions to contemplate as we face a frightening and challenging set of crises in the days and weeks ahead.

01 June 2010

Thoughts on Tayyip's Flotilla

To my mind, the biggest hypocrite of all in the disastrous Gaza flotilla raid is Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who said following the raid, "this bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse and called the Israeli action an attack on international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace."  Erdogan, who days earlier inked a deal on trading nuclear material with Iran, knew exactly what he was doing in sending these ships, drawing Israel into a humanitarian nightmare and provocation that would only further isolate Israel and offer a veil of protection for Erdogan's increasingly radicalized, Muslim population.

To my mind, the greatest disappointment in the disastrous Gaza flotilla raid is that Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu didn't see the trap that was set for them; or, they did see it and executed a plan that was doomed for failure anyway.  Either way, the strategic weakness exposed is bad for Israel, another source of joy for Erdogan and for Hamas.

Where do we go from here?  All the predictable groups are rallying around their predictable positions.  There is little solace in this.

Here are my concerns:

1.  The White House has very little credibility with the Israelis right now.  Despite his denials, Netanyahu really does feel like he "beat" Obama in the PR struggle and has taken away any potential advantage Obama had in reigning in Bibi.  A neutralized DC is left to make statements but fundamentally, Israel has proven yet again that it will do what it wants, particularly when recognizing that the existential threats to its existence will remain un-addressed in any substantive way by the other nations.  If Israel's strongest and oldest ally cannot convince Israel not to always behave as if every encounter is an existential one, then Israel truly will act alone in all matters.

2.  Things always get worse before they get better.  What now stands in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran?  Who stops it?  Who really has the power of persuasion in this conflict?  The fight for one's existence has no resolution until the existential threat is gone.  Hamas is not the existential threat.  It becomes, now, like Hezbollah, a conduit for the greater attacks on Israel from forces beyond Israel and Palestine.  And it comes down Israel v Iran.  Who has the power to "call off this threat?"  This is where things get very dark.

Certain people are going to think this is nuts but here goes: Israel waited too long to truly extricate itself from the territories.  The accumulated enmity toward Israel is so great, its allies in the Arab world are rapidly diminishing, and we are left with an Us v The World mindset--never good.  While waiting for the Palestinians to accept our right to exist (that we could hear their denials is proof of our existence!) more now deny our right to exist.  Where does the waiting get us, exactly?

The longer we wait for two states, the less chance we will ever have of achieving peace, and, as some have insidiously figured out, the less chance the Jewish state may have of ever existing again as we know it.

Too much is at stake to be drawn in to predictable attempts to make Israel the pariah so many want it to be.  Don't give the satisfaction.  Lead from the strength and power you earned and, when truly necessary, must sometimes kill to defend.  Tayyip (outrageous provocateur that he is) sent his flotilla to make a threat beyond the boats.  Barak and Bibi should have seen that, waited it out, and called his bluff.  Too much is at stake to make this mistake again.