31 July 2010

ADL Opposes Islamic Center--Disappointment

Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, came out in opposition to the building of the Islamic Center near Ground Zero yesterday.  I think Foxman's decision is a mistake. 

Some of the worst elements of classic American fear-mongering, represented by Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich and many others, have turned a New York City issue, where the Center has the support of the local community board and Mayor Bloomberg, into an anti-Muslim rallying cry and I believe that is morally and politically wrong.  Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams opposes it too, calling it a place where Muslims can worship their "monkey-god."

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is nearly universally regarded as a moderate leader and interfaith bridge builder with strong relationships in the Jewish and Christian communities. 

Rather than "destroy our civilization" as Gingrich argues, the Islamic Center has enormous potential to educate and help heal the horrible disaster of 9-11.

It's no surprise that certain forces of hysteria are attempting to nationalize opposition to this project for their own electoral benefit; but it's a major disappointment that a leading Jewish organization has come out on the wrong side of a debate.

You can read the somewhat conflicting press release on the ADL site and judge for yourself what you make of Abe Foxman's reasoning.

29 July 2010

Nathan Gets Up

                                                            (photo credit:  Nathan, by R. Altstein)
"Listen, I want you to know that I'd go--I mean, for what it's worth."

Nathan was talking again.

Go where?  I asked.

"Tel Aviv, Israel, I hear Bat Yam is up and coming these days.  But *there.*  The heat this summer has finally convinced me that as Frost said, ' From what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire.'

Wow, I said.  I know you get up onto the counter to see what consomptibles may be there for the picking; but the poetry shelf--that's another matter, boy.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures, dude."

Fair enough.  This was our first chance to really talk since my return from Israel last week so I was up for a chat.

"It's not about the heat.  That I can handle and frankly, when you're covered in black fur like I am and carrying a few extra pounds, I think I can stake some claim to certain resiliency that you can't even touch.  And frankly, the floors there I hear are more comfortable in the heat.  Your rugs annoy me and the hardwood isn't doing it for me anymore.  But this conversation isn't about comfort, it's about it's opposite.  I've been doing a lot of thinking and reading--especially trying to wrap my mind around much of the internal squabbling as Israel finds a way forward.  One of the conclusions I've recently reached relates to what I think we all have to admit to a certain degree is the failure of the Jewish left and liberal American Jews to truly embrace Zionism."

The dog had a thesis.  I settled in.

"For years people have been decrying Israel's rightward shift and *blaming* it in part on an influx of Right Wing Jews from the States and Russia.  Maybe.  But the way I see it, while the Right made Aliyah a real value in their Jewish communities, the Left chose the comfort of the Diaspora as more validating of their plural identities, their bourgeois values of material aspiration, and their more assimilated Jewish outlook.  Both views are valid--don't get me wrong--it's just that one concludes that the place of individual and communal Jewish realization is in the historic Land of Israel.  Here in the States you're all realizing yourself as Americans.  Kol Hakavod.  More power to you.  But then you relate to Israel from a distance--funding civil society projects; support progressive synagogues; working for a two-state solution--creating important partnerships and relationships but fundamentally remaining at a distance.  That distance seems to grow greater and greater each day.  It concerns me deeply."

Nathan--this is an old argument.  Surely if you're up and about, perusing the bookshelves, you are familiar with this tension and trope since the dawn of Zionism.

"I'll cop to that," he continued.  "I guess there are two things that gnaw at me."

He winked.

"First, I'm quite familiar with how hard it sometimes to convince people to do the most basic things--light Shabbat candles; learn to read Hebrew; give to a Jewish charity.  For generations, these expressions were the life blood of our people.  There were in our DNA, as it were.  Now, much of organized Jewish life is predicated on the thesis that any elective decision to do anything Jewish is heralded as a monumental victory for Jewish continuity.  It's a rather silly economy of scale, no?  I understand, on a certain level, why some communities move away from language and particularity of expression and plow their energy and resources into values education--since, one could argue, what you do is what you are, ultimately.  As long as you're feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and providing shelter for the homeless, who cares what language it's in?  In Israel on the other hand, you have a full immersion in a Jewish culture so that you are freed up to simply do, as a Jew.  It's a qualitatively different engagement, as you know Mr. I Like To Walk Around in Jewish Cemeteries.  The Sudanese kitchen worker in South Tel Aviv; the Filipina home health-care aids; the Bedouin; and yes, the Palestinians--are all opportunities of engaging the broader culture through the lens of Jewish values.  In America, you can dress it up in an educational program and call it "Jewish values" but we all know that concern for the plurality in American democracy is an American value, not a Jewish value.  So ikar for me is, tuchis oyfn tisch, you want to put your Jewish values into civic democratic action, you gotta move."

That's a ridiculous argument, I told him.  Generations of American Jews and American Jewish leaders have built an entire civilization on the intersection of Jewish values and American democratic values.  The contributions to the greater good is undeniable and one of the greatest success stories of an immigrant culture in the history of diaspora migrations.

"Right--and how many of these young Jews under 40 know the existence--not to mention the difference between--Ahad Ha'am and Louis Brandeis?  Jordan Farmar, Ryan Braun, Jon Stewart, Larry David, now Amare Stoudemire.  A people this doesn't make."

Ok, pal.  Ok.  But you're kind of getting off track, no?  What's really bothering you?

"Number Two on my Gnaw List.  My fervent belief that the debate about Israel isn't a debate about Israel but it's a debate about the Jews.  A Pakistani can walk into a marketplace and blow himself, killing 57 people, and the world moves on.  But any death of a Jew or a Palestinian in this conflict captures the attention and imagination of the world for days and weeks on end.  I'm okay with that--nothing new there in 3000 years of Jewish history.  My point is..."

Nathan, old man, that's not changing anytime soon and it certainly won't change simply by moving to Israel.

"Maybe.  But at least you won't to spend so much time *explaining* and you can just work on it.  Two states, one state, human rights, equal rights, water rights, religious pluralism, civil marriage, no lack of what to do.  That's a big difference, isn't it?"

It is, pal.  It is.

"So when are you going back?" he asked.

Likely December, I told him.  More teaching, more educating, more explaining.  I can't wait!

"Take me with you," he pleaded.

But Nathan, I told him, it's the rainy season in the winter and we both know what a pain you are in the rain.

"Yeah, that's a water dog for you.  Trying to deny my essentialness in my element, eh?  I see your point.  Typical American Jew.  You can take the dog out of the water..."

Down, boy.

"Aliyah means up--I'm shifting the paradigm."

Good point.

28 July 2010

Pay Emily's Bill

I'd like to think that if one day my own kids grow up to publicly express their opinions about anything related to Israel, they won't run the risk of being shot in the face by a teargas canister, causing them, God forbid, to lose their eye.  I can't think of a worse nightmare--physical harm coming to a child.  As a Jew, I can't think of a worse nightmare happening to my Jewish child, in the Jewish state, but it does happen.  And Isabel Kershner's story in today's Times about Emily Henochowicz losing her eye in a protest at the Kalandiya checkpoint the morning of the Gaza flotilla raid brings together a variety of very painful dilemmas.

What prompts me to write this post is the simple fact that a relatively small hospital bill is at dispute in a public display of internal Jewish fighting that raises to a degree the worst nightmares about how Jews can treat each other in the face of political conflict.  The Henochowicz's and their lawyer would like the Israeli government to pay the hospital bill for the surgery to repair Emily's face and triage the loss of her eye; the Israeli government argues, thus far, that she was at a protest that turned violent against the police and therefore she shouldn't be compensated.  As is often, tragically and stupidly the case, the lawsuit has spilled over into the public sphere and now the whole world gets to watch a Jewish state argue with a Jewish kid over whether or not it should pay for the loss of her eye at a protest.

No one says that Emily threw a stone at the Border Police, an act that arguably could have put her at justified risk.  And so since everyone agrees that what happened was at best a horrible accident but could likely turn out to be (after an investigation) willful and malicious misconduct (if reports are true that the Border Police fired *at* rather than *above* the crowd.)

According to the Times report, the bill totals $10,000; according to Avi Issacharoff in today's Haaretz, the bill totals 14,000 Shekels.  What's the difference?  The bill quietly paid would have been the right thing to do--if only from a PR perspective, not to mention the correct moral and ethical perspective.  The insistence of incompetent politicians to choose the wrong path in every state and nation is an endless source of trouble for all of us; here that lack of vision and courage speaks volumes.

No one is asking me--and it's too bad because I have a few good ideas.

Here is one of them.  Prime Minister Netanyahu disburses a check to the family and visits Emily Henochowicz.  He says, "If I were a father, I would have been angry about putting yourself in harm's way at these border protests which often grow violent.  This is a terrible conflict, far from over, and tragically there may be more bloodshed before we get to peace.  However, I respect your decision--as an adult--to protest and am proud that our democracy in Israel encourages such expressions.  In this situation, you were injured grievously when you shouldn't have been and I truly regret this."

I simply don't buy the arguments that this will lead to more lawsuits; or why should Israel apologize since she put herself in harm's way; or you don't understand, these protests are meant to be a provocation to an impossible security situation for young soldiers and border guards.  None of these arguments work for me.

The fact remains that if a Jewish kid who deeply identifies with Israel, goes there to study, engages in political protest and gets shot in the face and loses and eye at such a protest either accidentally or willfully, then that kid deserves compensation.  Period.

I'm a big believer that the Palestinians are not winning the PR war--Israel is losing it.  And with more boneheaded moves like this, that war could be over.

23 July 2010

Conversion Bill: New Direction

This is very welcome news from Israel.

Mr. Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who once led a Russian immigrant political party here and who will head the conversion compromise search, said by telephone that intensive contacts over the past week had created increased understanding between the sides. He added that at a time when Israel’s legitimacy was increasingly under attack the Jewish people needed unity and that the legitimacy of all strains needed to be acknowledged. 

Creating a working group of Jewish leaders from across the spectrum to meet later in the year and hammer out an acceptable framework for handling identity issues, conversion, and citizenship.  It is what Zionism is meant to be.  And it makes great sense and I am grateful for the incredibly hard work put into this effort by so many people over the last few weeks.

Here's the bit from Haaretz.

Here's David Horovitz in the JPost--a bit too much hand-wringing for me.

In 1970, speaking to a group of Reform rabbis in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem argued for a new definition of Jewishness that was beyond the halakhah.  He said, "During the last hundred years, following the full achievement of emancipation in Western world around 1860, there has set in a new historical process which has profoundly changed our self-definition as against that of the Halakhah."  He also said, "The question is whether the definitions found in sacred books are really decisive for most Jews in the determination of a personal affiliation to the Jewish group."  If you want the article, I'll send it to you.  Just write and let me know.  Incredible to think that dealing with the Chief Rabbinate has still not yielded a positive result in more than a generation.  Time to try something else, you think?

By the way, of everything written in the last couple weeks, nothing holds a candle to Alana Newhouse's piece in last week's NYT--always worth another read.

Shabbat Shalom!

22 July 2010

Gaga for the People!

At basketball camp in the mid-1970s, we used to do a defensive workout called "footfire," in which we were forced to bend our knees and balance ourselves on the balls of our feet and then quickly move our feet from right to left and left to right as if the ground beneath them was on fire.  Footfire.  The coach would move up and down the line of young kids, all aspiring ballplayers, and scream directions at us over and over again in order to hammer home the point that basketball was won on defense as much as offense and that the best defensive teams (therefore the *best* teams) could not be stopped if they had "footfire."  I ate it up and for the rest of my playing days always prided myself on the ability to play tight defense.  During summers at camp, footfire was practiced on the heat of a blacktop, temperatures always on the rise, sun beating down on our backs, a New Hampshire forest standing off in the distance.  Back at home, in the gym, footfire took on the staccato beats of muffled beating drums, our feet beat into a soft wooden floor, the grid on which games were won or lost.

The forgiving wood was the thing.  It evoked a response from one's body and while it's true that there was always something to one's "home court," it was the wood that *anywhere* that spoke to you.

It's my last day in Tel Aviv and so I started it going over to the Suzanne Dellal Center for one of Ohad Naharin's "Gaga" classes with my friend Saar Harari, who has his own dance company -- LeeSaar --with his wife Lee. Saar is a disciple of Ohad's and is bringing some of the mission of Gaga to Brooklyn, this past year using the wooden floors of the CBE Social Hall and Ballroom as rehearsal space for his company.  Walking down Rothschild Street early this morning, watching people fill up the cafes or head off to work, contorting their bodies this way and that to squeeze in and out of cars and cabs, balance on bikes or cafe stools, I thought about the wooden floors of my youth (basketball); the wooden floors of my Shul (bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings & celebrations -- Simchat Torah, hello?!  who hasn't danced on Simchat Torah? -- and an indoor playground for kids).  Then I turned my reticent attention to the wooden floors at the Batsheva Dance Company where I'd attend, for the first time in my life, a dance class.  A. Dance. Class. 

Well, Rahm Emanuel danced, I told myself.  And if the "Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself" can do it, so can I.  The irony of dancing *Gaga* (no relation to you-know-who) would not be lost on me either given the command performance my wife and kids decreed with each screening of Glee.  Dance is a language like any other and I was interested in learning a new body language in Hebrew, or so I tell myself sitting and writing this in Cafe Ginzburg on Ahad Ha'am Street.  I would be participating in a 21st century expression of Cultural Zionism.  Art, language, the body.  Ginzburg's neighbor in the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street, Max Nordau, would be proud.  The Dalal Center is on the old campus of one of the Zionist movement's early Alliance Schools, which proudly employed a pedagogy sympathetic to Nordau's "muskel-Judenthum."

For sixty solid minutes -- and sixty shekels -- I used every muscle in my body.  I imagined myself with only flesh, then only bones.  I imagined myself taking off my skin and putting it back on.  I rolled on a floor in flames and I ran around a room on a wooden floor that was glacially cold.  I leaped, heaved, lunged, banged, snapped and cracked--from the very ends of my fingers to the ends of my toes and, as the saying goes, everywhere in-between.  My two favorite exercises entailed imagining removing all weight from my back (much harder than you think) and then hammering nails into the floor followed by strenuously removing them--with my feet.  And at the end of the hour I was soaking wet with sweat and deeply satisfied.  Footfire.

Ohad Naharin divides up his Gaga methodology in two ways--Gaga for Dancers and Gaga for the People--and when Saar and I met yesterday to talk about the idea of bringing Gaga for the People to Brooklyn, he said, "Come:  It'll change your day."  I liked that he didn't say "change your life" or "change you forever" or employ that other overused term "transform you."  Just change your day, which it has.

I've been running since 1980 and that thirty year workout (better than basketball for my back, alas) remains primarily one for the legs and heart.  This was something entirely different, though equally energizing and challenging, which I kind of always knew intuitively but was basically afraid to try.  I think it would be hugely popular in Brooklyn, I really do.  Though I won't stop running, I will Gaga again.

Stay tuned.  Gaga for the People!

About Gaga

Bat7 | MySpace Video

Harel and Ellenson in Today's Israeli Press

Two interesting pieces in the Israeli press today about the Rotem conversion bill.

One by Haaretz columnist Israel Harel, where he boldly makes the following point (which on a certain level, I agree with:
"The Reform and Conservative movements want to obtain official status in Israel, alongside Orthodoxy. I support this. It is this desire that is the true reason for their outcry. But even if the High Court grants their wish, their status will remain unchanged. There are fewer than 100 congregations in Israel that describe themselves as Reform or Conservative, and most are small; compare that to thousands of active and growing Orthodox congregations. Only spiritual influence, not High Court rulings, can fill their ranks - and influence legislation."
I happen to believe that the Supreme Court *and* a grass roots progressive Jewish spiritual movement should be working together, but on the essential point that success on the ground will win the day is, I believe, true.  Read the full post here.

Over at the Jerusalem Post, HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, has a thoughtful piece, where he argues that both the arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah and praying with the Women of the Wall, as well as the Rotem Bill, fly in the face of both the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the critical relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities:
"For Jews in both the Diaspora and in Israel who are committed to Israel as both a democratic and a Jewish state, these episodes call into question whether the state itself actually possesses those commitments. The impediments and restrictions placed before non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism by the Israeli government are matters of serious concern because they reveal that the State employs coercion and imposes a limited range of acceptable practices on Jews who have diverse conceptions of Jewish religious authenticity.

This struggle for Jewish religious freedom is a principled fight for justice that expects the state to be impartial in defining authentic religious Judaism. It is high time that the legitimacy and authority of different branches of religious Judaism be affirmed in Israel. This will surely enhance and strengthen the commitment significant numbers of American Jews feel towards the Jewish state."
 Read Rabbi Ellenson's full post here.

There is much to think about and talk about here. 

21 July 2010

May It Be for the Good!

Historical context and literacy are everything for the continuation of Jewish life.  It's just another way of saying what the Sages figured out long, long ago:  Talmud Torah K'Neged Kulam--that the Study of Torah is Equal to All the Mitzvot.  What we do is what we know and what we know is what we do.


This has been true in conversations at the airport and online to buy a slice of pizza; it was true at the car rental place and true when I bought a couple cold beers late that other night on Shenkin Street.  It was true at my favorite sacred books store in Jerusalem and it was true at dinner with the Bronfman Youth Fellows on Shabbat.  It was true at the Arab-Jewish Cultural Center on Tisha B'Av where I watched my friend Sigal teach a class to Arab and Jewish dancers and it was true talking to some kids watching actors rehearse for a movie about a local soccer team in Gan Meir. 

How we walk and how we talk as Jews says everything about what we know or don't know about who we are.  And the effort we invest in that reality will determine the success or failure of our people to survive into another generation.  While this sounds like a platitude, it happens to be true.

We know the richness and wealth and depth of what we have inherited from the Jewish past; the question we always ought to be asking ourselves is:  have we contributed anything as worthy?

The older I get the more I realize the incredible strength and commitment required to build this state; the more admiring I am of a generation that had the ability to imagine certain utopias amidst dislocation.  I think the singularity of their accomplishment, the necessary focus they exercised, and what they wrought, ought still to be admired, despite the troubles and dilemmas that Israel currently faces.

So boycotts will come and go; American Jews will bring pressure to bear from the Diaspora to Jerusalem; and the result that will come will be a reflection of what we know and what we do.

May it be for the good!

20 July 2010

The Shadow Ghost

I'm fairly certain it was a ghost that knocked me on my ass in Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv yesterday.

I had gone there to spend the middle part of the day, in the blazing heat and some precious moments of shade to compare experiences I often have when visiting places like Boston or Philadelphia (or living in New York) and visiting the graves of the Founders of America.  Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv, is the eternal home of many of the city's Founders, as well as some key figures of early Zionism like Max Nordau, Ahad Ha'am and H.N. Bialik.  The city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff is there, along with Saul Tchernikovksy, the painter Nahum Gutman, and the Yemenite singer Shoshana Demari.  It's a tranquil, beautiful place, set among some of the older houses and apartments of the earliest parts of the city--a mere 100 years old.  Appropriate to the culture of Tel Aviv, the dead are democratically arrayed and one sees, in the epitaphs carved in stone and marble, a colorful diversity of individual and aesthetic expression that speaks to Tel Aviv's generally creative nature.

Constitutionally, I'm a valorizer of the past.  Always have been.  In broad historical strokes, I'm one who generally believes that certain things about life were "better" before and one of those things is a sense of history and a singular commitment to reaching a goal.  Having recently started watching the HBO John Adams series with my kids, visiting colonial cemeteries on class trips, and comparing that experience to the unsophisticated and ludicrous rhetoric one sees coming out of American political movements today, I generally like to imagine that if the Framers and Founders could arise today and consider the inane expressions of political life in the United States today, that knock some heads together and teach many of these folks a lesson or two.

Well, I have the same generally perspective when it comes to those who built the state here.  What they created out of whole cloth, the massive migrations, the building of cities and infrastructures, the undeniably great odds they faced--I tremble to imagine I'd be capable of such achievement.  Feeling humbled and fortunate to be walking among their graves, I started taking pictures to enjoy later, in the cool comfort of my friends' apartment.  Walking from Bialik to Nordau from Shenkin to Dizengoff from Gutman to Kishon I was cognizant of trying to channel each while also owning the experience, commodifying the memory into a presentable, digestible, teachable series of stories and pictures.  Leaning into one such grave, that of one Leon Hazkel from New-York ( I loved the font, the dash, the simple presentation of the name on the stone ) I readied my camera and suddenly fell.  Having just run that morning, I thought on the way down, "I'm in good shape, I can slow this disaster" and so seemed to resist the backward tumble.  But something kept pushing at me, and as I seemed to do a gravity-defying feat of back-breaking heroism, I eventually gave way, twisting my knee, banging a rib or two, cutting a finger, all with the camera in my hand.
I lay in the white dust for a few moments, coming to my senses.  Had I hit my head?  (No.)  Was I bleeding?  (Not really.)  Were those ribs or an organ?  (Ribs.)  I looked around in case I needed help, which I didn't, and then slowly came to my senses.  I thought of malaria and riots; of whole families picking up and starting a city; of an ancient language being re-invented; of economies built; of a nation made.  As I slowly rose, I imagined a shadow standing over me, kindly mocking my pretentious aesthetic.
The shadow of history knocked me on my ass.  Ephemeral and immaterial--both of us.  So I jumped up, grabbed my camera, and took its picture before it got away.

On the day before Tisha B'Av, a day commemorating the ancient destruction of Jerusalem, we Jews mourn not only past historical destructions but our own propensity to devour ourselves with hatred, with anger, with unchained egotism, with self-service.  Even the accumulation of memory and history runs the risk of turning abstract ideas into objects of idolatrous worship.  Land, people, faith, God, and yes, pictures of things marking the dead.

"Well, look at it this way," my friend said later in the day.  "At least you didn't fall into a hole in the ground."

Not yet.  The shadow ghost knew what he was doing.

On the ground, son.  Now pick yourself up, dust yourself off.  Go build something.  And let the dead rest.

19 July 2010

"Fuss, Noisiness and Panic"

The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv is a place that comes alive early in the morning.  While the rest of the neighborhood is waking up, the market is a tumult of preparation.  Fruits, vegetables, olives, fish, breads, cheeses, eggs, candies, clothes, household goods, appliances, electronics rendered into orderly display among a variety of accented Hebrew, Arabic and Russian that represents one of the miraculous realities of contemporary Israel.  At the end of the market, a city parking lot and collection of buses gear themselves up for the day's work as well, opposite the road from Dolphinarium beach, site of one of the worst terrorist attacks a bit more than nine years ago.

Today the beach was alive with runners and bikers and walkers and those on any number of morning workouts and like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, representative of the variety of ages that take the maintenance of their heart and the rest of their bodies with enough seriousness to get up and out early enough to start their day right.  It's a conversational bunch.  Lots of folks run in pairs, bike in pairs, workout on the machines in pairs--yet another example, if you will of the strengthened social fabric of an intimate society.

An example of a tear in the fabric of this intimate society is that ferkakte conversion bill making its way through the Knesset this week, a bill that will delegitimize non-orthodox Jews in Israel a whole new ways.  This bill is a red herring for deeper divisions in the society and is not really what it says it's about.  Similar to certain revolting expressions of extreme political elements in the United States that we are seeing directed at President Obama, the conversion bill in Israel is actually a political bomb meant to assert the power and hegemony of the religiously extreme orthodox elements of Israeli life.  The bill is about who gets to determine the future direction of the nation into the next generation--quite similar to the Tea Party movement "taking back" the country.

Nonsense.  This bill is about a broad assertion of power and in this case, it's a rebellion of the Haredi parties against an already agreed up on system of conversion which--surprise, surprise--had declared that they could not or would not be the sole arbiters of *who is a Jew*.  This is well-worn path in Israeli life--whenever there are serious and substantive movements toward a peace agreement, another element of society throws the Jewish identity bomb into the middle of a crowded negotiation table, creating a painful and ultimately unresolvable distraction from the bigger issue at hand--peace and security for everyone who lives here.  THAT'S what this is about.

Besides running through the market and along the beach today, I circumnavigated along Balfour Street and Ahad Ha'am, ending there at Cafe Ginsburg for a cup of coffee post-run.  Lord Balfour, the First Earl of Balfour, was responsible for the eponymous declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in British Mandate Palestine in 1917. 
The declaration was the culmination of diplomatic work carried out by Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow and Lord Rothschild on behalf of the Zionist project in Palestine.  The goal, through the Mandate, was to allow for greater Jewish immigration that would provide enough Jews to ultimately create the state.  A generation earlier, formal political Zionism had been conceived by Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha'am--Asher Ginsburg (hence the name of the cafe).  Ahad Ha'am was one of Zionism's early internal critics--about both the early Zionist's treatment of the indigenous Arab population as well as the pitfalls of Jewish self-rule, foreseeing the challenges that in many ways we now face.  Unlike Herzl, who was focused on the creation of the political state and had very little use for the Hebrew language, Ahad Ha'am was deeply concerned with the literary Jewish character of the future state and felt deeply that it must emanate its own uniquely new Jewish sensibility, built on the past but very much a center for the Diaspora, creating a modern Hebrew language, art and literary expression that could and would ultimately strengthen those living outside the Land of Israel.
Of the challenges related to internal and external strife, Ahad Ha'am famously said that "the society that I envision, if my dream is not just a false notion, this society will have to begin to create itself in the midst of fuss, noisiness and panic, and will have to face the prospects of both internal and external war."  Indeed.

Fuss, noisiness and panic.  None of which were evident on the faces of the Israelis getting the market ready this morning or those minding their bodies in order to stay in good health for the internal and external struggles of their lives in the country that lie ahead.  Oh, how I yearn to see the Prime Minister throw the Haredi parties out of his government once and for all, disallowing their disproportionate control over the singular interpretations of Torah and Judaism that they represent; to enter into a coalition of those willing to give free and open voice to the many-faceted expression of Jewishness and Israeli-ness that is the miracle of contemporary Israel; and get on with the business of letting people live lives as "a free people in our land."

18 July 2010

A Run I'll Never Stop Running

 I'm not going to lie.
I love this city more than any other.
Milwaukee raised me, nurtured me, gave me a base of existence.
Madison, is where I was began asking questions and constructing a narrative.
But while in Jerusalem, twenty-five years ago, I started to formulate the perspectives that would make me the man I am today.

This is a kind of axiomatic statement that is inescapably true for me.
Having spent last week in Milwaukee and Madison with a ten hour stopover in New York before heading to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I have had some time to reflect on home and place; origin and destination.

No place is perfect--that's axiomatic, too.  Growing up in Wisconsin, there was always something missing, some unnameable sense of total belonging.  In Jerusalem, there is always the matter that Hebrew is my second language and that national service is what separates my full identification with Israelis.  In New York, the rooted unrootedness of my existence, the sense of exile or *something's-missing-ness* of it all has its own sense of home or place but it's a narrative of always making oneself that ironically, leads me to a feeling of loneliness in New York as well.  My kids, born in New York, are more New Yorkers than me.  One of those weird ironies in the City of Immigrants that so many of us know to be true.

Scratch not thy head.  When I walk in the door to my home in Brooklyn, I am home.  My wife, my children, even my dog (that warm and well-meaning furshtunkiner beast!) create a sense of love and permanence that evokes every possible definition of home.  But that would be true anywhere.  What I'm trying to get it as the way in which Jerusalem is in my bones more than any other place in the world.  I'm just stating the facts.  Moving on.

I rose early this morning and took a run--from Old Katamon where I was staying for Shabbat and around the city, down into the Valley of Hinnom, up Mount Zion, past Jaffa Gate and around the corner down toward Damascus Gate.  This was my only run in Jerusalem on this trip so I was going to make it worthwhile.  Diesel, gasoline, cigarette smoke; fresh burekas, rugelach, and that sweet air from the Judean Hills.  If you don't know what I'm talking about or can't remember, then it's time for a visit.

Jerusalem mornings are overflowing with possibility.    The rising sun--not yet an affliction of heat and unmitigated intimidation--evokes promise.  I saw small kindnesses; wishes of a good morning from one to another, and a generally cooperative industriousness that proves, as usual, that the reason why things are such a damn mess is because the leaders of each nation can't bring the people to peace.   These runs I take when I visit--from the Jewish part of town to the Palestinian part of town--are done for three basic reasons:  One, exercise is good for the body and heart.  Two, seeing this city on foot is the only way to love it.  And three, one should always be reminded that Jerusalem is a shared city, loved by and sacred to many, and therefore worthy of shared devotion.

How is it that the most peaceful place in the world can be the source of such bitter conflict?  You think that's a naive question?  If it's so easily answered, then how come...ah, forget it.

In 1964, my grandparents came here on their only trip to Israel.  They got near Mount Zion, as close as they could get at the time, and got a little certificate for their efforts that I hang on my eastern wall in my prayer corner at home in Brooklyn.  Today, I ran up to Jaffa Gate and around to Damascus Gate, down the stairs and briefly inside the walls of the Old City, touching a spot on each side of the gate as one might, say, kiss a mezuzah to be reminded of the obligation to observe God's words written inside.

To love the Source of Life with all your heart, all your soul, all your might.  Just like we all love this city.  A prayer I'll never stop praying.  A hope I'll never stop hoping.  A run I'll never stop running.  Because it's good for the body and good for the heart.

14 July 2010

Green-Wood's Bid for Canarsie in Tablet

Over at Tablet Dina Mann put together a concise synopsis of the ideas in play with regard to Green-Wood Cemetery's bid to get the rights to the Canarsie Cemetery.

The original framing came from Josh Nathan-Kazis' story over at the Forward.

It's a very important story in the community and despite the difficulty of engaging with matters of death, there is much value in it.  The reality is, Jewish law does allow for the burial of non-Jews in a Jewish cemetery who did not practice another faith; there are reputable Jewish legal authorities who ruled in favor.  But the bulk of the tradition has opposed it, mostly on the grounds of keeping people in the fold.  My view is that decisions like this do little to ensure Jewish continuity and in fact inflict more harm and alienation than we need.

Thanks to Dina and Josh for keeping this story on the radar screen.

12 July 2010

Rabbi Avi Weiss--NY Magazine

 Abigail Pogrebin's article in New York Magazine is a must read.  She covers Rabbi Avi Weiss and his decision to confer rabbinic ordination on Sara Hurwitz, a bold and controversial step for American Orthodoxy.

Congratulations to Abigail for a really great read.

10 July 2010

The Past and the Power to Save

The room where I work is usually referred to as the Rabbi's Study.  I keep alot of books there, along with desk, a phone and computer.  There is a cactus collection, some photographs of personal and historical purpose, and some couches and chairs for meetings and conversations.  We also store alot of stuff there.  Alt-shul, an indie minyan that meets at CBE, keeps their prayerbooks on some shelves in the Rabbi's Study and they use a portion of my closet for storing tallises and compostable cutlery.  Where my desk now sits, next to a window, used to be a closet.  Where the closet now is used to be an old air transformer that ran conditioned air from the Rabbi's Study to the Board Room, or more accurately, from the Women's Auxiliary to the Men's Club.

Now we're talking.

"One of the most active groups within Congregation Beth Elohim is the Sisterhood, officially known as the Women's Auxiliary.  Any Jewish woman is eligible for membership in this organization which has proved to be the backbone of the religious, charitable and social activities of the Temple.  The work of the auxiliary is divided into four divisions:  religious, philanthropic, social and educational -- with more than eighteen committees functioning under these divisions."

Four divisions.  Eighteen committees.  Function!  The notion that one would build a synagogue center and divide in such ways--the Men's Club and the Women's Auxiliary--is a remnant of the past to which we will never return.  The role of women in society today is obviously radically different from 80 years ago when the Temple House was built, a transforming social, political and economic movement that is yet to be fulfilled.  In the corporate world and in the Jewish world, women continue to make great advances but the institutional sexism unquestionably remains.  As women made those great advances in the workplace, however, a number of Jewish institutions did continue to grow, adapt and thrive--National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the National Women's Philanthropy wing of UJA, to name a few--but sadly, none of those organizations have continued to grow or thrive in our community.

I haven't yet fully figured out why this is so for both the Men's Club and the Women's Auxiliary.  Part of it no doubt has to do with the general changing face of American Jewry and the steady decline of particularity and identification with Jewish philanthropic efforts as opposed to more general philanthropic efforts (Prospect Park, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Public Schools, the Brooklyn Museum, the list goes on and on.)  Another part of it has to do, I'd guess, with what we seem to know to be true--that big old buildings generally require constant care and attention and as one looks back over the past 80 years of the Temple House, things were constantly being done to shore up, support, and fix both our Main Sanctuary and Temple House.  If we could ever get ourselves out from under the burden of the buildings, we may be able to focus our efforts on broader philanthropic goals as well.  Third, one would have to point to a radical shift in how and why people affiliate with synagogues or Jewish communities in general.  In part, we are a life-cycle business.  Brises and namings; bar and bat mitzvahs; weddings and funerals.  There is a kind of fee-for-service mentality that obfuscates a general sense of belonging, commitment to community, and obligation of service.  We have something--sanctioned Jewishness--that the *customer wants*.  And they pay for it.  It is a distinctively consumerist form of American capitalist transactional spirituality, and I find it odd.  Part of this mentality is what drives all the obsessive need over the past fifteen years or so to *market* Judaism to a younger generation.  It speaks to where our current culture is; but it's a dangerous place to be headed.

But besides the life-cycle business model, there is the more hopeful reality that precisely because of our continually increasingly digital atomization and total media and marketing saturation, we crave community, rituals of meaning, rooted learning and service that can link us to a narrative structure with more heft than a clickable icon or pop-up window.  And, to complicate things further, we are in the mission oriented work of educating and re-educating all the time (it's time to reclaim that term from the Maoists, after all).  Jews who know little marry non-Jews who know little but each want their future children to be Jewish, whatever that means.  It's an enormous task but an unbelievable opportunity to reframe the mission of who we are and what we do and how we may articulate a vision forward for what an 21st century synagogue ought to be.

Ought to be.   That language of obligation was essential to the Women's Auxiliary and their philanthropic efforts.  That language of obligation was essential to the Men's Club, just across the Lobby. 

Let's begin the re-framing with this principle.  As Jews, we know an essential truth:  the lessons of the past have the power to save.

09 July 2010

Follow Their Lead

Today we call this room the Board Room, though the Board of CBE hasn't met there in more than five years.  Back then, when the Temple House was opened in 1929, it was called--as you can see in the picture above--the Men's Club.  It's a rather august looking room, and from what the description says above, a place where things really happened--as long as one was over 21.

The language of this document is filled with the hope, promise and certitude of the early 20th century.  One might even say it represents a kind of "can-do" spirit that clearly permeated much of the organizational structure of American Jewish life nearly 100 years ago.  There was a generational shift taking place, an age of true Americanization, and the sense of thrill and excitement and pride that came from the endeavor of affiliation was truly inspiring.  Jonathan Sarna famously referred to this time period as one of a "great awakening" (read his essay here) and in the last ten years much has been made of the current generation's desire to see Jewish life re-invented again and some of the initiatives were begun in part because of the inspiration of Sarna's essay. 

But the purposes of my including this picture today have to do with a sentence that I skimmed over last time I read this pamphlet but which really shot out at me today, particularly because these days, increasingly, I am cognizant of our community's enormous physical infrastructure needs at precisely the same time that there is great economic dislocation, domestically and internationally, and a vast range of competing needs for precious resources.  Of course, that's not entirely different from the time period in which the Temple House was dedicated--1929--and as we know from our archives, those leaders simply ran out of money for a time when the market crashed and did what they could to finish the work.  One of the things we discovered is that they deeded more than 180 cemetery plots to a family in exchange for a loan to finish the work on the building; and today, more than 80 years later, we are trying to recover those plots because due to rapid rates of assimilation, the family who owned them never buried there dead in our old Jewish cemetery.  While earlier Reform rejected resurrection of the dead, we may find that doctrine  can help support our building efforts.

But in any case, the lines that intrigued me greatly was the following:  "Each of the War Loan Drives was sponsored by special committees of the Men's Club.  In the 6th War Loan Drive the Men's Club obtained subscriptions in excess of $665,000 in bonds.  Gift packages for the men and women of Beth Elohim in the Armed Services are sent by the Men's Club from time to time, with a special gift in celebration of Hanukah."

The sense of purpose and sacrifice and pride of place--the CBE Men's Club contribution to the War Effort was the sale of $665,000 in bonds--is an amazing achievement.  It represents, for me, the perfect combination of particular Jewish devotion and universal patriotic expression that quite frankly too few liberal Jews practice.  Rather than be clouded by what for an earlier generation was a very dangerous and ambivalent time, our predecessors forged ahead with a vision and commitment that stands the test of time.  At the opening of the brochure, the writer argues that for his generation -- "Even those Jews who by no means seek to escape their origin and destiny are confused and troubled" -- and this is a sentiment that is true for our age as well.  Those who created the spaces where we now sit were at one time greatly troubled.  But they found their way toward the future by a sense of brotherhood and generosity that, to this day, remains a promising light for our own future.

Not a bad lead to follow.

Who Says to Wood

For Jeremiah to work for you, you need a personal and historical sense of consciousness.
It's a tall order but it's worth it.

First, you have to be prepared--to stand to be accused.  That's alot of infinitives, I know.  But let's face it--Hashem is alot of Infinity all wrapped up into history and personal development. 
"Thus saith the Eternal:  What unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me, that they are gone far from Me, and have walked after things of nought, and are become nought?  Neither did they say, 'Where is the Eternal that brought us up out of the land of Egypt; that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought and the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through and where no man dwelt?"  (Jeremiah 2.5-6)
There great danger for American Jewry is that we're all personal development and no history.  Which is to say that when we create religious and spiritual communities that are all about personal growth and development, about mindfulness and wellness, you can't really be in a relationship with a God who can accuse you of doing anything, right or wrong.  Jeremiah's God in the haftarot leading up to Tisha B'Av is a God of accusation; a God of searing moral perspective; a God who intrudes upon one's willed ignorance and demands historical consciousness, a relationship with a particular narrative, and the covenantal agreement to take personal responsibility for one's life and one's society. 

To read him now--particularly with Israel in historic crisis and with our nation torn among its leaders over which *America* we actually are yet to be--is to be reduced to the elemental tears of previously hidden but now exposed, inescapable truth:
As the thief is ashamed when he is found, so is the house of Israel ashamed; they, their kings, their princes, and their priests and their prophets; who says to wood, 'you are my father?'  and to a stone, 'you have brought us forth.'  For they have turned their back on Me and not their face; but in the time of their trouble they will say, 'Arise, and save us.'  (Jeremiah 2.26-27)
And here the Sages, in their wisdom, skip to words in the following chapter of Jeremiah, concluding in the Ashkenazi tradition, "Did you not just now cry to Me 'my father,' you are the friend of my youth." (Jeremiah 3.4)

One of the things that keeps me up at night is the deep fear that this narrative may one day disappear not only because it will no longer be read; but it will not be heard, it will not be felt, it will lose its ability to have impact, to draw blood.

Pedagogically, in the Jewish community today, there are two fundamental group education experiences that create hearing, and feeling, and bonds of blood:  Camps and Israel.  The synagogue, when it can convene around real life events--brises, namings, bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals--and infuse them enough depth of narrative to keep people reading and seeking and hearing and telling, then we stand a chance to pass on those narratives to another generation.  But when the events of the life cycle become privatized moments of personal ritual expression, one can imagine--devastatingly so--the great jeremiads of our existence falling on deaf ears.

Who says to wood you are my father?
Did you not just cry out to Me, 'my father!'

Which is it for you?

08 July 2010


When the repairs are finally made on the Main Sanctuary at CBE, there ought to be a way to keep the space open during the day and let people know that anyone is welcome to sit in the pews, meditate, pray and relax.  Ordinarily synagogues are not configured as contemplative spaces but it would be nice if they were.  Security is of course historically a concern; but then, hire a shtarker.  A shtarker can always knock a few heads together if anyone gets out of line.

Today, while walking around the city in the heat, I wondered into the old St. Patrick's Cathedral, as I often do, for a dose of august city history.  The sacred space was welcoming and in its height, the ceiling above me lifted my own thoughts upward.  I was instantly relaxed.  Another occasional prayer entered as well and did their thing--which was either quiet meditation in the pews; lighting of a votive candle of some kind; or visiting pictures of saints arrayed around the room.

I focused on the way the place smelled--old, musty, hospitable, and "church-like," which to my primitive nose likely means some kind of incense.  Big fans blew hot air 'round the room.  I was really shvitzing (or perspiring, if you prefer) but very much enjoying an inner dialogue with God about my own spiritual reflections--mostly having to do with the iconography of Catholicism in comparison to the imageless words and letters of the Torah tradition that were appearing in my mind like what I imagine Sinai may have appeared as for those who were there.  The dialogue with the Jewish God in the Church felt very real so I put on my kippah, figuring I had not really breached any kind of etiquette, after all, my baseball cap was off.  At precisely the moment that I was marveling at the anonymity of being a rabbi relaxing in an old Catholic cathedral, my blackberry buzzed and I had an email from a congregant asking about some morning blessings from the Jewish prayerbook that we once spoke about a bit more than a year ago.  She wanted to be reminded of them and so there I sat, in the subdued light of St. Patrick's, quoting from memory to fingertip the Sages' words we're commanded to say when we rise in the morning--those duties "without measure" the very actionable weight of which equals the sublime act of studying Torah.

I thought of war and difference; I thought of peace and unity.  And I was grateful for being given the opportunity to be a praying Jew in another's home for prayer. 

I hope to one day return the favor.

07 July 2010

Story Told, Profits Plowed

I'm reading Howard Bryant's new biography of Henry Aaron, The Last Hero:  A Life of Henry Aaron.  He opens in an ice cream shop in contemporary New York City where the true home run king is promotionally present to sign autographs and Bryant plays up the contrast between the *persona* Hank Aaron with the man, Henry Aaron.  It's a great pretense to start an exploration of an heroic sports figure who represents an era of athleticism that we will likely never again return to and is particularly disturbing yet illustrative to read in the wake of Lebron James perverse mirror dance leading up to his decidedly selfish and unheroic announcement of who exactly will set him on the path of billionaire-dom tomorrow night and onward.  By the way, when the book opens, the author notes that Aaron's appearance fee at the autograph show will be paid to the Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, a house of worship Aaron has attended for more than 40 years.

I admit, as a loyal transplant to Brooklyn, I secretly harbored the hope that this young man would follow friendship and partner with Jay Z to bring the NBA to the borough that last had a champion in 1955, when the Dodgers won the World Series.  Henry Aaron was a young man in 1948 when Jackie Robinson, then signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and playing exhibition games throughout the south.  Aaron encountered Jackie in Mobile, Alabama and there, despite Robinson's message that athletes stay in school and get an education, Aaron concluded, at the age of 14, "School wasn't going to teach me to play second base like Jackie Robinson."  As Bryant points out, when Robinson and Aaron met in Mobile, Robinson was a college graduate, a veteran, *and* and professional ballplayer.  But by the time Robinson retired from baseball in 1957, Henry Aaron was 22, owner of a batting title, and as Robinson made very clear to those who would listen, "the game" had already changed.

I get that "the game" (and in fact all games) will never be the same from whenever it is that *we* stop playing them.  But I'll also admit that the Lebron spectacle of these last few weeks have been a bit much.  I mean, the man has yet to win anything.  Except adoration, fleeting as that may be.

I have Warren Spahn's autograph from the 1957 Milwaukee Braves that won the World Series; a ticket stub from that year courtesy of my mom; and somewhere, an autographed Aaron ball from his twilight performance with the Brewers in the mid-1970s.

The Braves that arrived in New York in 1957 to play the Yankees for the title had a young Henry Aaron who had hit .322 (second to Stan Musial) with a league leading 132 RBIs and 44 home runs.  He was a major player.  A batting title runner up to Musial; home-run and RBI champ; a World Series ring; and *not* the highest paid player on the team (an issue of race to be sure) who moments after winning the title would lose a child at birth and stoically brave the turbulent waters of personal and professional life moving forward for the rest of his career.

If the present or the future is a young man who opted out of his education in order to be a billionaire--who has yet to win a championship as a teammate--and the past is a man with a story to tell, I'll read the story every time. 

It's a story more than a generation old and its profits are plowed into a southern church by a man who made great sacrifice for the sake of winning along with others.

06 July 2010

Divine Magnetic Lands

When Joshua takes upon himself--with incredible bravery--the unenviable task of having to lead the children of Israel into the land of Canaan, a mantle of leadership he inherited from Moses, he makes certain choices that leave clues for our own generation about choices we might make in leading our own generation of Jews to a path of promise and blessing.

First there are the rocks.  There is a circle of twelve of them, set up on the earth just after they passed over the Jordan River, whose symbolism, it's quite clear in the text, needs to be reinterpreted for a generation that is unsure of their meaning.  The generation crossing over seem to have a vague notion about the importance of the rocks; maybe the number twelve resonates for them as well; but nonetheless, there is a power of revitalization which is inherent in the spontaneous ritual of setting up the twelve stones on the earth, newly arrived at, just beyond the parted waters of the Jordan River (clearly reminiscent of the redemptive walled water of the Red Sea) that releases their ability to re-tell their story anew. 

What struck me was not so much that the leaders of that generation knew enough to tell an old story but that they did so with the full awareness that future generations *might not know* and so they saw it as their obligation to leave the story as a legacy.  The stones came *from the Jordan* and were carried over, to a new land; but Joshua set up twelve more stones *in the midst of the Jordan* signifying that the place of passage as well as the testimony to the passage are both hallowed ground.

We Jews remember at precisely the same moment that we sanctify, a particular narrative characteristic that is one of the singularly unique manifestations of our peoplehood.  Or, as the kids like to say today:  We're so Meta.
And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, did Joshua set up in Gilgal.  And he spoke unto the children of Israel, saying, 'When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying:  What mean these stones?  then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land.  For the Eternal your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Eternal your God did to the Red Sea, which God dried up from before us until we were passed over that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Eternal, that it is mighty; that ye may fear/love/be in awe of the Eternal your God for ever.  (Joshua 4.21-24)
The narrative of rescue is bound to the narrative of a prior rescue, which is bound to a narrative of obligation.  Meaning:  Jordan is the Red Sea and the stones are the tablets of the commandments.  Or, finally, nothing is without purpose.  Covenantal purpose.

I look at our world in the light of this story; I consider the synagogue I lead in the light of this story and I ask myself the simple question:  Why do we do what we do?  What narrative tool or structure do we employ to justify our existence?  Is it the ethnic continuity of our people?  Nah.  Is it the values and ideals of Reform Judaism?  Yes, but not exclusively.  Is it the unique perpetuation of Beth Elohim-ism for all future generations?  Close, but no cigar! 

It's to believe we have a sacred story to tell--rooted in the oneness of our God and the uniqueness of our people to bring blessing and goodness to the world based on our understanding of our relationship with the God of Israel.  The words we use and the deeds we employ to make those words a reality.

Hey--my uniqueness doesn't obviate yours.  We each have our own to claim.  Here's another son of Brooklyn (Whitman) in a different time:
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble.
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
Our promise as Jews.  Our promise as Americans.  To always create unity and purpose, united in love and friendship.  Setting up stones to remind us of the past; setting up stones so the past can teach us; and allowing our teaching to bring more justice, peace, love and awe to our world.

05 July 2010

The Heat of the Lonely Muddle

Yesterday was very hot.
Today it's much hotter.
And it looks like much of the week will unfold in this way.
I searched the weather maps this morning for signs of rain and wind.  Not yet.
So the heat is inescapable.

In the Tahanun prayers for forgiveness that one recites most days, Psalm 6 is a favorite:

"Eternal do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.  Have mercy on me Eternal, for I languish; heal me Eternal for my bones shake with terror.  My whole being is stricken with terror, while Eternal--oh, how long!  Turn!  Rescue me!  Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.  For there is no praise for You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?"

Most liberal Jews I know and encounter just can't get with this program.  They reject a relationship with a God who is at times angry at our behavior.  They say it's ancient, outmoded, primitive.  If that's all it is, then sure, I agree.  But anger is just one expression on the range of emotions that we ascribe to our relationship with *that which is beyond us*.  And as an expression it can be a very useful tool at times to imagine that our own behavior has merited anger.  Not abuse, mind you; but anger.  When  it's misused, it's a dangerous weapon.  But strategically rendered, it can be a great motivator for changing one's behavior. 

The ritual with Tahanun is to supplicate onself.  To sit humbly, to lean one's forehead into one's arm, to minimize one's ego in the face something greater.  This is an exceedingly useful tool--especially in our age--where the *I* of ego reigns supreme.  As a religious leader, I always feel it's vitally important to remain focused on who and what I serve rather than my own needs and desires.  And this prayer reminds me continually, daily, that I often fall short in that aspiration.  How frustrating!  How humiliating!  I can't believe I can't just get it together once and for all!

"Eternal--oh, how long!  Turn!  Rescue me!  Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness."

I know the point isn't that this heat *kills me* but that I turn and find some shade.  And in the shade, some light:  "For there is no praise for You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?"

To gain life, one needs to imagine that at any given moment one can lose life.  And what the writer of this Psalm seems to say is that when the loss of life is attributed to behavior for which we ourselves are responsible, the need and desire to change one's behavior is all the more critical.

Let's say you're crossing the street and you almost get hit by a car.  You see your life flash before your eyes.  You even pledge--in that moment of imagined death--to change your ways.  How many really do?  Don't most eventually revert to their more familiar patterns of living, moving along the path, muddling through?  How many, however, see the hand of God in having their life *restored*?  Probably very few.  I'll admit that I too would see a chance encounter with death as exactly that--a chance encounter.  I refuse to believe in a God who plays with our lives in that way.

And yet.

And yet, deep in the recesses of my stubborn mind; in the darkness of my troubled soul, my conscience speaks to God about all my choices, all the ways I live up to and fail to live up to my highest ideals and aspirations.  No chance encounters there.  Only the lonely muddle.  The incessant pull out of the muck of our failings and into the life we were meant to live.  We know where we succeed; and we know where we fail.  It's here where God meets us.

The writer of this Psalm ends with the words, "The Eternal hears my plea, the Eternal accepts my prayer.  My enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated." 

We have control over our lot.  It's hard work to get there.  But even after the greatest heat, we know that cool winds and restoring rain will come.

04 July 2010

Jewish Independence

Independence Day celebrations where I grew up usually began on July 3, which is when the City of Milwaukee traditionally holds its fireworks party.  The City launches the 4th of July with a pretty good show and as kids, we'd pile into cars with our cousins and head down to the lakefront early enough to get a good seat.  I have vague but very happy memories of those times--classic kids' stuff.  And in a small city like Milwaukee, there was always a great sense of civic pride in the whole affair.  Last night's show, for instance, is on the cover of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this morning.  (photo credit, Rick Wood.)
It was a kind of Jewish gesture, in a way, though certainly unintentional, that the show was Erev Independence Day, which allowed for the local communities to have their own celebrations the next night, actually on the 4th, and so it was for us in suburban Bayside, a bit further up the North Shore from downtown.  There, as in all the surrounding suburbs, our own local fire department lit up the skies with a collection of fireworks that seemed like the confiscated stash they had saved up from busting kids all year long.  Besides our own little collection of inflammable material, there wasn't much to the way we did the 4th, given that the big family event took place the night before.  So they're happy memories but, like fireworks, over in a flash.

The last ten years or so I've taken to read from Declaration of Independence at some point during the day (as fine a document of American history as we have) and listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong, who some folks don't realize, chose July 4th as his birthday (though after his death, baptismal records demonstrated an August 4 birth date--no matter:  in America we are who we say we are.)

But what got me thinking about independence on Independence Day was a beautiful picture of my daughters at summer camp--taken on their way to the first Shabbat celebration of the summer.
They're at Camp Ramah, which is a Conservative movement camp; and since more than a few congregants and neighborhood people have asked why we don't send our kids to a Reform movement camp since I'm a rabbi ordained in the Reform movement, I thought this would be a good chance to explain.  There are three reasons.

1.  Pluralism.  More than being a Reform rabbi or Reform Jew--titles I actually don't strongly identify with--we're committed pluralists.  Among our Jewish friends and professional colleagues are people across the denominational spectrum of Jewish life, American and Israeli, and I am a firm believer that there is more wisdom and variety in all the movements than one could possibly find in one specific movement.  We want our children to live inside of an embrace of the multiple forms of Jewish expression that make ours a rich and deeply meaningful Jewish life--and the place where that takes place most authentically, in my estimation, is in pluralistic settings.  I have seen this most significantly in my professional life first at Hillel on campus; then with founding Brooklyn Jews; and most recently with my work as a faculty member of the Bronfman Youth Fellows in Israel--the latter a collection of 26 high school juniors from all denominations who are taught by Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.  The synergies are immeasurably powerful and BYFI, in some regards, represents an ideal Jewish community of multiplicity and tolerance.  Back closer to home at Shul, I'd have to say, the more I learn about the vast number of families that affiliate, fewer and fewer do so for ideological reasons related to movement and more so for a sense of connection and community.  It makes our hosting of Alt-shul, a traditional, egalitarian minyan, a natural fit and one that elevates spiritual and ritual expression in a beautiful way.

2.  More is more.  The basic principle here is that given the decided secular nature of our neighborhood and the overwhelmingly minimal levels of Jewish practice represented by most members of our CBE community, having the girls spend 4 weeks at a Conservative movement camp where there is more Hebrew, more ritual, more Torah learning, more prayer, and a stronger connection to Israel is an important learning experience for them to have.  A child should have a love for Judaism as well as be encouraged to flourish in an environment where they can see that the Judaism they practice can always get deeper and deeper.  Bare minimum requirements in any discipline don't really *demand* anything from us and since two of Judaism's most compelling ideas--chosenness and commandedness--are still hanging around after 3000 years, I very like the idea of immersing my kids in an educational environment that privileges each of those expressions with pride.

3.   Add, don't subtract.  Like a lot of American Jews born after the mid-twentieth century mark, in choosing to be Jewish it's important to figure out if you want to add or subtract.  I've met people who grew up in oppressive Jewish environments that they want to escape from; others who had little and want more; and still others who have successfully recreated almost the same Jewish value structure with which they were raised.  I grew up knowing that Golda Meir was my grandma's babysitter; that my great-grandfather, Chaim Siegel, was president of the Mizrachi Orthodox Zionist movement in Milwaukee; and I have memories of bouncing between the two shuls that my grandparents were connected to--one Reform, one Conservative--while my family belonged to neither.   I've written before that the two great moments that spurred my own foray into Jewish service were fear of nuclear annihilation in the early 1980s and my father's death, when I couldn't read the Aramaic Kaddish.  These were all vague associations until I consciously decided to find teachers, educate myself, and I've never looked back.  (Well, that's not exactly true, but that's another matter altogether.)

My parents had four kids and I'm the only one who practices Judaism regularly.  I have decided to add.  And the way that I add is by always being cognizant of being part of a greater whole than the particular borders and boundaries of a particular community.  And I want my kids to have that perspective as well.  Never to feel *oppressed* by their Jewishnesss but in fact to feel that they can always know more, do more, understand more; and, that each exploration into the whole of Jewish life and civilization is an opportunity to open new vistas of possibility for becoming fuller people.

Secular or religious; Yiddish or Hebrew or Ladino or Farsi; politically radical or full-blown frum--the goal is to celebrate and love it all and encourage those we raise to find their own place in it.

A celebration of one's Jewish Independence, as it were.

03 July 2010

Berlin on Shabbat

We sang Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" to close the service last night, one of my favorite Shabbatot of the year.  

I love it because it's usually a very mellow Shabbat--many people are out of town and those who show up do so with a kind of pride and sincerity of being the "only ones in town" that adds both a gravity and sense of celebration to the moment.  I also love it because on long holiday weekends that complicate our understanding of what it means to be both Jewish and American, we have an opportunity to meld the two ideas together--our Jewishness and our patriotism, which, through Irving Berlin, reaches a kind legitimization since he wrote proudly from such Jewish place.

He wrote the song in 1918 while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, and in the wikipedia article on the song, the music critic Jody Rosen is credited with noting that a "1906 Jewish dialect novelty song, 'When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band', contains a six-note fragment that is 'instantly recognizable as the opening strains of "God Bless America"'. He interprets this as an example of Berlin's 'habit of interpolating bits of half-remembered songs into his own numbers.'  Berlin, born Israel Baline, had himself written several Jewish-themed novelty tunes.

I also love closing with it because nearly every Friday evening at CBE are two members who served our country with distinction in the Second World War and they always express deep appreciation for a patriotic number to close out our service.

My dad, who also served in the Second World War and would be 86 this coming week, didn't have much to say about my Jewish education, I'll admit.  His loyalties to our people were tenuous and he tended to find their greatest realization, like many of his generation, through popular culture.  At the time he died in 1983, I was on a path to service--though in politics, not religion--and so each Fourth of July I wonder about his wonder and whether it would be amused, confused or proud.  He could speak in all those languages when we had our father-son moments; and so it's with a nod to his more amused side that each year on the Shabbat of Independence Day Weekend or Thanksgiving, we add a little Irving Berlin to Shabbos joy.

02 July 2010

I'm With Those Who Cry

I know that I am meant to be disturbed.  To a degree, it's biological; or if not that, then *inherent* in who I am.  I bear the middle name Norman, given to me, likely before I was born, by my mother--in memory of her murdered father, who was killed in 1939.  I sometimes imagine, lying awake at night, that my middle name is like a car speeding toward me on a dark highway, its headlights and engine bearing down on my soul, taking me, possessing me against my will.  And sometimes, when dawn comes, first light and birds' song outside my window, the name is a legacy of a soulful, gentle man.  One whose own life was never fulfilled and therefore finds compassionate realization in a grandson he never knew.  Either way, by my name alone, I'm chosen.

I read Adam Kirsch's article in Tablet today about the new liberal theology collection that was recently published and I'm ambivalent about getting my hands on it.  I'm ambivalent about anyone beyond the early 20th century suggesting what one might think about Judaism.  I still haven't fully integrated what the earlier Sages have to say what thing's for sure:  this is an ambivalent generation.  More than any other, it suffers from two problems:  One, it takes *literalism* way too literally.  And two, it's practically given up on Peoplehood. 

I don't know any other way to say this:  Help!

Here's Adam Kirsch's closing paragraph:
In his afterword, Cosgrove expresses a certain degree of surprise at the book he has produced. He notes that certain subjects that might be expected to feature in contemporary Jewish theology—“the Enlightenment, Shoah, or establishment of the State of Israel”—go practically unmentioned here. But that is because these writers do not see it as part of their task even to touch on subjects like providence and theodicy. The existence of evil can present a theological problem only if you believe that God has the power to restrain or permit evil, and the God we see in these pages has no such power. It follows that this God would be extremely hard to pray to in times of need. A useful sequel to Jewish Theology in Our Time, in fact, would be accounts from these rabbis of how their theology works in a pastoral setting. When comforting a mourner, as when organizing a protest, it is probably much easier to be able to say, “God will rule for all eternity”—which doesn’t, of course, make it true.
 I say *help* because what liberal theology as liberal theology unleashes is the logical extreme of the unhinging of our connection to chosenness, the narrative promise that God exists and that God cares about our lives, and therefore that the Jewish people *matter*.  The logical extreme is unfathomably bleak.  It's to imagine that we no longer exist.

Thank God for the prophet Jeremiah.  Chosen by the Sages to open the first of the Haftarot of Warning, read in the 3 weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av, the Fast Day commemorating the Destruction of the First and Second Temples.  He arrives like a superhero, just in time to save not only this Shabbat but also to shake loose the bonds of our own autonomous chains, reminding us as he does that we born into narratives begun long before we were ever conceived. 
Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you.  I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.  I replied, "Ah, Eternal God!  I don't know how to speak, for I am still a boy.  And the Eternal said to me, "Do not say 'I am still a boy' but go wherever I send you and speak whatever I command you.  Have no fear of them, for I am with you to deliver you," declares the Eternal.
Fast Days, Temples--who needs 'em in the days of Twitter and Facebook and Multiple Identities.  I know, I know, I get it.  We're who we want to be; who we say we are. 

No:  Jeremiah says otherwise.  "Israel is holy to the Eternal.  The first fruits of His harvest."  Chosen without even knowing it--can you imagine?  A whole generation out there, hesitant to take it on; reticent about owning a legacy that others were given--also against their will--but whose faith, in only enduring, gave us our future.

Everyone's freaking out about Israel these days.  I know--it's horrible stuff.  From all sides.  And what's the answer?  I'm not sure.  So I turned to the only source I know these days who continually gives me comfort and guidance--Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, of blessed memory, killed by the Nazis but whose writings we have because he preserved them in milkcans beneath the earth of the Warsaw Ghetto.   In one of his collections--Bnai Machshava Tovah, translated as "Conscious Community," Shapira writes about those who merit membership in his holy society:
You must truly feel the distress we described above because of the terrible chasm between yourself and God.  This is not an intellectual sort of knowing; everyone, unless they are drunk or insane, knows we are far from holiness.  However, the members of our society feel such a pervasive sadness that we worry about our spiritual affairs no less than we worry about our financial affairs, God help us.  We are occasionally moved to tears because of our spiritual concerns and our overwhelming sense of unworthiness.
 I'm with those who cry.