31 August 2010

Knocked in the Teeth

21 Elul 5770

All month I've been trying to figure out what will be the right day to get to the mikveh before the New Year begins.  Since some time in the winter, I had set my heart on the idea of using some time there, before the onset of the New Year, to move symbolically through water in order to start or re-start past failed efforts at working on this or that aspect of my deeply flawed nature.

The only pluralistic mikveh in New York City is on the Upper West Side--not exactly a trek, but nonetheless, at this nutty time of year, an effort to get to.  At some point in the future, I'd like to see a mikveh here at Shul.  Brooklyn needs an egalitarian mikveh, open to ritual immersion and conversions officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis.  In the meantime, we head uptown, pay a fee, and make Jews.  Our own neighborhood ritual bath would help re-ignite interest in this beautiful ritual, as Aliza Kline and Anita Diamant have done so admirably in Boston at Mayyim Hayyim. 

In either case, these thoughts were coursing through my mind as I sat in the dentist's chair today, getting my teeth cleaned.  You know there's a phrase about "getting your clock cleaned" which generally means getting slugged in the head, knocked out.  It's apt--and as a phrase, is sometimes used when one "deserves" it.  Same with the teeth.  What a metaphor for residual sin, that dreaded plaque.  An archaeological record of a year's worth of indulgences that we enter into partnership with others in order to excavate.  As the dental assistant and later the dentist hovered over me, robed and protected from my own sin like the High Priest, they worked assiduously to remove the accumulation of my consumption in order, for another year, to get a fresh start.

The teeth.  They're really odd and on a certain level, disgusting appendages.  They play a very important role, no doubt.  Where would we be without them?  But have you ever sat in a chair, under the bright florescence of a dentist's office, held the mirror to your own mouth and examined your teeth and only your teeth?  They're like some primitive remnant of our early evolutionary adaptation that stand the test of time of humanity's march through life.  What we eat and how we eat it and the effect it has on our own development is nothing less than one of the most elemental records of the human enterprise on earth.  And for most of us, the mouth and its teeth are the gateway through which our efforts to sustain ourselves, pass.

Past indulgences hide there.  The scraping and poking and hammering away are all necessary actions which sometime uncover mildly innocent scrapes with the law; sometimes, greater problems, most the result of abuse or neglect, are revealed.  In either case, we pay not only with money but blood.  It's disgusting on a certain level but true.

My dentist is an observant Jew.  I shared with him this thought as he poked and passed me through the gates for another year.  I reflected to him that "years" in Hebrew are שנים shanim and "teeth" in Hebrew are שנים shee-naim, spelled similarly, though etymologically unrelated.  Nonetheless, approaching that throne in Elul is something I will now regularly do. 

And now, it's off to the mikveh.

30 August 2010

A Pitch That's a Hit

20 Elul 5770

Milwaukee swept Pittsburgh over the weekend, a fairly common occurrence for the competition between these two industrial towns, each seeking, in their own way, to reinvent themselves for a post-industrial age.  It's sentimental when teams like that face each other--it conjures images of past glory, making each season an exercise in nostalgia, if not an actual attempt to win anything significant.  Ryan Braun, claimed as one of Major League Baseball's hard-hitting Jews by Jews like me (but not really by himself) went 4-4, including a home run and a couple RBIs.  He's finally back at .300.  What a player!

Milwaukee, in fact, is in a kind of see-saw arrangement with Houston, battling for respect in third and fourth place in the National League Central, each hoping to end the year at .500.  Not the playoff run dreamed of when players report to camp in February; but not a total loss, either.  Baseball fans shrug the win some/lose some shrug like morning exercises--a calisthenic of ritualized realism.  So be it.

Battling for respect in third or fourth place is not unlike raising money for the typical Reform synagogue.  You love the place you love your God but you're well aware that the people with the most means consider you a third or fourth place priority at best.  There are exceptions to every rule.  A couple years ago, the Brewers picked up CC Sabathia late in the season and made the first round of the playoffs.  Wonderful and generous expressions do make it the surface, for sure.  But for the most part, the pattern in the middle of the pack has stuck and it's a structural problem that I think about a lot.

The class liberal Jew of means does not generally consider giving to his or her synagogue to be a major philanthropic priority.  Museums, hospitals, universities, schools, arts organizations and any number of other civic expressions generally take precedence over where one prays, or studies, or bar/bat mitzvahs their kid, or shows up once or twice a year to see old friends, hear a sermon, and get a Jewish inoculation against the year.  Synagogues struggle financially.  Not because they're enormously expensive to run but because they're generally balanced on the backs of the middle class in the congregation--those who pay dues and fees--as well as those who use the services that truly matter--child-care.  This, combined with once or twice a year appeals to the community keep us afloat; but it's not quite the roaring chorus, the ticker-tape parade after winning the World Series.  It's afloat.

Why is that?

The main reason is that there is very little mitzvah as mitzvah in the culture of giving to liberal synagogue.  The religious and theological ambivalence of the last several generations of American Jews has enabled a kind of law of physics to take hold wherein the call to the greater good exceeds Jewishness and defines Jews as Americans.  Studies indicate that American Jews are disproportionately more generous than other Americans--except when it comes to their synagogues.  The great exception to this rule, generally speaking, is in the Orthodox community, where giving is an obligation--a mitzvah--in the true sense of the word and one's public persona is positively sanctioned by one's specifically Jewish generosity.

Liberal Jews, on the other hand, are caught in a Catch-22:  Because of generally low giving, budgets are balanced by a raise in dues; and "paying" to join a synagogue is considered a "turn-off" even though the dues simply keep the place afloat.

So the innovative younger generations over the past 40 years have attempted to crack that nut by disaggregating the shul from the Shul.  The Chavurah Movement forty years ago or the Indie Minyan movement today, eschew infrastructure and the responsibility for it by convening with little to no overhead, meaningful engagement, and a strong, genuine sense of community that is self-run and, essentially, free.  Nice model. 

It begs the question:  Is the liberal synagogue a defunct model?  Can it truly sustain itself as a synagogue or does it pretend it's a synagogue while actually serving as a community center, offering a variety of non-religious, communal, social services that the community of Jews and their families who use them, actually want?  Can the liberal synagogue *demand* obligation or is the liberal synagogue *obligated* to respond to demand?

What if CBE totally redefined itself and made Membership Dues purely voluntary.  Like WNYC or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  What if its public posture said, "We invite your prideful connection to Jewish life in Brooklyn--give what you can to help us!"  And then we ran ourselves like an efficient, not-for-profit Center for Jewish Life--offering childcare, after-school, Hebrew education, bar and bat mitzvah training, life-cycle services; but also yoga and health classes; AA meetings and bereavement groups; arts and literary celebrations?  How would you pay for it--with a combination of free-will offerings, fees-for-service, and an aggressive and professionally run development strategy that ensures our financial solvency, invests in our infrastructure, and endows a program fund for future generations to enjoy.**  Ambitious?  Yes.  But so is God's demand that we serve as a Light and a Blessing Unto the Nations.

Each Friday and Saturday would operate as it already does--brimming with Jewish life and expression from a range of worship (ahem) *styles* but we'd admit what we know to be true--that the vast majority of people who identify as Jews in this neck of the woods don't put God or Faith first.  I don't like it one bit, but I have to be honest, I'm tired of mourning it.  It is what it is.  It's Jews I want!  It's my one particular brand of Asher Ginzburgian American Zionism.  A People without a Land (Shul/Center) is no People.

I'm biased but I think this idea's a winner.  Like the Brewers over the past couple seasons, we've had some solid hitting and solid fielding--it's the pitching that has left much to be desired.  So pretend it's the End of the Season and you had to rebuild in order to win the the Big One.  You get new pitching, right?  It always wins games, deep into October.

CBE:  The Center for Jewish Life in Park Slope Brooklyn.  It's fast, strong, and right down the middle.  People will give to that.  They want to march in that parade.

Ironically, it's a hit. 

But Irony is hip.  I read that in a study somewhere.

(**thanks Janice!)

29 August 2010


19 Elul 5770
 One would think that the federally subsidized rail connection between the capital of New York State--Albany--and the largest, most powerful city in the state and in the country--New York City--would be a rail line of modern efficiency, showcasing New York's powerful commitment as a state to Green Technology, Transportation Policy, and Civic Engagement.

One could think that; but one would be wrong.

After spending a perfectly lovely morning being driven north toward Albany to perform a wedding, having a warm and engaging conversation with my hosts in the comfort of their car; and enjoying the splendid view of a chuppah set up on the bank of the Mohawk River in as scenic a delight as one could imagine for a celebration, I was hurtled, unwittingly into the belly of beast of Amtrak.  What a come down!

Five minutes after the train's scheduled departure from Schenectady, there was an announcement over the PA system that we were facing a "minor delay" and the scheduled 2 pm train to New York City would not depart until 2.45 pm.  I took my leave of the platform, bounded down the decaying and decrepit staircase, and took in a Sunday afternoon walk in Schenectady.  The people were exceedingly friendly and the downtown area near the train station seems to be undergoing a kind of gentrified revival.  I grabbed a coffee and strolled around, looking at through the windows of various places celebrating Schenectady and Thomas Edison as the American birthplace of electricity and television (a particularly timely celebration, given the impending Emmy Awards on television Sunday night.)  The homeless and mentally ill wandered freely on the quiet streets, reminding me of the local familiarity of certain figures in Madison.  The larger metropolitan areas tend to absorb into anonymity the nation's homeless; the smaller cities become a larger, more familiar stage for us to face our failings as a society.

The 45 minute train delay eventually became 75 minute delay and not too long after the train arrived, we pulled into another station, only to sit for another 30 minutes while the train was manually separated into two with an engine attachment executed so that our section could be dragged down the Hudson River into Penn Station.  What a sad, grim journey it was!

It goes without saying that people sat on the train mindlessly blabbing into their cellphones or numbing themselves into oblivion with their iPods.  I mean, on a certain level, who can blame them?  Anything to ignore the near meltdown of civic responsibility and regional pride, right?  I have to say, on more than one occasion, I was nearly convinced that it was not an engine that was shlepping us along the tracks to the "greatest city in the world" but a pack of neglected mules, spawned in a field outside Albany like some of that stuff which passes as legislation these days.

What neglect!

If there's a race against the clock until we reach the proverbial tipping point of total and utter abandon of core societal values like how you move citizens between the two most important cities in the state, decay appears to be outpacing renewal.  And that's just not good.  With the exception of Mayor Bloomberg, I don't think there's yet to emerge a state-wide leader with the voice and principles to attempt to clean up the mess that is New York.  The Assembly and Senate have virtually failed; the Governor's Mansion is a national joke; and it remains to be seen what an elected Governor Andrew Cuomo will accomplish.  New York's most powerful House member, Charles Rangel, is caught up in an embarrassing scandal and his leading opponent, Adam Clayton Powell IV, doesn't quite inspire competence.

As a religious leader, I'm hardly one to counsel "escape into faith."  Who would listen, anyway?

My train eventually churned me, like compacted trash, into the bowels of Penn Station.  The disorganized disembarking from our train was final proof that no one was in charge.  Construction on the 2/3 and 1/9 lines presented us with the usual Sunday disruptions and the ear-splitting distortion of the train announcements and passenger anesthetization dazed me--was this the "Taking of Pelham One Two Three" all over again?

The Edison Museum was closed; the trains were falling apart.  Earlier in the day on the drive up, however, the rest stops were packed with cars and customers, enjoying Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts--even Burger King at 9 am.  Ah, that rugged individualism of America!  So much for me; so little for you.  On the 2 train back to Brooklyn, I gave my pocket change to a young man who asked.   Others looked away.  By 7.45 pm on a Sunday night, charity had taken a seat.

Walking into the apartment at the end of a terrible journey, the television was on and the Emmys were about to begin.  "The first television demonstration was at a theater, right here in Schenectady," I heard in my head.  It was a voice from the platform of the Amtrak Station, returning to me.  While waiting, earlier in the day, a mom took some time to share some history of their hometown with the kids, who were packed and headed for the city.

What was that?

"History repeats itself as farce?"

27 August 2010


17 Elul 5770

I want an MG convertible.
I want a simple Harley Davidson motorcycle.
I'd like a house with a big back yard and I want to be a better gardener.
I'd also like a house on a lake in Northern Wisconsin.
And an apartment in Jerusalem.

That's about the extent of my material aspirations.  The sum total of forty-seven years of dreaming about the things that I want.  Two are about mobility.  The other three are about domesticity.  The thought of each brings me enormous comfort and satisfaction; though, not being a wealthy man, there is disappointment, too.  So it is as I face the mirage of my own fantasies. Will I ever get them?  How will I feel if I won't?  And in Elul, I am forced to realize that these are really rather shallow questions, no?

I can't begin to imagine how Moses must have felt, born into fate as he was, tasked with the nearly impossible--first, to be a national liberator, and then to successfully execute the responsibilities required of him to lead his people across a desert, to create an entire national, social, religious infrastructure upon which a people would grow, develop and thrive (against every conceivable effort of elimination) for more than three thousand years--as he stood before the people at the age of one hundred and twenty and prepared to die without ever entering into the Land of Israel.  There is no record of Moses and Zipporah sitting around and talking about their domestic dreams; there is also no record of Moses and his buddies heading off to a local saloon to bullshit over a beer about what they really want. 

Moses' particular genius is found in the simplicity of his message.  He had a way of distilling his experiences of God into an essence that was, as they say on Madison Avenue, "long-lasting!" 

One night in Madison--let's call it twenty-five years ago--I took a long walk after an evening of studying some sacred texts in the library at Hillel.  I finished the walk along Langdon Street, a part of town known for its fraternities and sororities:  some of Madison's best real estate and worst behavior.  At the bottom of Langdon it was closing time and boozed up Badgers started pouring out of the unironically named "KK," the Kollege Klub, loudly professing some nonsense or another, having one last cigarette of the night, slurring along in preppy delight. 

I was the only one among them who saw the owl.  Perched, like a Monarch of the Night, on a fence post outside the bar, an owl who was not so much lost but sent as a message, stared into my eyes for the briefest of eternities, before heading heavenward.  I was speechless, appropriately so.   Couples paired off around me, stumbling home in happy oblivion.  More power to 'em, I guess.  During those years, that experience was one of those affirmations of critical choices that we make at that age--pledges to ourselves for what we decide our lives will stand for.  I passed a few MG's on that walk that night, cognizant of where my feet would land.

I would not see an owl again for twenty-two years, until three summers ago in Jerusalem, on a Friday evening, when my daughter called me over in her direction to point it out, high above on a branch in a cypress tree, set against the magnificent sky.  Its white, feathery mass like a thick explanation point on an acquired wisdom from long ago.  Isn't it something?  To live long enough to experience the occurrence of two events, separated by a quarter century, and have them speak to or complement one another?   In his one hundred and twenty years, that must have happened quite a bit to Moses.  Lucky fellow, right?  Blessed.  Preparing to die, Moses says to the people in Deuteronomy 26.1-16:
"And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the Eternal thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it, and dwell therein; that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the Eternal thy God giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place which the Eternal thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. And thou shalt come unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: 'I profess this day unto the Eternal thy God, that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore unto our fathers to give us.' And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Eternal thy God. And thou shalt speak and say before the Eternal thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Eternal the God of our fathers, and the Eternal heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Eternal brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 
And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, Eternal, hast given me.' And thou shalt set it down before the Eternal thy God, and worship before the Eternal thy God. And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the Eternal thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee.  When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithe of thine increase in the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be satisfied.   Then thou shalt say before the Eternal thy God: 'I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them.  I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I put away thereof, being unclean, nor given thereof for the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the Eternal my God, I have done according to all that Thou hast commanded me.  Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.'
 The idea that in going into the land, Moses encodes for the people that they are to ritually reminded of their own wandering roots is the most powerful expression I can think of for remaining forever humble in the midst of material possession.  The ritual of remembrance upon possession is about the roots of not possessing, and of never forgetting the least fortunate among us:  the stranger, the orphan, the widow.

Voices of insanity and bigotry violent vie for control in our land and as we prepare, especially in this season, to examine our hearts and souls, we would do well to remind ourselves and others that in fact, as Moses taught long ago, none of us come from anywhere except where we just were, as wanderers and strangers, sometimes even orphaned and widowed, all alone.  The confidence of possession and material satisfaction is nothing but an illusion--a desert mirage. 

26 August 2010

Falling Forward

16 Elul 5770

It's important to watch the sun come up once in a while to remember that it's really us falling down.  After all, as the physicists and philosophers long ago discovered, it's the Earth rotating on an axis around the Sun; it's not the other way around; or, in simple terms, it's not about us.

Though we stage it that way.  Like rising early, making coffee, taking a chair to ocean's edge, for instance; settling in for the big show.

I went to the movies recently and besides wondering if I'd leave with bed bugs, I was disturbed to discover, upon taking my seat, the rather violent backward rock to the stadium seating it was suggested that I enjoy in order to take in the assault of advertising and service reminders to shut my cellphone so that others around me could enjoy the show.  In this case the show was a rather poorly conceived Hollywood rendition of what a cranky old guy thinks about before he dies but by the time the first scene appeared on the screen I had already been so saturated with so much selling of things I didn't want and other movies I'd never see that I felt I must have been in the wrong place.  I looked around the theater to see if others were as pushed back in their chairs as I was, propelled as it were, by the sheer force of utter vacuousness that I was subjected to.  It was the Union Square Regal Something-or-Other and in the reverse propulsion, my mind alighted upon the three backward steps of the Amidah that one is asked to do in a choreographed act of humbling before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be God.  I mean, there's regal and there's Regal.

One of my three children really feels life's pain.  She wears it well, having developed at an early age the poet's ability to grab hold of it and struggle, with great strength of character, to make sense of it all.  When she was very young and started walking, she actually walked backward before she walked forward, a source of pure joy to us.  It was so naturally funny.  The appearance of concentration on her face, the rallying cry called out to all relevant body parts in order to employ a disciplined army of individual expression marching as one (albeit backward) being into the world.  I like to think that she discovered a fundamental truth about life as she learned to walk, which is that perception and reality are two different things.  Behind a serious face is much joy; above the din of laughter is great pain.  And so forth.

Lights go down in a movie theater and then there are bursts of brilliance, images and sounds of human production fill the room.  And we, backward leaning, take it in, marveling at our achievements.  I find it ironic, when you really think about it, that in order to celebrate what we've done, we have to lean back.  As if we need perspective on our making.  But what of the idea that in our making is a distancing from a greater truth--that the more we think we master this or that we are actually further alienating ourselves from certain irreducible realities like falling forward into life and death, into rising suns and setting suns, rising moons and setting moons, waves and tides that mark time, blowing past as, as we move past them, into age and once in a while, if we're lucky, wisdom?

I took a chair out to the beach; tried to remain motionless with a cup of coffee in my hands; and took a spot on the edge of my seat, propelled forward by the sense of responsibility for a world gone mad of its own making.  Much that's actually wrong with the world can be bought, after being advertised, of course, while we are being blown back in time, to a kind of idyll of devolution, before we could walk and talk, and we babbled and gurgled in senseless ignorance.  Nothing is for sale here, I said to no one in particular; and as I looked north and south on the beach, could see others, leaning forward into the blinding, brilliant, rising sun.

Elul will end quickly now that the month is more than half-way over.  Like that moment when the sun itself breaks the horizon and day truly dawns, time has shifted irrevocably toward a new year.  Amidst the noise and the hatred of the other that lurks among us in our land, let this be a year of humbling, of only questions when we do not know, and the recognition that, though frightening and even painful, the fall forward is as unavoidable as it is preferable, to the insistence that our backward steps are progress.

25 August 2010


15 Elul 5770

I was speaking to my mom the other day and she was telling me about watching David Letterman and Brian Williams talk on Letterman's show the other night.  My mom, 77, is a loyal fan of "Dave," which she always watched with a deep Midwestern pride and an appreciation for his particular brand of humor.  She and my dad were this way about Johnny Carson, too, and I'm sure I'm like many people of my generation who grew up sneaking downstairs late at night, unable to sleep, and sat on the couch contemplating what it is that adults talk about.  So when we touch base, she often tells me what's on her mind vis a vis what's on Dave's mind.

My mom grew up during the later years of the Depression; married my dad who also grew up in that era and since he was older than she, served in the Second World War.  As the country evolved, so did they.  She began as "an Eisenhower Republican" my dad used to tease; but moved onto to Adlai Stevenson by 1956 and the JFK in 1960.  She's been a proud Democrat ever since.  That included getting herself involved in local and national political issues; community organizing; combating racism and discrimination where she saw it; and teaching us to do the same.  As a result she has a perspective on what's right and wrong with the world, imbued with a lifetime of hard work, sacrifice and common sense.  Lately, with her fight against lung cancer, she's used the experience to reflect openly on how medicine has changed for better and worse.  On one hand she marvels at her oncologist's genius and the advance of medicines that have saved her life and kept her in the game.  On the other hand, there are times when the insurance industry/hospital matrix have driven her nuts with bureaucracy and insensitivity.  She lets me know about it.

The other night when I called and she told me about the Milwaukee Gilda's Club plans to shut down it's operations, she was incredulous.  And moved seamlessly to a metaphoric monologue about what's wrong with our culture--the inexorable force to meet the immediate needs of people's desires; the rampant materialism; the mixed up priorities; and the really truly nutty racism that is now unleashed, mostly with regard to evil that's been unleashed with opposition to the Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan.  Pastor Terry Jones, for instance, is just the latest in a series of uniquely American expressions of religious fundamentalism and racism.  How far a fall is it from book burnings to the kind of detention centers that were established for Japanese Americans during the Second World War?  Muslim cab drivers being stabbed in the neck for being Muslim--how far a fall is it from neck slashings to lynchings? 

"I usually expect Dave and Brian to joke around," Mom said the other day.  "But last night they got quite serious.  I really don't know what the hell is going on." 

My mom got us up early in the morning to watch the moon-walk; we sat together in front of the television to see RFK and MLK's funerals; we ordered POW and MIA bracelets for soldiers during the Vietnam War and wore them until they either came home or we received the news of their tragic death.  In February of 2008, she stood in line in the snow to vote for Hillary in the Wisconsin primary before changing her mind ("I saw all those young people with Obama buttons and thought, 'Why not give them a chance?'") and pulling the lever for Barack Obama. 

"It's too much for one person," she said the other night. 

Progress is an elusive idea.  Disparities have grown between rich and poor but we have an African American President; some pastor is burning Korans in one state and gay marriage is being declared a constitutional right in another.  A cab driver is stabbed for being Muslim; an independent Jewish Mayor of America's largest city has used his bully pulpit to promote religious tolerance and a thriving faith in our nation's imperfect but vibrant democracy.

Too much for one person, indeed.  We need more hands on deck in the year ahead.  Serious winds blow among us.  We need all the help we can get.

24 August 2010


14 Elul 5770
The establishment of the State of Israel is a contemporary example of God's intervention to an undeserving generation.  Although previous generations of Jewish leadership were spiritually exalted, why did Hashem see fit to bestow the State of Israel to our generation, in an age of religious and moral midgets, as it were?  The reason is that earlier generations did not need a State of Israel for their Judaism to survive.  Ezekiel was able to experience God in exile, in a concentration camp in Babylonia.  In contrast, without a State of Israel today the Jewish people would be lost in a tidal wave of assimilation.  Hashem approaches man on Yom Kippur because, in a real sense, He has no choice.  He is compelled to forgive His people:  "Peace, peace to him that is distant and that is near, says Hashem...and I will heal him."  (Isaiah 57.19)--from Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe.
One of the most challenging of theological constructs but one which, in a complicated and deeply conflicted way, I believe with all my heart.  I read this essay of Soloveitchik's each year at this time and this year, I sat still afterward and thought of all the ways that Israelis and the Israeli experience have influenced countless Diaspora Jews to actually remain Jewish, an explicit goal of early Zionism, which understood that not only anti-Semitism but the process of assimilation was an existential threat to the Jewish people at the close of the 19th century.  Early Zionist thought was about saving the Jews in their national and historic homeland, to be sure; but it was from the dual external threats of both violence and acceptance, depending upon the specific set of circumstances under which Jews were living at any given time.  And while it's true that I don't see God's hand *specifically* in the establishment of the state, I do understand as miraculous not only its existence but its revived language, its diverse and multicultural population, and its place among the nations as a source of good (obviously made all the more complicated when, as a nation, it behaves *badly*, as of course, all nations do from time to time.)

Soloveitchik makes me come to terms with the way in which historical forces have the tidal sweep of the Divine, the Source of Life, embedded in their very nature.   We humans make history and history in turn makes us--it's an age old debate, considered by countless philosophers and religious leaders over the ages.  Here Soloveitchik cleverly teaches that repentance cannot be complete without our role in understanding our inherently sinful ways but that for that understanding to be realized, we need Hashem, here understood as the What Is, What Was and What Will Be, to be compelled to act, meet us, forgive us, and heal us.  A humbling so overwhelmingly powerful as to absorb us into the very process that brought us forth into the world.

Soloveitchik reminds us that this why, on Yom Kippur, the service leader fully prostrates himself before God, in front of Ark, on behalf of himself, his family and his community--one has to physically change one's condition in order to fully subjugate oneself to a higher will.  The Great Aleynu is the quintessential moment of re-starting one's place from the ground up.

The first time I traveled to Israel in 1985, I walked for what felt like two straight days.  Jerusalem overwhelmed me and I couldn't stop walking.  Despite the enveloping July heat that year, I walked for miles and miles, taking in what I could at every place I could.  And then I got sick for a week.  Dehydrated, disoriented, I had to be hospitalized for a day until some fluids could be pumped back into me and my brain could re-orient itself to a new reality.  My doctors at Hadassah Hospital were amused by my bright eyed optimism and as I came to, we bantered about Milwaukee and Jerusalem, Europe and America, and all the lives lived and lost to create a nation.  One of the residents was a bit older than me but his dad was my dad's age and we compared notes about what our fathers were doing in the 1940s.  I told him stories about my dad's exploits in Madison, his service in the Second World War, and his time back in Madison on the GI Bill, graduating in 1948.  His dad lived an equally romantic youth, while also creating a state.  Each young man, in their twenties at the time, had very little choice in the matter of what they did--they were swept up in the process of making and being made, never too sure when they were doing the pushing themselves or being pulled along.

But without a doubt, one young man fought for his country in order for a Jew to be an American; and another young man fought for his country in order for a Jew to be a Jew.  Both raised sons to be Jews, to be sure; but with all my freedoms, I've had to fight harder to be an internal Jew while my resident, no doubt, fought harder to be an external Jew.

Two religious and moral midgets, in a hospital room on Mount Scopus, trying to figure out how we got there and why.  It was early July when I got sick that year; by mid August I was tearing up my ulpan class and fully moving into the rhythm of the year.  And by Yom Kippur that September, I watched the service leader kneel down on the floor and lay his head down, to diminish himself physically in order to attain a spiritual humbling not only before God and the Source of Life but the Forces of History as well.

"He has no choice.  He is compelled."

23 August 2010

Who's Revolution?

13 Elul 5770

In some ways my opinions become more conservative with time:  We don't read enough; television, the internet and the overabundance of marketing are deadening are hearts and souls; we need Mandatory National Service; the threats against our nation's values are real and need to be confronted with strength and determination; more Jewish practice and Hebrew usage will preserve the Jewish people, not less.

And in other ways my opinions become more progressive with time:  The disparities between rich and poor continue to grow at an alarming rate; our economic policies are inherently inequitable; our foreign wars are a distraction from our domestic agenda; and more inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding is needed in this world, not less.

But waking up this morning to read the news about more protests at Ground Zero for and against the proposed Islamic Center; seeing the faces of the protesters, reading their comments and their signs, followed by the latest outlandish statements made by another politician--this time New York candidate for Governor, Rick Lazio--cashing in on the anger and the racism and the propensity for fear-mongering, I thought of one of my favorite texts from Pirke Avot, the rabbinic tract of ethics popularly read during Elul and the time period approaching Rosh Hashanah.
Shimon ben Gamliel said, 'All my life I have grown up among the Sages, and I have found nothing better for a person but silence.  And the expounding of the Law is not the most important thing but the practice of it; and whoever speaks excessively causes sin.'  (Pirke Avot, 1.17)
The noise of the debate has risen above the din of daily life here in New York; it has been fed to media outlets across the world; and now, it seems, everyone is screaming about the Muslim 92ST Y going up downtown, as if moderate, tolerant, interfaith practicing, coalition-building, peace-making Muslims were the ones who guided planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.  They were not.  And no one ever said they were.  Except the hysterical screamers, in leadership positions, who are not leading but being led by their worst impulses.

The Times' Michael Grynbaum had a great little vignette in his coverage of the protests yesterday.  Describing a scene among countering protesters in which passions and anger became inflamed, one man, who had threatened a 27 year old medical student named Michael Rose, came forward voluntarily when his emotions subsided to apologize to Rose.  Grynbaum described it as follows: 
Then the man stuck out a hand and, in a terse voice, said, “I’m sorry.”
“You have a right,” he told Mr. Rose. (He would not give his name.) “I am sorry for what I said to you. I disagree with you completely, but you have a right.”
While it's likely true that without police presence, there would have been violence yesterday.  Force has long been a necessary partner of civic political engagement.  However, it speaks volumes that beyond the cacophony, two opponents of an idea shook hands and granted one another's right to express it.

The 'practice' of the Law has been heard.  Park51 has a legal right to be built and a coalition of established and well-respected politicians, religious leaders and perhaps most important, a local community board that has voted in favor, all support it.  Why is that a supposed "conservative" political leadership in this city and nation, continually seek to overturn a legal process with hysteria and bigotry?  Who's revolution are witnessing, exactly?

22 August 2010

Rain Like Mercy

12 Elul 5770

"Rain like grace, rain like mercy, rain where it's like the smallest possible drops are the ones most deserving of our attention and gratitude, you know?"

Nathan was talking again.

"If that pitbull had attacked me before Shul yesterday, I'd have asked you to bensch gomel for me, Boss.  As it is, would you nevertheless do the honors?"

Not at all, buddy, not at all.

Yesterday in the dog pond in Prospect Park, an aggressive pit zeroed in on Nathan as he blithely swam after pink and yellow tennis balls with a couple of other labs.  The pit first tried to take Nathan's ear off; and then focused on the neck, going for the jugular, as it were.  Through a twist of good fortune, the pit grabbed his collar and locked in, only relenting after being choked and punched in the face by its owner.

"Heathens," Nathan said, as he finally wiggled free.  Soon he was after those balls again and we brought the pink one home, adding a new color to the collection.   "The girls will appreciate it," he said with a wink.

"So what did you in the afternoon?" he asked.  I told him about my bike ride into The High Line, that uncommonly miraculous architectural miracle above the West Side Rail Yard, a sight to behold, a real game-changer in terms of recalibrating one's perspective on life itself.

"Wow, you were really moved!  Why don't you do that to the roof at Shul--change the terms of engagement.  Lift people up!  Make them see Brooklyn and their relationship to the synagogue in a whole new light.  That's the genius of great architecture and the soaring imagination:  you can be transported to another place while keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground."

I nodded in agreement.

Nathan continued.  "Celebrating the natural life of the Hudson River vegetation; taking into account the historic uses of the space; honoring what the working class delivery men and women of an earlier generation in Manhattan saw of the city when they worked the trains; fierce attention to detail and a transparent aesthetic that melds the human and the environment and art and commerce and history and light and sound and the cosmos...that place is amazing.  Even if the Meat Packing district is like a mall with some frat bars." 

Wait, um, huh?  What?  I looked up from the Book Review.  I was reading Tom Segev's review of a new book on the Balfour Declaration and got distracted.  What do you do, Buddy--sneak out at night?

"You have no idea of my inner life," Nathan said.  "I'm not like these other exhibitionists who roam around online or in public, displaying my every whim and fancy.  *If* I sneak out, what's it to you?" he snarled.

(Do I need to check for rabies?  Did the pitbull draw blood?  Maybe I didn't check him well enough...)

I hear you, I hear you, I conceded.  I told Nathan about how yesterday, after the High Line, I rode over to Union Square.  Browsed at the Strand, bought some apples, and waited for "Get Low" to start.  While sitting there my minding my own business, a self-professed foot fetishist lay on the ground in the middle of Union Square licking the feet of a well-dressed Asian woman while two people filmed the action on their cellphones and Flip cameras.

"Robert Duvall and Bill Murray!  How was that?" asked Nathan, passing up the opportunity to declare the obvious obviously stupid.  "Wait--don't tell me.  I'd gather that some producer decided to himself that it would be super cool to see Duvall in a long beard, cranky and nutty, planning his own funeral with a horrible dark mysterious past to hide while Murray plays the jaded, sarcastic Chicago salesman of southern graves to the hungry bellies of the movie going crowd."

There were a few laughs, I told him.

"But not too much insight into life and death, eh, Boss?"

Sadly, no.  A major disappointment.

"Everything is for sale, Boss.  There's very little opportunity to really escape it.  Even the supposed hermit character played by Duvall sold his story to the community that hated him, and this is America today.  The cynical selling and buying of what we fear, of what we hate, of what disgusts us.  I mean a foot is one thing; but a foot that's slogged through Union Square on a Saturday afternoon in August--BLECH!  What did you do to cleanse yourself of that one-two punch?"

I ate the Honey Crisp apple that I bought, rode my bike over the Williamsburg Bridge at 10 pm and went for cold beer at Dumont Burger.

"Six Points Sweet Action, no doubt, Boss," said Nathan, reaching up for a high five.  "I heard those guys went to Madison.  Now, the prairie grass there is a sight to behold.  You need some Brooklyn prairie grass up on the roof at Shul.  That'll calm things down a bit.  And with a gentle rain falling like it is this morning, oh, man, you'll be living large."

I'll look into it.

21 August 2010

We Need More Monkeys!

11 Elul 5770

Compare this story about 20-somethings


This story of a 20-something.

And ask yourself the question:  What went wrong?

Toy Story Moment:  We Need More Monkeys!

20 August 2010

"Kindness and Compassion Freed Her"

10 Elul 5770

A famous Rabbi Nachman tale begins with the story of a king who had six sons and one daughter whom he loved very much.  One day the king became angry with the daughter and banished her to her room.  The next day when they went looking for her, they realized she had gone.  She had, apparently, been taken captive.  So the king sent his viceroy in pursuit of her and for years and years he failed to find her.  Sometimes he came close but could never fully heed the directions given to him in order to fulfill the requirements for freeing her from her captivity.  After many failed attempts, the viceroy moves in for a final redemption and Rabbi Nachman ends the tale this way:
The storm wind came and carried him to that place, bringing him right to the gate.  There were soldiers there, who would not let him enter the city.  But he put his hand into the purse and took some money.  He was then able to bribe them and enter the city.  The city was very beautiful.  He went to a wealthy person and bought food from him.  He would have to remain there a while, since he would have to use his intelligence and wisdom to devise a plan to free the princess.  The Rebbe did not tell how he freed her.  But in the end he did free her.
Rabbi Nachman didn't like to reveal the end of certain stories because he believed it would reveal the mysteries of the Messiah, carrying on a tradition of enjoining Jews to work for the Messiah's arrival without knowing fully who that Messiah was or when the Messiah would come.  Despite historical reports of his -- or any messianic leader's delusions of grandeur -- I like to read into these "unfinished stories" the unfinished reality of life that in fact keeps in the game, slogging along, working toward an allusive something that we are aware we may never achieve.  From one perspective, it seems futile to hope and pray for a messianic end while knowing that one will never in fact realize it; on the other hand, one has an image in mind of a potter at the wheel, making worlds over and over again.  The Sages thought as much, imagining God at the beginning of Creation forming worlds over and over again, tossing the rejects on the potter's floor, until coming to the realization that imperfection -- or, if you will, immutably eternal fallibility, is axiomatic to what life is.  It's telling that the Sages here argue that God also created teshuvah, or repentance, at the beginning -- before the world came into being -- recognizing that the mechanism of creativity would also require the mechanism to address the *wrongs* made alongside the *rights*. 

After Shabbat, we enter the sixth week since we commemorated the Destruction of Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av.  And Isaiah, the consoler of the haftarot in the subsequent weeks, pulls out all the stops this upcoming sixth Shabbat, with grandiose language of beauty and vision that give the lie to the skepticism of such above penned paragraphs.  Seeing the photographs of Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell announcing peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians is, for me, a moment of unmitigated joy (while remaining painfully aware of how quickly it can all go up in smoke.)  But the clay is not yet ready to be flung on the potter's floor, and so we ought to celebrate that despite the death and destruction wrought in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians since the last real efforts at bringing about peace, we have a moment to imagine the potential.  People have worked a very, very long time to get to this statement.  Give respect.
(Drew Angerer, NYT)
Isaiah says to a community still mourning its destruction "Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Eternal is risen upon thee.  For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the peoples; but upon these the Eternal will arise, and God's glory will be seen upon thee.  And nations shall walk at thy light, and kings at the brightness of thy rising." ( Isaiah 60.1-3)

The light does break through the darkness on occasion; it gives us hope, redemptive hope.  "Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, desolation nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise."  (Isaiah 60.18)

But that's next week--where Isaiah celebrates the perception that God did this all for us.   This week Isaiah cautions, arguing on a certain level that God has already made that redemptive promise, long ago at the floods of Noah and that any real, true destruction of the earth that has permanence will only come about of our own free will, not God's.  The potter destroyed once and for all--all present and future destructions are our own.

Responsibility.  Full stop.

"The mountains may depart," Isaiah says.  "And the hills be removed.  But my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall My covenant of peace be removed, saith the Eternal that hath compassion upon thee."  (Isaiah 54.10)

The Secretary of State said today about the peace talks, "Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles.  The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere."

Persevere with kindness and compassion--despite the century of hatred that has claimed too many lives.  It has been a monumental effort on behalf of this White House to get to this moment.  Despite the mad rush of hysteria that continues in our nation, one must pause to see progress and remark on the achievement of today.

This Shabbat I imagine Rabbi Nachman's tale with a slightly different ending:  "Kindness and compassion freed her--And alot of hard work."

19 August 2010

Cup to Cup

9 Elul 5770
(Chaim Siegel, 1925, Milwaukee, Wis.)
I woke up with a headache.  As far as I can tell, it may be from falling asleep to an image of water pouring from one cup to another, back and forth, over and over, and feeling anxiety as I drifted off into darkened oblivion about the future of the Jewish people and my own individual responsibility in extending our time on Earth.

When I was a kid I used to drift off to sleep in late August listening to a ballgame, wind in the trees outside the window.  How things change.  Maybe part of the anxiousness came from the shifting images in my head:  sometimes the cups were broken and cracked, leaking water and losing a precious resource, drop by drop; and other times the cups were whole and robust, eternal vessels, an endless source.  With each pour I was never sure which cup I was going to see.  I fluctuated between hope and fear.  I don't know where in the exchange I lost consciousness but I remember desperately thinking, as if to assure myself of a more innocent pursuit, "How nice that the Brewers won today.  I witnessed one and listened to another of Adam Wainwright's losses this year."  I really don't enjoy another man's diminishment; however, simply noting the odd proximity of being witness to the rare losses of one of the game's best pitchers this year was something I never had happen before.  Worth noting in the review of the day.

Back in February we had dinner with my late father's first cousin in Los Angeles and met, for the first time, his children--each in their early twenties--who, because of living on different coasts and a variety of other inexplicable but common patterns in dispersed family structures, I had never met.  One now lives here and hopes to be a doctor; and another had just returned from a birthright trip to Israel and is considering a career in public service.  So we were very excited to get together last night and talk about family, identity, Judaism, and Israel.  I'm more than twenty years older than them, which made me particularly conscious of my own first steps down the road of examining Jewish history and identity when I was finishing college.  As greater observers of human civilization have long noted, I saw myself in them.  This is the cup metaphor coming into focus.

As a young man in his early twenties, I began asking the kinds of questions which led to more questions, more books, more conversations, more trips to Israel--all in an effort to both understand and be a part of an inexorable fate that reaches back more than three thousand years.  No mere rhetoric from a brochure on Why Be Jewish? here.  Just the facts.  And here I was at dinner last night, telling what I knew of dead relatives long gone and what I've learned about how we fit into the chain of tradition, cup after cup; drop by drop.

The young cousins are brilliant and kind.  And they look startling like their great-grandfather ( who is my great-grandfather as well ) who came to America from a town called Kapul in Minsk, settled in Milwaukee, founded a couple synagogues, was a Mizrachi Zionist, and is now buried on the Southside of Milwaukee among dead Jews, in a neighborhood where there are virtually no living Jews.  A daughter (my grandmother) never left Milwaukee and one son stayed as well.  Three other sons moved to California and Fayetteville, Arkansas and they rarely if ever made it back to Wisconsin.  Two sons were physicians; one was a podiatrist; a fourth was down on his luck all the time.  My grandmother married a doctor and struggled with depression much of her life.  She was beautiful and a great cook.

I told the brilliant and kind young cousins everything I could until we all agreed that we need to see each other soon.  The hour was late and we all needed our rest.  They took out their iPhones and took pictures of pictures to save and pass along, to share their legacy, to re-solder the links in the chain.  A couple minutes after we said our goodbyes and the door closed, we noticed that one cousin left her bag  in our kitchen.  Her wallet was there and surely she would need that for the cab ride home.  So I texted them quickly and then called, and in the cab, they circled back in front of our apartment.

As the cab pulled up and I passed the bag into the open window I said, "Check to make sure your wallet is there.  You'll need your ID."

Identities passing through open windows.

Water passing from cup to cup.

I pray it holds for another generation.

18 August 2010

Meeting Mark Pollard

8 Elul 5770

One of the interesting aspects of working as a rabbi in a community is who reaches out to you at election.  In the last several years, a number of people have come to talk, to learn about our diverse community, what issues are pulsing through the life of the Jewish community.

Recently I was visited by a really nice young man named Mark Pollard, who is a professor of law at Medgar Evers College and has decided to run for the New York State Senate's 18th district, which represents various parts of Bed Stuy, Ocean Hill/Brownsville, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Red Hook, Downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope and Sunset Park.

Pollard's website is a bit thin--it could use some more information about the many issues of concern to Brooklyn.  I'd recommend he make that information available soon, since the primary is September 14!

In conversation with Mark, I learned about his father's roots in Alabama and his family's emigration to New York; his own work as a prosecutor and now professor; and his passion for housing, jobs and education.  He also talked about the sorry state of political affairs in Albany and his desire to help break the logjam of dysfunction and get things moving in the right direction.

I was impressed by his forthright manner, his friendly ease, and frankly, the fact that he took to the time to come visit the synagogue.  It says alot about the concerns of politicians and public servants when they reach out to others in the community to actually hear about the range concerns that we all feel about the current state of affairs locally, nationally, and globally.

This kind of refreshing perspective can be very good for getting us going in the right direction.

17 August 2010

A Few of These Already

7 Elul 5770

One of the most profoundly challenging aspects of Jewish prayer is its seemingly radical inaccessibility.  The Sages, in their institution of prayer, rooted it in three specific, Biblical experiences that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob--the Founding Fathers of Judaism, as it were.  From those encounters with God, the Sages fixed three times a day for seeking God through prayer--morning, afternoon and evening. 

But the structure--reaching out to God at specific times--is not as daunting as the idea behind the form:  namely, that the greatness of those who came before us, and the fearsome task of speaking to the Divine, who metaphorically is understood as the Ruler of the Universe.  Additionally, in most Reform communities, there is the added challenge of the Hebrew language, and the diminished ability to access the Tradition in its original language in order to access the experience rooted in the original Founders who, according to Tradition, had an original encounter with God. 

If you think about it == and don't succumb to the temptation to be turned off by it == it's a very humbling experience.  And humbling ourselves, especially at this season in the month of Elul, is good.

Humility, as distinct from humiliation (many people make the mistake of equating the two words) re-calibrates our place in the world.  It is a clear reminder of who we are and what we are truly capable of doing.  It raises each of us to a level no higher than any other, serving as the great equalizer of our spiritual reality.  A teacher in Madison, Richard Davis, once told his students a story about John Coltrane--how at the end of each day, Coltrane would say he'd take his ego, exalted after a long day of achievement, and "put it back on the bottom shelf, so each day it would make its climb from the proper level."

I always liked that story and am so inclined myself.  We start low.  We rise.  But at the end of the evening, when darkness comes, we lay down, we cover ourselves, and we submit to our dreams which often haunt us long into that dark night.  Who has ever really passed an evening without being humbled by the fear of one's conscience in turmoil, a troubling dilemma, a restless encounter with our individual lives?

In this context, our approach to prayer is an exaltation in humility.  The Hebrew letters constructed to form words and sounds that approach an earlier encounter that those greater than us, who came before us, already had.  In our deeply individuated society, this is often categorized as "off-putting."  We like to seek personal "transformation" and be deeply moved by an experience, often acting on us, stimulating us into a light-filled realization.  It's spiritual commodification.  Good wine; good food; pretty people.  Really, it's Epicureanism.

Late tonight while walking with Nathan in the heat, a man called out to me from a low place.  He was sitting on a stoop on Prospect Park West and through a very thick Guyanese accent he explained that he was in the midst of some seizures.  He was initially hard to understand but eventually I understood and fulfilled his request that I call him an ambulance.  Nathan and I kept him company while he waited and in a very brief time after calling 911, a Fire Engine and an EMS Ambulance arrived.  The firemen jumped down from the truck and approached us, and then a paramedic joined us as well.  Gently and carefully they helped the man rise and walked him, slowly, giving easy orders, into the ambulance.

"Thanks, men," I said as the firemen headed back to the truck.

"We've had a few of these already tonight," said one.

In an instant, a personal "mitzvah" had been contextualized into a broader category that had been and will be rehearsed over and over and over again.  Because it's never about us but always about someone else, an inherently humbling perspective.

16 August 2010


6 Elul 5770

Would that I had not believed to look upon
The goodness of the Eternal in the land of the living!
Wait for the Eternal; 
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the Eternal.  -- Psalm 27.13-14

Who has patience anymore?  Or time?  I mean, seriously.  What the hell is going on?

It's gotten so bad that in order to test the obvious, brain scientists have to get on rafts and float off between cliffs, free of the grid, in Utah (without guns, I think, but with a reporter from the New York Times) proving that our brains relax and do better when we are not constantly connected to the immediacy of our screens and phones.  As a really smart friend likes to say:  Ya think?

Once upon a time I met an orthodox priest from a country which had most of its Jews deported during the Second World War.  Most died in Auschwitz; some survived.  When I asked him about his life as a child in his country, he recounted friendships with many Jews in his town.  "Then one day we suddenly noticed they were gone and we said to ourselves, 'Where did they go?'"  As if someone mindlessly misplaced their reading glasses.  I think back to that conversation on occasion, which is not unlike staring into an abyss.

In Montreal there were a lot of people begging for money--no more, or no less, it seemed, than I see on a typical day in New York City.  People are hurting all around.  Putting change in hats and hands was particularly easy, since the exchange rate between the U.S. and Canada is fairly even.  A quarter here, a dollar there, depending upon my expert assessment of the situation.  But in Montreal there wasn't nearly as much garbage all over the place like there is in New York, which made the experience of interacting with beggars less like that of dealing with human refuse than dealing with human beings really, truly down on their luck.  Driving into the city on Sunday after ten days away, I was overwhelmed by how much trash flies around and what ordinarily passes as New York's charming grittiness struck me as pure neglect and carelessness.  As set design for poverty, it is that much more dehumanizing to sit on the filthy ground, and be filthy yourself.  "Give me your tired, your poor...the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."  The words really make sense in that context.

This deeply insensitive young Israeli soldier, who brazenly posted pictures of herself mugging in front of blindfolded and handbound Palestinian prisoners--what a stupid and depraved act.  Whether one has captured an actual enemy or an innocent bystander in the investigation of one of a countless number of complicated acts of scrutiny and security in the most entrenched and deeply personal battles in the world today, don't act like an inhuman moron.  I think that's a fairly important principle.  For any human being.  And without having to explain myself I'll just say I hate it when Jews fail at acting less than human.

I have that collective sense of shame and responsibility which, in fact, I never want to lose.  It's important to feel bad.  And to realize we fuck up.  And to not desensitize ourselves from that most obvious of human foibles.  It's when the muscle of our own fallibility gets so over-exercised that we humans countenance not only the small tragedies but the great ones, which grow into the thick weeds of disaster.

Would that I had not believed to look upon
The goodness of the Eternal in the land of the living!

The goal here, in the brief time we have on Earth, is to notice.

And to do something about it.

15 August 2010

Where It's Headed

5 Elul 5770

There is a kind of role to the position of rabbi that often doesn't get talked about--namely, that of diplomat for the Jewish people and its traditions.  I'm especially conscious of this at weddings, and so it was Saturday evening at a ceremony I officiated for my cousin-in-law.  While both bride and groom identify as Jews and chose therefore to have a Jewish wedding, what they meant (and what many of us mean, in a way) is a Jewish wedding *ceremony* with at least one hora danced at the reception.  They don't mean all the guests are literate Jews and the food is kosher and the wedding itself is followed by sheva brachot, seven days of feasts where blessings and celebrations continue.

This is because, for more than half a century, Jews have been living in multiple-identity constructs, building personal and professional relationships with people from all walks of life and benignly assimilating into the mainstream of American life.  No surprises there.

What does surprise me, however, is when, in 2010, I can still be greeted at a wedding by those who say, "I've never been to a Jewish wedding before!"  Serving as a rabbi for more than 14 years, it never ceases to amaze me that there remain pockets of America where social relationships between Jews and non-Jews haven't fully reached the stage where seeing our life-cycle events isn't ubiquitous.  I guess there just aren't enough of us to go around.

It's not just those who are not Jewish, by the way.  Saturday night, like at most weddings, the Jews themselves express a quiet but enthusiastic appreciation for being part of something Jewish.  Incidental as their engagement with Jewish life may be beyond the typical ritual of showing up at Shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these moments are weighted with a kind of surprise, relief and then pride and satisfaction at how meaningful Judaism actually is.

Rabbis have puzzled over this equation for quite some time:  Knowing that there's nothing that satisfies the desire for community more than the actual experience of community.  The pressure brought to bear on rabbis for *entertaining* services is a red herring, masking the reality that people just don't really want to be in Shul.  If you make it more enticing, I'll come--that kind of thing.  But the depth of our relationships with one another and with the tradition, in fact, derive from simply being present over time.

What really complicates things is how community is defined.  Community and Jewish community are two different things, in a way--at least they used to be.  Watching the bride and groom dance, observing their friends, scanning the room and noticing the guests--there was virtually every walk of life, several languages, varied faiths, and many different countries of origin represented there.  The broad categories of love, marriage, music, food, family and friendship were the binding agents to the evening.  The Jewish ceremony long over, the community of wedding celebrants ruled the night.

The band leader, a brilliant and talented young artist living in Brooklyn, led a band that was more like a rhythm and blues gig than a wedding.  And it set the mood of celebration perfectly.  It was what the celebrants were more comfortable with.   The band launched into Maybellene, bringing to mind another kind of diplomat of an authentic American and African culture, Chuck Berry, who, as you can see here, performs and represents for an audience that in some ways, is seeing something for the first time.

About half-way through Maybellene, the wedding band launched into a hora and the party turned up to its highest notch of the night--we call this the hora effect.  This is the moment at every wedding, I thought, when the Jew arrives in America:  the circle of sweat and exhilaration that declares our place on these shores as rooted and legitimate as the first founders of this great nation. 

We rabbinic diplomats convene the sacredness of the occasion; and the people mix about, building community on their own terms, redefining a new paradigm of what it means to be a Jew.  We need each other on this journey, that's for sure--since, on a certain level, neither of us is certain where it's headed.

14 August 2010

Burn and Rave at Close of Day

4 Elul 5770

I once had a Christmas in Wales, invited there by friends in the winter of 1996.  We were shown extraordinary warmth and hospitality (served kiddush wine and sherry for afternoon tea) and experienced celebrations in the midst of an extended family that was truly memorable.  A lot of food, drink, great stories, and laughter.  And among the younger members of the family, a fascinating commitment to learning Welsh--long abandoned by the older generation but undergoing a revival by the young, in a way not too dissimilar from the hipster Jewish revival of fascinations with Yiddish and Hebrew--a desire to undo, as it were, the assimilationist tendencies of an older generation.

We spent the week driving around Wales, including a day in Laugharne, at Dylan Thomas' grave.  The weather warmed briefly on that December afternoon and we sat in the graveyard in a kind of reverie, talking.  After, below the cemetery, we had a late afternoon lunch in a pub, raised a glass to the poet, and headed off to Tenby on the coast for New Year's eve.
 So happy was I on Thursday morning when I came across the grave of Hananiah Caiserman, a union organizer who also helped start the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society and the Jewish Public Library of Montreal.  Romanian-born, H.M. Caiserman organized in Montreal's sweatshops.  In 1916 he ran for a city council seat, representing the Poale Zion party, advocating "an eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labour, equality of rights for all national groups, and the use of Yiddish in city regulations.  He lost soundly, however, even losing his election deposit." (from Danny Kucharsky's Sacred Ground on de la Savane:  Montreal's Baron de Hirsch Cemetery.)

He helped organize the first session of the Canadian Jewish Congress, made aliyah in 1921 but was back in Canada two years later.  He ran the Congress until it was taken over by Samuel Bronfman in 1939.  When he died he was eulogized by then President Samuel Bronfman, who said, "every person found in Caiserman the friendy ear and the helping hand of a kinsman."

Not a bad way to be remembered.

What fascinated me about coming across Caiserman's grave was that his brief biographical sketch in Kucharsky's book mentioned his political, social and literary causes but with the literary in particularly, only his devotion to Yiddish is mentioned--certainly nothing of his apparent love for the poet of Laugharne.  Yet, he seems to have decreed before dying that his stone forever be carved with Thomas' eternal words.

What does it mean?  It means the official ways in which we are remembered tell one story while our graves often allow future generations to inscribe new meanings, new insights.  It means that our Jewish stories are often intertwined with other stories, making a more complex picture than any one telling can capture. 

Or maybe, I'll leave it to Reb Rodney to bring it home (and not just because this classic film was made in Madison.)

13 August 2010

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?

3 Elul 5770

"Why are you always walking around cemeteries!?" my father-in-law exclaimed to me this morning, looking over my shoulder as I was sorting through some pictures of my latest cemetery walk, through the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Montreal. 

Good question.

We return to certain texts--written or sculpted, as it were, in order to orient our sense of reality.  There are places that center us, focus us on what matters.  As a kid, it was a particular tree in my yard or a baseball diamond or the basketball court.  Each place held my attention--its singular smells and design; the echo of sounds off their surfaces; the nature of the silence I encountered which fostered whatever introspection I may have sought in less philosophical days.  And ever since 1973, when we buried my grandfather and I started the practice of visiting family graves (it's been 37 years and counting) I feel very much on my home-court in the graveyard. 

Despite most people's fear of death--a universal fear that priests and prophets and rabbis and imams and philosophers and psychologists have been trying to alleviate for generations--I have found facing it, touching its reality encoded in granite and marble and stone to be one of the single most rooting experiences I know.

I highly recommend it.

Anyway, to share something interesting:  In a couple of sections of the cemetery at Baron de Hirsch yesterday, I saw some stone designs I've never actually seen in a New York cemetery before--proud displays of communism right alongside symbols of Judaism.   Rather than see one's personal identity with roots in religion as inherently contradictory of one's political beliefs, these stones melded them together with pride, for eternity.  Given their years of carving and the fear of the spread of communism in the United States, I can't imagine Jewish stone-carvers agreeing to such designs but I am eager to investigate.

In the meantime, enjoy the following pictures.  Michael Buhay, here pictured, was the first Communist city councilor of Montreal, who died in 1947.  He's in the Jewish Assistance section of the cemetery, begun by leftists who broke away from the Workmen's Circle.  For a time, this aid organization was known, dramatically, as the United Jewish People's Order.  The broken chains linking, strongly, the Jewish Exodus narrative, the daily prayers to free the captive, and in the narrative of the workers' movement, to free the worker from the exploits of capitalism.   Abie Berman, you'll notice, is called in Hebrew "bachur," which one must understand not only as "brother" but as "comrade."  The juxtaposition of Mann, his photo in a heart of pink stone, hovering above the hammer and sickle, is truly incredible.  Sheva Godvan's is a classic design of its era.  Really great stuff.

Movements may come and go; their preservation and therefore the ideas they represent, are never so easily removed.  Here that movement represented is a particular form of Jewish communism as it was made manifest in Montreal in the early mid-twentieth century.  But it could apply to any number of social and political and cultural movements, making these walks, wherever we happen to be, so crucial for knowing who we are and where we come from.

12 August 2010

I Am a Bagel

2 Elul 5770

 I am a Bagel.

This was my conclusion after walking around the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Montreal this morning, an utterly relaxing and always humbling experience when visiting a town.  Go see its dead and you'll have a better sense of your own living.

The Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, I learned from the terrific history which was sold to me upon my inquiries in the Cemetery Office at 8 am by a kind gentleman with a creased leather yarmulke and a Russian administrator ($19.95 and well worth it), is not Montreal's oldest Jewish cemetery but it's largest, and came to be as a result of a series of fraught negotiations which reveal the rich and fascinating history of Montreal's Jewish community.

Named for the noted 19th century titan of industry who gave away much of his fortune to the cause of resettling and educating Jewish communities which were obviously living under enormous duress and persecution, de Hirsch was petitioned to help build schools and burial grounds for Montreal's Jewish community which was burgeoning under the weight of America's restrictive immigration policies.  He had died by the time the cemetery was opened but a charitable institute in his name had already been opened, leading the way for his fortune to continue to aid this community's efforts to settle and then, of course permanently settle, it's Jewish citizens.

The grounds are meticulously cared for, logically arrayed, and shockingly well-marked (which, sadly, one can't quite say about the older Jewish cemeteries around New York.)  The writer A.M. Klein, a Titanic victim, a kabbalist rabbi, communists, socialists, builders, movers and shakers and just plain folk are all there. 

As I walked its rows and read the inscriptions on the gates of the burial societies that I had passed through, I was struck--overwhelming so--by the incredible generosity of prior generations who had invested some amount of their own personal fortunes in memorializing the dead.  It takes money, after all, to build a beautiful cemetery; and it takes money to maintain it, and the names of the burial society leaders, etched in stone, along with the names of photographs of cemetery past presidents upon the wood-paneled walls in the cemetery meeting space/shul/office, stood as eternal testimony that community leaders with money are usually the ones that make things happen.

That was certainly the case in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when waves of immigrants were attempting to escape their Jewishness, to a degree, and saw their practice of Judaism as an honorable expression of their identity but not as the sole purpose of their existence.  The New World offered a different communal model, one not centered on religious leadership but communal leadership, and its necessary conclusion, one could argue, may be found in the increasing secularization of North American Jewry.  And nowhere is this more obvious than in patterns of communal giving among secular Jews--as studies have indicated that wealthy, secular Jews support non-Jewish causes at a far greater rate than Jewish causes, relegating the Jewish communities to rely upon a shrinking number of philanthropists who truly care about the regeneration of Jewish life on one hand, while dancing on the head of a pin to encourage a new, younger generation to eventually invest its own dollars in a new Jewish life on the other. 

Except in the Orthodox community, one would never find a new generational initiative aimed at the support of Torah study, burial societies, or education and it would be really interesting to follow patterns of giving at the newer initiatives to compare the degree to which they are supported by older and younger people.  The Jewish connections among the young are so tenuous; we are so excited that they identify at all; but the support for building and maintaining those connections does not yet fundamentally come from the grassroots. 

This is the logical conclusion of the praiseworthy work of earlier generations that sought to create a foothold of safety and prosperity here in North America, that gathered its philanthropic forces to maintain its living and bury its dead, and leave for future generations the choice of what kind of Jews they want to be.

I walk the rows of a cemetery and I dream of inspiring a younger generation to wake up, to care, and to embrace history and meaning.  But the dream is often clouded by the mighty, inexorable force of a popular culture which overwhelms the particular Jewish choices of those earlier generations, who, at their time, were no less young--they just knew more and did more about the Jewish questions of their day.  And they did it in Yiddish and Hebrew; with an ability to think in the ethical language of faith and peoplehood; with a proximity to the exigencies of mobility and crisis that necessitated taking action--now! now! now!

What we've been left with, I sometimes fear, is a bagel with a hole.

11 August 2010

Devoted and Selfless Consecration

ראש חודש אלול תש"ע
1 Elul 5770
For many years now I've kept in my upper desk drawer a certificate of recognition that was sent to our family (along with an American flag) in the months after my father's death.  On simple white card stock, it commends my dad for his service to his country during the Second World War and it's signed by Ronald Reagan, who was then President of the United States.  I missed voting against Reagan in 1980 by a mere three months so had to wait until 1984 to pull the lever for Walter Mondale.  In those partisan days of my youth, I was determined not to be drafted into any war in Central America or the Middle East that would have served President Reagan's purposes in battling an already dying Soviet communism or the hungry American pursuit of crude oil.  (The latter still haunts, doesn't it?)

The hubris of youth had me tuck that certificate away--such are the actions of a dichotomous mind, either good or evil to choose from--but recently I took the certificate from the drawer and have kept it out for framing, in order to add it a small, patriotic, shrine-like area above my dresser at home.  The memorial bill will stand alongside a quaint needlepoint made by my mom in the American folk tradition, which is comprised of two wooden soldiers, a flag and an eagle, and then the words, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing."  It was stitched in 1962, no doubt in the midst of her own sunny fervor made possible by President Kennedy's occupation of the White House, hopes that would soon be dashed upon the bloody rocks of the following decade of war, riots, and assassinations.  I would look at that stitching throughout my childhood, in those dreaded seventies, where the bloom was long off the rose of the sixties except for a lingering sense of clothing styles, the false subversiveness of drug culture, and an endless repetition of sixties rock and roll on the radio.  I grew up in a liberal, patriotic, Democratic home (4th of July parades, Lincoln, FDR, Truman and Kennedy biographies displayed proudly next to the American Heritage subscription series) in an era where devotion to the larger enterprise of nation was way, way out.

The only uniform I'd ever be caught dead in, of course, was a sports uniform -- for baseball and basketball -- and as look back on those years, the greatest attraction to those experiences was the sense of team and sacrifice that made achievement possible.  Any other greater sense of team was already lost by the time I was eighteen--President Reagan was talking about bringing back the draft but we opposed it vigorously--that is, all of us except my dad.  He wasn't so sure that some form of national service should be ended completely and was a firm believer that the civilian army was the great democratizer of American life.  He regretted, he told me, not seeing his sons have the same experience that he had, a chain of tradition lost after only two generations (my grandfather was enlisted in the First World War.)  Beside the tremendous sense of gratitude he felt serving his country as an American Jew, he believed in general that a flourishing democracy needed to be able to call upon its citizens to serve, to sacrifice, on behalf of a greater good.

My perspective, at the time, was different.  I didn't want to die in a war that I didn't want to fight.  Plain and simple.  And having no draft meant that I could go to school instead of to Guatemala or El Salvador or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia and die for the policies of a nation to which I pledged, I guess, qualified allegiance.

There wasn't another option.

Thirty years later there ought to be National Service.

With unemployment at more than 10%, the cost of a college education continually climbing, and a national infrastructure falling to pieces, *not* calling a generation to service seems one of the greatest political mistakes our generation could make.  From the environment and clean energy to schools, parks and roadways here at home; to national disasters and diplomatic initiatives spreading American ingenuity abroad, there is no limit to the amount of good we could bring to the world.

But the question we ought to be asking is:  Has America lost its narrative of collective responsibility?  Is there collective will among the leaders in Congress?  Does President Obama have the ability to articulate a program and campaign for it?  Would and could the atomized, individuated, digitally decentralized youth of today be capable of embracing it?

What is the turning point at which a nation passes the point of no return, becomes unhinged, and loses its collective narrative?  As media companies take charge, as the cost of running for office exceeds tens of millions of dollars, and as the domestic and international problems pile up, only hastening our own escape into the bright screens and lullingly comforting click-clicks of our laptop world, I wonder how far is too far?

Ronald Reagan signed the certificate sent to my dad but it was written "by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration."

Can our nation be so "one" as to be collectively grateful?  And can we, in our fidelity, demonstrate a selfless devotion to something greater than ourselves?

10 August 2010

Haaretz on Goldberg's September Atlantic Story

Haaretz gets the early scoop on Jeffrey Goldberg's cover story for the September issue of the Atlantic that Israel may very well have the tacit green light from the U.S. to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

Read it here.