31 December 2010

Great Story

Israeli Buffalo Milk Farmer Dubi Ayalon on his farm in Wisconsin.

Ayalon knows he should be afraid of the powerful, 1-ton bull named Armando, sired by a water buffalo in Italy.

"One day, he will kill me. He knows it. I know it."

Still, Ayalon walks out to the pasture behind the barn, and stops within a few feet of Armando.
He carries a stick that is no match for a bull.

But as he kneels on one knee and gently sings, "Hell-o, Buff-a-lo; Hell-o, Buff-a-lo," the beast with a ring in his nose calmly stands still, meeting Ayalon's firm gaze, and breathing frosty clouds in the winter morning air.

30 December 2010

Three Books for You

I spent this week in Cambridge with family--always a refresher.

This trip included an unpredictable infatuation with William James Hall--though, like so much in love, I can't really explain it.  Is it the surprising height amidst the classic Harvard brick?  Is it the oversized Japanese pagoda reference?  Is it the Transcendental Psychology of it all?

I also bought several books, three of which I'm already enjoying:

1.  Lauren Redniss's brilliant, and, well, radiant graphic story of Marie and Pierre Curie, Radioactive. Lauren reminds us of the inspiring collision between the pursuit of knowledge and love.

2.  Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, her chapters on Montaigne's Essays.  I am ready now to retire and spend my remaining years gardening and contemplating my impending death.

3.  David Finkel's Pulitzer Prize winning The Good Soldiers, which everyone who has an opinion on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan should absolutely read.

In case it snows again and the city succeeds at reminding us why Chicago threw out Michael Bilandic and elected Jane Byrne, I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have.

28 December 2010

A Hearty Appetite

from Proverbs Thirty-One

"The burden wherewith his mother corrected him."  Here, to end the book, Mishley writes of the way in which the mother warns the son against the illusion getting lost in women and booze.

Man is weak!  Lay your burden down!

It's not easy to do to.  "Let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his misery no more."  The opposite means something rather interesting:  The un-numbed brain faces its misery and man learns to correct himself.  He doesn't have his mother to tie his shoes for him forever, you know.

Once corrected, Mishley charges him with living the ethical life.

"Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of the defenseless."  That is speech worthy of hearing.

"Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy."  If you're going to talk, put it good use, people!

It's in this context that Mishley concludes this beautifully moving work of Proverbs with the final twenty-two stanzas (one for each letter of the Alef-Bet) dedicated to his mother, the "Woman of Valor, whose price is far above rubies."

In this old world, with our faces increasingly turned to the mirrors of the Shining Screens of Existence, we would do well to consider these words:

"Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Eternal, she shall be praised.  Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her works praise her in the gates."

Solomon had a hearty appetite; but he seemed to love his mother very much.

27 December 2010

Too Few Results

from Proverbs Thirty

"Surely I am brutish, unlike a man, and have not the understanding of a man."

Then the Sage Hillel said, "In a place where there are no men, strive to be one."  He was building off of a Tradition that Mishley started. 

The greater heroism we are meant to strive for is a heroism of humility, a strength that glorifies doing, simply getting the job done.  The current cultural currency mitigates against this.  We have to always be seen and spend so much time doing so that the life of quiet action escapes us.

"If thou hast done foolishly in lifting thyself up; if thou has planned devices, lay thy hand upon thy mouth."  In other words, be quiet--and only you can truly quiet yourself.

The face--its uplifted image, its swaggering mouth, protector of the tongue, that most powerful of muscles--holds the key.

"For the churning of milk brings forth curd and the wringing of the nose brings forth blood; so the forcing of wrath brings forth blood."

Too much noise in our culture.  Too few results.

26 December 2010

To Show Is To Know

from Proverbs Twenty-Nine

"A fool spendeth all his spirit but a wise man stilleth it within him."

One time last May I went to a meeting in Cambridge and stayed at a nice hotel for one night on the Harvard Campus.  I turned on the television to catch some news and when I went to the bathroom, discovered that the television signal was being broadcast through the bathroom mirror as well.  I had  never seen this before and so stood, transfixed, as Glenn Beck raged on about something that I've since long forgotten.

But I always understood that moment to be a small prophecy, a kind of message from God:  To look in the mirror and consider my own outbursts of anger, the least morally developed of my character traits.

A mirror speaks in Proverbs:  "An angry man stirs up strife and a wrathful man abounds in transgression."

The mirror shows what the heart knows.

25 December 2010

Creaking Joints

from Proverbs Twenty-Eight

"For the transgressions of a land many are the princes thereof; but by a man of understanding and knowledge established order shall long continue."

It's hard not to think of the Tea Party, or the erstwhile Republican takeover of the House, or, for that matter, the botched lack of legislative discipline exercised by the Democrats when they had an obvious controlling majority in both houses of the Congress the past two years. 

Leading well isn't for everyone, that's clear from Mishley. 

What strikes me as particularly compelling is the idea that the collective "transgressions of a land," that is to say, it's accumulated folly and dysfunction may continue and thrive and in turn produce poor leadership.  Until one of "understanding and knowledge" may come along and establish a long hoped-for order.

I believe this truth applies to current American politics as we know it.  Our drunken habits of material consumption, diminishing educational achievements, and crumbling infrastructure have created a nation mired in its own transgression.  And our leader/princes know it, elevated to power by many of the various forces that support their own rotten habits. 

The generational challenge before us is whether or not we will have the strength and the vision to transcend this rather low view of ourselves and our nation in order to strive for that ever elusive greatness we once possessed. 

In a different time, Roosevelt challenged us with the idea that there was "nothing to fear but fear itself."  He bucked us up.  Now, I believe, we could use the kind of fear that Mishley is talking about--a fear that is embedded in humility. 

"Happy is the man that feareth always; but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into evil."  We're so bold and fearless we don't see our own feet trampling upon the disadvantaged; we're so proud and brave we don't hear the weakening, creaking joints of disrepair. 

24 December 2010

All We Have Is Now

from Proverbs Twenty-Seven


"The nether-world and Destruction are never satiated; so the eyes of man are never satiated."

The Soncino edition of Proverbs, from which much of this study comes, notes a great legend from the Talmud about Alexander the Great.
In his travels, Alexander the Great arrived at the Gates of Heaven.  When his demand for admission was refused, he requested a gift to serve as a memento.  It took the form of a bone which had the remarkable property of outweighing all the gold heaped upon the other scale of the balance.  When, however, the bone was covered with earth, it no longer outweighed the gold.  He was told that the bone was that which enclosed the human eye.  Only in the grave it ceased to crave for riches.
Another trip to the cemetery yesterday and this time, in the wind-blown, flattened land of Farmingdale, Long Island (a section of earth that conjures neither farming nor dales.) I was reminded of the harshness of death's final message, of the effort it takes to open the earth, to lay that burden down, and to cover, with grace, the enclosed body of those we love.

On the drive out to Long Island for the funeral service and burial, I drove through the heart of old Jewish Brooklyn, along Pitkin Avenue for a stretch, past Zion Triangle, and through the markers, as it were, of a Jewish life long gone.  Park Slope is a new kind of Jewish culture, unlike anything Brooklyn has known before; and I was aware, as the car rolled over cracked pavement and navigated around the delivery trucks of the tired by-ways of East New York, of a kind of deep sadness for an unretrievable past.  My eye caught Herzl Street while driving along and I imagined what it might have been like to be a Jewish kid in East New York, being recruited to go build the Land of Israel in order to escape the poverty of the city, recreate the self in one's own land, grab hold of the Zionist dream.  The inherent melancholy--the necessary awareness of a kind of mass death of historical connection--clouded the view in its own gray haze the rays of light attempting to break through on a cold December morning.

Growing up in Milwaukee, my dad always insisted on getting from one side of town to the other by "taking the streets."  That way we could see what was.  "Here's the reservoir where we swam.  Here's the neighborhood where your grandmother grew up.  Here's the park where your grandfather held off the Irish and Italian kids from fighting with the Jewish kids."  Even by the early 1970s there was his own nostalgia that was decades old, for another generation's narrative relegated to the grave.  Today, I guess, the only difference is that the Young Ones figured out how to shine it up and put it on t-shirts or coffee table books about Jewish culture.  You can even pay con$ultant$ to tell you how to do that.

"So the eyes of man are never satiated."

I return to a story that continues to guide my steps in life.  Three months before Dad died, we had an argument about a meaningless subject.  I was home from Madison and had arrived at his apartment to take him to the annual Christmas Eve party our family attended with all the other Jews in our neighborhood, most of whom were Jewish men married to Gentile women.  This party, oddly, served as a kind of bulwark of Jewish narrative in the face of an overwhelming tsunami of assimilation.  You could literally see Jewish culture seeping down through the floorboards and into the ground, disappearing in real time.  The parties were always entertaining and if you hit the numbers right, you could get a circle of Jewish guys standing around with a drink in their hands talking about the old days.  Always the best part of the night.

Anyway, Dad and I fought about what I was wearing (not a jacket a tie) and when the smoke cleared and we agreed that I wasn't a total disgrace to his sense of civility, we stared at each other for a long time.  And in that face to face encounter, I knew he would soon be dead.  Just something about the way his eyes reflected a reality he knew was bearing down on him.  This moment has never really haunted me as much as it has served as a text to which I return each year, especially on Christmas Eve:  the lights in the neighborhood really are quite beautiful and the music on the radio is full of good cheer.  And I don't feel lonely as much as I feel grateful for the odd proximity of Christmas Eve, my father's descent, and my own dogged and determined decision to take up the mantle of Jewish narrative in our family line.

There are times in the nearly thirty years since that moment that I have felt like Alexander the Great--in possession of a memento that is a heritage of narrative riches; and there are other times when I am acutely aware that all the wisdom in the world cannot prevent us from experiencing the irreducible reality of death.

While walking toward the grave yesterday to complete the burial of the deceased whose funeral I was conducting, I saw a tractor to my left and the tear-filled eyes of her widow to my right.

"As a face sees a face reflected in water, so too does man see his own heart reflected in his fellow man."

The greatest strength of our rich and glorious past is the gift it affords us, however brief, to be present.  The past is gone; the future, well, we know.

All we have is now.

23 December 2010

Tuesday Morning 8 am: Shorewood

My visit to the new Juame Plensa sculpture at Atwater Park in Shorewood, Wisconsin.  Tuesday morning 8 am.

22 December 2010

Pits and Stones

from Proverbs Twenty-Six
 "As snow in summer and as rain in harvest, so honor is not seemly for a fool."

Okay, I'll admit it:  I rather enjoy Mishley's sense of elitism.  It's comforting for someone who looks out at the world and often sees foolish people in positions of power and authority making decisions that have a negative effect on the course of human events. 

I read with great interest Pauline Maier's essay about Justice Breyer and the Second Amendment.  Especially in light of the recent investigative piece in the Milwaukee Journal about how damn easy it is to sell guns:  "The series has revealed how a gun store’s violations were erased with a simple ownership change, the public can’t see violations because of secrecy laws and felons can rent firearms at gun stores without a background check."

21 December 2010


from Proverbs Twenty-Five
"Debate thy cause with thy neighbor but reveal not the secret of another, lest he that heareth it revile thee, and thine infamy turn not away."

I wonder if our country can actually step away from the brink of disaster?  Can civility return to political discourse?  Can a degree of modesty be expressed without it being seen as prudish, retrograde, or fundamentalist?

The optimist in me sees the two most recent political developments--repeal passage of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and bi-partisan support for START as potential victories for moderation in our politics, two years late in the coming but a healthy step forward for a civic process held hostage by a virulent ugliness these past several years.  Mishley suggests that pride being what it is, it ought to be preserved in power negotiations, relegating its mitigation to occurring behind closed doors.

As we all know these days, alas, politics rarely occurs shrouded in the mystery of smoke-filled rooms, except for the brief moments in the last decade or so when leaders have emerged from said rooms to mock a democratic process by telling the people it has no right to know what goes on behind those closed doors.  This is no Charlie Rich song.  Bush-Cheney were masters at the deception that was anything but negotiation and we will be committed to undoing that damage for many years to come.  But as the Age of Transparency truly grows up, we will learn that transparency doesn't have to mean revealing everything--the shameless gossip and over-exposure of our revolting twenty-four hour news cycle; rather, transparency will evolve to mean clarity and honesty, while respecting and relegating some matters, with appropriate respect and humility, to the private realm.  Put it in family terms:  fighting parents say to a kid, "We had an argument but we worked it out and the family is okay."  Kids don't always need to know the ugly details; doing so could undermine the relationship.  To a degree, our politics is broken because we know too much needless information (and not enough of the right information) when it comes to making the right decisions.

I recently saw a family member unlock a secret, in private, and decide not to reveal it but to take the lesson learned from exposing it and applying it for the betterment of relationships in the here and now.  There is deep honor in that.

"As the cold snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to him that sendeth him; for he refresheth the soul of his master."  A cold "wake-up call" can have the effect of making us turn inward, shelter and protect ourselves, and re-emerge, enlightened and ready to serve in a new way.  Better prepared with more layers of protection, we can weather the storm.  Which is a more reasonable approach from the usual yelling and screaming about the broken windows, the lack of insulation, and who's to blame.

"Like a city broken down and without a wall, so is whose spirit is without restraint."

Restrain thyself, citizen-statesman.  Heal the nation thou wast called upon to serve.

20 December 2010

Build Thy House

from Proverbs Twenty-Four
"Through wisdom is a house built and by understanding it is established.  And by knowledge are the chambers filled with all precious and pleasant riches."

The Jewish people, for more than two thousand years, have placed learning and the attainment of knowledge at the center of the community.  This can be seen in synagogue architecture from the earliest days of the post-Second Temple period, where it is evident that the place of the Torah is one of the central foci of the building's design and function.  That physical representation is therefore made manifest in the ritualization of learning and the subsequent lessons drawn from that knowledge.  In the morning prayers, for instance, moments after one awakes, one is reminded of the relationship between knowledge and action:  honoring one's parents; carrying out acts of loving-kindness, arriving early for study in the morning and in the evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; celebrating with the wedding couple; accompanying the dead to their burial; praying with sincerity and ensuring peace among your fellow human being.  And the study of Torah is equal to them all.

The Sages were clear and confident in their methodology.

As I reflect on our synagogue community's growth in the past five years, I consider the centrality that learning, that sincere prayer, and that acts of loving-kindness play in the support and sustenance of our buildings.  I recently heard a synagogue leader reflect upon the large amount of what she termed "intellectual capital" in Brooklyn these days, and how so many people who are the guardians of such capital find themselves increasingly involved in Jewish life.  This is, unquestionably, a good thing.

We live in challenging times, no doubt, and as citizens of a nation struggling to find its way in a world of diminishing resources, challenges to our national security, and fundamental questions about the values and social ethics of our country and its history, our community, with its unique understanding of history and destiny, has innumerable resources to contribute.

Most fundamental:  the centrality of learning with an ethical mandate to make that learning come alive in acts that can redeem the world. 

"Prepare thy work without and make it fit for thyself in the field; and afterwards, build thy house."

Ever cognizant of the two places we live--in the public domain and in the particular expressions of our people and our culture, we are twin-builders, twin-redeemers, of the home we build as Americans and the home we build as Jews.

For all the ink spilled in the last quarter century trying to figure out ways to engage Jews in new and  inventive ways, we would do well to focus on the sure-fire fundamentals of our sacred continuity:  Learning and the actions we take as the result of developing a more enlightened mind.

19 December 2010


from Proverbs Twenty-Three
"When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider well him that is before thee; and put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite."

Mishley's concern here is with appetite, with power, with the insatiable desire for more and its blinding, perverting effects on the soul. 

Writ large, it speaks to a greater problem in our own nation, drunk with the need to satisfy immediate desires and the propensity to be anesthetized by our devolution into glowing screens, celebrity gossip, and "reality" television, all the while having our pockets picked.

We saw "The King's Speech" last night at the BAM and as the movie ended, the audience broke into applause.  Okay:  I'll admit I was the first to start clapping; but, as soon as I threw my mitts together, others immediately joined in and as I listened to the sound, I wondered what they were cheering for:  was it King George VI and his heroic triumph over abuse and personal pain?  Or was it that in his triumph he was able to unite Great Britain in its stand against the Nazis at one of the most critical moments of the twentieth century?  Personal strength and triumph dedicated to a greater cause--that was the reason for my applause and I felt a kind of responsibility, sitting in my local theater, to rally the crowd around this idea.  I wanted to stand up and pass out flyers for a demonstration, pat people on the back, check in on the soup carts outside doling out food to the hungry and jobless, visit the shelter where a small chorus was singing songs of holiday cheer to those seeking a roof and a warm bed, in from the cold.

Of course, the cold air that woke me from this reverie revealed a city at play, a beautiful picture of Brooklyn at its best--hip, young and vivacious.  Waiting for the train at the Atlantic Center, holiday shoppers crowded the platform with bags overflowing.  But looks can deceive.  One can't help but imagine that we are whistling in the dark, blindly making our way through a forest that has no real end in sight.  This is the illusion of the quick click, the shiny screen, swiping debit, paying on credit.

"Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth its color in the cup, when it glideth down smoothly; at the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like a basilisk.  Thine eyes shall behold strange things, and thy heart shall utter confused things."

Being reminded by Frank Rich this morning that Peter Orszag, President Obama's former budget director, has taken up with Citigroup, only proves the point.  One would have liked to have seen (far be it from us in this day and age to expect to see it) a former White House employee remain in public service rather than cash in on the experience of sitting and eating with the King. 

Jay-Z, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian sit pretty at the courtside of a Nets team that still stinks, overshadowing on the sports pages the last gasps of laudatory remembrances of Bob Feller's World War Two sacrifice.  Buried even further was Packers teammate Donald Driver's advice to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' mandate that he not play in Sunday's game because of the continued after-shock of last week's concussion, arguing that his life was more important than the game.  Obviously--but not to everyone.

America has had a concussion for some time now.  And our appetite for personal gain continues to postpone our recovery.

Until we break its grip on our body politic, we will continue to slide into mediocrity. 

18 December 2010

We're All the Same

from Proverbs Twenty-Two
"The rich and the poor meet together--the Eternal is the maker of them all."

In the womb and in the ground we are all the same.  So what happens in between that messes that all up?

17 December 2010

Yours or Mine, Not Ours

from Proverbs Twenty-One
"The kings heart is in the hands of the Eternal as the watercourses; the Eternal causes it to turn however He will."

I don't believe an anthropomorphic God chooses leaders; but I do believe in a Source of All Being and Existence influencing the course of human events.  And I believe, to a degree, in a discernible "will of the people" which produces the leaders we get.  And so as I look out across a landscape of confusion about the direction of our nation and that state of the world, I see that confusion mirrored in the disparate voices of leadership emanating from the minds and mouths of so many who seek to lead.  How else to explain the precipitous rise and then instant vilification of President Obama?  How else to explain a landslide Democratic victory followed two years later by a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives?  How else to explain the seeming groundswell of support for a substantive change to the role of government and its power to do good, only to be to answered by ignominious vituperation and hatred and suspicion of that same government? 

The energy we might define as deriving from the Source of All Being feels unbridled these days.  And our leaders don't seem capable of channeling it properly, compelling the people to adhere to a narrative of constructive engagement.  The media aggravate this.  With little to no time for reflection anymore, we're not being led so much as being bounced, like tiny, static-stuck styrofoam balls inside of a hot glass tube.  No direction home.

"Every way of man is right in his own eyes; but the Eternal weigheth the hearts.  To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Eternal than sacrifice."

We used to know what righteousness and justice meant.  As words, it seems, they once represented concepts that could stand alone.  Now we ask, "Whose righteousness?  Whose justice?" 

Yours or Mine has replaced Ours. 

And that sacrificial slaughter has damaged our democracy.

16 December 2010

Hope and Mercy in a Cruel World

from Proverbs Twenty
Rough Sea, Milton Avery, 1958
"Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out."

I finally got around to watching Waltz with Bashir last night, Ari Folman's heart-wrenching psychological narrative about uncovering the trauma of war and in particular, his artistic attempt to make sense of Israeli actions during the first Lebanon War.  Through the slow, excruciatingly articulate paced attempts to draw himself out of the waters of bloodshed, Folman moves toward a known, horrifying and I would argue, redemptively truthful conclusion of taking responsibility for oneself in the uncovering of repressed events in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

I can't recall a more honest self-portrait of wartime responsibility coming out of Israel and despite the difficult material, I found myself overcome with pride at the willingness to look, to examine, to demonstrate relentlessness in the examination, and then, to have the courage to allow for the final image of the film to be the animated face of recognition on the face of the narrator as the first real photography of the film's ninety minutes is the closing sequence of a Palestinian massacre carried about by Lebanese Christian Phalangists seeking blood revenge for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel.

Folman relied upon the narrative of others to draw his own memories out and key to his interpretive lens was the wisdom culled from two therapists, who help frame his understanding, giving him the strength and the courage to return to the "deep water" of memory.

"Bread of falsehood is sweet to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel."  Uncovering traumas means weaning oneself from the images we erect, from the tastes we consume, in order to mask the rough seas of certain disturbing truths.

But as Mishley makes clear, "the spirit of man is the lamp of the Eternal, searching all the inward parts."  In reflection and examination there is illumination, and if we are brave enough and daring enough to move into that territory, "mercy and truth will preserve."  Facing our darkest manifestations means causing ourselves suffering and pain--no doubt--but "sharp wounds cleanse away evil; so do stripes that reach the inward parts."

The images of this film will not escape you easily.  But the lessons wrought from the engagement with them bring hope and mercy to a cruel world.

15 December 2010

The Lonely Endeavor

from Proverbs Nineteen
Solitary Tree, Milton Avery, 1956.
"He that getteth his own wisdom loveth his own soul; he that keepeth understanding shall find good."

It can be a lonely endeavor to improve yourself; tiring and terrifying to spend so much time alone, which is what one form of learning requires.  Social settings where learning is offered affords convenient distraction--a laugh, a glance, moving on to something else.  But sitting with no one else, under a lamp at a desk, in a chair, or beside a tree, we encounter radical individuality and the solitariness of our own minds and souls.  We discover what we can and cannot grasp; questions become amplified in our own efforts to take note, we scribble more questions in the margins, on a card, in a book, with the promise of attaining answers.

I remember spending one summer alone in Brooklyn and for the first few days being terrified.  I filled my time with ballgames and nights out for beer with friends.  And each night as I walked into the door of our empty apartment, my books, like lonely orphans, called.  One evening particular I entered late; a glow from the neighbor's backyard porch brought my shelves aglow.  And I was convinced my books whispered, nudged, and winked me back to attention.  I turned on the desk lamp, sat in the chair, and engaged.  The desk where I sat was an old maple antique that my mother and grandmother had refinished as a gift for starting college and its warmth was like the sun-baked desert floor beneath my feet.

The Sages say that 600,000 of us stood at Sinai to receive Torah.  Without question there are times when our experience of gaining wisdom is a shared one.  But there are times when it is equally necessary to go it alone--to love yourself enough to tolerate the solitariness of the acquiring of knowledge.

14 December 2010

From One, Many

from Proverbs Eighteen

"He that separates himself seeks his own desire; and snarls against sound wisdom."  This is the loneliness of self-righteousness.  It can happen to individuals and it can happen to isolated nations as well.  I constantly try to guard against this impulse in myself.  To be honest, I often prefer to be alone.  I find the reflection and solitude to be of enormous comfort.  And from the earliest age in my own development as a person cognizant of God, that existential aloneness was fueled the euphoric insights of my own joyous isolation.  Up in a tree on a summer day; on the hot asphalt of a driveway, shooting hoops; pushing a mower over tall grass.  God was always present in my conscious mind.  And my values were thought through, only to be tested by the encounter of human engagement.  But I always returned to the posture of lonely, solitary reflection. 

The decision to claim Judaism as my own occurred alone, while standing over a grave.  But, as equally important, the decision to lead in the Jewish community came from the engagement with others.  A rabbi at my great-aunt's shiva; a rabbi in Jerusalem who taught me Torah; a professor in Madison who embraced me like a son. 

One form of knowledge we receive in our uniqueness; another form of knowledge is made manifest in our pluralism.  To a degree, the Jew has this to offer and teach to an American civil society that is struggling to find its way.  I would argue that one of the more double-edged swords of the foundation ethics of American life is the notion of "individual rights" and the "pursuit of happiness."  The privileging of seeking our own desires is a prized American possession; but in fact it has a nasty underbelly of unbridled selfishness.  In certain moments of crisis as a nation--in theory--we have come together for Common Cause, only to eventually retreat to the sanctuary of our individuality.

We Jews, on the other hand, have a collective narrative.  In the early 21st century, it's not always so easy to teach.  We are three if not four generations removed from the ancestors who came to America to flee the collective repressions of Eastern Europe; we have adapted our narrative to fit America's universalism (like the way our synagogue touts above its door, "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples.") 

But as a teacher of Judaism, I am ever mindful of the necessity, the commandment, to teach collective responsibility.  To break the chains of isolation--as comforting and spiritually fulfilling as it may be--in order to fulfill a promise made to the individual Abraham:  to find personal fulfillment and blessing in constructing a nation of many.

Not from many, one; but from one, many.

13 December 2010

Hands Wrapped Into Now

from Proverbs Seventeen

Among the early, first-thing-in-the-morning retrieved messages today was one from a young man who called the only local synagogue he knew about to make arrangements to drop off some "unused Judaica items" that he'd no longer be needing.  We specialize in that sometimes:  a family will clean out a closet after the death of a loved one and deliver to us, anonymously and occasionally with a note, Jewish books, ritual objects, small curios from Jewish lives once lived.

"Some guy wants to donate a small Torah to the shul," announced my assistant April.  "He says he doesn't need it anymore."  Precisely when he ought to keep it, I thought to myself, and charged her with the task of investigating.  Apparently on the lam from his identity, within the hour this young man delivered to our door a facsimile Torah, a genuine tallis, as well-creased and silky smooth as the day it was first worn, and a beginner's set of tefilin, never before unwrapped, in a stiff velvety bag that was, if personified, not unlike the Tin Man in its relief to have its hinges juiced into a state of rapturous unstuckedness. 

Here they are, revealed.

To the best of my knowledge, they were given to a young lad after becoming Bar Mitzvah atop Masada, some twenty years ago; and as symmetrical a display as they represent, they seem to have followed their own pattern of carefully choreographed neglect.  A pity.

I looked over at them occasionally, throughout the day, every so often bending my ear to discern a whisper, a message, a prophecy from an unknown past that might enlighten me to these orphans, these amputees of Tradition, severed from a body happy to be rid of them.  To my eye they represented a kind of too neat indignation of unrealized potential.

By late afternoon I had students coming--one whose Bar Mitzvah is this weekend and another whom I've recently started to learn with.  I figured here was an opportunity to actually use the tefilin and tallis, if not for the first time, and so invited them to sit and explore their first lesson in wearing these blessed objects.  ("Whatever blessed means, Orville.*")  Anyway, the kids were open to it.  And I appreciate the opportunity to offer this lesson, especially to young men.  They were game, and as we went through the steps, the choreography, the ritual, I was overcome with a tremendous sadness at how this very set was not used as a bridge between generations of observance, with all its sublime and immeasurably profound connectivity to Jews past; I was overcome with a sadness that these tefilin's owner had never had the experience of a teacher holding by his arm, wrapping him in commandedness, helping him recite the blessing, holding him over the fearsome ravine between the Jewish past and future and guiding him to the other side.  Without these fragile human bridges, the Jewish people are nothing.

In a moment of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of Yigal Yadin's "Masada" off my bookshelf, flipped past the sexy Dutch archaeological dig volunteers and focused, for the boys, on the small scrolls discovered atop the mountain.  "The texts in these boxes have been worn on our arms for three thousand years," I said.  They were very quiet and respectful at this truth revealed.  And then I went the distance.  Reaching deep into my canvas bag of discarded material, I showed them the first set of tefilin that had been given to me, by a Holocaust survivor in Madison who smuggled his prayer material through the camps but whose son, in the pastoral freedom of America, had no interest in the inheritance.  The lad had spurned the birthright of his father's suffering; but in the process, denied his covenant as well.  That I wound up with this precious package of history and memory is something I consider to be one of the great unreconstructed miracles of my brief life; and each year I bring them forth, always with fear and trembling, to an audience which receives them, welcomes them, embraces them with awe.
A Jew wore these tefilin in a concentration camp.  His life was deemed of no value by the Nazis and yet was understood, in his own estimation, to be nothing less than sacred in relationship to his God.  The hand-sown bag; the worn leather boxes; the straps softened by time.  In a lifetime of trying, I could never conjure the expression found in the lines drawn by the picture here depicted:  a portrait of sacrifice and service.  But for one son, such a leather tethering was an unbreakable binding around the neck.  For other sons, a redemption.

Both boys listened with intensity to the story of the tefilin's rejection by the son of the survivor and bequest to a future teacher and as I watched their expressions I could see a bridge being built in time, across generations.  One boy looked up at his mother, who had entered the room.  "It's like how grandma tells me stories that she doesn't tell you," he said.  The grandson of a survivor, aged beyond his 12 years, steadily learning to bear a weight.  We agree to shoulder certain obligations we'd never choose.  A kind of price of being chosen.

"Children's children are the crown of old men," said Mishley.  "And the glory of children are their fathers."

It's sometimes the case that we survive as a nation because our grandparents will it to be so.  And it's sometimes the case that we barely survive because fathers neglect to bequeath to their sons the gift of Torah.  In every generation we stand at the abyss, only to be redeemed by a hand, reaching back from some time, then, and bringing us, wrapped, into now.

*Orville here connotes that one guy who always goes all mystical on you--on one level you admire the poetics; on the other level, you just don't know what the hell he's talking about.  (With gratitude to DM.)

12 December 2010

A Servant Cutting Grass

from Proverbs Sixteen

For fifty days I read the Psalms, three per day, and had the experience of being on a real journey of the soul.  It seems the most accurate way to describe the time period.  I traveled--to the degree that I could as a working stiff with a family--along a variety of paths:  poetry and torment; suffering and exultation; pleading in humility from the pits of darkness and despair and boasting in song and meter of the reality of God in my life.  You should try it sometime.

Proverbs, now that we're half-way through, is a horse of a different color.  It's rational and ordered; not very emotional; and at turns rather cold and repetitive.  This is a healthy tonic from the tumultuous fifty days odyssey I sailed through last month.  Ironically, it's while reading Proverbs that my dreams have returned, as if to surmise that during my Psalm-infused waking hours, walking around this chaotic and concrete labyrinthian city of hours, my mind needed a respite when it truly came to rest, falling on the pillow at night; but now, structured into the slightly uber-ordered know-it-all attitude of the Minstrel Mishley, my soul awakens as my body rests, feeding the need for frenzy, imagination, and inner turmoil.

Then again, maybe not. 

It's just as likely that against the backdrop of a steady narrative, our own patterns of living and reflecting are brought into relief and we're able to see ourselves better, more clearly, when, like paint on a canvas, we apply ourselves to sacred texts with simple disciple and regularity.  I've always dreamed in stages; encountering torrential rains of replenishment followed by arid tracts of nothing.  That's just how I roll.  And without ever having to press the matter, I find my answers along the way.

"The preparations of the heart are man's; but the answer of the tongue is from the Eternal." 

From the earliest days that I can remember, I have always thrown myself at life, full-force.  And I have done so as a "servant of God."  Don't recoil.  Please.  I need you to listen to me.  Eved Hashem.  Alone in my bed as a kid, falling asleep.  Out in the rain, under the trees, in rhapsodic delight or, on occasion, shaking my fist heaven-ward.  Running on a path below Mt Scopus in Jerusalem, encountering an ibyx.  Staring into my father's eyes, three months before his death.  In each of those instances, while existentially alone, preparing my heart, I knew that God would bring me to understand.  And that as terrifying or uplifting or depressing any of those moments could be, I knew that in them was an encounter with Truth that would not be my discovery alone but merely an uncovering of a deeper reality, a more profound connection to the forces of life in the universe as we know it. 

One time, in high school, I was cutting a lawn.  The warm summer sun burned through the shirt on my back as I drew patterns in the grass with my machine.  Lines ran east and west, then north and south-I remember this particular family liked a kind of "crossing pattern" in their yard.  While mindlessly going through the exercise, my mower encountered an obstacle which drew its blades to a halt.  I had discovered just beneath the surface of the grass a tree's root, farther removed from the closest tree than I would have thought but upon examination, clearly its source of water, minerals, and life.  After carefully removing the blade from the root and I stopped the mower and decided to take a break by sitting beneath the shade of the tree, but not without first apologizing to the tree for this untoward behavior.

The tree, of course, said nothing (at least to me) for I am not a pagan. 

But I did lean against it, and encounter the sky through its branches, the arc of which I followed down to the ground, where I located the offended root, damaged but not irreparably, by nothing more and nothing less than a servant, cutting grass, and seeking a brief rest in the shade.

11 December 2010

Flaming Noses, Watchful Eyes

from Proverbs Fifteen

"A soft answer turneth away wrath; but a grievous word stirreth up anger."  Who has never lost this battle?  You know that dealing with conflict calmly will move things along more quickly but you want to win, get in the last word, even be louder in order to best your opponent.  Your sense of needing to win becomes the 'grievous word' and voila--things are worse than when they started.  Soft answers take practice, patience and the humility not to "win" the battle.  You have to stay focused on "winning" the larger war, as it were.  (Plowing into the Hebrew for a moment, I want to suggest a more literal reading, like, "A gentle answer causes the heat to subside; while a painful word makes the nostrils flare."  Now who wants to see that?  Hot, flaring nostrils.  As comical as it is outlandish.)

But whenever I've had political arguments or disputes with a friend or challenges upward from the younger generation under our roof, I never win when I raise my voice; and as much as it feels good to get exercised, it never works.  We Bachmans are yellers.  Gotta face facts.  My dad was a bit volatile; I've relatives get cranked up as well.  My instincts are to do battle.  And so I take this proverb to heart as one of the lessons to shed light on one of those character traits that requires constant vigilance. 

The Sages argued that anger was an idol.  That it controls us more than we control it, and therefore a force of evil to be reckoned with.  I buy that.  When the dust clears after a flare-up, I'm always conscious of how I might have acted differently.  And I'm shamed into realizing that God was watching, chagrined, as it were, by my poor choices.  "In every place are the eyes of the Eternal, keeping watch of the evil and the good."

That pesky "free-choice" of what it means to be made in God's image.  The power to decide in our hands, under the watchful eye of the One Who is Sovereign Over All.

10 December 2010

Bibi's Betrayal: Jewish Week Column for 12.10.10

The news earlier this week that President Obama had decided to suspend efforts toward curtailing Israeli settlement policy should be seen as a major setback in Middle East peace efforts.

More important, for American Jewry, it should be seen as the result of a betrayal--not by President Obama but by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who from the time even before Barack Obama was President, mobilized his own forces to prepare a counter-strategy for what both sides knew would be the President’s aggressive efforts toward realizing what prior administrations could not: peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

No sooner was the President in the White House than did Benjamin Netanyahu denigrate the basic rules of diplomacy among allies by referring to the President’s Jewish advisers David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel as “self-hating Jews.” Of course Netanyahu would deny having said this but no one that I know in the American Jewish community believed him.

We took it to mean that this fight between administrations would be personal--especially given the overwhelming support from Jewish voters that Obama received in 2008--nearly 80 percent.

The article continues here.

Sum Things Up with Some Snap

from Proverbs Fourteen

"The heart knoweth its own bitterness and with its joy no stranger can intermeddle."  We are ultimately responsible for our own depression and our own tranquility.  Often making the mistake of looking beyond ourselves for the cause of our despair or triumph, here Mishley reminds us that as autonomous souls, we bear the burden of our own lives.  Personal responsibility is not always easy to embrace; and sometimes we turn with too much ease to a culture of blame.  But when we take the time to understand ourselves, "the heart knoweth its own bitterness and with its joy no stranger can intermeddle."  As the writer of Deuteronomy, "man is a tree in the field," standing alone. 

Wherever we land on the depression-joy spectrum, death awaits.  The great, unavoidable truth of our existence.  How we handle this reality is the mark of wisdom or foolishness.  "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; but the end thereof are the ways of death."  In other words, whether we live with wisdom or live with foolishness, we will die.  So why care?  Why try?  Mishley, like the Psalmist, would argue that there's death and then there's Death.  One temporal and physical; the other eternal and ephemeral.  This aspect of the conversation requires a kind of openness to the idea that there is more to life than life itself; that there is existence beyond the grave.  But even for those who simply can't sign up for that program, there is the notion a life of quality, of meaning, can be had in this world.

"A tranquil heart is the life of the flesh but envy is the rottenness of the bones."  Look, these ancient philosophers really knew how to sum things up with some snap.  If it's a tranquil life in this world you're searching for, then live a life of wisdom and find a healthy heart.  But competition and envy from sun-up to sun-down?  Your bones will rot; your structure will collapse.

A true lesson for life; a metaphor for our nation which has lost its way--overly concerned with others while neglecting our own body-politic.  The mind:  our schools.  The heart:  our health care system.  The bones:  our national infrastructure, teetering on the verge of collapse.

Our country is depressed.  We're literally in a depression. 

American Idol.  Glee.  Dancing with the Stars.  Mere distractions--passive envy; others' joys.  "Even in laughter the heart acheth; and the end of mirth is heaviness."  When the television goes off and the blue-grey fades to black, we are left with making choices in our lives, choices for our nation.

Choose life, not the screen.  Choose wisdom, not the instant gratification.

09 December 2010

50 Cents (cheap!)

 Hanukah Special!
8th Day Interview with comedy writer and filmmaker 
Jonathan Kesselman.

Today is the 8th day of Hanukah and since Tablet didn’t commission any Mormon US Senators to write another Hanukah song, I thought I’d go back to the source of the New Jewish Culture Movement, comedy writer and director Jonathan Kesselman, the inimitable creator of the Hebrew Hammer.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that the short version of the Hebrew Hammer came out in 1999 when Jon was at film school at USC.  That’s before Heeb, Matisyahu, Reboot, and the New Jewish Lawn Care Association began to transform Jewish culture as we know it.

To celebrate the 8th day of Hanukah, I called Jonathan, who’s in Brooklyn this month making a film. We are sitting across from one another in my kitchen in Prospect Heights, using Google Docs. Jonathan is eating half our pantry and drinking all our coffee.  One word of caution.  Due to the remarkable size of Jonathan’s remarkable maturity and remarkable potty-mouth, Jonathan insisted that I not censor anything he wrote.  If you offend easily, you may want to click away--NOW!

Happy Hanukah, Jonathan!

JK: Happy Hanukkah (it’s with two K’s, “Rabbi.”) By the way, I pre-date Google Docs as well. I’d like that to be on the record. While we’re discussing history, I also would like to point out that The Hebrew Hammer was personally responsible for rescuing Sergey Brin and his entire family from behind the Iron Curtain.    

AB:  Wow, I never knew that.  Fascinating. As a Jewish hero, what kind of special plans do you have for the 8th day of Hanukah, Jonathan?

JK: You know, that term “Jewish” gets bandied around a lot in reference to me. I’m going to say this one last time, I AM NOT Jewish. I just think you people are really, really funny. However, I do like that term, ‘Hero.’ Let’s talk more about that. Did I ever tell you about the heroic time I used my genitalia to bring a woman to orgasm? It was a very, very  long time ago … sort of like that Hanukkah miracle you speak about from days of yore.  

AB:  You do realize you used the plural of the word “genitals.”

JK: Yes, it’s true. I’m like that ... creature (?) in the book ‘Middlesex.’ I have a vagina with a little nubbin that sticks out of it.  

AB:  Well, this is off to an interesting start.  I have met several young men like you in Hebrew School.  I have a blanket policy of *not* kicking out kids like you.  You can’t break me.  “Hello, I Must Be Going” comes to mind.  So you don’t have plans?  And by the way, hermaphrodites are actually mentioned by the Sages in the Mishnah.

JK:  Yes, that’s correct.

AB:  Oh, so Jonathan--you’ve read the Mishnah?

JK: I didn’t get the chance to read it, but I did see the movie. That’s the one were Robert DeNiro carries the cross up the hill, right? Wasn’t Jeremy Irons in it too? I LOVE Jeremy Irons! What ever happened to him? He’s a remarkable actor! I loved him in Pink Panther 2. Some of his best work, you really should rent it if you haven’t ...

AB:  … Um, you know what?  Let’s move on.  Try this:  What does the Hebrew Hammer think about the Tea Party and Glenn Beck?

JK: First, The Hebrew Hammer spits angrily in disgust. (Spits angrily in disgust)

Sorry, I know you just got your kitchen re-floored, I promise I’ll clean it up in a second … Speaking of tea, can you make me another coffee?  

As the interview goes down into the Valley of Shadow of Death faster than hits to Julian Assange’s eHarmony profile, Jonathan’s phone rings and it’s Adam Dorn, an innovative recording artist, famed cultural critic, ethnomusicologist, and humorist--a kind of Jewish Hal Holbrooke--but who looks like Gabe Kaplan.  I’m listening in to their conversation and I can say with confidence that under their leadership, the Jewish people should disappear within half a generation.

AB:  Jonathan, this week the Obama Administration said it was curtailing its diplomatic efforts to convince the Israeli government to suspend its settlement policy.  Some see this as a sign of growing despair in the Middle East peace process.  The Hebrew Hammer was a diplomat of sorts--what is your take on what’s going on in Israel today?

JK:  Israel? Isn’t that the little Mediterranean country where people speak English that has more technological, economic, scientific, cultural advancements per capita than pretty much anywhere else in the world? Now that I think about it, I’ve been there once. It was kind of  like the United States -- but with a fairer tax code and less deodorant. You’re like the 100th person I’ve talked to this month who is entirely focused on that little slice of Americana that sits like a gentle olive in a plate of steaming, angry, anti-Semitic humus ... humus that will not stop until that little, nebbishy olive is pushed into a sea of tahini. Our country, however, is perfect. I don’t want to talk about that ... or, the Sudan, Somalia, Haiti, North and South Korea, Iran, Al Qaeda, Snooki’s poof. There’s so much to discuss in so little time, and I have to pee because of all this coffee. STOP WITH THE G-D DAMN COFFEE ALREADY!!!

AB:  The Sages say that Macabees used to be able to hold their pee.

JK: Who are The Sages? Are they an old Motown band? And if so, they are full of … Hasmonean dung!  

AB:  Jonathan, as an inventor of cutting-edge New Jewish Culture--what do you see on the horizon of the Jewish creative world?  What new trends do you see developing to engage young Jews in taking great pride in their Jewish heritage?

JK: There’s no money in Jewish culture or creativity. I see a trend of young, homeless, Jewish hipsters. If you want to make a living AND create “Jewish” art, you need to make things that maybe two people on earth would actually want to see or hear. Now that’s where the grant money is! Have I pitched you my new graphic novel/Ipad App/Coffee Table Book about Hasidic Pickle Merchants?

AB:  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Unfortunately, we’re almost out of time.  Are you currently dating?

JK: Define dating. Because if by dating, you mean being depressed while having drunken sex with virtual strangers in order to place a band-aid over the intense feelings of loneliness and horniness I’m feeling … then, YES!  Dating, and available! Ladies, Facebook me! ;)

AB:  Gee.  I wonder what your JDate profile reads like.

JK: ??? That was it. I just copied and pasted. Stop laughing. Seriously, I’m being 100% honest.

AB:  Well, on that note, I raise a glass to you, Jonathan Kesselman.  I’d offer you a latke but you’ve eaten them all.

JK: I see your raise, but then I re-raise by grabbing that glass from your feminine, bourgeois hands -- and then I drink from that glass fully -- slapping your girlish hands away as you try to regain control of it.  Not gonna happen, Jew Boy.

Thank you for having me, Andy. Now, the last question for you: Is there a bathroom nearby? Latkes and coffee go together like Ex-Lax and Borscht.

08 December 2010

Nothing But That Middle Finger

from Proverbs Thirteen

"One who guards his mouth keeps his life."  This is true in so many ways.  One time, on my way to a wedding in Midtown, a guy almost ran me over in the middle of the crosswalk.  I had the right of way and I let him know; but he threatened to kill me.  Apparently doing so with his car wasn't pleasure enough and after an unforgettable verbal tirade about masculinity, femininity and homosexuality, he concluded with the promise to take my life. 

It was an odd moment.  I couldn't exactly cross in front of him, because there was no guarantee on a salubrious outcome.  Standing there waiting for him to move on came with risks as well--since he was hanging out the door shaking a fist with the promise to end my life.  So I stood firm, kept my mouth shut, and kept my eye on him.  In keeping him there, with me saying nothing, I kept my life.

One who guards his mouth keeps his life.  This is to say nothing of guarding my assailant's mouth--that's his to worry about.  Wherever that miscreant may be.

I have on occasion thought back on this moment and wondered what makes a man attack another man like that?  What kind of father did he have--if he had one at all? 

"He that spareth the rod hates his son but he that loveth him chasteneth him sometimes."  The most disrespect I ever showed my father was when I was in high school and I was so mad at him that I flipped him the middle finger.  He was visiting our house--several years after the divorce--and on this particular occasion, I was simply angry that he didn't live at home.  Perfectly understandable.  But my expression was disrespectful nonetheless.  I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  I was standing in the garage with my basketball in my hand.  In the other hand, well, nothing but that middle finger. 

He pulled the car back in driveway, got out, walked up to me, and slapped my cheek.  Not too hard but enough to send a message.  I didn't turn the other cheek; but I didn't resist either.  I knew I deserved it.  And I've never showed disrespect like that to a parent again.

"But he that loveth him chasteneth him sometimes."

07 December 2010

The Brute in the Housecoat

from Proverbs Twelve

"Whoso loveth knowledge, loveth correction; but he that is brutish hateth reproof."  I feel that this applies to people who deny the scientific evidence against global warming.  Because generally speaking, the evidence is overwhelming in favor of humankind's wanton destruction of our natural resources--knowing this, painful as it is, leads to the potential for correction:  strategies and policies to develop alternative sources of energy.  Responding to knowledge in order to change one's behavior--that is what this line is all about.  Anyway, this is just one example.  There are many such examples and usually, hard as it is, they begin with one party calling another party's truly unethical behavior for what it is and having that first party simply admit it.  "You're right, I'm wrong."  Easy as that.  Placing barriers before our own ability to admit our wrongs--that's the sign of true brutishness.  And it holds us back personally and collectively.


"A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."  I have to say, I don't know many kinder creatures in all the earth--including humans--than our dog Nathan.  And this despite the fact that in the last two months, when left unattended, he ate a ten pound bag of birdseed (hospitalization required); cockroack and mouse traps (hospitalization required); the full contents of our cool vintage Swiss fondue maker (melted Israeli chocolate).

Here's where that earlier line from Proverbs applies:  "But he that is brutish hateth reproof."  I mean, I showed him the hospital bills but he keeps on doing whatever he wants to do.  Lovable old brute.  I'm certain when we leave for the day that he puts on a housecoat and walks around the house.  Perhaps if we offered him an allowance he'd clean up after himself.  I'll have to consult him about that.

06 December 2010

Up Off the Grass; Shake Hands

from Proverbs Eleven

"When pride cometh, then cometh shame; but with the humble is wisdom."  In politics, not so much.  Unless of course there is pride in false-humility, which of course there is; and shame and self-loathing that masquerades as virtue.  These days in Washington, it's really hard to tell the difference.  The crisis of leadership is quite real and it is disheartening. 

A friend said the other day, "Obama needs to have a Truman moment.  Call a meeting of the Congress and put it on the table.  Tell them what's going to be."  But either the man's pride is so deflated from two years of persistent attacks, devastating accusations, and certain setbacks; or, his pride is in the distance he seems to keep from real confrontation that only the most cynical would classify as ego.  Sometimes it is the perfect combination of pride and humility (toward those you are elected to serve) to throw a punch on behalf of the less fortunate in our country.  And then get up the next day and throw the punch again and again and again.

"He that despiseth his neighbor lacketh understanding; but a man of discernment holdeth his peace."  I still enjoy football.  And I particularly enjoy the parts where guys kick the shit out of each fair and square, get up off the grass, and shake hands.

But leaders today don't really do that.  They take pot-shots at each other from separate rooms and then stew in solitary confinement while our nation teeters. 

Stitches on the basketball court is one thing; I want some battle scars from the field of engagement.  

There is too much despising of one's neighbor; a wise man holds his peace--speaks responsibly, acts accordingly.  But that doesn't mean he doesn't battle!  It just means he shakes hands after.

05 December 2010

Wake Up a Room

from Proverbs Ten

"A wise son maketh a glad father; but a foolish son is the grief of his mother."  I got good grades in school and my dad loved that; once I threw rocks at a caboose and got hauled into the village precinct and this upset my mother, so I know this proverb to be true.

Based on that, I can also attest to the verity of its other pearls.

Like:  "The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing; but the name of the wicked shall rot."  This is a very Jewish thing to say.  Though I admit, I've never said it.  Especially at a funeral.  Could you imagine?  In that moment of darkened reflection, heart torn, eyes burning with tears.  "The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing."  Yes, yes.  I need to hear that.  Yes.  Like a warm blanket of comfort, these words wrap us in mercy.  But then:  "The name of the wicked shall rot."  Anger is a stage in the mourning process, it's true, but this would really wake up a room.

04 December 2010

We Really Mean It

from Proverbs Nine (again)

Just one more--because it continues to haunt me.

"He knoweth not that the ghosts are there, in the shades; that her guests are in the valleys of Sheol."

King David talked about knowing what it meant to "walk through the valley of death."  As an upright man, who would fear no evil.  Mishley observes there is another way to make it through, though ominously in veiled ignorance.  The implication for the writer of Proverbs is that "not knowing there are ghosts" has a direct connection to behavior that one thinks is so sweet and seductive.  In everything is the implication of death; but the fool ignores this fact and blithely sates his desire, never realizing--as any kid studying the digestive system knows, all that pleasure has an end.

This is a lesson not to be avoided but understood; and the tradition is generally clear that we are not to see ourselves as inherently evil or suffused with sin; rather, we are to be humbled by a biological reality which can teach us not only to appreciate a pleasing moment when it occurs but to absorb the blow of the irrevocable end by understanding that if our physical essence returns to dust, it's our moral essence which is the only hope for living beyond the grave.

So when we say, "may her memory be a blessing," we really mean it.

03 December 2010

Precious Hands, Raised

How can I put this?

I was recently looking on the Facebook when I noticed that one of my friends posted pictures of his recent visit to the White House for the President's special menorah lighting and Hanukah celebration.  It appeared to be an event of much mirth and joy though the candid photos, shared among those in attendance, captured a President who I think is truly depressed.  The poor man.  He is really well intended and is being brutalized by an opposition that is so singularly destructive in its opposition to anything he offers that's it's a wonder he's actually accomplished as much as he has but still--even health care feels like a long time ago.  But still, as an ardent supporter throughout the campaign, I admit that my patience is wearing thin.  I feel like his advisers are sending him in the wrong direction; that he's not fighting back hard enough against attacks; that there are so many issues upon which to seize the high moral ground and instead he chooses the prosaic, mundane, practical middle, which inspires few and leaves too many unrealized aspirations for building a better world.

Anyway, those photos.  In one particular photo of the President and the First Lady, I could barely make out their faces through the sea of hands holding digital cameras and phones, all in an attempt to "capture" this truly unforgettable moment.  Which, the more I looked through the photographs, made me want to forget it all, as quickly as possible, since everyone seemed hell-bent on the celebrity of the man and the schmoozing with him and his Vice President and the historic significance of the residence but not on the moment at hand, the pivot of history that would have demanded an assemblage of Jews in the White House on Hanukah to demand an extension of unemployment benefits to those out of work; an end to the Bush tax-cuts to the rich; substantive moves on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.  Nearly 80% of American Jewry voted for the man.  Did everyone's Facebook page of their Pennsylvania Avenue Hanukah offering have to be a fat-free latke with lowfat sour cream?  Wasn't anyone going to schmaltz-it-up?

Look, for all I know my friends conveyed just the right messages on behalf of the American Jewish community but I have my doubts.  I think we're all being rolled--from the left and the right--by the power of celebrity--Obama is to Beck as MSNBC is to FOX--and it's a bright light that's blinding us, I fear, from speaking certain truths not only to power but to ourselves.

Oh those precious hands raised, holding cameras and phones.  Should they not have been shaking fists?  "We voted for you!  Feed the hungry!  Clothe the naked!  Beat swords into plowshares!"  That sort of thing.  If it's all for the cameras these days, then give me some drama.  Not just another "look at what I did today!" on Facebook. 

02 December 2010

Not So Much

from Proverbs Nine (again)

I'm sorry.  I am diverging from the usual protocol with regard to proverbs and blogging ( I beg forgiveness for this breach of etiquette) but I humbly request your approval in commenting further on the Ninth Proverb.

This line in particular:  "Stolen waters are sweet; bread in secret is pleasant."

Since reading this line I have not been able to shake from my mind the memory of escorting my father back from the dentist the day he had his teeth pulled.  I was young and likely was schlepped along in the car when my mom went to pick him up because there was nowhere else for me to go and because, from what I understand from encyclopedias and such, the generally prevailing wisdom was that such a parenting decision wasn't considered to be *wrong* or *imprudent.*  After all, it was just teeth; and they weren't mine anyway but his; and I was there for support and good cheer, if not for an enameled exemplification of a lost and unrecoverable youth.

Dad emerged from the office in tears.  He had lost, what I knew then to be, the last real vestige of his manhood.  His teeth.  Primitively speaking, this were his gnashers; his gnawers; his sneering threateners; his tools of the hunt, the conquest--the very gateway to survival.

It was neglect that did him in:  cigarette smoke; candy; poor brushing and flossing habits.  You know the routine.  A forest felled by the rewards of the immediate:  "Stolen waters are sweet; bread in secret is pleasant."

Pop wasn't even fifty years old when he adapted to a life with dentures and I'm certain, among the many reasons for his own willed deterioration, having no teeth to claim for his own contributed to that sense of powerlessness he felt.

I met someone recently who used to work for Hearst.  For a time in the 70s, Hearst owned the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee where Dad worked and held his last real, true job.  For a time there, both he and that job had real teeth, if you know what I mean.  As she told me about her work (this person who worked at Hearst) I could only imagine my dad's teeth, on his bathroom sink, in a cup, gnashing away at no one in particular.  It eventually came to that.

Bread in secret is pleasant.  A set of teeth in a cup--not so much.