04 November 2011
I stared at the pile of books on my desk for about fifteen minutes, took the elevator downstairs to the beautiful plaza in front of the office building where I worked, and called my old boss at NYU asking for my old job back. Of course, the genie was out of the bottle; I had already moved on; and so over the course of the next several months existed in a kind of uncomfortable situation until I could wrap my mind around what was next.
The final blow came for me at a meeting in L.A. A few of us sat around a table reading an article from a business magazine about the successful efforts to rebrand Pabst beer. Having grown up in Milwaukee, I do consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about various beers indigenous to my hometown: Schlitz, Miller, Blatz, and yes, Pabst. Those were the majors. Of course you had Leinenkugels up the highway and further on, before microbreweries were all the rage, Point, Huber, and many others. I think it's fair to say that the decision to rebrand Pabst is worthy of standing on its own merits. Why not? Traditional allegiance to beer is something that surely has sentimental value to some and clear financial benefit to others.
But for me, as someone who actually grew up in Pabst's backyard, my ears rang with memories of my dad and grandfather ordering Schlitz or Blatz at ballgames. Pabst just didn't pack the punch. It had the blue ribbon, I'll grant you that; its colors were patriotic; but ringing bells in Jewish kishkes--not so much.
It was a lonely plane ride back to New York, knowing that I had to quit my job. My erstwhile career as a Mad Man for the Jews was about to end.
Brooklyn Jews was a year old and there was scant financial infrastructure to support the work we were doing growing community full-time; but within a few months a couple more grants came our way and one particular friend was greatly supportive; and so by February 2005, I made the leap to building a bridge from Brooklyn Jews to either a new synagogue we'd start or maybe one day to Congregation Beth Elohim, the community I have been leading since 2006.
I have never regretted a single professional decision I've made--don't misunderstand me. "Who is wise?" the Sages ask. "One who learns from everyone." There is always an insight to be gained, even from our failures.
As I look back on life in the Jewish community since I began working here in New York, nearly twenty years ago, my own inclinations always return to the singular importance of Jewish values--whether those values are encoded in holy scripture, ritual acts, or various institutions of Jewish life that have sustained us for centuries. As I've written consistently, I think the single greatest carrier of that expression of Jewish values is the Synagogue. And it's why, despite being lured by various job offers over the last several years to lead nationally, I consistently say "no" because to me, the top floor of Jewish life is serving a community as its rabbi. It's where, as the consultants like to say, the rubber hits the road. This is an American metaphor, based on the rotating wheels of the proverbially ubiquitous American car, a symbol of freedom, mobility, style, power, and, alas, wasteful indulgence. Cars, like beer, have enormous advertising budgets; they're forever rebranding. Not because people won't stop drinking or driving (but not both, children) but because the market is impatient, is not in possession of much of an attention span, and, as Brooks Stevens (another Milwaukee industrialist) was fond of saying, the American industrial economy was predicated on the notion of "planned obsolescence." Brands were invented and reinvented to keep the consumers on the edge of a string, dying to know what was next.
And this mindset, I fear, is what often prevails in certain sectors of the Jewish community that is obsessed with "innovation." The very word is a marketing construct, especially if one were to examine under the critical light of history, just what Jewish innovation really means.
In the last two thousand years, one would have to say that the Synagogue was an innovation. The Beit Midrash was an innovation. And that's about it. Even the founding of the modern State of Israel is an old idea, built upon the Jewish people's millennial connection to the ancient Land of Israel (post-modern European Colonialism historians be damned!) Everything else of value, one could argue, is an adaptation to time and historical circumstances. Women rabbis, admission of gays and lesbians into the fullness of Jewish life--these are logical and justified progressions based on the reading of Torah broadly to embrace, theologically, all those who claim an identification with the Jewish people. Social action? Old news (see Exodus). Outreach? Old news (read this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, where Abraham and Sarah "acquire souls.")
The communal obsession, from the top of the organized Jewish world on down, is the dog being wagged by the tale of branding. Slap a J in front of it; organize a focus group around it; hire someone to write you a study about it.
But in the end of the day, we have a Book; a confusing, beguiling, and mysterious and I believe, loving God; a people (connected both biologically and of their own free will) bound to Land, Language, Calendar and Narrative in ways they know and don't yet know. But ought to. Why? Because as brands go, the old stuff is usually the best.
On the walk to school today, my youngest kid Minna asked what gum I chewed when I was her age. Juicy Fruit, I said. The Wrigley's have expanded their brand, I explained, and we ducked into a bodega to demonstrate the point. There was 5, Eclipse, Extra and Orbit, alongside many others, owned by Hershey and Cadbury mostly. Names and colors, like Joseph's coat, shined forth, calling us to adore. Down in the bottom row, beneath all other candy, were Doublemint, Peppermint, and Juicy Fruit.
"My dad bought Juicy Fruit when he was a kid," I told her. "He thought it was for Jewish kids, misreading the Y for an H."
"You're making that up," she said.
No. It's what he told me.