29 April 2011

The Still, Small Voice of Human Generosity

marvin gentry, reuters
As a person of faith, I struggle mightily with the devastating storms that have taken killed several hundred people throughout the South and caused unspeakable damage and trauma to thousands more.  I don't believe God caused these storms to happen, willfully exercising Divine Judgment upon innocent, humble people.  Such a God is as cruel as any dictator mowing down lives clamoring for freedom and dignity.

Yet I remain haunted by the seemingly unending stream of disasters--natural and man-made that are plaguing our world.  On a fundamental level, it appears that Earth itself is undergoing a kind of revolt against its inhabitants, creating a reckoning of sorts that as its only presumed moral and ethical creatures (we humans are a complicated lot, aren't we?) must leave us wondering:  What have we done?

Certain disasters, like the tsunami in Japan, may or may not be scientifically traceable to such radical changes in our Earth's environment and atmosphere; but then, the domino effect of the disaster with wide-spread implications regarding the vulnerabilities and dangers of nuclear power make us stand at attention with an unusual focus toward immediate repair and "getting it right" for next time. 

Similarly, this recent mile-wide, two-hour long tornado that ravaged the South.  The devastation itself is as humbling as any act of nature can be; and sorting through the images can conjure a kind of grotesque fascination with power and its inherently destructive potential.  But that is what I like to refer to as the "Pagan Effect." 

Elijah's famous encounter with this debate is instructive for us.  If you're not familiar, read the story in I Kings 19.  Here Elijah the Prophet faces a theological dilemma:  Is God in the wind that breaks rocks?  Is God in the earthquakes?  Is God in the fire? 

The Tradition explains otherwise:  God was not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire but in a still, small voice.  Remarkably, after Elijah hears this, he feeds the people, an impulse we must see as an ethical or moral counter-force to the natural destruction that terrifies us.
robert ray, ap
Our faith, in the wake of such fearful damage, ought to demand the impulse to care, to comfort, to save and to feed. Rather than glare into the abyss of the most recent destruction, we should respond to the human need, and therein see the face of God.

27 April 2011

140: Battling Your Demons

It's April coming to a close and I'm feeling that the Reds will be the true Demons all season long.  Milwaukee v Cincinnati battling it out for tired, German Midwestern hegemony. 

Are you ready for this, people?

It's what makes baseball so great.  I really stellar first month, if you ask me.  Some new surprises and lots to think about.  I'm ready for the last series of the month and to move on to May.

26 April 2011

141: Forging Ahead

I think the look on Ryan Braun's face says it all--it's a look I want to remember later in the season when things are either really looking up or simply stuck in the mud.  It's a look that says, hey, after a month into the season, we're feeling like we just might be a good team.

See for yourself:

rick wood for the journal-sentinel

Beating the Reds for the first time this season was a minor exorcism of sorts, necessary for the next phase of the campaign.

The key three got into the act tonight, with Braun, Fielder and Weeks knocking it out of the park and Corey Hart returning.  When Greinke finally gets back into the lineup, we'll see what develops.

For now, a good, strong win. 

Social Glue

This piece was written for a Faith Perspective in the Brooklyn Paper.

Faith is one of the most studied and yet consistently ineffable ideas known to human kind. Maybe this is because it comes in so many varieties. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. There is faith in oneself; faith in one’s friends; faith in one’s spouse. We even have faith in abstractions, like nations. Faith in God, for many, borders on an abstraction, too, because one can’t really see God or reasonably prove God’s existence, and so we understand faith in the Divine to be, well, a matter of faith.

As a rabbi and community leader, especially in this season as Jews celebrate Passover, faith matters because it is the social glue which binds us to one another, to our narrative as a people, to the values we derive from our historical experience, and to our God. More than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more than synagogue membership, Jews participate in the faith-based experience of sitting at Passover Seder tables this time of year in order to recite the story of our enslavement in ancient Egypt, our redemption through the parted waters of the Red Sea, our journey through the desert, where we received the moral law at Mt. Sinai, and on into the Land of Israel.

Herein lies a paradox: I’ve yet to lead a Seder where everyone around the table believed, with perfect faith, that the events described actually happened. But does it matter to our faith? I think not. For me, faith is less about what you think than it is about what you do. How one lives ones life based upon his or her understanding of the narratives one inherits — that is the true sign post of faith.

Do you feed the poor? Do you clothe the naked? Do you visit the sick? Do you defend the weak against the strong? Faith in action. As one early Sage of Classical Judaism described it: “Say little, do much.”

It’s popular to say that religion is the cause of all the trouble in the world. But I’ve yet to see someone truly do the calculus on how many lives are saved because of faith. How many hospitals are built and sustained? How many of the hungry are fed? How many of the homeless are sheltered?
I see faith as the animating force for goodness in the world. For me it’s faith in God; for others its faith in the values they uphold — with their God or no God at all.

In the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, two Sages were walking among the ruins of Temple. For many Jews, God’s “inability” to prevent this horrific destruction was a theological crisis. No Temple, no Sacrifice, no God. Faith was shaken to its core. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, a brilliant teacher, was not bowed. “Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement — through deeds of loving kindness.” And quoting the prophet Hosea, Rabbi Yohanan concluded, “Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice.”

In other words, it’s not so much what you believe — it’s what you do.

25 April 2011

142: Those Pesky Reds

I don't like losing to Cincinnati or teams from Indiana.  Period.  But we must soldier on.

24 April 2011

143: End of a Good Week

I once went to a Brewer game on Easter Sunday when Dale Sveum won the game with a ninth inning home-run.  Not much happened that season but it felt like anything was possible.

This year, the Brewers secured two of three from the Astros and Ryan Braun was National League Player of the Week and you know what?  It feels like anything is possible.

23 April 2011

144: Down, Up, Down

It's okay.  In the long-run, over onehundredandsixtytwo games, it's important to demonstrate Will and Fight.


sally ryan for the new york times
Edward Rothstein's review of the new Holocaust museum in Skokie, Illinois had me asking the question I've asked on more than one occasion:  When do we know that we have reached the limit of Holocaust museums?  The reviews essentially write themselves and in this particular occasion, I actually found myself agreeing with Rothstein for once, who questions the leap to the universal so quickly in the Skokie museum's curricular mandates about teaching the Shoah's relevance to a contemporary generation.  Having spent a few sessions this year visiting our 6th grade classes at CBE who study the Shoah, I felt especially mixed about the educational mandate to make the Holocaust "relevant" to a new generation of Jews by teaching them to think broadly about the Shoah's horrors and how they apply to life today for other people--what Rothstein points to as the "upstanders" and the "bystanders" (as brought to you by Barbra Streisand)--perfectly correct moral stances but so deeply disturbing in a way that we are now using philanthropic dollars ($45 million for the Skokie museum) to teach bourgeois American Jews that Darfur is bad, too.

Of course Darfur is bad; and as you might have seen over the weekend in Tablet, David Simon says that New Orleans is bad, too.  These are the self-evident lessons we Jews have been expected commanded to know since our Exodus from Egypt (Moses was an "upstander.")

I admire Simon his cantankerousness.  And I think he's morally correct to at least question communal priorities that don't place enough emphasis on our obligation to help the truly oppressed in our society.  What could be a greater lesson of our own one-time enslavement?

Equally, I keep thinking about that number I read today in the Rothstein article.  $45 million.  I think about our aching, troubled buildings.  I think of the hundreds we have each Shabbat, seeking a meaningful connection to Jewish life.  I think of the meals we make for the sick; the shiva minyans we organize; the work we're doing with the New York State prison system via the Osborne Association; the hunger and feeding programs we're starting.  So many demands by Jews; so many needs of the poor non-Jews in our community and beyond.  Given the near universal accessibility of the internet; the accessibility of the Holocaust Museum in DC; the millions of tourists who visit Israel and tour Yad Vashem; is it heretical to ask whether or not we need yet another Holocaust museum?

For more than three thousand years we have been remembering our enslavement in Egypt through a small, concise book--the Haggadah--and the ritual of remembering has sustained us as a people as well.  Songs and food played no small part, too.

The synagogue, which has sustained Jewish life for two thousand years, is a bargain compared to these museums.

Whatever happened to Jews making sound investments?

22 April 2011

145: Good Shabbos

 Smash em up.

Car Ride

Yesterday, in preparing for a long car ride along the Taconic State Parkway, I found myself explaining the origins of the Jewish wedding ceremony to two 8 year old girls who were planning their own mock-wedding for Saturday night.  There was the matter of the veil, which concerned them the most:  where does it come from?  What does it mean?  And who gets to make the decision that women should be veiled at all?  Suddenly I was cast in the unenviable position of explaining what one of the eight years said was "obviously sexist." 

I soldiered on, explaining how religious traditions evolve with time and even though certain customs remain, their meanings change.  That bought me some credibility, for which I was exceedingly grateful.  The discourse on veils created an opening to talk about Jacob and Rachel and Leah (and Bilhah and Zilpah) and the copious amounts of children they all produced.  Their concern rose again as they considered why it was that men could have multiple wives but women could not have multiple husbands (or, for that matter, wives, since these two kids were planning their own marriage.)

This spontaneous lesson in Biblical history wove through the time we were parked in front of a fire hydrant near Trader Joe's, watching two young Arab men work a jigsaw through a piece of plywood (without eye protection, I'll add.)  They were building some contraption for their store off Court Street, speaking excitedly to one another in Arabic about their endeavor, the eleven year old in the car was putting her recently hennaed hands into a context of veils and Middle Eastern traditions, and that's when I suddenly realized that our Passover week was in full-swing. 

Clawing our way through traffic on the West Side Highway on the way to the Hudson River Parkway (stupid move, I know--I just didn't have the patience to wait in line on the Brooklyn Bridge for access to the FDR--it's a classic dilemma for me which I often fail at) I was then asked to explain Easter, Easter Eggs, and the Easter Bunny.

I conjured an image of Jerusalem none of the kids has--that is to say, a place of ancient sacrifice, a conquering empire, the blood and gore of the past.  Their earthly Jerusalem has a pool where you order chips and lemonade with mint; buy stuffed grape leaves from a merchant who flirts with their mother; and where you see free Shakespeare performances in the Botanic Gardens at Hebrew University.  The look of horror on one of the eight year old's faces at the thought of religious strife, crosses on backs, executions and claims of messianism was too much to bear.  "I think the slavery in Egypt was enough suffering," one pronounced.

Schubert's Ave Maria was on WQXR.

By the time I got to the Easter Bunny, I had lost them to Glee's "Rocky Horror" episode on the iPod, their voices wailing along to their own messiahs:  Rachel, Santana, Mercedes, Quinn, Brittany, and Tina. 

"It's like Santa Claus, only furrier and, well, a rabbit," I offered.

But by then they were singing the words to "Science Fiction."

20 April 2011

146: Where 4-4 is better than it seems

 Win two in Pittsburgh; lose three in DC; win 2 of 3 in Philly.  The pitching is holding up quite well.  There are late game rallies.  Daring base running.  And the guys who are really supposed to be hitting the ball are doing it quite well.

This road trip has shown that the Brewers are built to win this year and while I would have loved to see a sweep of the Phillies, I'm satisfied.

19 April 2011

147: Hope

A great pitching effort by Randy Wolf lowers the team ERA to a league leader; Braun and Fielder continue to pound the ball; and the Brewers take the first two of a three game series against the Phillies.  April is not even older and I'm already beginning to blind myself with the hope of a great season. 

Ah, springtime!


Last night, as Passover began, we made note of the fact that it was Patriots Day, which meant two things:  the Boston Marathon had just been run and it was the 236th anniversary of Paul Revere's ride.  So we opened with a reading from Longfellow's famous poem about this critical American event and it was inspiring to see how many people sitting around the table were recite some of its memorable words.
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
The Israelites went up out of Egypt "armed" as well--not just with matzah, as we ordinarily celebrate, but with goods they had "borrowed" from their Egyptian neighbors.  No doubt there were some shtarkers among the crowd who took what they needed from neighbors who had been complicit in the Israelites oppression.  And I'm sure that there were neighbors who were more than happy to oblige, giving them aid for the long journey.  We know, for example, from the story of the "mixed multitude" that it's not without reason to conjecture that many Egyptians left with Israelites.  They wanted out as well.

But the other aspect of this borrowing that interests me is one of my favorite Passover stories, shared by Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, who was the grandson-in-law of Rabbi Leo Baeck, who was the Rabbi of Berlin before the Shoah and went with his people to Thereisenstadt, where he remained throughout the war.

Rabbi Dreyfus used to recall how long after the war, when Rabbi Baeck would return to Germany to teach, his American students asked how he could possibly go back to a land that was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.  "I go back to honor the neighbor who braved her neighbors by putting bread in our pockets as they Nazis marched us away to the camps."

This story's humanity always inspires me, especially at Seders, because it's a palpable example of how a simple act demonstrates the insistence and exemplifies the classically rabbinic teaching from Pirke Avot:  "In a place where there are no men, strive to be one." 

Distinguish yourself.

April 19 is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  

Among the many profoundly moving depictions of events surrounding this cataclysm are the words of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Rebbe to the many in the ghetto and one of the most brilliant teachers, thinkers and writers of his generation.  Life many ghetto resistance leaders, the Rebbe wrote diaries and stored them in milk cans that were buried underground, only to be found long after the ghetto was liquidated. 

The Rebbe's writings are among the most deeply inspiring Jewish words I have ever learned, and so in honor of the Seder's 2nd night falling on April 19, I share what historians say is likely the last entry he wrote before burying the milk can that would only be discovered long after the Rebbe was deported from the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Treblinka:
Have mercy from now on, God, on each of us and on the Jewish people--grant us only good things from now on.  May I myself be included with all my family and friends among the Jewish people to receive Your kindness.  Grant us right now the eternal redemption, rebirth of the dead, and a complete physical and spiritual salvation.  Amen.
Tonight is a night of remembrances.  And as challenging as it us for to remember the pain and suffering of past generations, our insistent re-telling of such horrific deeds fuels our survival, in part, as a people.  It's one of the great paradoxes of the miracle of Jewish historical reality. 

But tonight is a night of song, as well.  And our Sages have long taught that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in part because they preserved their language, they sang their songs of redemption.

And so here the Rebbe shares these words, demonstrating his concise and playful manner of conveying the deepest of truths.  The end is a bit shaking--but take him at his word.  He means to get your attention.
A person must build for himself ladders  upon which to ascend to Heaven.  Song, a niggun, is one of those ladders, especially when sung after the joy of a mitzvah and with a humble heart.  Every person has a unique portion in the 'world of melody,' so when singing, turn up the sound of your personal song.  If you do not tune in to that personal melody but just sing someone else's song, you are just swallowing someone else's saliva.
On this second night of Passover--may we tell stories of heroism and re-commit ourselves to carry out such actions in kind; may we remember the pain of human suffering, and re-commit ourselves to alleviating it still, near and far; and may we sing songs of redemption in our own voice, parting waters, breaking free.

18 April 2011

148: Effort

You win races like this, a 12-inning game against the best in the league, it starts to feel good.

I can only think that had Ryan Braun eaten his matzah, his sacrifice fly in the final inning may very well have been a home run.  But that's me.

Antidote for the Leavened Self

The notion of remaining awake all night long until the recitation of the morning prayers, studying the text of the Haggadah and contemplating the deepest possible meanings of the Exodus from Egypt, as exemplified by the Haggadah's description of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, has always struck me as the most challenging and aspirational aspect of the Passover Seder experience.

So far removed from what most Jews experience of the Exodus--the food, the wine and the family stories with the usual challenges of corralling the masses back to the table after the meal to finish some aspect of the Telling--the idea of these Sages staying up all night long to explore the depths of an historic liberation, already 1300 years removed from their day, ought to give us reason to truly wonder what we might stumble upon were we to stay up all night asking questions.

What kind of agenda of the American Jewish community might come into focus if over the course of an entire evening the true meaning of our Exodus would be debated?

Would we really care about quinoa or the countless recipes that are reviewed in every Jewish publication imaginable, including the venerated New York Times?  Would any of the clever videos or songs of the New Jewish Media really impact our ability to understand essential elements of the human struggle for freedom and dignity?  An artful review of Passover ritual items at the Met sounds good but damn if its not depressing to see Passover in a museum when we're supposed to be leaving "Egypt" tonight!  Would the innumerable meditations about Passover's personal message, its individuated spiritual truths, ultimately matter when poverty rates continue to soar, when school budgets are slashed, when food stamp programs are eviscerated?

I mean, really.  What's going on here?

To what degree has Passover become merely a celebration of ourselves and not the true re-commitment to the core values of what it means to examine our own historical enslavement?

Each year at this time I spend several hours paging through the many Haggadahs in my collection, thinking about the degree to which the Passover Seder has become, for lack of a better term, increasingly bland as an official expression of who we really are because, let's face it, we got it good.   No longer a document of National Liberation, given that we are possibly the wealthiest and most fortunate Diaspora Community in Jewish history, what is the Haggadah really supposed to *do* to us?  And so some time in the mid-1960s, things shift inward; and with the exception of Arthur Waskow's "Freedom Seder" (an admirable but basically flawed identification of Judaism with the anti-Vietnam War Struggle and Black Civil Rights--meaning, someone else's narrative, not ours) our Haggadahs have become manuals for teaching assimilated American Jewish communities about Judaism itself.  Who has time for Radical Documents of Liberation?  That kind of stuff can get you sent to the principals office.

Don't get me wrong.  I think supporting protests against the Vietnam War was a good idea.  Had I been old enough, I would have marched with Dr. King.  It's just that each of those now venerated pillars of one generation's definition of Jewishness don't get to the core of what this is all about.

For the Sages sitting up all night in Bnei Brak, talking Haggadah until Sunrise, they were arguing internal Jewish priorities.  I'd like to think they were modeling for us a way of looking at which philanthropists in the community support which projects; which Federation systems across the land support which projects; examining teachers salaries and their effectiveness in conveying a meaningful Judaism to another generation; demanding, like taxes, gifts to the poor and adult learning so that Judaism does not remain for so many a Pediatric Religious Civilization; parsing negotiations with the ruling authorities; and holding one another and each and every Jewish institution--including the Jewish Commonwealth--to the highest moral and ethical standards of Judaism's spiritual and historical reality.

That would be something to stay up all night for, yes?

The Vilna Gaon has a very powerful teaching about this.  He argues that man's propensity at self-aggrandizement is like leaven, the agent that makes dough rise.  The more one contemplates the Self, the more he is given to Sin.  Studying Torah, on the other hand, neutralizes this inclination.  He points to God's warning in the Talmud:  "I have created the created the urge to do Evil and I have created Torah as its antidote."

We come to the Seder table as individual seekers--such is the presumption of Jewish life today.  But the longer we stay, God willing, the more we come to learn that we are part of a greater whole, part of a greater destiny, part of a greater narrative promising Redemption from the Almighty Self, liberated with the knowledge of the pain of others, linking arms in unity, and moving forward to Freedom.

17 April 2011

149: Doubleheader

Brewers "make-up" for Saturday's rain-out by blowing a doubleheader, hence getting swept by the Nationals.


Must be the full moon, which auspiciously means one thing this time of year:  the Bread of Affliction.

Eat it, be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God.

Everything else, they say, is gravy.

16 April 2011

149: Rain

Rain in DC.
Rain in Brooklyn.
A solid Bat Mitzvah performance in the morning.
Lunch and a nap.
Russian doctor marries a Cajun doctor in Manhattan Beach in the evening.
More rain, a sign of blessing and goodness.
Fall asleep reading Arthur Marx's "Life with Groucho."

Rain falls; lightning flashes; thunder shakes the ground.  Heroes and sons of heroes go to their grave.  I drift off thinking about that.

15 April 2011

150: White House

 Two weeks ago I received an invitation to come visit the White House. Sent along by the White House Office of Public Engagement, the idea was to welcome 50 community leaders from across the country to meet with leaders in the Obama Administration, hear about their record and give direct feedback from "the base that got us here" as they put it. I took my daughter Audrey, 13; the other child there was a ten year old from North Carolina who was visiting with his grandmother, an educational consultant. There were community organizers, small business people, non-profiteers. We were black, white, Asian, Latino, Arab. Gay and straight. Disabled and spanning ages from 10 to 75. It was an impressive array. As far as I could tell, I was the only member of the clergy.

The presentations were excellent. Clear, concise, and honest. There were admissions of error in not staying in closer touch with the electorate; a clear-eyed assessment of what a tsunami the national media market and blogosphere are to the attempt to govern. There was also considerable pride in their achievements and a direct claim that the depths of the mess inherited in 2008 were unlike that faced by any President-elect in recent history. There were lots of nods of understanding in the room.

One official after another--Michael Strautmanis, David Simas, Brian Deese, Anne Filipic, Michael Blake, Stephanie Valencia, Jenny Kaplan and Jon Carson were all fantastic.  Seriously.  Fill a room with 80 people; give them honest presentations and demonstrate transparency and open government; speak passionately and clearly for 45 minutes (that's 8 people) and it was a winner.  At one point during the presentations, Audrey passed me a note:  "I've decided I'm getting into politics."  That's a success.

After a two hour break, we were invited back to the White House to meet the President.  Here I was totally overwhelmed for a good fifteen minutes--by the presidential portraits; by the beautiful, stately aesthetic; by the scope of history all around us; and by that undeniable notion that it's likely I may never be back and that I am the first member of my family--going back generations of those who voted, paid taxes, served their country, lived their lives in devotion to our nation--to meet the President.  The power of the office is more real than one realizes when you are inside those gates, walking those halls.
In the White House Library I noticed that the JPS Torah was given to Richard Nixon, inscribed by Arthur Goldberg, who after serving on the U.S. Supreme Court and in the U.N., retired into being President of the American Jewish Committee and in that capacity chaired Jewish Book Month, which apparently, President Nixon agreed to serve as Honorary Chair.  So it all said, in Goldberg's handwriting, on the inside cover of the Torah.

 Audrey and I studied the portraits of the First Ladies--Hillary's was ambitious and spoke to her future achievements; Eleanor Roosevelt's was inspiring; Jackie Onassis seemed as beautiful and fleeting as her husband's portrait was pained and haunting.  I stood in front of FDR's portrait and strained to see Harry Truman's, both of which hung on an off-base stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floor that I wished with all my soul my father had lived to hear about.  They were his Presidents during his War as a young man and growing up I heard about their greatness to no end.

A kind officer noticed us studying the rooms and invited Audrey to meet the charming and warm White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, a highlight to be sure.
And then, just like that, President Obama entered the room.  A dad himself, he took to Audrey right away, enthusiastically saying hello and then striding to his spot where he formally greeted each us, kibitzed for a minute or two, and allowed for candid photos by the White House photographer.   The President warmly engaged Audrey in a conversation about her school and her expectations for high school; he and I talked about a couple congregants he knows.  He was direct, humorous, and man, I can't imagine doing what he does with thousands of people each week.  And then, just like that, we were moved along.

I found the entire experience to be deeply moving.  Inspiring.  And I was grateful for how well we were all treated--how receptive the Administration officials were to hearing complaints, prodding, words of inspiration, rallying cries to keep up the work to fix our nation.  There were expressions of humility on behalf of each of the presenters and promises to stay connected.  If the Obama Administration can keep these efforts going, they will be far ahead of the game when it comes to preparing for another election in 2012.

nb:  on the Acela on the way home, the Brewers stormed back from behind the Nationals, only to lose the game in the 10th inning on an error and a bit of a bumbled fielder's choice.  That Washington prevailed on such a day seemed a poetic end to a spectacular experience.

14 April 2011

151: Bases and Boxes

In the Apple Store on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown I reached the conclusion that I'll never get an iPad. Something about its dimensions just aren't right. And as I held in it my hands--trying to be impressed by its iPad2-ish sleeker design and lighter weight, my fingers and thumbs kept bumping into each other trying to arrive at the right configuration to get a sense of how Randy Wolf was doing out in Pittsburgh.

Prince had knocked in another run tonight and Wolf's throws were landing in the gloves of his teammates--a reality which delighted me. But what commotion just for the simple facts. Trying to plow deeper into mlb.com ran me straight into the app for it, and this only made matters worse. So I gave up. Wishing I had simply heard it all on the radio, I took deep sentimental satisfaction in the score: Milwaukee 4, Pittsburgh 1.

In the meantime, Auds and I walked off our dinner at Martin's Tavern (across from Harry Truman's booth), hopped a cab to the Lincoln Memorial, and mingled with hundreds of tourists and spring break school trips to read the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural, two of the crown jewels of American democracy. Auds was moved to tears by what she experienced, filling her young soul with democracy's fragile weight while gaining a grasp of history in the mysteriously lit temple the eternal soul of this great leader.

We descended the steps on a glorious April evening, drawn to Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial and Audrey thought aloud about the names glowing in the night, our faces and the Mall's other monuments shining forth from the deep blackness, from the lettered graves of Americans. The grass outline guided us deep into the pit until we were buried when we emerged again, on to a level field, pulled up and out by cherry trees in full bloom.

Their redolence was intoxicating and we stood beneath them for a time. The moon's crescent hung above; planes passed overhead; off in the distance cameras flashed and voices drifted around silly vanities and the heavy cloaks of memory and sacrifice.

I remembered reading box scores as a kid. Growing up, we received two papers each day: the Sentinel in the morning and the Journal in the late afternoon. The Sentinel's box scores and game analysis was never as complete as the later coverage and it wasn't until years later, long after the papers merged, that I understood what a guilty pleasure it was to read so much about such a mediocre team. Alas, they were my heroes.

The other heroes we read about in the afternoon paper were those fighting a war in Vietnam. And as the loss of life increased, we'd read the names of dead soldiers, missing soldiers and prisoners of war as they were listed in the Journal's Green Sheet each afternoon.

Box scores for players; death tolls for soldiers. Players making it to first base; some men and women never making it home.

"Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Lincoln's words 146 years ago, so soon before his own death, were a prayer indeed, for the end of that scourge of war that continues to haunt us in our day. In our own community we recall those whose lives are still sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan, for causes sure to some and clouded to others. The Civil War; the Vietnam War; Iraq and Afghanistan; and everything in between. We keep the numbers; their statistics are a measure of our worth. But like a light that guides us, here, Lincoln's words--a beacon in the night:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

13 April 2011

152: Three Things

1.  Prince Fielder swinging the bat.
2.  Nyjer Morgan knocking down another catcher.
3.  Shaun Marcum throwing the ball well.

Brewers 6 Pirates 0.

These buds of April could yield beautiful trees of summer.

12 April 2011

152: Rain

The first rainout of the season. 
In Pittsburgh, no less.
Two cities with a muscular, industrial pride
Inventing themselves--again.

Lightning touched down last night
Somewhere near the Ebbets Field grave
The ghosts of empathic Bums
Feeling our pain.

Magnolia sagged in pink saturation
Forsythia glowed in yellow dampened delight
London Plane took root on our corner
While birds, and others, waited for day.

11 April 2011

new poem from Billy Collins

Simple Arithmetic

I spend a little time every day
on a gray wooden dock
on the edge of a wide lake, thinly curtained by reeds.

And if there is nothing on my mind
but the motion of the wavelets
and the high shape-shifting of clouds,

I look out at the whole picture
and divide the scene into what was here
five hundred years ago and what was not.

Then I subtract all that was not here
and multiply everything that was by ten,
so when my calculations are complete,

all that remains is water and sky,
the dry sound of wind in the reeds,
and the sight of an unflappable heron on the shore.

All the houses are gone, and the boats
as well as the hedges and the walls,
the curving brick paths, and the distant siren.

The plane crossing the sky is no more
and the same goes for the swimming pools,
the furniture and the pastel umbrellas on the decks,

And the binoculars around my neck are also gone,
and so is the little painted dock itself--
according to my figuring--

and gone are my notebook and my pencil
and there I go, too,
erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.

--Billy Collins

10 April 2011

153: Simplicity

Ming Ming and I went to the Met this afternoon, our second stop of the day after the memorial service for a friend's mother.  Memorializing souls and memorializing the objects of history was the theme, I guess.  We've taken a number of Sundays in the past six months to walk the halls and galleries of the city's great museums, without a class or docent but just allowing a natural curiosity to run its course.  Yesterday we spent time in the Egyptian Wing, examining mummies and linens; then off to the American Wing for an intensive study of Dutch styles (dovetailing perfectly with PS 321's 2nd grade curriculum), a brief sojourn into the detailed expressions of Louis Sullivan and the remains of the Chicago Stock Exchange.
Lunch, the Middle Ages, and a few good laughs in front of an Hieronymus Bosch painting.   Amidst it all we had a very sophisticated conversation about crucifixion (Ming Ming is opposed) and she struggled with both being drawn to and repelled by the blood scenes of religio-human sacrifice.  "But that looks like a Kiddush Cup!" she exclaimed at one point, noticing angels receiving Jesus' blood as it poured from his hanging body.  Somewhere in her mind, a sociology of religion is taking hold.

When we came home, we flipped open the laptop and tuned in to Brewers' radio on WTMJ via the MLB site just in time to hear Bob Uecker call Casey McGehee's dramatic 8th inning, pinch-hit, 2-run homer to give the Brewers the lead over the Cubs.

Ming Ming, with her new pink and sparkly Degas ballerina t-shirt (branded "Met Kids") smiled and said with a wink, "That's a pretty good day."

I aspire to such simplicity.

09 April 2011

154: Performing

Prince played a great game--three doubles, no small feat, and for a brief moment I thought to myself:  Maybe he doesn't really want to be a free agent, afterall; maybe he really does want to stay; maybe what he's really trying to say to the team is "I'll perform if you'll perform and we all band to together to truly commit ourselves to winning a championship."

An individual's free-will, a complicating factor in life in general, is all the more so complicated when a team is involved.  A team, like a family, is a hard group to break away from; and the Brewers have been a kind of home family for Prince since he started playing professional baseball. One can't really fault him for wanting to break away, take his talents, and, as the well-worn metaphors dictate, spread his wings and fly.

But on nights like tonight, when he carries the team and has the team's pitching carry him (Chris Narveson was stellar), one sees a constellation of hope in the night sky:  his home, his team, his family, is where he already is.

Nice game, Prince.

How Birds Sing

How Birds Sing

One is not taxed;
one need not practice;
one simply tips
the throat back
over the spine axis
and asserts the chest.
The wings and the rest
compress a musical
squeeze which floats
a series of notes
upon the breeze.

 --Kay Ryan

08 April 2011

155: The Other Part of Falling Down

This is the other part of falling down, the part that doesn't work out.
Human error, so essential to the learning process of moving through life, produces results that are sometimes to one's benefit and sometimes not. 

Such was the case tonight, when some stumbles on the way to a goal produced a big bloated inning of runs for the Cubs, an inflation could not be overcome and so a tally is recorded under the category of loss.

I was leading services to welcome Shabbat as this was going on--unbeknownst to me--which is just as well.  A teenage kid heading off to college in the Fall sat in the congregation wearing a Braves hat and at one point during my prayers I thought to myself, "Ah, well, we took three of four from Atlanta this week."  I also made note that between Boston and Georgia, the Braves played for a time in Milwaukee.  The mind wanders, what can I say?  At the Oneg Shabbat afterward, over Manischewitz, fresh fruit and cookies, I shook the hand of a Chicago native.  We were like two civil warriors before a meaningless duel, a glimmer of childhood competition passing between us.  "Brewers-Cubs this weekend," I offered.  Nods of recognition.  Two mighty men prepared for the hunt.

Yeah, right.

When I was growing up in Milwaukee, the Brewers were an American League team, so I know nothing of any kind of significant rivalry with the Cubs.  On a certain level, this is a fabrication of marketers.  To my mind, the Cubs were a quaint North-side Chicago amusement, playing in a park with no night games,  the keepers of a fading baseball tradition--the small, old park and a shelter, if you will, against the inexorable march of big-box commercialism.  Sports as business.

We lived in Chicago for a couple years in the mid-sixties and nothing of its sports teams ever made it into our family traditions--these were the Waters of Babylon, afterall.  I do, however, have an old mug from "Kup's Show," a local favorite on WBKB Channel 7, where Dad worked.  When my brother was born, Irv Kupcinet mentioned it in his Sun-Times' "Kup's Column."  I remember a tornado tearing through Deerfield; I remember bashing my head open on a trash can and requiring stitches; I remember sitting next to mosaic lamp and pretending it was a phone.  Chicago was one of the three cities Dad tore through in his career--a man of great promise and brilliance often defeated by his own errors of temperamental judgment.  The numbers of the television stations he worked at in Milwaukee, Sacramento, Chicago and back in Milwaukee, are a statistical manual of success and error.  Something to learn from.

Up.  Down.  Down.  Up.  So it goes in baseball and life.

When Dad walked off the field, as it were, after a heart-attack in 1983, his four kids gathered to clean out his apartment and divided among us his precious few possessions.   I took his Army photographs and the mug that Irv Kupcinet gave him.  When I look at it, I am comforted somehow by its confidence.

Still, it should go without saying, I'm not feeling so generously hearted that I'm willing to offer up an entire weekend of losses.

So get up, boys.  And go win a few for the home team.

07 April 2011

156: Perspective

Sometimes, when it's that important to score, people get knocked over.  It isn't pretty; but in the context of the Game, it can change things.

Here's a quote from Brewers' pitcher Shaun Marcum about his first National League victory and the team's three-game winning streak after starting the year losing four in a row, courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

" 'One thing I'm going to keep doing is try to get better each time out,' said Marcum. 'For the most part, I felt pretty good.'  As for the turnabout in the team's fortunes, Marcum added, 'We never had any doubt in our mind. Teams go through four-, five-, six-, seven-game losing streaks in the middle of the year but it's not under a microscope like it is at the beginning of the season.' "

A great baseball quote is revealed here; because within it is the kind of philosophy you can hang your hat on.

Who hasn't had a losing streak?  I mean, a series of bad days, or weeks, or months.  For some, God forbid, even years.  But to endure it while being supported by the notion of "we never had any doubt in our mind" is the kind of focused, insistent optimism that is truer than people are generally inclined to acknowledge.  Doubt is a powerful tonic to a starry-eyed view of things, especially when one's vision is in need of some realism.  On the other hand, too much doubt can have a corrosive effect on the ability to weather storms and make it through the hard times.  In this case, the side of the scale which reads "No Doubt" also has etched in its surface "Have Faith."

Being Knocking Down and Getting Knocked Down, there's plenty of room for Doubt.  But Faith is all about getting back up on your feet.


06 April 2011

157: Get to Work

There is a unique set of Hebrew terms that appear in this week's Torah portion, that are usually translated as "greenish and reddish," in reference to a kind of growth or mold that appears on a building, rendering it ritually unclean.  I prefer a stronger translation, something along the lines of "greener than green; redder than red," since this comports with what some commentators were going for in seeing the appearance of such phenomenon as religiously other-worldly.  A message, as it were.  In the broader Torah context of concerns for purity and how to alleviate damage caused by the impure elements of Biblical religious consciousness, the Sages understood that there was a deeper spiritual illness at the core of what might cause a physical ailment.

My grandmother, despite losing her husband to a violent death in 1939, raised her two daughters well and I kept a warm, clean house, through many lean and challenging years.  And when I got to know her as a boy, she would often spend her days outside in her yard, tending to her gardens, her bird feeders, and her grass, hustling about with a diligence I forever adored.  The house I grew up in had its share of turmoil, to be sure, given an impending divorce in 1976 but my mom continued the tradition of tending a garden, and assigning duties to us kids like cutting the lawn, wedding around the edges of the driveway, raking leaves in the fall.  At the time these responsibilities were framed as "getting outside" and far away from the television, a kind of demi-god which had begun to conquer the minds of the young and I'm certain is the source of a kind of spiritual illness in the eyes of many, blinding souls with the radically unrealistic constructs of typological characters that don't really exist in life.  Calves that are "golder than gold."  That sort of thing.

Anyway, while walking Nathan mid-day today, I watched briefly our building's gardening crew lay new mulch and shake loose the roots of flowering plants, an early April airing of life's nascent, earthy process, and thought about the idea of a home and its garden as opportunities to build a protection from the kinds of spiritual malaise that can cause homes to be colors unlike colors we've ever encountered before--but not in a good way.  Unnaturally green or red or brown.  Disturbingly so.

This, I would argue, is the force of the Levitical mind as it takes on man's encounter with nature and God, attempting to reconcile personal responsibility and life's mystery.

As Rabbi of a synagogue moving forward with a series of repairs to our sacred structures, such textual constructs are humbling indeed.  One of our lay-leaders, an architect, borrowed my Nechama Leibowitz Torah commentary last Shabbat, so enthralled with the idea that buildings manifest physically what the Torah says are spiritual ailments.  As we repair any space, but certainly our sacred spaces, we do so with the humility of wanting to get it right for ourselves but also with the fear and awe of wanting to get it right for God.

It opens the door for all sorts of questions that are being asked to do about spiritual buildings--sustainable materials, green roofs, solar panels.  We are not only what we eat; we are where we live.

My grandmother often gardened with a small transistor radio by her side.  Listening to Prince Fielder wake up and hit the ball as he did tonight in the Brewers 5-4 victory over the Braves would have pleased her greatly.  On Saturdays in the Fall she would listen to Badger football broadcasts.  On Sundays, it was the Packers.  Between April and October, she had 162 opportunities to listen Brewers broadcasts, a tradition I follow to this day.  It's an iconic sound, a ballgame on the radio and yesterday I caught myself trying to discern the audiological subtleties of hearing a game being called from inside Miller Park (a closed roof) and County Stadium (may its memory be a blessing.)

The difference eluded me.   However I did remember one time in high school, pulling into my grandma's driveway and seeing her in the yard, on one knee, weeding and listening to a game.  We hung out in the yard awhile and then went to sit in the kitchen and talk.  I was getting more serious about Judaism and so we talked alot about faith those days and that was around the time I learned about her relationship to Psalm 121, her favorite.  She recited for me the first line, "I lift up mine eyes to the mountains, what is the source of my strength?  My strength comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth."  Her hazel eyes sparkled as she spoke the words and they seemed to open up a window into a past where I could see, in a moment, one way a person trains their mind and soul to transcend pain and suffering into the illumination of triumph.  Flecks of leaves and soil were on her jeans and her Keds; her cheeks were blushed with excitement; she tapped on her kitchen window with annoyance at a squirrel for daring to invade one of her bird feeders, and she laughed, fulfilled in the moment of having tended her garden and having quoted scripture to her grandson. 

Raising kids through the Depression, a single-working mother and widow, she was victorious.  Her cultivation was her faith; her faith was her cultivation.

As I walk south on Eighth Avenue each day and take a deep breath before walking into the Temple House for work and service to this community, I contemplate this massive physical undertaking of repairing and restoring two old and well-worn structures.  The complicated, coordination of efforts; the various visions for what ought to be; the massive amounts of money to be raised. 

Lift up your eyes, I hear a voice say.  Get to work.

05 April 2011

158: Yovani

 There is a new word:  Yovani.

It means "two hits, artfully rendered."

Say it by the lake, waves against rocks in spring.  Aspirational buds in business; daffodils ascendant.

1-4 has never been suddenly so hopeful.

Henry Taub: Memory and Blessing

During my first two years at NYU--from 1998-1999, my boss Naomi would invite me to ride along with her and a professor or two from the Judaic Studies Department to go see Henry Taub.  Henry was a graduate of NYU, the founder of ADP, a lucrative payroll company, and very philanthropic, particularly for general civic and Jewish causes, including many related to Israel.  Naomi's plan was to create the Taub Center for Israel Studies at NYU and my job, as the executive director of the Bronfman Center, was to go along for the ride and, after the academics spoke, explain how scholarship devoted to Israel would positively impact the enterprise of Jewish identity and pro-Israel activism on campus.

I enjoyed the visits to Henry's office.  The drive up the Henry Hudson Parkway toward the George Washington Bridge afforded me often the opportunity to reflect on the scope and scale of my own work in the Jewish community--the city receding behind us; the cliffs of New Jersey looming to the west; traffic coagulating eastward toward the Bronx.  I marveled at how New York City was constructed as I, the least senior person in the car, listened to a skilled and brilliant visionary fundraiser pierced the armor of theoretical academia, my perception of Naomi arguing with the professors as we made our way over the George Washington Bridge and into the parking lot of the Taub Foundation offices in New Jersey.

The office complex itself had an impressive collection of ficus benjamina plants, a particular cultivation I admired, and knowing we were heading upstairs to raise funds (albeit for a good cause) I'd often pause at the plants to admire their humble, green dedication to regeneration.  Bless you, Ficus!

The coffee was always strong; Henry's sons would come forward at some point to say hello; and then a very serious conversation about Israel would take place.  The professors would talk about the value of Israel as subject of academic inquiry and I would often think of the poet Yehuda Amichai's poem "Tourists," in which the poet decries the interloper to Jerusalem noticing, through the eyes of a tour-guide, a common Jerusalemite shopping for groceries for his family.  Eventually, Naomi would volley serve to me to talk about "young Jews on campus" and as I waxed forth about shifting opinions in the current generation, Henry's eyes would sparkle, he'd listen, and then he'd surprise me by telling me about the Jewish communal work he and his wife Marilyn were supporting in New Jersey.  I understood him fundamentally as a man who cared deeply about the Jewish people, their continuity and perseverance, and the importance of investing in their regeneration as a nation--here and in the historic homeland.  Like paycheck data, those allegiances were steady, predictable and fair:  an accounting of what was owed and what were the costs of one's "life work."  These were profound realizations.

The Foundation would eventually fund a chair in Israel Studies at NYU and a Taub Fellows Program at the Bronfman Center, the latter being a way to actively and creatively engage a younger generation of Jews in questions of activism, Israel and Jewishness.  The lion's share of the philanthropy went to the new academic department, as it ought to have; but we had fun with the programmatic work that we did, always with Henry's bright, playful, ocular sparks in mind.

On one particular afternoon, toward the end of the conversation, my own eyes drifted toward a New Jersey Nets team picture and Henry and I traded playful barbs about some ballplayers.  Here's where I really saw another side emerge and frankly, found myself in a happy comfort zone.  Naomi and the professors went one way and Henry and I went on for a while about basketball, the game and its evolution, wondering aloud together about what would be.

I hadn't realized it last night, watching in frustration as Butler launched three-point shot after three-point shot to lose the national championship with an historically abysmal shooting percentage; but when I woke up this morning to read in the Times about Henry Taub's death, I remembered our earlier encounters.  Not so much about Israel and its future but about the steady accumulation of work and hours and wages and statistics, damnit!  statistics!  To be paid on time is to calculate correctly, to plan for what will be and oh, how I mourned a game taken hostage by the klieg lights and the glare of the bomb from three-point-land!

And this morning I saw that twinkle in Henry's eye as his soul ascended to be with God.  It never ceases to amaze me how it is that we learn about someone's death and then measure their known loss up against our prior understanding of reality.  Calculating the fluid value of that shot up against the probability that it would be made.  It reminded me of the theoretical conversations we had about the supposed relative "value" of Jewish outreach work to a perceived indifferent generation of young Jews.  Hard questions.  Hard numbers.  But always with a warm heart and discerning eye.

Henry, you contributed so much to the world and to our people.  Thanks for the privilege of knowing you at one point in time.  May your memory be a blessing.

04 April 2011

159: Celebration

Look, let's just deal with this as quickly and painlessly as possible.  The Milwaukee Brewers lost again today.  That makes four in a row to start the season.

Among my many enjoyable responsibilities today was a lunch & learn session centered around a text study about one teaching from the Vilna Gaon's Haggadah and in it we explored some of his rationale for why the number *4* is significant to the structure of the Passover Seder, I can affirmatively tell you that there is no direct correlation between said text and disgraceful losing streak.  In fact, it's beginning to be clear that when the Messiah comes, he very well may stroll right past Miller Park with hardly a nod.

Such is life.

But I did meet with a couple working out issues of faith and family in the run-up to a wedding; make phone calls to a couple congregants who are sick and in mourning; attend several meetings; plan two trips to Israel; research some good texts for two talks--one to our Board about our annual budget and another for the Living Wage Campaign Rally at Beth El Baptist in South Brooklyn.  I filled the tires on my bike with air, thanked God and civic activism for our blessed bike lanes (totally pro, people!) and shot off an email to Shannon Sarna for a nice mac and cheese recipe, since Monday night is my night to cook.  (For the discerning reader:  I didn't use pumpkin squash but subbed onions and garlic, heavily sauteed.  Tov m'od.)  I also made an arugula, mint, avocado salad with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette--all while listening to Brewers relief pitching collapse and late inning bats go silent (given new meaning to the adage, "If a tree falls in the forest...")

Set up the meal for the wife and kids; rode said bike to church; enjoyed copious amounts of Gospel Music while reading the introduction to Miryam Segal's book on the invention of the Modern Hebrew Accent (note:  the reason I had time to read is that the only people who *don't start on time* better than Jews are African Americans:  Well-done!) Loved the Church; loved the Music; loved the People.  AND got to read.  And then deliver an invocation about the inherent justice of the Living Wage.  There are so many reasonable and rational ways to have this argument but since I'm nursing a four game losing streak here, let me put it this way:  There are people who live and work in South Brooklyn who make less money per month than the cost of some strollers I've seen on 7th Avenue in Park Slope.  And that's a simple two-wheeled ride away, with or without lanes.  So in the clarity of a gloriously beautiful spring evening, let's get it right.

Hustle over to Shul for the Board Meeting.  Reports.  General civility.  A couple unsavory outbursts of incivility.  Hopefully they're nothing more than a side skirmish on the Children of Israel's sometimes contentious journey to the Promised Land.

And home to watch UConn and its pathetically abysmal graduation rates win a championship.  Feh.

Luckily, our pal Andrea Ruesing's new cookbook, Cooking in the Moment, was waiting in the kitchen, having been delivered in the last UPS run of the day.  On a day like to today, I simply ran from moment to moment, folding texts with Rachel and quick exchanges with the kids and responsibilities to the community into one made dash after another (and I missed one appointment--failure, after-all, is a part of each day.)

So what better way to end with Andrea's words as metaphor:

She writes:  "I think of 'cooking in the moment' as focusing on one meal at time--an icy, spicy cucumber soup on an August night, a glass of tangerine juice on a frosty morning, or soft, braised shortribs with horseradish on a gray fall day.  Cooking and eating in the moment allows food in a season to become reason for celebration."

Why We (Still) Can’t Wait

 Forty-three years ago today, Martin Luther King was tragically assassinated while in Memphis, supporting a Sanitation Workers' strike.  To commemorate that moment in our history, you are invited to read below an op-ed co-written with New York City Councilmember Brad Lander for the Living Wage Campaign.


Why We (Still) Can’t Wait
Rabbi Andy Bachman & NYC Councilmember Brad Lander

Forty-three years ago this week, our nation watched the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The images were seared into our minds, along with the sense that our nation had lost a beacon of hope in the ongoing struggle for racial and economic justice. Though he had lived to see many important advances and constitutional guarantees for all Americans regardless of race or creed, Dr. King was murdered before he had made much progress toward another vitally important goal: economic justice.

King was in Memphis that April to stand with sanitation workers who were on strike demanding recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a decent wage. To this day, those goals remain unmet for tens of millions of Americans, particularly on the lowest rung of our economic ladder.

With dangerously high rates of unemployment, and budget cuts eroding basic subsistence services for countless poor people in our city, we ought to reflect upon the legacy of Dr. King’s death while rededicating ourselves, yet again, to the dream of true equality for which he sacrificed his life. “Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all God’s children,” Dr. King said on that trip. “Now is the time for City Hall to take a position for that which is just and honest.”

For Jews, Dr. King’s message was especially resonant. Rabbis like Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel were among the many Jewish leaders who fought in the trenches with Dr. King and the African American civil rights movement, in large part because of our communities’ shared values of justice and freedom for all people.

The anniversary of his death comes in-between last week’s commemoration of the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (and the struggle of immigrant seamstresses for workplace justice) and the coming celebration of Passover. When we sit down at Seder tables across the nation, we will recall our sacred obligation to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt and that none of us are truly free until all people are free.

Our scripture consistently reminds us of these obligations. “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy,” King Solomon wrote in Proverbs. In the Torah, Moses echoed God’s command to the people, saying, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it.”

Our understanding of Jewish history and scripture demands that we work to put those values of freedom and justice into action.

That is why we support the Living Wage Campaign. The idea is simple. It would require businesses that seek voluntary taxpayer subsidies from the City – primarily for large real-estate development projects like stadiums and shopping malls – to pay a living wage ($10/hour with benefits, or $11.50/hour without) to all the employees who work there.

Why now? Because more than 25% of working New Yorkers are on food stamps. Because income inequality in NYC is staggering. In 1990, the top 1% of households took home 25% of all NYC income. By 2007, it had nearly doubled, to 44%. Because working people are struggling to make ends meet, while tax breaks continue to be bestowed upon large corporations.

Cities across America – from Los Angeles to Boston – have adopted similar legislation, and there is no evidence it has cost jobs. The legislation would not affect neighborhood small-businesses, just beneficiaries of big economic development subsidies and tax breaks.

Our conscience demands that when we give out tax breaks in the name of “job creation,” we make sure those jobs pay at least living wage to the workers, a basic measure of human dignity.

As NYC leaders consider Living Wage legislation in the coming weeks and months, we ask you to get involved in your local communities -- host and attend community events, learn more, and let your voice be heard.

Our Torah teaches that each of us was made in the Divine Image. This idea is at the center of the Jewish faith tradition’s essential commitment to guaranteeing basic human dignity to all people. One undeniable expression of that basic human dignity is a Living Wage.

May the memory and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King be an enduring blessing.

Andy Bachman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope. Brad Lander is a
New York City Council member from Brooklyn.

03 April 2011

160: A Closing Window

Truth be told, I don't worry about an 0-3 start to a season.  April seems to set the tone in a way but if you think about it, not really.  For a month and a half many of the players in baseball stretch and ready themselves for the six month run to the playoffs in fairly artificial conditions.  And then, especially for those teams that move north, to the cold and the rain, there is an adjustment period in which a whole new pre-season kicks into gear.  Generous pitching and spotty batting notwithstanding, it's far more reasonable start worrying about a record in late May or early June.  That's me.  You're free to do as you wish.

What I did find myself worrying about today during the Brewers' shellacking and sweep-fest in Cincinnati, was Israel, particularly given the dire estimations of Ethan Bronner in Sunday's Times about the ticking diplomatic time clock, Israel, Palestine and the U.N.  Here is a painted picture, the result of decades of failed diplomacy and the unstable irony wrapped up in the notion that at the end of the day, Israel may face a United Nations declared Palestine, similar to the way Israel was presented to the world via a U.N. vote.  Non-negotiated borders are far more problematic for Israel on so many levels and so one had the sense reading this article that we are facing, arguably, one more chance to get the two sides to the negotiating table to set borders for the two states.  What's meant to happen to the much talked about land-swaps when, by fait accompli, that land is suddenly in another state?  This next series of steps is going to require such a unified and concerted effort that belies any diplomatic moves we've seen from either side in decades.

See what I mean?  Here's where baseball is nothing but a guilty pleasure.

As Israel reacted to Goldstone's retraction of his Report's claim that Israel intentionally killed Palestinian civilians in Operation Cast Lead, the Huffpost shared a link to an Israel military photograph of a thousand Hezbollah bunkers in Southern Lebanon, bunkers for rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and that most people believe will be used in a future conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.  It's not a good situation; and with turmoil heating up across the region, Israel needs a far greater sense of unity and purpose in order to be in a strong position to defend itself and achieve the necessary diplomatic victories with Palestinians to ensure peace.

Again, perspective.  One shellacking--yesterday's 12-3 loss to the Reds--brings to mind, yet again, how important great pitching is to a team's success.  In baseball, it's the most proactive thing you can do--assemble a great staff of people who know how to throw a ball and where.

With a window closing, I pray that Israel and Jewish communities around the world will have the skill to get the ball through a shrinking space, into daylight, for peace.

02 April 2011

161: Hope and Promise

Each Saturday morning at 8.30 am, I teach a class based on the text Avot d'Rabbi Natan, an expansion on the Sages ethical guide, Pirke Avot.  It's a blast, I must admit.  So if you live nearby, join us some Shabbat morning.  You won't be sorry.

I wasn't the main rabbi leading the service this week so I got to sit in the congregation with my family and take things in from a participant's perspective and I am so proud to report that contrary to what people ordinarily think of as a "Reform synagogue" on Saturday mornings, CBE is insanely active.  On Friday nights when announcements are made our shul president, David Kasakove, waxes enthusiastic about all the goings-on for Shabbat.  It's a pretty extraordinary sight to see.  I share his pride.  The music, the teaching, the joy, the multi-generational commitment of so many people to be present, and, perhaps most significant from a perception-busters perspective, the free and easy way we've dealt with what the Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie refers to as the "God of Soccer."  70% of our Yachad students come to school on Saturday.  The excellence of the teaching and the program, led by Rabbi Shira Epstein and her extraordinary staff, keep scoring goals.

There's a lot of modeling that goes in the pedagogy of a Saturday morning service--not only are parents learning how to do Judaism along with their kids but all the other non-official liturgical expressions are being taught as well.  Shabbos greetings, shaking hands, sidebar comments, kiddushes, shmears, shmoozing--all of it combines into a greater texture of the Shabbat experience.  When I sit in the congregation once in a great while, despite how totally and humiliatingly embarrassing it is to my kids, I love shmaltzing it up with the little kids so that they can have that sense of play attached to greeting one another on Shabbat.  High-fives and fist bumps go a long way in cementing positive associations in Shul.  It's now a demonstrable fact.

So is embracing the Hebrew language fully.  And that's something we don't shy away from at all.  Hebrew is a gateway drug for a richer, more complex relationship to Judaism, Jewishness, and the deep rivers of the historic, civilizational reality of our people.  So this year we introduced Tal-Am, a modern Hebrew curriculum that has as its basis the idea that language is most relevant to Jews when its, well, useful.  We introduced it to 2nd and 3rd classes and will be expanding it next year--an experiment in supplementary school education that we're nerdily excited about.

Full-disclosure:  I travel and will occasionally spend money on the Sabbath.  Having said that, when the morning ended I went into Manhattan with my youngest kid to attend the 88th birthday of my dear friend and former boss Naomi Levine, who decided to celebrate her special day by inviting alumni from Camp Greylock for Girls, which Naomi ran with her late husband Leonard.  As usual, this truly powerful force of nature presided over a room of more than 300 women with an intelligence, grace and humor that is unmatched in New York today.  Last summer on our way to Montreal we drove through the Adirondacks and spent a night with Naomi, so that my kids could get a better grasp on the scope and scale of this legendary person.  My eight year old summed it up best yesterday afternoon when, after Naomi's party, we hiked over to Aroma for a boureka treat:  "She's the nicest scary person I ever met."

Back to Brooklyn and then over to the Toast to Tupper Gala in Prospect Park, to celebrate one of the most truly inspiring leaders New York City has known in the last 30 years, Tupper Thomas, who transformed Prospect Park into one of the crown jewels of our city.  It seemed half the CBE board was there and it had me reflecting on the ways in which great institutions overlap and learn from one another, sharing pride in the endeavor of loving what one represents and how to convey that sense of team outward so others can benefit as well.  Few institutions in the city have that cache and Prospect Park is one of them.  I even contributed something to the silent auction which actually sold--two 3-part lessons on the history of Judaism and the history of Israel.  For a brief while during the night there was a bidding war for the lessons in dramatic $50 increments that I watched unfold on my iPod Touch.  Not quite the old fashioned United Jewish Appeal method of calling out your contribution but nonetheless, it was pretty cool to realize a contribution to the Park be made in exchange for Torah and history.

As we walked home through the Park toward midnight I checked ESPN on my Blackberry.  Shawn Marcum, the much heralded new pitcher for the Brewers, brought over from Toronto in December, stumbled in his debut with the team, giving up five walks in four innings and forking over a 4-2 loss with only 46 strikes among his 83 pitches.  Ah, well.

The midnight canopy of trees above was too good, too comforting in this late walk home to spoil a day, even if I was all too aware of a regrettable 0-2 start to the season.  In the evening light, one could see the forsythia just in bloom, its bright yellow flowers that expression of hope and promise, despite these cold evenings in April, which reminds you of summer's long stretch into Fall.