27 May 2011

Lose Your Head::Get a New One

sally, rico, lu, mitch, steve, sarah, jon
Some rainy afternoon about five years ago I had one of those Walter Benjamin-like cinematic moments driving through a cemetery where I saw myself as a character in my own movie.  The Mekons "Orpheus" was playing on the iPod and as the car rolled past the headstones the band sang "Lose Your Head!"  Rico Bell's accordion playing beneath it all.   "In the water, hear me singing, as my head swirls through the brine:  Lose Your Head!"

No doubt:  the earth at some of these burial plots is quite salty.

Today, however, in the seemingly still heat of a late Friday in May, while laying to rest an eighty-year one year old who had earlier in the week taken his last breath, a brisk and sudden breeze entered the cemetery from God knows where and at the very moment I was attempting to assist the mourners in the labor of covering the casket with rocky clods of earth, my own celestial head, made by hand with threads of browns and blacks and whites and purchased, three years ago, in a small religious bookstore in Jerusalem, tumbled off my head like a wayward, instantly disabled spaceship, and its disk flipped downward into the ground.

Not even the cold, cold ground of a Johnny Cash song but the hot earth, quickened into its summery realm by the threatening sun.  My kippa bounced off the coffin, folded itself in half next to the deceased, and there, with hardly a chance to bid me adieu, was instantly covered by a shovelful of land, like styrofoam popcorn, gentle padding for a gift being sent from one address to another.

I prayed at sunrise on Masada with this kippa; buried dozens; taught and learned underneath its benevolent shade; blessed bread and babies in its shadow of peace and love.  I used to tilt it forward on some days, gangsta, and on others, like a willing and humble supplicant, kick it to the back of the head, feeling, in the rarest of moments, worthy and radiant with awe.

I've welcomed the Shabbat, rejoiced in each Festival, led Seders, and recently, threw it across the room in anger and disgust at myself for losing my temper with my children.  "Lose Your Head" indeed.

There was no time to reflect on this moment.  In fact, I pretended it didn't happen.  And while others across the span kept filling in the hole from their side of the grave, I did my part on my side.  The symmetry was reflection enough.

When the burial was complete, the mourners approached me.  "Rabbi," they asked, "Can you say some prayers at these other graves, where our relatives are buried."  I humbly obliged.  Prayers for a dead mother.  Prayers for dead grandparents.  I could see that the moment was being felt deeply, celebrated, even, in the recognition that we all have when we get to our family plots:  we don't visit enough and time is running out.

Walking toward my car I passed the funeral director.  "I lost my kippa down in the grave," I said, kind of laughing.  "Oh my God," she said, "What does it mean?"

I picked up my 8 year old at school about 90 minutes later and told her what happened.  "I know that store in Jerusalem, Dad.  Let's go get another one this summer."

That's what it means:  Sometimes in life you lose your head; and sometimes, if you're fortunate, you get another chance to get a new one.

21 May 2011

What Is Now

 "And why must they know how to read the law?"
"Because," David argued patiently with his little son, "because a Jew must get ready for the other world, and one can prepare for the world-to-come only by reading the law and obeying its commandments, by being pious."

This exchange, which occurs early in Elias Tobenkin's "God of Might," summarizes Judaism's essential principle of Torah's purpose.  All we do here is a preparation for a better world.

I've been up since 4:30 am, watching the world wake up, yet again; listening to the birds alight from their slumber and create their own rapture; and, reluctantly, toiling in opposition to the noise of Flatbush Avenue, its ceaseless sounds of metal and fossil fuel, consummations of this world, with seeming little regard for what might be.

We keep a gravestone on our living room floor.  It's a portrait of Hank Williams carved in granite by our friend the artist and musician Jon Langford.  "We Live in Two Different Worlds," it says, and Hank's smile hauntingly enlivens the cold, gray rock.  The world we see with man's refusal to curb his appetite for violence; and the distant shores of possible peace.  The world of righteous condemnation by the brilliant and pure; and those who wade into the waters of complexity, taking great risks to salvage hope and peace.

It's a bit odd, I admit; perhaps even morose, to keep a gravestone in your living room.  On the other hand, it's not an actual gravestone but a piece of art, which is the point.  And as a compass of one man's vision of another man's lyric sung by another man whose visage stares, daringly past the present and into an unrealized future, I remain humbled and frustrated but certainly not bowed by our collective inability to simply get it right.

So perhaps it makes perfect sense that Leviticus, the Book of the Priestly Pure, ends with curses and warnings of bitter condemnation for those willing to thwart God's Law.  An explosion of anger and vituperation at man's incessant failures; dire predictions of the cursed downfall of humanity in all its willful imperfection.

The Sages understood something we might consider.  They called this book "Torat Cohanim," the Book of the Priests.  And it is ordered the third of five, or right in the middle.  That might mean that its message is central to Torah.  But it also might mean that its message is absorbed, buffered, tempered, hidden, even reined in.  Dire warnings often lead nowhere.  Careful and intentional action usually wins the day.  "Everything is seen, permission is granted, the world is judged with goodness, and everything depends upon the majority of deeds," say the Sages in Pirke Avot.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin brings a teaching from the Talmud to elucidate this point.  "A tree planted in impurity reaches out and God prunes the branches of his merits by rewarding him in this world so that in the next world he can be judged for what he is:  a tree planted in impurity.  Similarly, a tree planted in purity reaches out and God prunes the branches of his sins by punishing him in this world, so that in the next world he can be judged for what he is:  a tree planted in purity."

We can never be sure what rewards or punishments await us.  An honest, clear-eyed focus on life's paradoxical realities reveals this as truth.  "We live in two different worlds, dear, my world is honest and true.  Sweetheart, remember, when your world gets lonesome, I'll still be waiting for you."

Of course, we can only act on, and know, what is now.

20 May 2011

Two States

photo:  Doug Mills, NYT
President Obama said exactly what needed to be said in his speech yesterday at the State Department.  He carefully acknowledged the reality on the ground throughout the Arab world, delineated where American values emerge alongside those fighting for the dignity of freedom and democracy, and hit the right tone about America's stalwart commitment to those values.  One might even say that he ripped a page from the book on American Exceptionalism, pridefully articulating our country's unique commitment to these values, despite a cynical world which sees us as acting only in our self-interest.  It was a full three-quarters of the speech that spoke broadly to the Arab world before the President came around to the issue of Israel and Palestine--the section of speech we in the Jewish community had been waiting for.

We ought to feel proud of our President and greatly heartened by the courage and honesty of the speech.  As many commentators said in the immediate analyses following the Presidents talk, he said exactly what everyone thought he say, most important, that Israelis and Palestinians must return to the negotiating table and use as a starting point 1967 borders with assumed land swaps.  That means, very clearly, that the intent is to create a viable, demilitarized Palestine alongside a secure Israel, with "land swaps" meaning certain settlement areas will stay in exchange for territorial concessions elsewhere (parts of the Negev, the Galilee).  There is nothing new here.  This has been the foundation of negotiations for decades.  The President also called the Palestinians' attempt to get the UN to vote for a Palestinian state in September a symbolic action "to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."  About Hamas, the President said, "Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist."

Netanyahu could have delivered the speech himself--or so it seems.

The dramatic difference is that the relationship between the two leaders, as numerous journalists have pointed out, is not a warm relationship.  And the Israeli Prime Minister's attempt to play American electoral politics by mentioning President Bush's 2004 negotiation starting points as well as brazenly accepting the chance to address Congress without coordinating with the President was, in my view, more than justifiable cause for President Obama to preempt Prime Minister Netanyahu and deliver the speech he delivered yesterday.

The creation of a Palestinian state, with viable borders, demilitarized, next to a secure Israel, is going to happen.  President Obama took the bold and necessary step of laying out the groundwork for the incredible and historic efforts it will take to get there.

I endorse the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine; I endorse President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton's vision for the 1967 borders with land swaps as starting point.  And I will continue to hope and pray that together with Israeli leadership and Palestinian leadership, they will take every advantage in this historic time and make peace.

19 May 2011


from "Songs Around the Table Zmirot" by Rose Bernard and Florence Sloat. 1963.
"Moses, Moses, Moses rejoiced with the Commandment."


I love these old song books--we have scads of them around here, sitting in boxes, collecting dust.  They reveal an intentionality of purpose from a time not too long ago when our predecessors were as equally self-conscious of their own era as we are in ours--each devoted to honing in on the particular contemporaneous exigencies about the necessary project of finding just the right tone for passing Jewish life and its practices down to the next generation.

That's how I'd describe the intentions of the those converting to Judaism these days, inside our Shul.  My children asked the other day when I told them I was heading off to the Mikveh again, "How many people do you convert, Dad?"  And I figured somewhere around 10-15 a year, which seems up from the average some years ago.  Where's Bill James when you need him?

Among the many overwhelming truths about this experience are the impressive hunger for connection to ancient communal structures; the desire to move beyond the usual expected aspirations of middle class and upper middle class American values of the twenty-first century; a strong commitment to create a base of values, deeply embedded in historical and religious traditions and pass those on to another generation of children; and the exercise of a faith in God that allows for both devotion and questioning, certainty and doubt.  That values an argument but also privileges action over creed.

Some new Jews practically dive into the water, so enthusiastic are they for their immersion to begin.  Others walk slowly toward the living waters, step in slowly, awaiting a much anticipated transformation.

In both cases, there is a deliberateness of spirit that speaks to the notion of a Commanding Voice of God calling them to Judaism, a humbling reality and awe-inspiring aspiration that those born Jewish would do well to examine.

"My wife intimidates now," one husband recently admitted.  "She's read more and knows more than I do.  I guess she really wants it."

It's not without irony that the Midrash famously teaches that God had to hold Mt. Sinai above the Israelites heads, threatening them with death before they would accept the Commandments.

Others walk into the water deliberately.  And emerge, smiling.

17 May 2011


In the pouring rain this morning I headed up to the Mikveh on the Upper West Side, welcoming into the Tribe a young mother and her 18 month old daughter.  The Mikveh is a kind of aquatic sanctuary from the city, a holy place of reflection.  It's spectacularly beautiful, luxurious even, and each time I'm there I'm reminded of the importance of investing mindfully and generously in spaces that are meant to be sacred. 

From there a stop at the AIPAC office in Midtown--a place I had never visited before.  I walked from 74th Street, past Lincoln Center, along Central Park South, and then headed down Madison in the damp fog and mist, into a fun conversation about engaging synagogue members in Israel advocacy.  Ordinarily at CBE these past several years, we've convened public forums, learning and lectures--all around our own edification or deepening relationships with Israel.  But this conversation at AIPAC was about straight-up advocacy--a voice that deserves its own investment of time and effort.  It will be interesting to engage our neighborhood along these lines.  Surely our community and neighborhood must be more than the usual left-of-center programming we create.  Stay tuned.

I walked further south, to Grand Central, for a quick cup of coffee before taking the train down to Wall Street for a meeting at the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, an organization I've long admired for its incredibly inspired and tireless work on behalf of the Jewish value of loving kindness.  The Met Council's leader, Willie Rapfogel, remains an inspiration to me for the sheer effort, scope and generosity of his organization's mission.  And I always learn from him when we sit down to talk.  Today, we shared lunch; and then, in the middle of an ongoing conversation about local food bank and feeding programs in Brooklyn, his assistant came into the office to explain that it was time for Minchah--the Afternoon Prayers.  So a few of us grabbed siddurs and headed into a room where we joined a dozen other men and, well, praised God and said blessings.

The prayers were quickly rendered and from the heart.  On the wall opposite me was a poster reminding us of our obligation to care for others.  Around the room were men who work at the Met Council and whose job each day is to do their part to alleviate poverty among their brothers and sisters.

As I left to head back to Brooklyn, the May air, even in the darkened alleys of the Financial District, had that uncommon freshness of a forest floor.  The grey light seemed to draw into focus life's contrasts; seemed to vivify its plain, simple truths.

The tribal tug of language and tropes of prayer.  The tribal draw into the valued narrative of caring for another.  Rain fell outside the window on Maiden Lane, down below.  Lower still, I was reminded of the tribal waters of redemption, that time at the Mikveh at the beginning of the day.

16 May 2011

Pray for Peace 2.0

You know the old joke about cemeteries--people are dying to get in.
arbeiter ring gate: mt lebanon, queens
While standing in the gray drizzle in two different Queens cemeteries yesterday for unveilings, looking out over the quiet landscape of the memorialized dead, mapping out lives lived to varying degrees of fulfillment, the hushed air pierced by sounds of cardinals and robins alighting on branches and large planes passing overhead, thousands of living Palestinians crashed fences on Israel's borders in the coordinated maneuver of the Arab Spring 2.0:  Israel/Palestine.

It was only a matter of time.

After twenty years of failed peace talks, radicalized extremes and stubbornly entrenched diplomatic positions held by the mainstream leadership, we seem to have a new chapter on our hands.  Ripped straight from the pages of our own history--Jewish refugees streaming onto the beaches of Tel Aviv and Jaffa under the watchful eye of the British Mandate, facing gunfire and barbed wire, Palestinians attempted the same yesterday in a carefully coordinated protest of Israel's independence.  If the leaders can't deliver a state, the people will.  Such is the apparent thinking.

The funny thing about time is that it doesn't stop.  And the older certain people get, the younger and newer others seem to be.  It's that way with ideas, too.  No one knew exactly when the oppressive dictatorships of the Arab world would come apart at the seams, but most people knew it was bound to happen sooner or later.  And now that energy of rebellion and the demands for democracy and personal freedom have breached the fence, as it were, of the borders of Israel and Palestine.

Complicating matters is the degree to which Egypt (already in the throes of its revolution) Jordan  (holding its breath) Lebanon (a fragile tinderbox) and Syria (diversionary tactics are the tool here) can maintain quiet on its borders or wreak havoc for Israel.  Anthony Shadid, whose reporting all spring has been so great, weighs in today on the Syrian thinking and it's well worth a read.

It makes one wish that rather than waste the last twenty years posturing over positions of entrenchment and mollifying their more extreme political partners, the leaders of Israel and Palestine would have taken the necessary risks *then* in order to not have to pay a far heavier price *now* for what remains an inevitability:  two states for two nations.

The cemeteries yesterday were quiet bordered reposes of the dead.  The grim reality may be that Israel's borders will not be so quiet in the months ahead.

Pray for peace.

14 May 2011

Calling Me Home

This morning during our study of Avot d'Rabbi Natan, a weekly class with a loyal group of students, we attempted to deconstruct a text about the Sages view of the relative impurity of a menstruating woman.  The discussion, as you can imagine, was rich and far-reaching.  The class is one of the highlights of my week, an excellent way to start things off inside Shul on a Shabbat morning.  Three quick hallway conversations led to a move across the street, into the Rotunda space, where our weekly Shir l'Shabbat program was meeting, a bank of guitars and mandolin, a drum, several "axe-wielding" tots aspiring to careers in rock and roll, and dozens of happy parents and grandparents, promised, through the practice of the Hebrew language, that the community of fellowship in which they found themselves, would be assured of survival, merely because the binding force of the Hebrew language itself remains alive. 

Before naming a new baby in the community, I shared the famous Midrash from the Sages, that one of the reasons that God redeemed Bnai Yisrael from servitude in Egypt is because the Jews preserved their Hebrew names.  Such is the redemptive power of language.

Back across the street.  Sneak in breakfast, roll the Torah, and prepare for a Bar Mitzvah, a fine young man with an open and sincere heart, giving that pure joy to his family at seeing him ascend to the bimah, sing Hebrew words, and link himself, inexorably, to past and future generations.  Around the corner in the Social Hall, our Gan Shabbat and Yachad Shabbat programs were meeting together.  That means Kindergarten through 6th graders and their families were together, singing prayers in Hebrew, moving their bodies through the various ritual traditions of bending and bowing worshipful maneuvers, and forging a new meaning for a new generation in relationship with Judaism's ancient practices.  Altshul had settled into my study--pluralistic seekers after Shabbat morning's fuller tradition; and the Lay-Led Minyan, CBE adult members celebrating their tenth anniversary of meeting on Shabbat morning, a bit removed from the Bar/Bat Mitzvah glare.

Exclusive Bar/Bat Mitzvah services really are a challenge.  Their less worshipful and more educational venues, opportunities to display Judaism's rich spiritual tradition to an audience of participants who aren't generally practiced in, well, practice.  My focus in such moments is different from other public prayer moments.  There's more public teaching; more explaining that needs to be done; and the music is generally more "performative" than experiential. 

When I began my service at CBE in 2006, the quick assessment was that the only hope for building a Shabbat morning prayer experience for the community would require a three-fold approach:  1.  Keep the Lay-Led Minyan going in its own way, long-time CBE members who weekly practice a meaningful, participatory Reform worship;  2.  Invite in Altshul to be welcomed to practice their open-tent pluralism, letting their traditional spiritual fervor emanate outward; and, 3.  Move Sunday School to Shabbat and make it a family learning experience, which means that Yachad ("together") has a kind of ladder-like progression from birth through 6th grade, learning in a set of stages, Hebrew language the binding force every step of the way.

I was feeling proud of this achievement, really proud, when I looked up during the service this morning and saw one of the guests releasing a massive, unrestrained, non-stifled YAWN.  Full on.  Comic Book Worthy.
It was really intense. 

Was this an Angel, come to mock me in my pride?  An editorial statement on the relative boredom of my teacherly manner from the pulpit?  Or an insomniac, caught in a naked moment, relaxing into the experience of Shabbat but merely forgetting to simply cover his mouth?

Who knows. 

Thank God, at just that moment, it was time to face the Ark for the Barchu.  I turned toward God, fully, and nearly burst out laughing.  I imagine, suddenly, myself, emerging from the side door of the Chapel in full scuba gear--snorkel, flippers, mask--the whole megilah.   My diver alter-ego motioned to the room to "please rise" just like a Rabbi should.  I couldn't decide whether or not I should stage a goldfish inside my mask but that was for another time.  The Hebrew words called me from the page.  Looking down, their black shapes called me home.

13 May 2011

The Rest Is History

When visiting the White House a few weeks back, I met an African American woman from Milwaukee who lives on the block my grandmother grew up on--one hundred years ago.  Grandma's babysitter was Golda Meir and there's now a school there named after the late Israeli leader.  My new Milwaukee friend wasn't that impressed with our connection--she had current demands on her time, given that the poverty level and the education and welfare system in that section of Milwaukee are in dire need of funding and repair.

I understand.

Many of the Jews who lived there knew poverty--I certainly have the stories and pictures to prove it--but the road out of the ghetto was relatively quick compared to African Americans and my own family's Jewish trajectory was toward advanced education and material success.  Though having fled persecution in Russia and Poland, American Jews experienced unprecedented freedom and opportunity here as they began new lives--a blessing that I never forget as the second generation son of the son of an immigrant.

But one regret I have is not having been old enough to really know about or hear first hand many of the stories about the passage--not so much from Russia to America but from Ellis Island to the Heartland.  The decision to head to Wisconsin and set up life there is a story that eluded my dad and I've yet to really understand what went on and why our Jews wound up there.  It's a project that I hope to one day piece together, likely more with documents than with any oral tradition.  Such is the enterprise of lost knowledge.

My friend Michael Berkowitz sent an email the other day from Austin, where he is doing research on Elias Tobenkin, a writer and UW-Madison graduate who had a distinguished career as a novelist and journalist.  I had never heard of Tobenkin and after nosing around, decided to order his two books, Witte Arrives and God of Might, easily locatable online and in a matter of days delivered to my door.
Here is the straight-forward, economic, rooted prose of my great-grandparents' passage to Wisconsin.  Here I find the voice of the counter-intuitive, bewildering, spacious graciousness of Midwestern humility, welcoming the pious Jew to a new life.  The vast dimensions of possibility.  A sky filled with hope.  My heart has raced across each page of these books this week, sneaking in readings on the train, on the sidewalk, late at night, early in the morning, knocking off these narratives that satisfy, fill in gaps in my family history, paint a picture of the reality of a great-grandparent's life that was unknown to me personally but here made real.

What a pleasure.

Michael emails one morning, I meet a long dead author, and a window into the past opens.  "I'm looking at these photographs," he writes from the archive.  "Phenomenal."  Then he sends along the name of the town, "Kopel-Minsk."  That's where my grandmother was born, I tell him.  "I'll make you a copy of the picture," he writes back.

The rest is history.

06 May 2011

No Man Is an Island--Yet

Today is one of those days that, if I could, I'd pick up the phone and call Arthur Hertzberg.  But I can't because he is no longer among the living. 

Arthur, I'm sure, would have a few choice words about the controversy that Gary Rosenblatt writes about in the Jewish Week this Shabbat--rabbinical students at HUC and JTS who chose to kvetch about their feelings of distance from Israel, while in Israel.  Daniel Gordis wrote about it in the Jerusalem Post as well.

I heard Arthur's voice right away, reading through Gary's piece, essentially charging this generation of "future leaders" with being self-absorbed and overly sensitive, concerned with their own "feelings" of distance or disillusionment while Israel struggles with real existential questions, perhaps the most profoundly real existential questions since 1948.

This is not to diminish very deep problems within Israeli society itself--the continued occupation of Palestinian territory; great disparities between rich and poor; inequities between Arab and Israeli citizens; rising tensions between Haredi and non-Haredi Jewish religious life; a struggling educational system from kindergarten through university level that is not adequately teaching and retaining the kind of intellectual base that the nation will need to thrive and survive on into the 21st century.  And then there are the potentially destabilizing external threats--a nuclear Iran and a vast unknown future wave of democratizing Arab states and what it will or will not mean for Israel.

All of which is to say:  Why the distance for American Jews studying in Israel to be Jewish leaders?  What's so troubling with an abundance of challenges around which one ought to feel privileged to work and seek solutions for?  Rip a page from Shammai, who famously said in Pirke Avot:  "Say little, do much."

Having spent a year in Israel on several occasions, I can say from personal experience that the worst part of those years occur when American Jews live inside of the bourgeois ghetto of their own fortunate existence and kvetch about their problems--to other Americans! 

On a personal level, I liked many of my classmates at both Hebrew University and then at Hebrew Union College.  I just didn't want to live with any of them.  I made this choice primarily because I could not be persuaded of the value in re-creating a kind of comfortable American Jewish paradigm inside of an Israeli Jewish democracy.  It seemed to miss the point of being there.  So I chose to live with Israelis, in order to better understand a reality different from that experienced by the 6 million Jews who live in the United States. 

One small step that the rabbinic schools could do to alleviate this problem would be to simply demand that the rabbinical students find Israeli roommates.  I did.  And I was really happy doing so.  A whole new world was opened up to me which quickly expanded my understanding of myself, my Jewishness, and my sense of connection to the ongoing project of the Jewish people.  And do you know what I fundamentally learned?  That "it" wasn't all about "me."

For me, this was always the allure of those years in Israel--living inside of a corporate Jewish entity that had yet been fully corrupted by the run-away individualism of our conveniently compartmentalized American Jewish identity and its overly concerned obsession with the self.  My family.  My values.  My community. 

The future leader who chose anonymity wrote to the Jewish Week, "The Israel I see does not seem to reflect so many of the Jewish values that my family and community raised me with." 

Hey, the America I've lived in for the past thirty-fives isn't the America I thought I'd grow up into and so I struggle mightily each day to change it.  And when I'm deeply disturbed by Israeli behavior, I struggle mightily against that too.  Because though we may not "finish the task" of changing the world, "neither are we free to desist."

This problem that Gary writes about is no flash in the pan.  The crisis, however, is not that they may opt out because Israel's problems are too insurmountable, or messy, or troubling for these future leaders.  The problem goes much deeper--that there is a rapidly growing rift in the narrative structure of the Jewish people that can even allow one to imagine a sense of separation from any deep responsibility for your brother or sister, regardless of your political, religious or ideological differences.  It's no different, in fact, from the growing partisan rift among Americans--an equally corrosive development in our own democracy, and therefore ought to be an object lesson for these future leaders choosing the cozy narrative of their American Jewish upbringing.

Be careful what you wish for.  Self-righteous isolation can be a lonely thing.

02 May 2011

At Rest

Going to funerals as a kid and a young man, I remember noticing how the rabbis always managed to seamlessly comfort the family and mourners at the graveside and then leave, carefully coordinating their departure, while mourners remained at the site, contemplating the finality of death.  In my memory, the cars were always black--likely the limousines provided by the funeral homes--and no matter the season, the air seemed to acquire a kind of chill as a symbol of faith left the cemetery.  No marker for the dead yet stood; cemetery workers milling about, helping to fill in the grave, the shocked, distant look on the faces of those contemplating, absorbing, the finality of loss.

I'm not really a limo guy.  Not that there's anything wrong with it.  When doing funerals, I enjoy kibbitzing with the drivers of hearses and limousines.  They have eyes and ears on the death process that reveal great truths and frankly I always enjoy talking to them in the transitional moments of funeral day.  But I've long developed the habit of driving myself to and from funerals, mostly because I like the time alone to think, to drive (a classic if not slowly waning American tradition), and to navigate the city and its surrounding areas, always seeing something, learning something new about this massive metropolitan area.

And after serving as a rabbi for fifteen years, I've yet to figure out where to put my car once I arrive at the cemetery in order to seamlessly leave the scene.  I can never plan ahead well enough to leave right after the burial.

Clearly, I never could have planned the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

I identify in such moments not with the rabbi in the long coat and the dark car leaving the graveside but with Robert Frost, truth be told; or Wallace Stevens; or William Carlos Williams:  men who worked at their jobs but loved to think about the poetry of life, who lived to slow themselves down in certain moments in order to record them in their mind and in their case, certainly far greater than in mine, record them on paper for others to read and absorb.

So while my car remains hemmed in, and the families drift about for the first ten minutes or so after burial, I wander among the stones in other sections, recording names of old burial societies long forgotten, musing about names once popular among Jewish new Americans, and take note of fonts and carvings and gravestone artwork that is as alluring as any ritual art ought to be, or as galling and tacky as it should not be.  In the springtime and summer, birds are a major part of this experience.  They busy themselves with their environment, seemingly oblivious to the devastation beneath their wings, but saintly in their pursuit of the mundane:  a twig for a nest; a worm from the damp ground. 

I wondered, yesterday, how long Jews will bury their dead.  I truly worry about that.  The tenuous ties that bind us to sacred ground are diminishing and as is often the case in the cemetery, I find myself remembering one of the reasons I became a rabbi was to keep this link, this practice, alive.  Sacred land and sacred rites.  Names carved in stone.  Geographic regions where Jews once lived remembered in the names of burial societies that cared for them here, on these shores.  At the cemetery in Elmont yesterday, on JFK's flight path, planes roared overhead, drowning out the sounds of psalms and birds and mourners cries. 

I looked up at one point and the plane was flying so low I could see its markers.  It was an El Al plane, going to or coming from Israel.  "Jews are always moving," I said to the birds.  "And every once in a while, we stop." 

At rest.

01 May 2011

On Swastikas

So a Twerpy Little Coward keyed a swastika into the side of my car on Thursday night, making Friday a mighty interesting day.  The Vandal also etched an "FU" into the hood of the car and made some odd, Cy Twombly-like lines along various parts of the body.  Finally, Diminutive Demon bent the rear wiper, a minor nuisance but particularly disturbing since, in most cases, it's generally good to watch your back.

The incident came in the midst of the day in which I was meeting with congregants, planning a funeral, running to the mikveh and performing an early afternoon wedding.  The NYPD Community Affairs officer assigned to us was extraordinary, as usual; the 78th Precinct leadership paid a visit, friendly and helpful as ever; and by early afternoon the Hate Crime Unit was here as well, taking a report.  We couldn't have asked for a better response.

In the midst of it all, as a kind of meditation on technology and how information works, I posted the above picture onto Facebook, just a few hours after posting some meditations on the horrific tragedy of the tornado's devastation throughout the South, particularly in Alabama.  Why it is that the poorest often seem to be the most severely hit by natural disasters is one of those grotesque injustices that I can never fully understand.  In either case, I inaugurated my first-ever Swastika Incident with a profound sense of humility and clarity about what true suffering is in this world, annoyed more than anything that some perp put a crimp in my day when I wanted to lead and focus on more urgent matters.  Nonetheless, we play with the cards we're dealt, right?

Within minutes the responses were pouring in.  And by late Friday evening, there were more than a hundred comments, expressions of horror and sympathy, that such a thing would and could occur.  I appreciated every single one.  And meditated throughout the day on the ways in which a swastika on a rabbi's car, parked in front of synagogue, can evoke and unearth deep traumas about anti-Semitism that still penetrate people's psyche in our day.

To my mind, a Nazi didn't do this.  An idiot did--one who wanted to get a rise out of me; get back at me for something I must have done (shushed them at a service?  parked my Honda in front of shul? given a bad sermon?)  But a systematic attempt to eliminate me and my people?  A jack-boot walk up Garfield Place?  A boycott of Jewish business?  A death camp?  No.  Just a shmuck who knows that a passing, cowardly scrawl of a swastika is sure to upset a Jew.  And the local rabbi, at that.

So we file the report; we call Geico; we shield the kids; and we go on with our day.  And the Facebook comments keep rolling in, evoking danger, prayers for strength and protection, expressing shock and disbelief.

In the meantime, there's an internal email list that I'm on--a few academics and a journalist or two who keep me honest, and so there, too, the emails fly.  But here the dialogue is lofty, humorous, jaded and informative.

First the discussion focuses in on the symbol of the swastika itself--how it predates the Nazis use; that it was a symbol of life, you know, the usual business.

Here for instance, is an example of its use on, of all things, a box of "matzos":
image courtesy of eddy portnoy
And here it is as part of the design of a car, straight from early Detroit:

image courtesy of allan nadler
Additionally, there was an internal running commentary on the commentary--a kind of off-line comments section about the comments as they were appearing on Facebook throughout the day.  Truth be told, both were uplifting--the sincere expressions of support and the cynical musings of the observers, rallying me to use this incident to raise money to fix our roof.  "CBE just got a gift," one friend wrote privately.  "A swastika to build your capital campaign around."

Ah, yes:  the luxuries of an American Jewish community that can laugh at such jokes.  I chuckled along all day, while moving from meeting to meeting, thinking how incredibly fortunate our generation is that it can even conjure the humor in such an outrageously stupid gesture.

Tonight at sundown, Jewish communities around the world will commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (Originally the date was supposed to be on the 14th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, which is a day before Passover, linking the commemoration to the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  This always struck me as a powerful idea, joining memory to heroism, futile as that effort against the Nazis was.  But ultimately, the date was changed to 27 Nisan, tonight, and in Haredi communities the Holocaust is linked to Tisha B'Av, which marks the Temple's destruction.)  Each year as our community plans this, we face the harsh and bitter truth that survivors of the Holocaust are dying; that soon we will live to see a day in which only the 2nd and 3rd and 4th generations will have the responsibility and the obligation to remember the horrifying and unspeakable attempts to exterminate the Jewish people.  That we remain, in part due to great acts of heroism, victorious battles in war, and unlimited acts of bravery, generosity, and resilience, carried out by Jews and non-Jews who believed, ultimately, in the sanctity and goodness of life, is a lesson we will forever teach on this date, throughout the rest of our history as a people.

We will always know the difference between a swastika, a swastika and a swastika, the last here depicted in a Nazi decree against the Jews of Krakow:
image courtesy of yad vashem
As for my car?  I'll get it fixed and keep doing what I do.  In the hope that the cops catch the bum who did it--my price will be to do some community work at the synagogue and to insist perhaps on the greatest punishment of all for such willful ignorance:  spend a day learning with me.  Revenge, as they say, is best served cold.