30 June 2011


I'm back in Jerusalem for another summer teaching on BYFI--the Bronfman Youth Fellows in Israel program--a collection of 26 rather extraordinary young people between their junior and senior year of high school, representing all denominations and backgrounds of North American Jewish life.  I teach a 90 minute lesson each day to a small group of students and then we spend the rest of the day exploring the country, meeting leaders from all walks of life, and encouraging an open dialogue and inquiry into what it means to be a Jew at this stage of our history.

Last night, after an easy flight from JFK, we drove straight to Jerusalem to the promenade overlooking the Old City, ate a quick dinner of falafel and soggy chips, threw back a few glasses of Lipton Peach Flavored Iced Tea, and did some studying under the city lights of this beautiful public park.  At the edge of southeast Jerusalem, the promenade remains one of a few public parks with a Palestinian and Israeli presence and as we learned a series of rabbinic texts about Abraham receiving God's call to begin a new nation, a group of young Palestinian men were listening to loud and celebratory music.  During my teaching I found myself swaying to Jerusalem's familiar rhythms while off in the distance, on this exceptionally clear night, the lights of Jordan could be seen in the distance.  While reading about Abraham receiving God's call, we imagined, a few centuries later, Moses standing atop a hill in the Jordanian distance, longing to enter a land he never would.  Stars shone above; music swelled around us; fighting fatigue, the students plowed into narrative, melding self and tradition, individuality and nation, and the summer was on its way.

I'm staying in an apartment on Palmach, near my favorite pizza joint and an old, Viennese-style coffee shop, one of the last remnants of this neighborhood's former German Jewish culture.  Through my window is the architecture of an adjacent building in the Ottoman tradition--likely owned by an Arab family prior to 1948.  You get the drill.  In the cool, quiet, breezy night, I took a short walk for some water, a beer, and, if you will, the privilege of being able to take such a walk.  Returning each year, I always begin at the spot on the internal map of my own identity thinking about who in my family prayed in this direction but never walked the streets as I've been lucky enough to do.  It never gets old.

This damn thing called jetlag had me up at 3.30, reading, listening to my neighborhood cats, and then, with the sunrise, I was out the door for my morning run.  There's a new bike path traversing the city and heading down toward Damascus Gate, I was able to see the new light-rail being tested.  Fresh Arab bagels were being wheeled from East Jerusalem, up the hill toward Jaffa Gate emitting their warm, toasted sesame aroma, mingled with car exhaust, dusted rosemary and blooming jasmine.  Men and women headed toward work; men headed toward prayer; school-buses readied themselves for delivering kids to summer camp as I finished my run, bought a coffee and chocolate croissant, and watched the street on which I'll live for the next four weeks come to life.

I'm teaching a collection of texts on the history of Zionism.  Since our post-modern age likes to blather on about pretensions of being post-historical, and since for a variety of annoying and stupid reasons the term Zionism is somehow only understood in a rather limited, one-dimensional way, I wanted to root these smart kids in some basic ideas about how this project came to be.  They've been assigned Arthur Hertzberg's introduction to his famous Zionist Idea (in his words, "the single-greatest hundred page history of Zionism ever written!") and today we read excerpts from a few essays by my favorite Zionist dyspeptic, Asher Zvi Ginsberg, otherwise known as Ahad Ha-Am.  We deconstructed Ginsberg, put him in his historical context, tried to grasp his diagnosis of the Jewish problem, how it mirrored his own self-examination, and the degree to which his own ideas are still very much playing out today.  Just because everything seems like it's a click away, it doesn't mean it really is.  Sometimes you have to give yourself over to understanding where ideas come from.  I've got some good Arthur stories up my sleeve; some good ones about George Mosse, too.  I hope to try to make this stuff come alive for these kids.  Tomorrow we're reading Max Nordau, and of course, Theodor Herzl. 

I've actually become that guy who argues that dead German Jewish men actually matter to our understanding of the world we live in.  Imagine that.

You spend enough time in Viennese cafes, anything can happen.

24 June 2011

My Response to Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan weighs in here at the Daily Dish, including a meditation the rabbinic phrase, "All of Israel are responsible for one another."
I stopped short at the dictum rendered thus by Bachman: "All of Israel (read, "the Jewish people) are responsible for one another". And not for those outside the faith, including those they may injure or oppress? Moreover, in a world of Diaspora Jews, can there really not be a distinction between being part of the Jewish people and being in favor of the policies of all Israeli governments? Or, more precisely, can there not be a distinction between being part of the Jewish people and being in favor of the policies of a Greater Israel government, an expansionist, occupying force, deliberately designed for the long-term annexation of neighboring territory, with all the attendant compromises of forcing an entire people into subjugation? At what point, in other words, is one expelled from the community because one's interpretation of a tradition leads one to oppose its current political manifestation?
I wrote Andrew an email (in fact, in re-reading the email, I found a couple typos and fixed them) and here it is.


Hi Andrew

I read today your own weigh-in on the Benedikt-Goldberg affair and want to add quickly that I fear you may be mis-interpreting the Talmudic phrase, "All of Israel are responsible for one another."  It doesn't mean, as you seem to suggest, that in being responsible one is "endorsing" a behavior or a policy that one finds objectionable.  Rather, it implies because of one's responsibility to one's own--a core Jewish principle developed in no small part to a history of oppression and anti-Semitism, as well as moral obligation in shared relationship to God--one is obligated to be engaged with that community and, where one finds objectionable behavior, to attempt to change that course of behavior.  The key idea of the Talmudic dictum, I believe, is obligatory engagement.

To imply, as you do, that Jews are *not* obligated to care for non-Jews because Jews are uniquely obligated to care for their own is not at all the intention of the Talmud here.  Nor would that idea comport with deeply rooted commands in the prophetic tradition, articulated most clearly by Isaiah, for example, that we are both particularly *and* universally obligated.  I care for my Jewish community in Brooklyn but for my non-Jewish neighbors as well; I care for my brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel and for Arabs, Druze, Sudanese, and Filipinos living there as well.  I also care deeply for those individuals all over the world who are aided, for example, by the incredible work of my friend Ruth Messinger and the American Jewish World Service--aiding non-Jews in lands far removed from any Jewish community.  One can be obligated to one's family and one's neighbor.  That's the idea.

Your own example about being gay and Catholic is instructive.  Are you the Wicked Son for being a gay Catholic?  Gevalt!  No!  Mixing metaphors is generally never good; in this case, it sure don't help.  As an aside, I'd imagine that if you ever came to a Seder, you'd hear words from Jews telling you to fight the Church for your rights as a gay man.  Applying the Talmudic dictum here, one might say, "All Catholics are responsible for one another," which would imply fighting within the Church for gay rights (or, by implication, women priests, marriage rights, whatever...)  Leaving the Church altogether is between you and your conscience.  If I were your priest, I'd encourage you to stay and fight for what you think is right.  The body Catholic would be the stronger for it.  That's how I feel about Jews.

As a rabbi, I find this perceived notion that one can't criticize Israel without fearing ostracization to be a bit overblown.  Jews react incredibly strongly and the way we argue can be particularly harsh at times.  But in fact we have no power to excommunicate anyone.  You know the old joke about the man discovered on a desert island--giving a tour to his rescuers and shows them two synagogues:  "Here's the one I won't set foot in."  We value diversity of opinion.  Those who try to shut it down altogether are often in the historical minority.  In fact, the Talmud famously preserves minority opinion precisely because they may one day be revealed to be God's will.

I preach and teach and am active for a two-state solution; I worry about the ongoing occupation of lands won in the 1967 war.  I also see with clear eyes the violent actions and dangerous policies of Palestinians to deny Jews the historic right to the Land of Israel.  But as despairing as I may ever be about a possible solution, I never stop engaging my fellow Jews, precisely because our moral obligations to one another demand it--even if they'd deny me those same rights (as some current, right-leaning members of the Israeli government would.)  Why?  Quoting Leviticus, Rabbi Akiva famously said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" -- this is the greatest of all Torah laws.

Anyway, thanks for listening.

Take care,


23 June 2011

Our Troubled Waters

One more thought.  And maybe this is because my late and beloved grandfather was a physician, but I'd diagnose this debate about American Jews and alienation from Israel in a way slightly different from what is the assumed boiling point of controversy--definitions of Zionism and Israeli settlement policy--and attempt to understand another manifestation altogether--fading associations with Peoplehood as the result of the particularly fortunate circumstances of American Jewry.

Let me explain by returning to yesterday's debate about the Wicked Child in the Passover liturgy.  In her debate with Jeffrey Goldberg, Allison Benedikt talked about deleting the Wicked Child from the creative Haggadah she and her husband assembled and use to to celebrate Passover.  As a rabbi and teacher, I saw this as a powerful metaphor for a certain kind of alienation--conceptual and literal--from the classical Jewish narrative of the past 3000 years.  That's a heavy burden, I'll grant you, but I think it's a fair timeline.

If one understands Passover Seder material to date to the early Exodus time-frame (somewhere between the 15th-13th century BCE) where Pesach, Matza and Maror are mentioned in the Exodus narrative; to the early Haggadic material codified by the Sages in the late 2nd century CE and down throughout the Medieval and Modern period where the current Haggadah text takes shape, one over-arching theme that emerges is that one sits at the Seder and is commanded to see him or herself *as if* they themselves had just been freed from Egypt.  One ethical implication of this idea is that each of us *knows* oppression and by further implication, is expected to act ethically toward others as a result.  That is one of the unique ways Jews have always acted in the world religiously by rooting the spiritual mandate in the reality of historical experience.

Here is where the 4 Children come in.  The fateful Wicked Son, whose questions about the Passover ritual are understood to be expressions of one's alienation from the Jewish narrative, triggers much debate among the Sages.  One response, so pedagogically harsh as to likely not stand up to educational best practice today, is to purposely alienate the child back--"set their teeth on edge" as the Sages famously put it:  give 'em a taste of their own medicine.  It's safe to say from my own experience that the methodology usually backfires and the result tends to be further alienation.  Unless you're driving out a collaborator or one who is a physical danger to the community, you're not accomplishing much except your own self-righteous victory.  I try not to daven in that shul.

However, as the Sages debate the proper response to the alienated child, they note that his "wickedness" comes from a couple of different places.  One, his knowledge that may be used to lead others astray; and two, the refusal to feel the community's pain.  They see his question about "what does this service mean to you" as another way of saying, "why are you troubling me with all this historical trouble?  Who needs it!"

And herein lies the real heart of the matter--not with Allison and Jeffrey's debate, not with whatever Peter Beinart may be diagnosing for American Jewish audiences, not with whatever amount of hasbarah that may be emerging from countless initiatives to explain Israel to young people.

In fact, one could argue, the alienation is not about Israel at all.  But it's about the rapidly waning American Jewish propensity to know and feel the suffering of their fellow Jews as a Jewish value.  Pie charts of American Jewish philanthropic giving are as clear an indicator as anything--our liberal hearts go out to the greater world at far greater rates of generosity than they turn inward to care for our own.  This is a trend that began nearly a century ago and is reaching an astonishing crescendo today.  We care more for the environment, organic foods, service-learning trips to Africa and Asia, and any number of other public interest causes, not to mention art, culture and entertainment, well beyond the boundaries of our own classical narrative.  We're educated and work everywhere; love whomever we want to love; and raise our own families in whatever way we want to raise them. 

I sat at my daughter's eighth grade graduation at BAM yesterday.  More than 350 Brooklyn kids ascended the stage to receive their diplomas and at one point, my father-in-law said to me, "Gee, not a whole lot of Jews in this class."  In fact, I pointed out, there were quite a few.  We just don't easily recognize their names anymore.  Is that an irretrievable erosion of connection?  Does it all begin with a name, and who that name links you to, back in time?

At baby-namings here on Saturday mornings, I often mention the famous Midrash about God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt because they retained the practice of giving their children Hebrew names.  Naming yourself in the ancient language of your people; creating an irreducible bond with past generations of Jews; and yes, attaching yourself with the trouble that comes with it--are elemental to who we have been and who we ought to always be as a nation.

So as we sail through these troubled waters of emotional public debates about ties of loyalty, let's do so with open eyes toward a deeper reality.  The question we may ask ourselves is the following:  to what degree are American Jews willing to be troubled at all by any manifestation of the Jewish narrative?  Israeli policy is but one example in our own age; should we survive this one, surely, as the American project continues to unfold, there will be other tests as well.  Where we land will tell us much about our roots to what we have always known to be sacred tropes of the Jewish Nation.

22 June 2011


The cyber-argument that is taking place at Goldblog, between Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (and soon Tablet) and Village Voice editor Allison Benedikt, presents two classic symptoms of the current problem about American Jews talking about Israel.

Allison's original piece, "Life After Zionist Summer Camp," appeared in Awl and you can read it here.

Jeffrey responded to the piece with his own take, calling it "Giving Up on the Zionist Dream."  You can read it here.

From what I could tell, there was then a nasty Twitter post, followed by I believe what is called a Re-Tweet, our own era's manifestation of scrawling messages on bathroom stalls, and that seems to be where things stand.

In the world of electronic media ubiquity, anything and everything someone says about Israel, Zionism and Jewishness sticks around for ever.  When it's said by someone who writes from a well-known, New York City-based publication like the Village Voice, it carries a "weight" of credibility, even though the author is a film critic, not an expert on Middle Eastern policy and politics.

To complicate matters, both writers are, in relative terms, young.  They are representative examples of a generational debate about Jewishness and Zionism that is very much at the core of an American Jewish identity dilemma with regard to Israel.  It may best be summed up by the rabbinic dictum, "All of Israel (read, "the Jewish people") are responsible for one another."  How you respond to that idea from the Sages places you on one side or the other of the debate.

Allison Benedikt's piece, written in the voice of lost innocence, where post-camp reality and the sometimes dirty business of building an actual state in a hostile region, was certainly what raised my eyebrows when I read it.  Her internal travelogue of disillusionment, exacerbated by the painfully public recollection of her family's rejection of her non-Jewish spouse--who also happens to have strong anti-Israel feelings--made this a public fight waiting to happen.  Too many live wires there.

Everyone has the right to write what they please.  The question is:  to what degree are we responsible for what it is we say?

This strikes at the heart of Jeffrey Goldberg's response.  His reaction, like mine, I'll admit, was to be offended and almost insulted by the ruse.  In this day and age, can one really talk about "lost innocence?"  I always felt it was a stretch for Hemingway a hundred years ago.  Today?  American Jews for two generations at least have been phenomenally educated--naivete about Israel's realities cannot really be an excuse for anything, except an invitation to grow up and struggle with life's intrusive difficulties which are made manifest everywhere we turn when we leave childhood:  poverty and hatred; politics and war; hunger and homelessness.  This list goes on and on.  Bursting the bubble on the idealized world of Jewish summer camp is, arguably, what we're supposed to do when we leave that bubble.

"A Jew is an outsider with a critical mind," George L. Mosse used to tell his students in Madison.  This exemplar of Bildung, a towering figure of German Jewish secularism, whose own family's publishing house in Berlin eschewed Zionism, was a committed Zionist himself because he grew up in a different time and realized that the Jewish people needed a national home.  That doesn't mean one is not critical or blindly obedient.  But it means that one engages from a place of identification with your own--despite the pain of betrayal and virulent disagreement. 

I don't deny that Allison Benedikt knows this.  I am sure she feels it in her bones.  What alarms me about this whole debate occurred in the back and forth between Goldberg and Benedikt when Benedikt wrote the following:  "This is not meant to be snide, but John and I lead a seder every year and I've taken to making my own Haggadah because I'm not comfortable with many of the traditional stories and blessings. The wicked child bit is something I've deleted. But anyway, to you, aren't I the one who doesn't know how to ask?"

I was blown away by this.  The structure of the Seder is built on the number 4 (4 questions, 4 cups, 4 children) There is a long intellectual tradition of writing creative Haggadahs but to delete a core element, to delete a *child* seems to be severing a connection to the people that cuts to the heart of the Jewish peoplehood debate today.  A Seder without a Wicked Child is not a Seder.  A Jewish people without all its voices is not a people.  It's an American denominationalist religion where land, history and language gather dust.  That may work for some people; but it obviously doesn't work for others. 

As some American Jews throw up their arms and wash their hands of the Zionist project (some braggart named Kung-Fu Jew writes about this idea in the same messianic terms as fin-de-siecle Jews clamoring toward acculturation as the solution to the Jewish question):  " I salute her and hope so many others will also tell their elders to shut up, sit down and listen for once. Their control of the Jewish community is waning and they can listen now, or they can listen when we’re in charge."  That is, until some other Kung-Fu Jew comes along and kicks you off your pedestal, dude.

I will add one other thought.  On a number of occasions, I have counseled couples who struggle mightily with the sinful rejections they experience from families who cannot embrace a non-Jewish spouse.  It is deeply painful and can tear families apart.  Time, distance from the original hurt and the continued integrity of engagement, however, can bring families to a new place.  This is true for families and I believe it is true for the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

The family is in a crisis.  No hiding that.  But if all 4 children aren't at the table, the family falls apart.

The Sages have another teaching on the number 4 that is worth remembering.  At Sukkot, the holiday that commemorates our Exodus from Egypt and journey to Freedom in the Land of Israel, we are commanded to hold in our hands 4 species--a lulav (which produces sweet dates), myrtle (a sweet fragrance), an etrog (fragrance and taste) and willow (which has neither taste nor fragrance.)  One represents the Jew who learns; another is the Jew who does good deeds; a third is one who learns and does good deeds.  And the 4th -- the willow -- does neither.  But we hold all 4 together because we are diverse and most strong when we are united.

I teach that text every year at Sukkot.  Kids love it; and so do adults, especially those adults who have experienced the pain of disillusionment with how things turned out in life.  The notion of finding unity in diversity can be a quiet and fulfilling redemptive act.

You can't tweet that.

18 June 2011

Like Capa

Berkowitz was right.
My pal and teacher caught wind across the pond that I was reading Ernie Pyle and told me straight away, "When you're done, read Capa's autobiography."

I found it on Abe Books.  It's called "Slightly Out of Focus," his own play on words for the famous D-Day shots he captured as well as the fact that like Ernie Pyle, Robert Capa spent most of the Second World War blurry from post-traumatic stress and booze.
The book came to a tragic, hilarious, emotional, artfully crafted end while I rode the train early Friday morning to conduct a funeral.  In between 14th Street and Penn Station, while there was briefly a cellphone connection, a text came through from the son of the deceased, remembering to ask me to mention in my eulogy that his father was a Korean War veteran.  With all the telegraphing and cable sending that Capa had to contend with for visas and permits and rendezvous with his girlfriend Pinky, his ghost (or so imagined) would have enjoyed the instantaneous conveyance of information about someone already dead.

Living with Ernie Pyle and Robert Capa (who were together on a number of famous occasions during the European campaign to defeat Hitler) was profound.  In the imaginary high school history class that I teach (where I also coach the basketball team) my students read Pyle and Capa, have a passion lit within, and talk to their friends and girlfriends about deciding to be journalists, living lives with no compromise but the bold pursuit of truth and justice.  If tatoos weren't against Jewish law, I'd wear their names on each forearm.

Ah, well.

On my way back to the city from the burial in New Jersey, the hearse driver dropped me at 26th Street and the Hudson River, where I went to visit Andrea Meislin's gallery, one day before the Barry Frydlender show closed.  Andrea had a really nice chat about all sorts of stuff--she is New York City's largest collector of Israel photographers--and I didn't bring up Capa--mostly because being surrounded by Frydlender's photographers, which were so in-focus, it seemed not to quite fit.  (Capa's 1949 collaboration with Irwin Shaw, "Report on Israel," is in the mail, ordered as well from Abe Books.)

Anyway, across the street from Andrea's gallery is the James Cohan Gallery, where I went to say hi to James and his wife Jane.  Randomly, while looking at young Chinese artists out-there work on the walls, a gallery curator heard I was a rabbi and asked me to help solve a mystery she had been puzzling over with regard to a 1970 work by the artist Robert Smithson.  Smithson had apparently created a "displacement piece" using earth from Hebron and wanting to put it on Mount Moriah (let's say the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, if legend has it correctly in terms of where Moriah may be located.)  It's a fairly evocative idea and I was asked to help understand why Smithson may made certain Hebrew shapes in the piece, and if they were letters, what did the letters mean.

It was fun, unintended opportunity to riff freely on the date of the piece, the significance of Hebron and Mt. Moriah in the Jewish imagination in 1970, and what a "displacement" from one of the holiest Jewish burial sites (Hebron) to the holiest of holy sites, the Temple Mount and seat of sacrifice to God in our ancient Jewish practice.

While trying to tie these ideas together, I glanced down at my leg, twitching underneath the desk, and noticed the red earth from the cemetery in New Jersey, clinging to my shoe and pants leg.

Another displacement piece.

Like Capa, still alive in a rabbi's bag, in a gallery in Chelsea.

17 June 2011

Yes to the Gay Marriage Bill in Albany

I am in favor the Gay Marriage Bill being considered in Albany.
Self-evident, I realize, for a rabbi in Park Slope but nonetheless, vitally important to say so.

In today's coverage in the Times, there is mention made of Rabbi Noson Leiter of Torah Jews for Decency, an opponent of gay marriage, who is quoted as saying, "Even ultra-liberal senators should understand that the government should have no right to impose a counter-biblical definition of marriage, family and gender."  Anytime I read a sentence with "ultra-liberal" and two "shoulds," I know we're treading in deep politically partisan waters.  Who writes this guy's material, Lee Atwater's dybbuk?

I'm a Torah Jew for Decency and I'll point out that nowhere in the Torah is there a definition of marriage.  Marriage itself is fairly romantic and even spontaneous.  Rebecca falls off her camel when she meets Isaac.  On his wedding night, Jacob slept with his sister-in-law.  Joseph strikes me as gay, to tell you the truth.  In the Talmud, the rabbis famously imagine him painting his eyebrows.  Whatever.  He was the economic genius who saved Egypt and brought his brothers together after years of rivalry.  That's Torah Decency for me.  But to be clear:  the Torah does not define marriage.  It's just not there.

It's true that the Torah says a man shouldn't lie with another man as one lies with a woman and if you think about it, that's true.  If you're going to lie with a man, do it as a man!  Know thyself! 

We have several gay couples in our synagogue, raising their children as good--no, exemplary!--Torah Decent Jews.  They are kind, intelligent, generous; they pray in Hebrew and do deeds of lovingkindness.  They visit Israel and our in the synagogue every Shabbat.  Their parents love each other in supportive, monogamous relationships.

When God made the human, the Torah teaches that both man and woman were made "in the image of God."  I often think of that text when religious leaders decry the immorality of gay and lesbian love.  Another Torah text I reference is "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Rabbi Akiva said that was the most important principle of all.

From one Torah Decent Jew to another--focus on the love and everything should work out alright.

16 June 2011

"Away from me all you Evildoers!"

Well, until the sidewalk security cameras are installed outside CBE, this kind of stuff is going to continue to happen.  This is today's latest edition to my Honda Odyssey 2010.  I suppose I should be happy that the swastika has not made an appearance elsewhere. 

Still, it's an odd feeling to have someone dislike me this much.  All four sides of my car are now afflicted with the scrawls of my personal pursuer.  I'd rather be *unfriended* on Facebook.

I prayed up on the roof of the Shul today, always a pleasant experience--to see the neighborhood come to life from above; to the city greet the day in the distance.  Perspective.

From five stories above the sidewalk below, voices were faded and indistinguishable; Moses, towering above the corner of Eighth Avenue and Garfield Place was stolid, immovable.  Moses got to see God's back; the best I can hope for is the back of an early twentieth century concrete sculpture of the very man who conveyed to his people more than 3000 years ago, "Don't make an image of God."  So I listened; and in the hearing, averted my glance.  That's when I saw the new art form on the side of my chariot.

What did I do to deserve this?  It's possible, in the religious sensibility, to be responsible in some way, is it not?

It was time for Tahanun.
Eternal, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.
Have mercy on me, Eternal, for I languish; heal me, God, for my bones shake with terror.
My whole being is stricken with terror, while You, Eternal, how long!
Eternal, turn!  Rescue me!
Deliver me as befits Your faithfulness.
For there is no praise for you among the dead;
in Sheol, who can acclaim you?
I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears.
My eyes are wasted by vexation, worn out because of all my foes.
Away from me, all you evildoers, for the Eternal heeds the sound of my weeping.
The Eternal heeds my plea,
The Eternal accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror;
They will turn back in an instant, frustrated.  -- Psalm 6
 The immediacy of cause, response, action--in the relationship between man and God in this psalm--speaks to a core theological issue for me.  This is the God I believe in.  He listens; He understands; He sees and knows what I yet often do not understand; and so my personal suffering is usually sublimated to a greater lesson I hope to be fortunate enough to learn.

And so I think about my car.  The swastika; the broken wiper; the FU carved into the hood; and now one, two three, four, five scratches on the driver-side doors.  "I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears."  Why does this problem persist?  Cameras and a police report might get at the symptoms.  But the cause is for me to discern.

This morning I focus my prayers on this line:  "Away from me, all you evildoers, for the Eternal heeds the sound of my weeping."  I imagine an active banishment of not only the external but the internal causes of my not-right-ness. And only when I can confront the evil that is near me, in me, can I unstop the ears of the seemingly distant God, causing Him to hear my pleas.

This is a difficult theology.  It is a fundamentalist theology.  But it speaks to me in times of trouble.  I don't accept its every tenet; I don't subscribe to it fully; but I pray its words, I hear its voice, I use its flame of Truth to light the darker recesses my own being, questioning what more I might do to build a world where such things elude not only myself but others as well.

Hard as it may sometimes be to accept, suffering teaches us that in fact, we can always do more.

15 June 2011

Chasing the Demon

Ah, Depression.
Certainly worthy of capital letters.

Dad was born in 1924 and was five years old when the market crashed.  His Pop was a doctor, so was able to muscle the family through and I have to say, I grew up hearing virtually nothing about tough economic times. 

Mom was born in 1933; born into it, you might say.  And by the time she was six, her father had been killed by a deranged man looking to "get his job back" in 1939, just as Hitler was invading Poland and Milwaukee was struggling with massive levels of out-of-work people, hardly the beneficiaries of the robust recovery that War would bring.

Her mother, a *single mom* is how you'd put it today, went to work.  Like the good woman of Anglo Saxon stock she was, she persevered.  Not a whole lot to talk about.  "Say little, do much."  She didn't know from Shammai, if you catch my drift, but what difference does it make? 
I loved her work ethic.

This winter I got depressed; and as summer approaches and I prepare to return to my center, Jerusalem, I want to reflect on its particular nuances.  If this saddens you or makes you uncomfortable, I apologize in advance.  I'm a man, a husband, a father, a friend and then a rabbi.  Also a jerk, an idiot, a wise-ass, a rebel, a runner, a reader, a writer.  I used to be a ballplayer.  Not so much anymore.

So, you know, in the scheme of things, rabbi coming in fifth place ain't so bad.  And I live in tawny Brooklyn--Park Slope--after all.  You don't want your rabbi ranking his state of existence at number one, do you?  That would be too intense--too religious.

I composed a list the other day for why the winter of 2011 depressed me.

Here's what I came up with.

1.  A friend in his fifties lost his job in November.  This threw me for a loop.  One, because he seemed quite happy and secure in his job.  I was surprised by the radical suddenness of it all.  But two, it unearthed a personal trauma from my own childhood when my dad, of similar age, lost his job.  This, as it were, messed me up.  Dad lost his livelihood; his manliness; his pride.  Ensconced in the harrowing and amoral bowels of television advertising, Dad was knocked off his pedestal as the Milwaukee CBS television affiliate's manager of sales and replaced by a young turk twenty years younger than he.  His fruitless age discrimination lawsuit went nowhere for a decade and in the intervening years he was divorced and lost both his parents to old age.  By the early eighties when I stopped growing past a passable age for playing college ball, I dealt with his economic spiral by taking out loans to go to college, got a job, got a degree, and struck out on my own.  When he died of a heart-attack at 58, I expected it.  His downward spiral is inextricably bound with my own core habit of survival, built on an edifice of a nearly heartless work ethic.  Nothing will ever get in the way of not succeeding precisely because he failed.  It's brutal, I know.  I'm not always proud of it.  And yet, I often hear his voice saying, "Goddamnit, son, yes!" 

When my pal lost his job this Fall, it messed me up.  Sent me back, reeling, into a despair for him, for his family, for the idea of loss.  And, simply put, it depressed me.

I lost myself in my work; became difficult to live with; confronted past demons.  Blech!

2.  America is a deeply narcissistic society.  Seriously.  Capitalism; Media; Pop Culture.  That stupid introduction to the Declaration of Independence, that pretentious, idiotic, self-absorbed nonsense about "certain unalienable rights?"  It's precisely where we went wrong!  I, I, I.  Me, Me, Me.  Individual rights as absolute are only valid, if you ask me, only in so far as they obligate us to fulfill words of Torah, which, let's face it, obligate us to serve a Master greater than ourselves.   In other words, don't oppress me:  I have to worship my God.  "I" exist only in order that I may fulfill the will of One Greater Than myself. 

3.  Not long after Dad died, I found myself in the Dean's Office at UW.   Paul Ginsberg, the dean of students, was the bulwark between me and the State of Israel.  He had run guns against the British as a Zionist rebel and was therefore heroic to me.  But he grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket and told me to calm down.  Take it easy.  Mourn.  Learn.  "Israel doesn't need another nut."  He literally said that.  So that's when I met Irv Saposnik; and George Mosse; and began to construct a moral and intellectual universe rooted in reverence and skepticism.  50-50.  Equal amounts of each.  They pulled me from the depths; gave me truth; redeemed me. 

From Irv, to George, to Arthur, to Stanley Dreyfus, my rebbe in rabbinical school who fed me Torah like no other at the yeshiva, I realized this past winter how much I mourn their mutually collective loss, their absence; and that this abyss of their not-there-ness is radically absenting.  The terminology is as ridiculous as it's necessary.

4.  On numerous Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, while "bringing the community together in prayer," I look out upon them and wonder how it all happened; marvel at how I got there; remain, stupefied, by the immediacy of my decision to heal and lead all at the same time.  The *twin-bill* or the *double-whammy* as it were of religious leadership:  To close the wound in the self and heal the rupture in the other.  This aspect of training in rabbinical school eluded our faculty.  It's not their fault.  We all get busy.  But the Winter afflicted me with its winds of discontent as I peered out among the prayers and struggled to connect.  I was forever leading but lonely in my pursuit of God, Whom I sought, like a desperate lover.

5.  And certainly not least:  Israel.  My home.  Like Wisconsin in the West, Israel in the East is the place of repose.  Of Fundamental Truth.  Here's what was, the Fifth Depression:  The inability of the most spectacular place on Earth to make Peace with itself.  As if some demon had occupied the souls of those who would try and in a devilishly subversive way, undermine every effort at creating, from chaos, a whole.  The self-absorbed atomization of American Jewry and its need to be righteous; the self-righteous anger of Israeli leadership to see an enemy everywhere and not dare, like King David, to "seek peace and pursue it."  And the Palestinian leadership as well, of course--it's failures are many.  But oughtn't I look inward first before assigning blame to others?

So today I prayed as if for the first time.

Gave it all to God.

He can take it--I certainly hope so.  Better:  I know that to be true.

And in a glimmer of hope, I felt, however briefly, relief.

Relief from despair and hopelessness; relief from the corrosive powers of cynicism; relief from the alloying smeltification of our religio-national meltdown.

"Happy are those who dwell in Your house; I will praise Your name forever."

Humility, appreciation, gratitude, eternity. 

As summer arrives I climb out of the pit.  Chasing the demon. 

Yet again.

11 June 2011

Five Bil v Bupkes

Walking back from a meeting in the city late on Friday, heading straight to shul for Shabbat services, I passed a young child and her mother, still in the throes of the late afternoon budget cuts to the New York City Department of Education.  The mother was walking a few steps ahead of her child, who was approximately four years of age,  the child was carrying a rolled up poster with some protest or another about budget cuts and chanting, "Hey Hey Ho Ho Mayor Bloomberg's Got to Go!"  It was charming on a certain level, and yet for some reason I felt the need to challenge the child on the wisdom of the chant, given that there were many other aspects of the city that were deserving of praise.  Since we were each walking in opposite directions along Prospect Park West, I smiled at the young child's chants and her sincere expression at having been, well, brain-washed into being a "one-issue voter" and offered the following bromide to her rebellion:  "But surely, young lady, you like the Bike Lanes.  The Mayor has championed the Bike Lanes!"

The child looked at me as any four year old in that set of circumstances should look at a guy like me ( a blank stare) and then, after we had blithely passed one another, the mother offered just within earshot, "The budget cuts to education are wrong."

At that point I was a good twenty feet beyond her; her sweet little rebel was lost in thoughts of carrots, cherry tomatoes and ice cream, and I was nearly late for Shul. 

But I had an idea.

What if our Mayor, the first (and likely only) Republican I ever voted for, gave $1 billion from his philanthropy to save the New York City Schools on condition that 5 of the city's 8 million residents each agreed to sacrifice $1000 in a special tax to save the education budget.  Between the Mayor's billion and the 5/8 of New Yorker's $5 billion, we'd have quite the story to tell, no?  Do the math.  $6 billion for education.  Do you think an extra stretch of $1000--that's less than $100 per month for 5/8 of the city--is worth it?  Affordable?  If so, it's...

The greatest civic matching gift in American history.  We get:  Civic Pride.  The Mayor gets:  Philanthropic Hero Status.

 Whadya think?

It sure beats the tried and true: poster board from Staples, the four year old kid, the tired parent with a passing remark over the shoulder on their way home after a protest which likely will yield the shiny pride of pedagogic edification but won't amount to bupkes.

10 June 2011


My car was keyed again, which is, you know, a pain in the ass.

At least it wasn't a swastika this time--just a long line down the drivers side, extending from the driver's door to the back end, with an extra flourish around the back tail-light for emphasis. 

The rear wiper was yanked again, downward, in an attempt to emphasize the low state of human affairs that makes a rabbi's car fair game from the low-life that passes the time with cheap vandalism.

It's been well over a month since the last pass at this form of communication and then, when I called the police, they said, "Get security cameras for in front of the synagogue.  This serves as a deterrent.  Most people don't want to get caught on tape doing something stupid."

Most people.

As is often typical of over-extended non-profit institutions, we've not gotten the cameras.  Our dysfunction is in not getting certain things done; others is in vandalism.  Pick your poison.  So in the meantime, the car remains exposed.

08 June 2011

On Eyes and Prizes

First of all, we all need therapy to help us understand our perverse addictions to all things media:  Facebook, Twitter, the All-Powerful Internets, you name it.  With our society rapidly slouching toward Gomorroh, as they say, it should come as no surprise that we finally have a politician felled by his own sword, not like the Biblical Saul who anticipated his shameful end by depriving others of the pleasure of ending his career.  Here in the media capital of the world we have our own homegrown sensation, Anthony Weiner, whose "wedding rabbi" Bill Clinton--the man who officiated at his wedding--an initiate into the "rite of indiscretion" the old-fashioned way, where, presumably, two people experience physical pleasure.  In the case of the Would-Be Mayor of his Home-Town, Representative Weiner was simply an unhinged narcissist of the digital-age, seeking his own threshold of peak experiences, a new and decidedly unmanly way of doing things, as Maureen Dowd so adequately pointed out today.  That's why when he cried at his press conference, I tuned out.  Even my kids don't cry when I accuse them of spending too much time on-line. 

Second, I'm more disturbed by his unrestrained ego, his out of control id, and his runaway hubris, the public delusion that in fact he was desirable to his countless "followers" on Twitter and Facebook, which, as far as I can tell, he earned by being well-tanned, fit, and yelling at people on the House floor.  As for his skill as a politician, a fourteen year list of achievements in terms of what he actually did in service to his country (where's that list anyway?) and the disturbing wrinkle in time of the last four years in which he has toyed around with wanting to run New York City:  he blew it.  Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership should send him packing.  NOT for some dumb ethics violation -- that's a smoke-screen to make the leadership on both sides, Democratic and Republican, look holy and pure in the run-up to the next election.

No--Anthony Weiner should be sent packing by his party's leadership because he brought shame upon his colleagues when the stakes for the future of the country are so high.  The horrifyingly unethical slash and burn political tactics of many Republican leaders in Washington and beyond, the race-baiting, religion-baiting, immigrant-bashing, gay-bashing, right-to-choose-bashing, has been one of the most deeply disturbing manifestations of a broken political system in our nation's history.  Nothing can get done in Washington, DC--or so it seems.  So our adolescent Representative from Queens has nothing better to do but stalk women on the internet.

That's creepy.

But not as creepy as Andrew Breitbart partnering with ABC News (Disney) in order to publish pictures of Anthony Weiner's fetishistic behavior.  The Corporate Media Hunger Dragon joins forces with a known character assassin, who crows about being "vindicated" while never offering a word of remorse over ruining Shirley Sherrod's career--how soon we forget this racist mercenary's baptism into the 2012 Presidential campaign!

I watched Anthony Weiner's press conference and have read little else over the past few days.  Who needs the headache--not only from him but all the other sanctimonious leaders who have not fought valiantly for a better budget, for a just system of taxation, for the call to serve our nation in a time of need.  Whole government programs that provide vital services to the least powerful in our country are being taken apart on a daily basis.  And the partisan stalemate leaves little else for consideration other than the porno-habits of a 46 year old boy.

Anthony Weiner is free to fight for his own marriage--but he was elected to fight for his district and fight for his country.   To the extent that the country we believe in exists anymore.

Maybe it's all quickly moving to a new virtual reality of instantaneous media pleasure, shmeared with your favorite colors and flavors.  In my home state, the Republican Party has openly decided to run fake candidates for state office.  Fantasy and reality are virtually indistinguishable.

(But hey, wait a minute:  if that's true, maybe the "real" Washington, the "real" State Capitols, are there for the taking!)

Poor Anthony Weiner:  He couldn't keep his eye on the prize.  Silly boy!  He thought the prize was him.