19 October 2011

Play Ball

ozier muhammad, nyt
I was in Milwaukee for a couple days and stopped by a local sporting goods store to check out some team clothing to bring to the kids.  Hanging on the rack, lonely and neglected, were several dozen t-shirts touting the Brewers' run to the MLB playoffs, rally towels, and other celebratory fabrics of team spirit.  Twenty-four hours after the season had ended, the fast fade into oblivion begins.  Back at home, in Brooklyn, is a poster left over from the street protests in Tel Aviv this summer.  The euphoria of thousands in the street, united in their aspirational utopias and cathartic anger at the system, it's now three months later and the long march continues. 

There is already much digital preservation of these moments.  There are some very good feelings.  This is how consciousness is raised, we are told. However,  I can't help but submit to my cynicism--despite the relatively short distance to our having just completed Ten Days of Repentance--to question to hubris of such actions in the face of the overwhelming amount of work there is to do to fix a broken system.

I get it:  These types of social events are important for rallying the people to feel the energy to get motivated to do what needs to be done.  Always all this noise before getting started.  And nothing, in fact, has yet to be accomplished.  And one can imagine, that because history moves in large sweeps of time and power, "our side" may not even win a battle it has not yet begun.  The pep rally is still going on.  We've yet to see the kick-off, the tip-off, the opening pitch.

One hopeful sign is that with Governor Cuomo signalling that he will not extend the New York State tax surcharge, there is finally a reason for the Occupy Wall Street protestors to move to Albany for a while.  That's what people in Wisconsin did.  They took over the State Capitol building, occupied it, shouted, made posters, created demands, and then, slowly, saw those demands come unraveled in the hard light of day.  The recall efforts to turn out of office the Republican State representatives effectively failed to have a deep impact; recall efforts to move Governor Walker out of office have stalled; and a rather boring race to succeed Senator Herb Kohl in the Washington barely registers interest.  It's rough out there.  Which is why I believe getting off the street and up to Albany to engage the Governor would seem like the right thing to do for a protest movement that actually hopes to accomplish something more than a party in front of a bunch of cameras.

There is a great opportunity to take the core value of OWS:  the 99% are at an unfair advantage to the 1% and demand that the Governor address, substantively, why he is taking the position that he's taking.  This is how the substance of politics works.  But it requires taking off the warm-up suit, leaving the rally towels in the dugout, climbing the steps and getting on the field. 

I like flowers, too.  But come on:  take those silly daisies out of your hands and play ball.

18 October 2011


rabbi andy bachman and babak bryan (photo by will yakowicz)
I came out to Wisconsin for a few days to check in on my mother and grab a breath before returning home to Brooklyn for Simchat Torah Thursday night at 7 pm, the turning back of our collective narrative to the beginning, a wedding Saturday night, and as ever, the work, the work, the work.

The security lines at JFK were quite large on Monday morning and as I slowly approached my turn at the gauntlet, I was running over in my mind any particular event or spontaneous national holiday that had erupted, causing such a back-log of humanity.  But when I got closer, I saw that the culprit was the installation of body scanning machines at Terminal 5, there for our staff, no doubt, but the cause of considerable aggravation.  The early morning hour; the general state of disorientation among travelers in the bright glare of an airline terminal; the giddy, gadget-head goofiness of a new toy to play with; and the insanely weird humiliation of being forced to remove one's shoes (I'll still never fully grasp this supposed safety "procedure" and maintain that it's an odd manifestation of some kind of castration impulse in security protocol) before heading into the machine, feet placed on designated locations and hands raised high in the air (Ecce Homo!).  After the indignity of this matter, I still had to surrender my wallet, which was fondled mindlessly by some hapless guard before I was on my way.  At least they didn't confiscate my Alterra Coffee card.

Having been subjected to the security equivalent of a gas-powered leaf blower (when a simple broom and some effort would do just fine), it was only fitting that the flight was delayed by two hours because the plane's "computer system" had broken down and it required several experts, tech support, and then invoices to be signed before we could lift off.

While sitting in my seat, reading Philip Levine ("and those his life was then a prison he had come to live for these suspended moments") I watched the pilot's face as he walked through his own flight protocols, talking the techies, rebooting his plane, and then, finally back in his skin, grabbing the plane's PA and announcing that we were ready to fly.  He looked dazed but determinedly resigned to a new system.  He checked his iPhone and then grabbed the flight phone to address the passengers.  His communication seemed a welcome relief from the faceless motherboard that held his gaze the prior two hours.  He was ready to get back to work.

What objects of the machinery we've become.

My sister was waiting at the terminal in Chicago and as we drove up to Milwaukee, I watched the prairie come into view; and was reminded, happily, soothingly, of what a meditation on work is the midwestern landscape of my upbringing.  We talked about family and health; the protests on Wall Street; the upcoming release of Gilad Shalit; and the Brewers' pennant implosion.  We sat for lunch in a coffee shop along one of the more northern ends of the Milwaukee River.  Admiring the construction of the cafe, I thought back to the week that was, the building of our spectacular Sukkah designed by Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan and all the work that went into it.  The pleasure of sawing two x fours, drilling holes, bending rebar, and expending human energy against the force and grain of wood and steel in order to fulfill a mitzvah, the raising of an historic and spiritual shelter for our growing community, which, in the final analysis, amounts to work.

Like the small gardens of New Guinea impatiens and boxwood that we planted in our Garfield Place tree pits before Rosh Hashanah, these impulses, in their definitive humanity, are the appropriate balance to the ephemeral nature of our prayer and Torah study.  The עבודה of Shimon HaTzadik's teaching (the world stands on Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim) is here rooted in the more mundane but equally blessed meaning of Divine Service as Work.

Driving past the familiar Milwaukee landscape, past lawns I cut as a kid, basketball courts and ball fields I aspired to one day transcend, the value and dignity of work came into view for the new year ahead.  The work of feeding the hungry in our neighborhood and training tutors to help students at John Jay High School; the work of painting playrooms for family visits at Rikers Island and accompanying kids to see incarcerated parents in Albion; the work to save energy and green our sacred spaces; the work of teaching the Hebrew language to children and adults; the work to support Israel in the ways we see fit; the work to give blood; and the work of all work--to repair, restore and revitalize our campus of Jewish life--a Main Sanctuary more than one hundred years old and a Temple House more than eighty years old:  the places where our people continue to dream for life's better aspirations, as Jacob did on a desert floor more than 3000 years ago.

The protests in Lower Manhattan are yet another reminder, found in so many places for the past several years, of how much work there is to do to repair the world and leave it better for those who will follow us in life.  And moving well into our fifth year of chronically high unemployment, we'd do well to focus with a religious intent on the value of work.

Describing a factory job he once held in Detroit as a young man, Philip Levine writes, "Then to arise and dress again in the costume of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened by the knowledge that to descend and rise up from the other world merely once in eight hours is half what it takes to be known among women and men."

The more-than-once ascent.  The rising again and again and again.  Like getting up for work.  Anyone who knows the satisfaction of this achievement should feel deeply the pain of those without the blessing of work; and we ought to rededicate ourselves, again in the new year, to the repair of our city and nation, so that all who seek work may do so.

16 October 2011

Hosting the Senator

At some point during the Presidential election of 1976, United States Senator Fred R. Harris, Democrat from Oklahoma, slept at our house in Milwaukee.  He was on his second run for President that year and was running a people's style campaign, passing over hotels for the the hospitality of private citizens.  My mom was a party activist in local, state, Congressional and Presidential races, so somehow the request came through to us to host Senator Harris. 

I was just getting ready to turn thirteen, was still aspiring to a career in the N.B.A. (the growth spurt that never arrived) and developing a fascination for politics and service.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were direct linkages made in my mind from the funerals of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy which I watched on television; to the America POW and MIA bracelets for soldiers in Vietnam which we all kept close; to being teased mercilessly for being a Humphrey family and then a McGovern family; to a grandma who held me close whenever Milwaukee native Golda Meir was in the news, enforcing my connection to Israel; and to the times I spent in my dad's place, spreading pictures of his service in the Second World War all over the living room floor, recounting stories and adventures of a romantic, black and white era of stark choices, national sacrifice, duty and identity.

A nascent narrative emerged that one simply served as a matter of course; and that while the suburbs grew up around us, as the children and grandchildren of immigrants grew more affluent, it was vitally important to remember that our privilege of citizenship was part of a greater whole to which we pledged our loyalty.  Both my parents grew up during the Depression and came of age during the Second World War, searing the historical realities of these two momentous events forever into their worldview and by oral tradition, my own. 

It was therefore a profound honor to host a United States Senator running for the White House--an honor that felt far removed from the glamor and celebrity and handling of today's politics and more rooted in the simple, humble values of what citizens ought to do.  There is in my mind, these thirty-five years later, the memory of a veil of duty, like the patriotic bunting in a baseball stadium, that surrounded our home.

I remember the Senator's entrance; I remember him kindly meeting us; I remember him eating a small meal and then asking to sleep.  Early in the morning we arose to see him off.  Like his run for office in 1972, his candidacy in 1976 never really progressed and according to what I read, the Senator is retired and teaches in Oklahoma. 

He remains all these years later a kind of conjured Shoeless Joe Jackson figure from W.P. Kinsella's mind, who showed up one day in our home for a catch.  No pictures by the mantle.  I don't even know if there's a campaign-generated thank-you note in a box somewhere at Mom's place.  It hardly matters.

What remains are the lessons of citizenship, duty, and hospitality that inform my ideas to this day.

15 October 2011


Paradigm shifts, transformations, consciousness raising--these activities sound good but I'm not sure they're quite as discernible as people make them out to be.  And more often than not, they end up being like a good buzz of sugar and caffeine (or something stronger) that in the end of the day, leaves us with a big old hangover.

The protests of the Sixties were supposed to transform society and given the reality of the most legitimate claims of the Occupy Wall Street crowds, that's hardly happened.  Gaps between rich and poor continue to grow, larger numbers of Blacks and Latinos are impoverished and incarcerated, and we're still fighting wars with unclear goals and no guaranteed results. 

On the other hand, the slow churn of progress, incremental and dull as a pre-Apple computing system, slogs along.  Heads get bashed in on the streets of our nation in order to raise consciousness about racism.  Then Civil Rights laws get written, re-written, negotiated, passed, and only then, enforced.  Constitutionally mandated guarantees of equality for women, gays and lesbians has followed a similar path.  The years of work that went into passing gay marriage laws in New York State this past year, for anyone who was involved, was about working with the levers of government and the law in order to bring this into reality. 

Now that this fundamental human right has been resolved in our state and is slowly moving toward becoming a universally accepted human right in all states--that is to say, the fundamental human right to love whomever you want and build a family with that person--we might step back and reflect on the fact that the greatest legislative achievement of the last thirty years (since passing civil rights guarantees for minorities and women) is about "individual rights," in perfect harmony with the classical reading of the opening of our nation's Declaration of Independence.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
We might approach these words with skepticism, especially since at the most fundamental level, they guarantee nothing but that you and I are endowed with an inherent equality to freely live our lives as we want.  It says nothing, this most famous of sentences of American history, about our obligations to one another.  And while it's true that it needn't do so--after all, it's declaration of independence, of uniqueness, of individuation from a greater whole--embedded within it are the germinating seeds of an ethic of individuality that arguably is our very undoing as a nation. 

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  To my mind, this is the greatest line of rhetoric to come out of the Sixties, just at the beginning of that decade, because it is spoken by a veteran of the Second World War, conscripted with a sense of duty, and impelled to serve for the sake of a greater whole.  I've long admired the prescience of that call to obligation.  The war ended for more than a decade; America moving along a booming economic growth period; the military-industrial complex in full-swing; the suburbs expanding exponentially; the Cold War divisions looming, embers of McCarthyism still burning.  When Kennedy and his speechwriter Ted Sorenson wrote his inaugural address, they sought to address a generational shift in American political life; the looming dangers of the Cold War; and the obvious disparities of justice and equality that remained at the core of the American political reality, one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address.  One hundred years later and major civil rights legislation had still not been passed.

That's how slowly history moves. 

Within three years Kennedy would be killed and with that death, there was never again a national leader who could articulate the particular call to the citizens of the nation that service to country was an obligation, a privilege, an equalizing demand that we must make of one another in order to subjugate ourselves to a greater whole.  Freedom without the obligation is chaos:  millions of people doing what they want, where they want, when they want.  It may be a good time.  But it's no way to fix things.

I remember sitting in a restaurant with my dad the week I turned eighteen.  I knew I had to register for the draft if I was to apply for the student loans I needed to pay for college.  "I don't want to fight in any war that President Reagan decides I should fight in," I told my father, who then slowly and methodically laid to rest my assumptions, namely, that a volunteer army taxes the poor unjustly, removes from the obligation of service the privileged, the educated and the rich; and that the greater good for the nation is served when all share in the burden of responsibility.  "Take the long view, son," he said.  "I met guys in the Army I'd never have met in my whole life.  In a nation as big as ours, it's the great equalizer."

I have been reflecting on that conversation a lot lately, most recently in the context of our broken politics, our uninspired leadership, and my own personal decision to choose a life of service--religious service--by attempting to lead a small corner of the Jewish community toward a greater sense of obligation and service to God and others.  It's why by the time I turned twenty, with my student loans that I had secured in exchange for a draft registration that never came to be, I got into the religion racket and decided to become a rabbi.  I still remember sitting in the stacks of the Hebrew University library on Mount Scopus, cutting class, reading Voltaire, and concluding, fatefully, that "we must cultivate our garden."  For me, leadership and obligation would be enacted in a local community.

And now, nearly thirty years later, I see my country in an even deeper mess, with a volunteer army fighting a terrible war and an even greater disparity between rich and poor.  And I have to wonder aloud:  was the spiritual turn inward a betrayal of my obligation to nation?  Or, can a religious community model in our day the very language of obligation that our nation so sorely needs?

Challenges I thought once resolved have returned. 

That slow moving train of history rolls along.  What did Simon the Righteous say?  "The world stands on three things:  Learning, Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness."  Elemental foundations of our historical and spiritual reality that have kept us in the game for more than 3000 years.  America isn't even 300 years old--but I'd make the case that without Service, we're in deeper trouble than we think.

14 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street? No Thanks.

I'm not planning on occupying Wall Street anytime soon but since it's the current cause of celebration among the activist crowd and seems to have captured the meager attention of Democratic leaders in Congress attempting to revive their own efforts at principled leadership (the Republicans have their Tea Party, after all) I figured it worth the effort to share a few thoughts.

1.  Wall Street is not what's wrong with America; consumerism, run-away self-aggrandizement, an eviscerated core ethic of national service, and a radically digitized, virtual world where we can be who we want, when we want, how we want, has as much to do with the collapse of American Exceptionalism as anything the guys and gals on Wall Street have done in partnership with a political system that partnered with them and a willing population--don't forget the willing population!  as long as iPhones and Androids were cheap and a sale at Abercrombie and Fitch was always just around the corner.

2.  Call me boring but I believe that the prosaic efforts of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to strengthen the prosecution of illegal and unethical business and banking practices is more productive than occupying a public/private park.  Call me out-of-fashion but as an early proponent of the Living Wage here in New York City, I mourn the eclipse of that important issue by the vague and vainglorious nonsense of the Occupy Wall Street Clergy statement that calls for a "revolution" in America.  We had a revolution in America 235 years ago and we're still trying to get the principles of equality and justice heading down the right path.  I'm outing myself as a hedgehog:  changing history takes a long time.

3.  Where were these high-minded activists the past three years?  Waiting for Obama to do something?  Blogging about the horrifying Republican political tactics?  Making fun of Sarah Palin?  Admiring their own reflections in the latest app?  Meanwhile, statehouses across the country are re-drawing political maps; Congress sits in the mud; ennui sets in for some; anger builds in others.  But dancing the Hora in Zucotti Park?  No thank you.  Our own Arab Spring?  Are you kidding me?  The Egyptians just killed 27 Christian Copts; we seemed to have stopped paying attention to the slaughter in Syria; and that U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood has, like all other things, ground to a halt of the usual dysfunction.

If anything, as some have pointed out, the Occupy Wall Street protests mirror the street protests in Tel Aviv this summer, but God forbid the organizers identify with the Zionist Occupier.  Wait a minute...*Occupy* Wall Street!

How ingenious!

In Tel Aviv, the rallies were mostly the bourgeois, the educated middle class as organizers, building coalitions with the working poor, questioning certain values assumptions about the direction of Israeli society.  A worthy series of sit-ins and rallies has given way to the demanding, difficult and tireless work ahead for a the long slog of changing government policy, one law at a time.  In Israel it has a better chance of succeeding, actually, because the polity still demands of its citizens allegiance and service to the state.

Here in America we're not so lucky.  While one generation ended the draft in order to prevent induction to the U.S. Armed Forces in the event of an "unjust" war, nothing replaced the privileges and obligations of citizenship accept an unrestricted devotion to one's "self-fulfillment."  Not bad for a diary entry; and maybe even a good book deal on the occasional memoir.  But 350 million people doing their own thing?

That's why we're in this mess.

Instead of occupying Wall Street, these people might consider occupying themselves with the task of transcending their selves, rolling up their sleeves, walking the halls of government, running for office, and making the changes they want.