22 November 2011

For Those Who Believe

Rabbi Leo Baeck's signature
I didn't get the memo.

For more than thirty years I've been shopping at the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street--so long that I have a well-developed ritual for each visit.  First stop, Judaica. Then American history, followed by Poetry, Photography and then it's a free-for-all.

Many of the gems in my Jewish library collection have come from the Strand, including a 1947 Schocken edition of Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck's The Pharisees, signed by Berlin rabbi and scholar (the authenticity of which was confirmed by his granddaughter Marianne Dreyfus:  "Yes.  That's grandpa's signature!")

My small, colorful Schocken collection; Mosse's disciples (Ascheim, Rabinbach, Berkowitz); the Bnai Brith Hillel Little Books (Lewisohn's "What Is This Jewish Heritage," Glatzer's "Hillel the Elder:  the Emergence of Classical Judaism," and Adler's "The World of the Talmud;" my Elias Tobenkins; my Sholem Aleichems; and Saul Leiter's "Early Color."  Essay collections by Salo Baron, Samson Raphael Hirsch and Solomon Schechter, all from the shelves of the Strand.  There are deficits to be sure, all to be mediated by the occasional visit that yields the find, the blessed occasion any prowler of such places yearns to attain.  The hunt.

But sometime between the stifling, humidifying days of August and early November (a painfully long time between visits) the Strand decided to move "Judaica" (ah, the very term!  a curse on its adherents!  Who among ye doth not long for the day when book store shelves ascribe to their narrow perches the broadly defined category "Jews!" and there will rest, tempest tossed, the histories, chronologies, doxologies, etymologies, philologies, archaeologies, and literary, poetic, artistic and religious anthologies of all things Jewish) to, prepare yourself:  the basement!

Scandal!  Outrage!  The utter shock to find my prized collection's alluvial source relegated to the basement alongside the other religions (bosh!) when in fact we're a people!  a history!  a civilization!

From the Jews on the first floor I could drift to the Germans, the Russians, the English, the French--even the Americans--the newest of all nations forging from many, one.  But down in the basement, I was now among abstractions--puzzling, challenging, mystifying, even wonderful, mind you, but nevertheless, abstractions.  Like faith; philosophy; psychology; sociology. 

My head began to spin.  The collection had shrunk; it now turned a rude corner, piled high into the stifling florescent light of this underground trove relegated, if you will, in a manner not dissimilar to the way the elderly are housed in assisted living facilities across the land.  'Remember what people used to believe?  How sentimentally quaint.'

Between volumes, high up on the last shelf, I found something.  Pictures from S. An-sky's Ethnographic Expeditions (I am currently reading his grim diary from those trips).  Bricklayers, match factory workers, students, tailors, loggers, cigarette rollers, tombstone engravers, spinners, blacksmiths, looking up from their poverty and dignity and language and faith, yes, faith, some heads covered, some not but together, comprising an entity worthy of the books title which claims to be Photographing the Jewish Nation.

A nation which is not faith alone but a people, a history, a culture, a civilization and a language, written by hand, with a fountain pen, in books, which one finds on shelves in stores decades later, a letter from the past to the future for those who believe. 

What She Said

I walked past Sakura Park this evening, just past six, on my way to the Living Wage Rally at Riverside Church.  I had been invited to give one of the opening blessings (Jew, Christian, Muslim) and set the liturgical table, as it were, for a parade of preachers and imams, politicians and activists, sounding off on the inarguable justness of paying this city's workers "$10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without!" That's what the way it went with the mic check.

In the two months since Occupy Wall Street began, I had been kvetching about real legislation neglected by the drum circles downtown; and after hosting a labor organizer at our Shabbat services on Saturday morning, I was more than happy to lend a word of Torah to this auspicious public rally.

The Rev. Dr. James Forbes greeted me in his classy, dignified and friendly way and while we assembled men and women of the cloth walked down the inspiring gray aisles of this imposing spiritual landmark, I left my body briefly, hovered just above the floor, and watched a variety of holy spirits conjure unity, inspiration, and righteous devotion to the shared cause we had come together to celebrate.  A choir director twisted and contorted his body into the conduction of divine electricity not normally seen in a shul on Shabbos morning; voices rose from the pews to meet the titanic force of those choral vocalizations washing over the assembly; photographers, logistical aides, and those vaunted paragons of our era--organizers--dashed about, making last minute adjustments.

Amidst the noise and prayer I found silence, my mind dashing back, as if I realized I left a precious book on a bench, back there, in the light rain:  in Sakura Park:  "The park admits the wind, the petals lift and scatter like versions of myself I was on the verge of becoming; and ten years on and ten blocks down I still can't tell whether this dispersal resembles a fist unclenching or waving goodbye."

"A fist unclenching or waving goodbye."

Back to the floor of the church.  My mother worked in the "inner-city" of Milwaukee after she and Dad broke up, on a number of HUD development projects assisting poor African Americans in obtaining vocational training and a decent wage in the kind of government-funded community work that today would be twisted into a knot of meaningless partisan mush, neglecting to recognize the civic value of a government of decency and a tool for goodness, caring for its citizens.

That, frankly, is what inspires me about the Living Wage Campaign.  It's so logically correct.  It's organized around the right idea.

You are a business, seeking a tax-break from the government to do business in the city.  In exchange, for the privilege of using the citizens' dollars (the very definition of taxes, by the way) you agree to pay "a Living Wage."  Quid pro quo.   This for that.  Perish the thought:  compromise!

In our world today, each side of the political debate so sure of itself, how good it would be to remain in the blessed ambivalence of meeting one another half-way, in a moment, between the peaceful offer of a "fist unclenching" and the warm valedictory of "waving goodbye."

I had never heard of the poet Rachel Wetzsteon until she died two years ago.  A Times obituary recounted her too short life and from there her voice came into my head.

As I watched preachers preach and politicians speak, I looked at my own books I had traveled uptown with, which I had firmly tucked into the pew.  Ansky's diary from his relief work in the Ukraine during the First World War and my own notebook, with my grandparents photograph on the cover:  He, the American-born and charitable doctor, helping the poor; she, the beautiful immigrant from Ansky's Ukraine, caught between two worlds.

Jews were once at this vanguard for labor rights and fair wages; now, the only landsman I could see was Stuart Applebaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union--a godless Jew doing God's work.  We would later be joined enthusiastically by NYC Councilmen Lander and Levin but still, hardly a minyan.  The Rev. Dr. H. DeVore Chapman, Pastor, Greater Bright Light & Bethel Baptist Churches gave a real rouser, the likes of which are generally not heard in shul on Shabbos morning, certainly not for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."  Know what I mean?

There hung the sculpted, suffering Jesus, dangling in gold.  There celebrated the hand-waving Evangelicals, exploding with intentional enthusiasm.  There reasoned the logicians Catholicism and the fatalistic prophecy of Islam, astir with meaning.  Comptroller John Liu was there, and all I could think of was campaign and fundraising "bundlers."

Ach--these two worlds I inhabit.  It would take Houdini to find the way out only to crave the moment, locked into it yet again, caught, indulgently, between them both.

The poet:  "There is still a chance the empty gazebo will draw crowds from the greater world.  And meanwhile, meanwhile's far from nothing; the humming moment, the rustle of the cherry trees."

What she said.

14 November 2011


Like so many Jewish communities who find themselves gathered inside a synagogue each week to celebrate Shabbat, ours was filled to overflowing this past weekend--young and old of all ages, from sundown Friday til sundown Saturday.  We honored ten of our members who served in the American Armed Forces at a special Veterans Day Shabbat Friday evening, commemorating the service of men who were in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  Saturday in the morning there was learning, Shir l'Shabbat, Yachad, Altshul, a Lay-Led Minyan, and more learning, along with two different discussions:  one, a panel discussion on issues related to conversion to Judaism; and two, a discussion with two young Israelis and two young Palestinians about the Btselem Camera Project.

Some time ago, Btselem, an Israeli human rights organization, began giving away video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank in order to document the engagement between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.  Recorded encounters, sometimes mundane and sometimes shocking to witness, provide a window into the human side of a greatly entrenched conflict.  The hope is to allow citizens to bear witness to any potential human rights abuses--never enjoyable work by any means but essential work nonetheless for any democracy that prides itself on its morality and inherent decency.

Now let me state clearly:  I am not a pacifist.  War, horrifying as it can be, is a sometimes necessary burden we bear when conflict can no longer be negotiated.  And as a Jew, I take great pride in Israel's existence and its ability to defend itself.  Further, I am under no illusion that many leaders among Palestinians and in the Arab world broadly are working for (or at the very least hoping for) the destruction of Israel.

But these videos are not meant to capture those bad guys.  And they are bad guys.

These videos are meant to capture moments when our guys misbehave, when their power gets beyond them, and when, for reasons that are complex, psychological, traumatic and sometimes immoral, they lose control.  Aimed guns at the heads of unarmed people; firing tear gas canisters at someone's head; wearing masks and attacking elderly people with wooden poles; shooting a young man in the foot.

We shouldn't want to see this and we shouldn't have to see it but it's what happens when our hatred controls us rather than our own triumphant mastery of hate.  And the purpose of human rights activists--objectively speaking--is to document what happens, shed light where it needs to be shed, and, when necessary, bring to justice those who need to be brought to justice.  And sometimes, in conflict, our guys need to be brought to justice.  We may not like it.  We may think, "But in the long-run, they just want Israel to go away!"  But in the long run, a society without justice for its least fortunate will one day deprive even the most fortunate of justice.  God's justice, our tradition teaches, extends to us all.

In the video I chose to share at the top of this site, these details are included in a sidebar description from Btselem:  "Following a subsequent investigation, the officer, Lt. Col. Omri Borberg, and solider, Staff Sergeant Leonardo Corea, were charged by the Army with “conduct unbecoming”. Following a high court petition against the lenient charge, the soldier was charged with unlawful use of weapons, and the officer with attempted threats. Both were also charged with conduct unbecoming. The two were convicted and in the beginning of 2011. The officer was sentenced to a suspended jail sentence and a halt to promotion for two years. The soldier was sentenced to demotion to the rank of private."  We don't celebrate such things; but we know that in this particular case, there is the attempt to make justice out of an act that demands it.  

So Saturday morning ten of us sat in a circle, heard stories, and then watched several videos which were not easy to see.  But they were necessary to see.  In one video in particular, a soldier who had lost his cool and shot a young boy in the foot was brought to justice, disciplined by his commanding officer, precisely because of the recorded footage.  What abuses of power were once tolerated because they were not seen are now seen, heard, and, at times, even adjudicated.  For the greater cause of Zionism, for the justness of our right to live in our historic homeland, that's a good thing.

Today you may have read that two bills are currently in the Israeli Knesset seeking to limit foreign funding for Israeli human rights organizations. This is not a good thing.  In the words of the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, "These legislative efforts to restrict funding for non-governmental organizations run contrary to core democratic principles that are Israel’s greatest strength.  If there is a concern that foreign, and possibly antagonistic, entities are funding civic or political groups in Israel, then let there be a debate on the advisability of requiring full disclosure of the revenues, and their sources, of such groups across the political spectrum."  The New Israel Fund, targeted last year by these same political leaders who are sponsoring this legislation this year, has some helpful suggestions for ways to make your voice heard on this issue. 

Core democratic principles are Israel's strength.  I agree.  Making sure that Jews defend themselves justly makes us stronger as a nation.  Turning our eyes and hearts from injustice weakens us.  Though we don't want to admit the worst things about ourselves, doing so strengthens us for far greater challenges ahead.

When our program ended, I sat for a moment reflecting upon the images just seen, the voices just heard, the actions we had witnessed.  And then I looked at the two Israelis and the two Palestinians, who, but for language and accent, were indistinguishable from one another.  What united them was their desire for peace, their faith in democracy, and, especially on Shabbat, inside the synagogue, that each was made בצלם--Btselem:  In the Image of God.

Their projected image of tolerance and friendship can be better achieved when we can see what goes wrong--with just enough time to correct it--before it gets worse.

13 November 2011

more from the archives: Dad's Hands

*Another from the archives.  I think 1987.  Not sure.


Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I went to wash my face and hands.  Underneath the warm running water, I flipped around a slowly diminishing bar of Ivory soap in a ritual I learned from my father.  I remember leaning against his side as a small boy, somewhere between 7 and 7.30 in the mornings of my youth and watching him perform this magic act.  The water ran like silver, fluid and bright, sending sparks flying from the porcelain below.  His hands squeezed the water as if it were putty, a master of the moment, gathering soap and rinsing in a series of motions I hoped one day to perform with hands as important as his own.

I loved his hands; for although his body was slight, his hands held the power that passed on everything he wanted to pass on to his children.  At three I watched my first baseball game in his hands.  At six I was cradled between his arms as he held his hands over mine, gripping an oversized basketball which together we launched toward a too high hoop.  At seven we went to buy a baseball glove, set ourselves up in the front yard, had our first catch.

There was great form to those moments, an unspoken reverence for the exchange that first embodied a physical quality not specific to any singular sport or child.  We--my sisters, brother and I--learned how to handle basketballs, baseballs, golf clubs, bowling balls, footballs, shovels, rakes, mowers--with the perfect execution of one's form earning respect.  To not perform correctly, however, hardly brought penalty.  Rather, we gained the reward of more teaching.  "No, no, this way," he'd gently instruct, taking one of us in his arms to teach proper grip or follow-through.  A pedagogy of the hands.  In the same manner, we all learned how to drive.

At some point in each of our early teen years, when one of us was in the fortunate position of being beside him in the front seat, he'd tuck his arm behind our back, pull us to his side and ask, "Want to drive?"  It seemed no greater proposal had even been made in the course of human history and the offer was treated accordingly.  This was the final rite of passage between his hands and mine since by twelve I had learned most sports, knew how to write, had been taught some boxing basics, and could respectfully shake any man's hand.  The wheel of Dad's car was the last frontier.  With his right arm around me and his left hand gently resting on the bottom of the wheel, his words guided my hands as I maneuvered the car down a country road.  It was a Saturday morning and we were on our way to a round of golf.

Tall, pale yellow grass shook in the wind to the right of the road and in the middle, a thick, bright line of sun bordered our left.  I steered in a steady ellipse between the two borders--sometimes crossing the median line and occasionally stirring up the gravel on the right.  It was the line on the hood of the car that saved me.  Keeping the hood's center aligned with the middle of the road held the key, he advised.  So while the a.m. radio played Benny Goodman and Dad relaxed enough to rest his left arm on the edge of the open window, I took over.

His left hand dangled a cigarette while his right hand rested on the car seat behind my head.  In a moment of confidence I glanced in his direction.  He was staring straight ahead, looking down the road.  "I heard Benny Goodman play in Milwaukee just before I went into the service," he said, while leaning forward to turn up the sound.  I imagined him in baggy army gear--with a mustache in France, clean shaven in the Philippines, at a moment in time I'd only know in history books.  The wind blew back his hair and he flicked his cigarette down to the pavement below.  It was then that I first realized my dad had a life that had nothing to do with me.

This was not a partial realization; rather, it was radical truth.  And quite appropriately, seeing him differently came at the perfect time.  Perched on the edge of the great leap toward becoming a man, it was only right that I began to see more of the man in him.  He seemed vulnerable that day, maybe because the wheel of the car was in my hands; maybe because of a certain distance in his eyes, fixed on the diminishing road ahead.  In any case, one cannot escape the fact that on that day he was handing over power to me.

Only one other time had I seen him so vulnerable, which was when he buried his father.  His tears at the funeral didn't shock me as much as the look of fear on his face at the cemetery when my grandma threw herself on the ground.  On the hard, cold earth beneath a tree with no leaves, there were things greater--and in more control--than my father.  His hands, though still strong, would pull no body from the grave, working magic wonders.  In the bitterness of the day, he did all he could to use them for his own comfort, rubbing them together to stay warm.

from the archives: Good Deal

*I recently came across this recollection in an old folder--a small, recorded memory from my twenties.


The first time I went fishing with my dad as when we were in the Y Indian Guides.  He was Big Buffalo and I was Little Buffalo.  We had itinerant Pow-Wows at the teepees of other friends and their dads.  I don't remember a single discussion from any of those meetings except planning the big summer trip, which would be a weekend at a lake in Wisconsin.  After that was decided someone pounded a drum.  The next thing I knew we were driving in our white Ford station wagon that had a crank wheel roll down back window.  Looking out the back, I couldn't wait for this stage of childhood to end.

One kid threw up in the back of the car in the middle of a discussion about who stayed up late to see Johnny Carson.  I had, and just before the puke flew, I spied my dad's eye in the rear view mirror.  Then we pulled over to clean up the mess.

We parked the car, unloaded our things, and later, walked down a hill toward the water.  I had a bamboo fishing rod and we had in our possession a full can of worms.  Under the canopy of trees, while negotiating exactly who would hook the worms, I swung the poll over my shoulder and hooked my dad behind the ear.  With perfect calm he unhooked himself and we continued toward the lake.  We fed the fish all day and caught nothing.

Later that night he went out for drinks with some of the other guys' dads and as he tucked me in to my bunk he asked if there was anything I wanted.  Chocolate milk, I said, in the night air, dark and cool, where my dad's face reflected the hallway light.  He sighed and met my request before meeting his own taste for beer.

The next time we went fishing was about twelve years later.  We chartered a boat and towed for trout, coho and chinook in the waters off Port Washington.  My best friend Al was there with his dad and Uncle Sid.  All three men, veterans of the Second World War.   Our only catch that day was a coho salmon that came in on my line.  We had it smoked and wanted to give it my mom for her second wedding but the smokehouse lost it.  So they replaced it, and for free, threw in another smoked fish.  I told this to my dad over the phone and he said that sounded like a good deal.

07 November 2011

OWS on Vox Tablet

Marc Tracy and Sara Ivry at Tablet Magazine invited me for a conversation about Occupied Wall Street.  We had a good time.  You can hear it here.


There's a beautiful moment in Meir Shalev's new book, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner:  A Family Memoir, in which his pioneer grandmother (who lived her life on Nahalal, one of the early moshavim established by the Zionist pioneers) is captured on film describing why she lived on a moshav and not a kibbutz.  She said:
"We went to a moshav because we wanted freedom and privacy," she explained, that incorrigible individualist, adding a sharp statistical observation: "A lot of people left the kibbutzim and went to moshavim.  Nobody left the moshav for a kibbutz."
 Shalev goes on to elaborate:
As for the historical ideological conflict between the two types of settlement, a conflict that many had flogged before her, she said something quite simple:  On a moshav you know who you are sitting down to eat with--your family, for better or worse.  But in a kibbutz collective dining hall sometimes you find yourself with people you do not wish to sit next to, in whose company you do not wish to eat.
In idealist societies, the tensions between the individual and the collective are well-rehearsed; and this particular manifestation of contemporary Israeli life has yielded to a larger social debate, as was seen this summer, in the tent protest in Tel Aviv.  Namely, Israelis are no longer debating collectivist values of 19th century Zionism but are grappling with the current tensions under-girding Israel today--how capitalism, free markets and individuality might exist alongside a nation founded on principles of equality and justice and, for many of its founders, socialism.

Closer to home, here in New York City, the Occupy Wall Street movement nears its second month of steady protest against greed and the unrestrained accumulation of wealth:  it is unjust for 1% of the population to control the amount of wealth to the distinct disadvantage of the 99% of the remainder of the population.  This disparity ought to be eye-poppingly obvious to the most casual observer, and, if you've been paying attention for the past two hundred years, ought not to be news to you, either.

And as opposed to Israel, America's dilemma runs in the opposite direction:  What to do about broader social and communal values in a society founded on presumed "unalienable" rights of radical individuality?  The two great economic debates of the twentieth century--President Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society--are distant memories, arguably the last galvanizing moments when American citizens debated, fought, bargained and negotiated through a series of political maneuvers and compromises to enact into law social values of economic justice and equality.

In a small aside in the Times Magazine this past Sunday, U.S. Poet Laureate Phil Levine comments about President Obama, "When he campaigned, he seemed like a genius, but I think he may not have been up to the task. It’s foolish to say this, but the guy we need right now is Lyndon Johnson. We need a bully and a really shrewd manipulator."

Before you make the mistake of assuming that in politics one bullies or manipulates only in order to win, consider that it can also be the case that one bullies and manipulates in order to win for the right cause--racial equality, equal rights, economic justice.  One fights for the legislation that asks of its citizens a sacrifice for the greater good.  For the rights of the many over a precious few.  But in the nearly 40 years since the military draft has been abolished, Americans have never been called upon to serve as a requirement of citizenship.  And though this has presumably been understood as a victory for those who opposed American involvement in the Vietnam war (debatable), it has resulted in a near total absence of basic obligatory acts of citizenship.  We owe our nation little except what we personally choose to give--ask not what you can do for your country but what your country owes you.

Both President Roosevelt and President Johnson ruled during a time when citizens, as a price of their membership in the greater polity of the American enterprise, were required to serve.  Today, to our great demise, nothing is demanded of us.

I believe strongly that the game-changing narrative required of our leadership is the call to sacrifice, with a particularly sensitivity toward the least fortunate in our society--a sense of sacrifice based on our highest ideals as a nation with a shared sense of responsibility for one another, not a sacrifice so that each can do as he pleases. 

For all the noise coming from the various protest movements on the left and the right in this country, I've yet to hear a cogent articulation of what may actually be required of us in the years ahead in order to put this country on a better path of living up to its highest ideals.

05 November 2011

Freeing the Captive

When the Danken Auto Parts company caught fire in late September, word traveled fast up to CBE by several people who were walking past--mostly because of the large number of engines and firefighters needed to stop the blaze. Besides the 8 firefighters who had to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation, the other major damage occurred next door at C.H.I.P.S., a local soup kitchen and shelter for 9 women and their children, which has been feeding the poor residents of Brooklyn since 1972--about 65,000 meals annually.  That's a lot of good to do in the world.  People have been diligently working to re-open by Thanksgiving.

Around the same time, I ran into one of our members who invited me to a meeting over in Crown Heights with a local minister and some young men who were working very hard to not only keep guns off the streets of the neighborhood but to mediate potentially violent conflicts among gangs that are forming in the surrounding areas.  Save Our Streets Crown Heights is an inspiring organization.  Here's their mission statement:
Save Our Streets Crown Heights (S.O.S.) is a community-based effort to end gun violence in our neighborhood. S.O.S. works closely with local organizations, neighborhood churches and pastors, community residents and the individuals most likely to commit a shooting. S.O.S. Crown Heights provides immediate intervention whenever a shooting occurs in the neighborhood, reaching out to the victim, friends, and family to ensure that a retaliatory shooting does not take place. S.O.S. Crown Heights works closely with neighborhood leaders and businesses to promote a visible and public message against gun violence. The goal is to end the spread of violence by encouraging local voices to articulate that shooting is an unacceptable behavior.

Works for me.

I was finally able to get over to S.O.S. a couple weeks ago and met Program Manager Allen James,  Outreach Worker Supervisor Lavon Walker, and Outreach Worker David Bookhart.  I was joined by Reverend Kevin Jones, another member of the S.O.S. Faith-Based Leadership Team.  I heard incredible stories of bravery and heroism as these men described the interventions they carry out each day in response to bring peace to people's lives one moment at a time, and help prevent the catastrophic choice of violence that only leads to more violence.  In the months ahead, I hope to find some constructive ways and opportunities for our community at CBE to support this important work.  You can start by signing the Covenant for Peace and Action HERE.

Last week I learned something interesting.  After a couple years of hemming and hawing, we finally got around to counting the change from tzedakah boxes that members had been dropping off at the Temple for the last couple of years.  Small accumulations of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that, over time, actually grew into a weighty collection of charitable efforts.  The 7th grade Bnai Mitzvah Class made a first-rate effort of counting the coins and organizing them into neat little paper rolls, but the work was endless and boring.

"This is like prison," one of them said.

"Well, that's what Hebrew School is!" said another.

Since it's a mitzvah to "free the captive," we finally let them go and I promised to redeem their efforts.  It turns out that TD Bank, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 1st Street, offers the use of a free change counting machine if you open an account at the bank.  And so for a minimum of $100, I did it on Wednesday before rushing off to a funeral.  Bank management was warm and helpful as we filled bag after bag with loose change.  After some minutes, our total came through--and it was more than $1000, a decent sum indeed.

We walked back to CBE with cash, deposited it, and issued checks to C.H.I.P.S and Save Our Streets Crown Heights so that they can continue to do their good work.  This Tuesday the Bnai Mitzvah class and I will learn together about these worthy organizations and their tirelessly devoted efforts.  

So while captives have been freed from Hebrew School (and the tzedakah boxes free from their change-filled, bloated state) I'm also gladdened to know that we've done a small part toward freeing captives from poverty, hunger and violence.  One coin at a time, good things can happen.

04 November 2011


When I left the NYU Hillel in 2004 to be the Executive Director of Reboot, on the first day of the job I was handed several books about marketing.  They were authored by severe looking Jewish bald guys in black LA movie industry glasses (you know the type) who were industry leaders, taught in Ivy League business schools, and clearly had a leg up on most Jews when it came to "messaging" and "rebranding" what Jewishness, Judaism and Israel were all about.  It wasn't quite what I thought I was getting myself into.  I stood at a kind of conflictual crossroads.  At the Reboot retreats I was energized by the minds of the young Jews I taught; their creative inquiry was inspiring.  When we founded Brooklyn Jews, it was, in large part, so that we could gather and convene these young and disconnected Jews and draw them into the structures of Jewish life.  They were hungry for those connections over and over again.  What to do?

I stared at the pile of books on my desk for about fifteen minutes, took the elevator downstairs to the beautiful plaza in front of the office building where I worked, and called my old boss at NYU asking for my old job back.  Of course, the genie was out of the bottle; I had already moved on; and so over the course of the next several months existed in a kind of uncomfortable situation until I could wrap my mind around what was next.

The final blow came for me at a meeting in L.A.  A few of us sat around a table reading an article from a business magazine about the successful efforts to rebrand Pabst beer.  Having grown up in Milwaukee, I do consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about various beers indigenous to my hometown:  Schlitz, Miller, Blatz, and yes, Pabst.  Those were the majors.  Of course you had Leinenkugels up the highway and further on, before microbreweries were all the rage, Point, Huber, and many others.  I think it's fair to say that the decision to rebrand Pabst is worthy of standing on its own merits.  Why not?  Traditional allegiance to beer is something that surely has sentimental value to some and clear financial benefit to others.

But for me, as someone who actually grew up in Pabst's backyard, my ears rang with memories of my dad and grandfather ordering Schlitz or Blatz at ballgames.  Pabst just didn't pack the punch.   It had the blue ribbon, I'll grant you that; its colors were patriotic; but ringing bells in Jewish kishkes--not so much.

It was a lonely plane ride back to New York, knowing that I had to quit my job.  My erstwhile career as a Mad Man for the Jews was about to end.

Brooklyn Jews was a year old and there was scant financial infrastructure to support the work we were doing growing community full-time; but within a few months a couple more grants came our way and one particular friend was greatly supportive; and so by February 2005, I made the leap to building a bridge from Brooklyn Jews to either a new synagogue we'd start or maybe one day to Congregation Beth Elohim, the community I have been leading since 2006.

I have never regretted a single professional decision I've made--don't misunderstand me.  "Who is wise?" the Sages ask.  "One who learns from everyone."  There is always an insight to be gained, even from our failures.

As I look back on life in the Jewish community since I began working here in New York, nearly twenty years ago, my own inclinations always return to the singular importance of Jewish values--whether those values are encoded in holy scripture, ritual acts, or various institutions of Jewish life that have sustained us for centuries.  As I've written consistently, I think the single greatest carrier of that expression of Jewish values is the Synagogue.  And it's why, despite being lured by various job offers over the last several years to lead nationally, I consistently say "no" because to me, the top floor of Jewish life is serving a community as its rabbi.  It's where, as the consultants like to say, the rubber hits the road.  This is an American metaphor, based on the rotating wheels of the proverbially ubiquitous American car, a symbol of freedom, mobility, style, power, and, alas, wasteful indulgence.  Cars, like beer, have enormous advertising budgets; they're forever rebranding.  Not because people won't stop drinking or driving (but not both, children) but because the market is impatient, is not in possession of much of an attention span, and, as Brooks Stevens (another Milwaukee industrialist) was fond of saying, the American industrial economy was predicated on the notion of "planned obsolescence."  Brands were invented and reinvented to keep the consumers on the edge of a string, dying to know what was next.

And this mindset, I fear, is what often prevails in certain sectors of the Jewish community that is obsessed with "innovation."  The very word is a marketing construct, especially if one were to examine under the critical light of history, just what Jewish innovation really means. 

In the last two thousand years, one would have to say that the Synagogue was an innovation.  The Beit Midrash was an innovation.  And that's about it.  Even the founding of the modern State of Israel is an old idea, built upon the Jewish people's millennial connection to the ancient Land of Israel (post-modern European Colonialism historians be damned!)  Everything else of value, one could argue, is an adaptation to time and historical circumstances.  Women rabbis, admission of gays and lesbians into the fullness of Jewish life--these are logical and justified progressions based on the reading of Torah broadly to embrace, theologically, all those who claim an identification with the Jewish people.  Social action?  Old news (see Exodus).  Outreach?  Old news (read this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, where Abraham and Sarah "acquire souls.") 

The communal obsession, from the top of the organized Jewish world on down, is the dog being wagged by the tale of branding.  Slap a J in front of it; organize a focus group around it; hire someone to write you a study about it.

But in the end of the day, we have a Book; a confusing, beguiling, and mysterious and I believe, loving God; a people (connected both biologically and of their own free will) bound to Land, Language, Calendar and Narrative in ways they know and don't yet know.  But ought to.  Why?  Because as brands go, the old stuff is usually the best. 

On the walk to school today, my youngest kid Minna asked what gum I chewed when I was her age.  Juicy Fruit, I said.  The Wrigley's have expanded their brand, I explained, and we ducked into a bodega to demonstrate the point.  There was 5, Eclipse, Extra and Orbit, alongside many others, owned by Hershey and Cadbury mostly.  Names and colors, like Joseph's coat, shined forth, calling us to adore.  Down in the bottom row, beneath all other candy, were Doublemint, Peppermint, and Juicy Fruit.

"My dad bought Juicy Fruit when he was a kid," I told her.  "He thought it was for Jewish kids, misreading the Y for an H."

"You're making that up," she said.

No.  It's what he told me.

03 November 2011


When God packed up and left the country, He left the Torah
with the Jews.  They have been looking for Him ever since,
shouting, "Hey, you forgot something, you forgot,"and other people think shouting is the prayer of the Jews. Since then they've been combing the Bible for hints of His whereabouts, as it says, "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near."  But he is far.
Amichai's words, like prophecy, the light of wisdom I see each day.  Don't ask me why but I also see Peter Falk's Columbo in this image, absent-mindedly patting his jacket in search of the elusive object.  Where is it?  I had it here just a minute ago.

That's the image with God as well.  He's not here, but could be; the unfound reality of the Divine makes for an anxious, unnecessary distance between God and man.

And in the midst of our troubled, sometimes fearful searching, we experience the loss of life--and paradoxically insist that this is precisely when God is most present.  "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and staff they comfort me, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows."

That Divine You is as often perfectly imperfectly human.  For you, my neighbor and friend, are with me.  For you, my brother, sister, mother, father, daughter, son are with me.  Your strength, the tools you employ to gird you against the threat of despair, the food you serve me, the drink you offer to slake my thirst.

I speak truths of God's presence to mourners when there is loss not always certain that God is present as one but rather but in the faces of the people I see, in the pouring out of their grief, in the strength they offer one another.  It's a remarkable thing to see.  People finding something lost, rediscovering, or discovering, as if for the first time.

"See the Eternal source of life while it may be found; call out, be heard, be near."  Not far.  Near.

02 November 2011

New Shoes

Alluding to the spices that were added to the sacrifices in the Temple in ancient days, longingly sung each Shabbat in the Ein K'eloheinu prayer, Yehuda Amichai writes of old love,
Maybe you'll remember now?  Like a man who reminds a woman of an old love:  'Do you remember how we once bought those shoes in the small store by the corner, and we laughed alot, while it poured down rain outside.'
I've thought of this line, over and over again this week, a week in which I've just completed my third funeral.  The faces of mourners, the looks of shock, pain and sorrow; the words with no satisfactory explanation and so the psalms, like waves on a shore, washing over the suffering hearts.

The hassle of traffic; the funeral workers with over-sized suits, extending kindnesses; an additional coffin (full) on the loading elevator, next in line.

As snow and rain fell from a tired pine tree on a hill in New Jersey while Giants fans scurried to lunchtime barbecues; nervous prayers turning pages in the assembled booklets, seeking a distant God; a gravedigger's two-way radio, barking signals from another corner of the cemetery while a man's body is lowered into the ground.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil."

And also, with all this mud, I could use a new pair of shoes.

01 November 2011

Alive and Dead

My eight year old woke me up at 3 am to explain in no uncertain terms that she had just had a horrible nightmare.

"I was dreaming that the whole family was at the beach in Tel Aviv.  You were taking a nap, Dad, and a giant wave came and crashed into you."

Did I drown?

"No," she said.  "I just found it startling."

I put her back to sleep, checked the clock, and made my coffee.  Another sleepless night.  And let myself drown in translating some old poems from Yehuda Amichai and then the haunting prose of Aaron Appelfeld's new book.  It passed the time til the sun rose.

Appelfeld's voice, a faint remembrance like the wind, taking me back to a cafe in Jerusalem this past July where I heard him read.  And Amichai's voice, now long gone, but greatly alive, still, into the alchemy of this dark night.

Voices alive and dead, virtually indistinguishable in their richness, in their Jewishness.

I just found it startling.