31 October 2012

In Work, Wisdom

Seemingly uncommon acts of selflessness buoy a flooded city.

In the twenty-two years I've lived in Brooklyn, this has always been true.  From the first attack on the Twin Towers to 9-11; from the fear that Rodney King riots would spread to the Crown Heights riots; from blackout to Irene to Sandy; I'm always moved by how New Yorkers simply get down to work, forge bonds, and do what's necessary to help each other and get through it.  Millions of people from hundreds of nations speaking hundreds of languages living on top of one another in a crowded grid spread across five boroughs surrounded by water tend to do that.

Rise to the occasion.

While we were told to remain inside, someone had to be outside saving lives and risking their own.  The thousands of nameless heroes, working.  Wading into exhaustion, stepping over electrocution, walking through fire, breathing air into lungs of babies while walking down darkened hospital stairwells.


Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira wrote, "Our sages, who themselves were filled with dedication and self-sacrifice, always looked for inspiration from everyone and everything around them.  Rabbi Eliezer, who was always the first to arrive at the house of study in the morning and the last to leave at night, noticed one morning that the garbage collectors and farm laborers had risen before him.  He chastised himself:  'They are getting up to work for their own personal reasons, while I rise ostensibly to serve God--yet they precede me!'  Examine yourself in this same light.  Construction workers risk their lives putting up buildings.  Farmers sweat over their crops.  Your father works hard, sweats, and exhausts himself in order to provide for you.  Everyone works, whether with their body or their mind, many at backbreaking labor.  Why should you alone by idle?"

New York is such a thrilling place.  So glamorous.  And most days of the year, those lights shine.  Finance, Broadway, Big League Sports, Art, Books, News, Food, Museums, Music.

And beneath the surface, all that work.  Even when the city goes dark, still, all that work.

So with calmer winds we face the road ahead to repair this great city.  "Everyone works, whether with their body or their mind, many at backbreaking labor.  Why should you alone be idle?"

30 October 2012

God Bless America

As the storm passes, another one still awaits.  That's the undeniably large gap between rich and poor in this country.  A small example of that inequality could be seen in the darkening areas of the city during the storm's height--residents of housing projects and low-income housing finding their way to cots in city shelters around the city; and others, more fortunate, who could either remain in high, luxury towers or simply head to safer ground outside the city, while waiting for the waters to recede.

Simple luxuries like a well-stocked fridge, video games and apped up iPads for kids on one side; aluminum cots, high school gyms crowded with strangers, and donated meals on the other.  Even the above-it-all posting of photos on Facebook and Twitter speaks to a kind of observational distance from Nature's most notable characteristic as the great equalizer of humanity.

If only we had the humility to see it that way.

The decision to suspend the Presidential campaigns--allowing an enforced quietude to descend upon the citizenry--was a welcome response.  Governing, while more prosaic, is ultimately far more meaningful and beneficial to humankind than campaigning.  This was clear while watching and listening to President Obama, Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie and Mayor Bloomberg. Each rose to the level of their usual political style of governance; and while one may analyse or critique their varied responses, the bottom line is that on a day when we needed them to, each simply led.  And it mattered little which party affiliations they represented.

Of course, as the Times pointed out in a lead editorial this morning, there is politics involved in how governments respond to disaster.  And with regard to the Presidential election, President Obama and Governor Romney differ greatly.  This is worth noting.  "The election will take care of itself next week," President Obama said when addressing the nation yesterday.  I appreciated that.  His cool in the hot seat is what I want to see in my President.  And waking up this morning to find out that the Federal government has already committed to calling New York City, Long Island, and eight counties of New Jersey a national disaster area, means federal money is now available.  A Romney-Ryan budget plans moves much of the burden of that to the states, where the massive amounts of dollars necessary for disaster relief are simply not available.   This should not be lost on voters.

In fact, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Christie, both Republicans, made clear in their remarks that in their phone calls with President Obama yesterday, they requested federal relief.

Which is to say that outside the glare of the pyrotechnics of campaigns, people want their government to be there for them:  In disaster relief, in emergency shelters, in food banks, in fire fighters, police and other first responders, in breakfast and lunch programs in public schools, in public hospitals, in military and national guard budgets, in bridge, tunnel, and roadway infrastructure programs.  In other words, when we really need it, we want it.  And the most patriotic thing we ought to do is vote for it.  Instead of being covered in the kind of hateful toxicity of a two billion campaign advertising blitz, where at least a billion is being spent on the idea that government is the problem, that the President is anti-American, and that budget programs which support the least advantaged in our society ought to be the first to get cut.  While the wealthiest and most advantaged get tax cuts.

When you think about it, it's really outrageous.

At this writing my phone rings and New York City Councilman Brad Lander asked us to mobilize volunteers to help more than 140 people sleeping in the gym at John Jay High School and nearly 300 poor elderly, who are being bussed in from closed old-age homes to a temporary placement at the Park Slope Armory.

How do you like that?  A government official calls a rabbi to mobilize for help.  That's my kind of democracy.

God bless America.

25 October 2012

How We Treat Our Own

anat hoffman:  photo courtesy 'women of the wall'
It was my late grandmother, a Minsk native and immigrant to Milwaukee, who explained to me that as a Jew I had a special relationship to the State of Israel.  I was sitting beside her one day while Golda Meir was being interviewed on American television.  "She was my babysitter here in Milwaukee," Grandma explained.  "Then she moved to Israel and built a state."

I learned Hebrew in Madison from a woman named Bilha.  At Hebrew University in 1985, another Golda regularly hosted American students for Shabbat dinner.  That same year a single mom named Haya asked me to hang out with her kid Yonaton, who needed a male role model.  We played basketball on Fridays, walked around Baka, and at 3 pm each Friday afternoon, I was sent back to Mount Scopus with a delicious chocolate cake.  She was a music teacher and peace activist.  In rabbinical school another Haya told me to read more poetry and at NYU in the early 21st century, a woman named Naomi, with bone crushing fierceness, told me of battles for equality of women in the American and Israeli Jewish leadership that would make David blush with timidity for his supposed heroism against Goliath.  In the last ten years I've watched a friend named Shifra insist that men and women be paid and promoted equally in Jewish life and worked with women named Nessa and Julie to honor the memory of a mentor named Lisa who insisted that the voice of the Jewish people be a voice of justice and equality for all people in this troubled world.  My wife Rachel fought for inmates on death row in Alabama, switched careers in her forties to become a therapist, and let's end this paragraph with a fitting tribute to my fatherhood:  I am helping bring three daughters into the world.  Watch out.

When I read, with pain, sorrow, anger and disgust about the arrest and abuse of my friend Anat Hoffman at the hands of the Jerusalem police, for daring to recite the Jewish people's deepest words of faith in the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people, I briefly mourned the death of an idealization of the Jewish state as the national homeland for all Jewish people until I saw, in a kind of hologram of truth, the faces of all my Jewish female teachers who would rather fight than mourn; who'd rather build than destroy; who'd rather make life than hasten the death of friendship, devotion and peace among brothers and sisters of the One God.

Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, in the Kotel area.  She recited the Shma aloud, a serious offense under the Roman Empire as well as under the rabbinic authorities who supervise the Western Wall.  Of her arrest and mistreatment by the Jerusalem police, Hoffman told the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen:
 “In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.“I’m a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh’ma Israel.”
It's nothing less than a total outrage.  Any Prime Minister seeking the support of American Jewry, not to mention his own population, ought to have the courage to decisively break the power of this corrupt religious authority, or simply lose moral legitimacy in matters related to the idea that national institutions belong to the entire Jewish people.

Birthright trips; UJA missions; URJ and USCJ missions--each of which purport to uphold the values of equality of gender--are morally obligated from this time forth to either not visit the Kotel on future visits to Israel, or, in visiting, to perform acts of civil disobedience, until the message is heard loud and clear that the Jewish people is not "a free people in its own land" while women are repressed and manhandled by security working on behalf of religious extremism.

Congregation Beth Elohim, in February, plans to bring 50 of its members to Israel.  We will either not visit the Kotel, or come to do civil disobedience.  We'll keep you posted.

If this is how we treat our own, is it any wonder that we are more distant from peace with Palestinians than any time in recent memory?

24 October 2012

A Ring

I still find the cigarette to be an offensive concept.  I suppose I always will; it's romanticism eviscerated from its dark, dreamy essence by the memory, still seared into my mind, of lifting Mom, with brother on the other side, from floor to toilet to tub to toilet to tub and back to bed, in those closing days, the Oncological Carthage, of treatment's false heroism.

Every puff I pass--on park benches, gridded pavement, under scaffolding on a dreary day, in the crosswalk with the smoker's arm dangling, cooly, from a car window where driver waits to go left, right--is death:  decisive, obliterative, ravenous.

My friend A says this is "mourning talking."  He may be right. After all, I wouldn't begrudge Bogart his smoke in say, Casablanca.  It is his essential element, an alluring beacon into the despair of life's painful reality that in living there is loss, disappointment and the shattering of illusions.  Hemingway in Italy; an anonymous soldier, covered in corpses, in a trench in Somme.  Who could possess the inhumanity to deny that man a smoke?  In a large number of the photos Dad sent home from France during the Second World War, he was always smoking.  It obscured the monotony and enhanced the rugged handsomeness of it all.

Mom's first cigarettes were in high school, fifties-style.  I imagine bobbie socks, big cars, custard stands, and smoke.  That stance passed easily to college, to bars, bridge games, and late night reading frenzies, until, as I imagine it is for so many people, slippage into the habitual swampy wasteland of existential despair. A life aware that it will not transcend itself.  The tobacco, no longer a fuel for propulsion, gives way to smoke, the clouded filter, a bag around the soul.

Not uplifting stuff, I grant you that.

And the end:  the bitter irony of poison deployed to fight poison's deleterious effects!  Chemo v Cancer, the Supreme Court Ruling everyone knows.  FUBAR.

"Mourning Talking."

I enjoyed this past summer's heat, its occasional bursts of rain.  And I welcomed the cool transition to autumn.  It has soothed me.  Miraculous leafy decay, unapologetic winds, shadows chilled into submission by time's minimizing march has me prepared, like a soldier going into battle, for the long onslaught of winter.  Long walks in the wet and cold; icy winds stabbing at my cheeks.  My own plodding along, firm ground underfoot, giving way to spring.

Death:  brief, unadorned, cold.  Life, in spring, new.

How does that happen year after year?

"Eternal, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?  Or the son of man that Thou makest account of him?  Man is like a breath; his days are as a shadow that passeth away.  Eternal, bow Thy heavens and come down; touch the mountains that they may smoke."

You smoke!  You smoke!

So it was You!

God in the hands of a fool is, yet again, proven to be a dangerous thing.

The garden, dear Mom, the garden:  it called but you didn't listen.  The trees whispered your name but you didn't turn your head to hear.  You were in that stance, that insistent posture, surrounded by smoke, all-knowing.  A god in your own universe.

Rain falls in Brooklyn on a dark morning.  Footprints fade in the washing away.  A man walks to the train, heading to work.  His burden burns in one hand; and with the other hand, call it hope, he reaches for the line, a ring, calling him home.

23 October 2012

Either Way, Present

The simpler the message, the harder the task.

It's like the time that a student asked the Sage Hillel to state the essence of Judaism:  "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor."  Seem easy?  Try it sometime.  Especially when you live with someone.

Or how about this gem:  Rabbi Akiva, when asked the same question of Hillel, said, "Love your neighbor as yourself--this is the greatest principle in the Torah."

To live consistently, as Hillel describes, requires a process of introspection rooted in exploring what one  does not like.  It requires exploring, often with great discomfort, the painful contours of fear, pain, and anger with a sensitivity that yields an outward result:  knowing enough about what you don't want and then practicing that sensitivity toward others.  I mean, it's not like you can walk up to someone with a clipboard, survey them, and collate results instantaneously, and make a covenantal pact not to, say, belch after a meal or leave the seat up in the bathroom.  Your knowledge has to be invisible--an absence only known by being present.  It's kind of like magic.

Conversely, to live consistently as Rabbi Akiva demands, one must, in one's presence, show love--especially despite circumstances where hate is better, even more fun, if not satisfying.  It requires being able to see oneself on a time continuum, raging mad in one instant while being compassionately heard, patiently understood, accepted.  It requires an ability to remember that in great moments of self-loathing and disgust, that despite your fallibility, your mortality, your filth--someone, at some point in time, loved you unconditionally.   And it wasn't your mother, or father, or sister, or brother--but your neighbor.  The one not even related to you.  He loved you.  She loved you.  Singularly.  And the beneficence of that love was like a downpayment on a future home, founded somewhere in time, on land sown with the labor of your own relationships.

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך--"Go forth, God said to Abraham, from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you."

לך לך--Go to yourself, the Hasidic masters teach:  Look within.  Know yourself, as Hillel challenged, in order to understand your neighbor.  Especially his dislikes.  Make them yours.  And that empathic gesture will buoy human affairs.

מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך--But leave all that is known, familiar, and comfortable beyond yourself, in order to risk standing where your neighbor stands.  Love him in his pain, love him in his suffering, love him in his fallible completeness.  Love as you would be loved not where it is familiar and familial but where your neighbor resides.  In his place.

אל הארץ אשר אראך--This is the land that I show you.  A place of empathy.  Decency.  Understanding.

Heard but not seen; seen but not heard.  Either way, present.  "The land that I will show you."

22 October 2012

Old Story, New Book

walker evans circa 1936
I was walking to a party on Saturday night.  Along 103rd Street on the Upper East Side.  Hanging out on the stoops were mostly poor African-American and Latino men and women--talking, laughing, drinking, smoking.  The door of a bodega on one corner, saturated in yellow and red light, swung open and closed.  Brown paper bags, covering large bottles of beer, in the hands of customers.  Walking through the projects in the shadow of Mount Sinai Hospital, wind brushed empty plastic bags past my feet.  Turned the corner, up the hill, and into the hall where the party I attended was being held.  At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, Central Park was dark and muscular.  Its landscape confident. It had a plan.

While I was happy to see a number of former students and friends at the party, was thrilled at the sound of their voices giving updates on their collegiate studies, their career ambitions, their intellectual and spiritual quandaries and the fortunate wealth of their opportunity to make a path for themselves in the world, my heart remained outdoors, in the cool night air, on the corner, with the smokers and the drinkers.

I sat in a dark auditorium wondering about that.  Why wasn't I present?  And what does it mean when the mind wanders at all, not to mention a place of dislocation, suffering, or misfortune.  I thought back to the Presidential debates and how little mention was made of those who stand on street corners, the rejected, the unemployed, the results of what happens when families don't work, when social services don't penetrate the walls of resistance, when schools fail for lack of funding and teacher training, and when manufacturing jobs diminish while wealth streams past, its own abundant flow, absorbing, silencing the story of those street corner smokers and drinkers.

All America can talk about every four years is taxes.  And cutting government spending which, especially without jobs, is the only source of hope for those without.  Without jobs.  Without a stable home.  Without a great school, and a great education, and an expanded mind, and an inspired heart, and a chance to get away from the corner where, for fun, you can drink and smoke.

Cliche.  I know.  I think so, too.

But true.  Earth-shatteringly, shamefully true.

The Tradition anticipated our lazy minds.

Psalm 9:19, for instance: כי לא לנצח ישכח אביון תקות עניים תאבד לעד--The needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the expectation of the poor perish forever.  Leo Baeck once wrote that "the word poor is a word which the Bible pronounces with devoutness and with reverence, as if in holy awe."  In politics today, the word is mostly mumbled, if not entirely inaudible.

Deuteronomy 15:11 is equally direct:  כי לא יחדל אביון מקרב הארץ על כן אנכי מצוך לאמר פתח תפתח את ידך לאחיך לעניך ולאביונך בארצך--For poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee saying, 'Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.'

Which I imagine includes men and women standing on street corners with 40 oz bottles and smokes; and which no doubt includes prisons where men and women languish, hoping to learn employable skills to make it out one day; and I imagine this includes shelters and food banks and public hospitals which are threatened with closures for lack of funding; and I know, as a public school parent, that this includes schools with shrinking pre-K programs, fewer meals offered to poor families, and crowded, under-staffed classrooms, where good material is in short supply.

I mean, seriously:  Are we this bad at taking care of the basic human obligations our Tradition says we are obligated to fulfill?  Are we really spending our time talking about tax breaks for the most fortunate?

Who wrote this book?

Because I don't like, I'm putting it down, and writing another one.

Last week I spoke to Yair Rosenberg at Tablet about whether or not politics belongs in pulpit.  Of course it does, I argued.  I'd like to see a history of American Jewry without the pulpit's involvement in immigration issues, early civil rights and anti-quota activism, the birth of the labor movement and women's rights, the minimum wage and child labor laws, Zionism, the creation of the State of Israel, and the black-Jewish alliance for Civil Rights Acts in the Kennedy and Johnson years.  Reproductive rights, gay marriage, and Israel continue to emanate from many pulpits but the reality is that public education and poverty are not as readily addressed as they ought to be.

While it may be that we have fully assimilated into the middle and upper middle class of American society and no longer need to historically advocate for the less fortunate (which used to be *us*) we are nevertheless *still obligated* as the Psalmist and Deuteronomist make clear.

Not only must we never forget but we are *obligated* to open our hand to the poor, in Baeck's terms, with motivations undergirded by reverence and awe.

13 October 2012


sunset: 10.12.12
The two shots of neupogen into the back of my left arm actually did feel like spider bites, the mildest of intrusions carrying heroic potential, immediately bringing Peter Parker to mind.  The 780 mcgs were inserted slowly to avoid a burning sensation but the nurses in the lab weren't too concerned.  "We give you and your veins straight A's across the board.  'Rabbi Good Veins,' we cal you."  Nice.

This protocol will continue until Tuesday morning, when I get delivered to a centrifuge for six hours of stem cell donation.  I've got the books set aside and the iPod charged.  I picked up Natasha Trethewey's Domestic Work and Bellocq's Ophelia and am finishing up Daniel Swift's Bomber County, a beautiful and thoughtful memoir about his grandfather, an RAF pilot shot down down over Holland in 1943.  Trethewey, the current Poet Laureate of the U.S., evokes mothers living and dead in a modest beauty that is rooted comfort and truth.  And Swift conjures a man he never met through the words of war poetry--reluctant, welded words of memory; a reconstructed life.

In "Gesture of a Woman-in-Process" Trethewey captures two women from a photograph taken in 1902:

Around them, their dailiness:
clotheslines sagged with linens,
a patch of green and yams,

buckets of peas for shelling.
One woman pauses for the picture.
The other won't be still.

Swift captures a different "dailiness" through the words of Randall Jarrell's war poetry.  Writing from the base in Sheppard Field near Wichita Falls, he creates the following image:

To form a line to form a line to form a line;
After the things have learned that they are things,
Used up as things are, pieces of the plain
Flat object-language of a child or states;
After the lines, through trucks, through transports, to the lines
Where things die as though they were not things.

Walking toward Cornell Hospital yesterday morning, the bright sun warming the sidewalk, greyed by cool wind, I saw a man washing the side of his truck.  In the infusion lab up on the third floor, the nurse and technician stood in hospital shoes, organizing stacks of paper, bags of syringes, bottles of medicine.  The clean truck and the clean lab--their dailiness.

While I sat in a chair having blood pressure and temperature measured, giving up a vial of blood for one final test, shaking hands with the doses of neupogen crawling on all fours in their infancy of cell production, I looked across the floor to two chemotherapy patients, taking their medicine ("to form a line to form a line to form a line") and I measured the years of Jarrell's life (1914-1965) against Mom's (1933-2012) since she was the last person I saw tethered to such lines, a long distance from the clotheslines in our backyard, where clean sheets waggled between among apple, pear, maple and pine trees.

Three receptionists arranged my delivery to the lab; an aide from Gift of Life followed up with a phone call; a man swept the sidewalk outside the hospital as I left; a cashier took my money as I tucked books into my bag at Shakespeare & Co on 68th and Lex.  Everyone works so that things don't die as things, I thought.

And again, a thought of Mom, her face, annoyed and disgusted by her predicament from January to July:  "I'd rather be at work," she said one day last spring.  So we went for a walk down to the lake.  She grabbed a lilac branch from a bush we passed, plucked thyme from someone's sidewalk garden, was dumbstruck by May tulips.

Yesterday at dawn a morning star and sliver of waning moon hung, suspended in the sky; and then at dusk the heavens were made up, brushed with blush for the week's end.

As my bones began to ache and my head filled with flu-like symptoms, two side effects of the drug, the hubris of my own comic book heroism of Peter Parker faded, "creased into texture--a deep relief--the lines like palms of hands I could read if I could touch." Tired hands of those who work, in their "dailiness," to save lives.