31 December 2012

A Good Insulator

These are called "glass insulators."  I recognize them because when I was a kid, we used to go down to the railroad tracks, pick up rocks, throw them at telephone poles and try to break them.  There are whole collections available, books and catalogs detailing their artful construction, and even conventions and trade shows, where glass insulator fans trade robustly, stoking the flames of the passion for mid-nineteenth century artifacts like these, stalwart loyalists of those concerned with electrical currents travel willy-nilly down a telephone, into the earth, wasting precious resources.

Mom kept this one in her kitchen window.  She picked it up at:  a yard sale; a consignment shop; a tag sale; from her mother's kitchen window.  Somewhere along the way.  Now I have it.  It's translucent blue is precious.  There's a small chip in the dimpled base, about twenty degrees east of the A in U.S.A where it was "made."

It now rests next to some plants in my kitchen.  You can see the rather hideously brown and tan brick of our 1939 pre-war coop in the background.  A few years ago, our coop board decided to paint the fire escapes the color of cat vomit.  The blue glass insulator brightens up the scene a bit.

I've looked out this window at every hour of the day.  Name the hour.  I've been there.  I often ponder its geometric proposition.  Shape and structure define reality.  Recently, I've made the acquaintance of the photographer Harry Callahan--though he's been dead for more than 13 years.  Callahan, a Detroit native and an engineer by training, picked up a camera for fun and learned that he was a actually a genius with it--though nothing in his biography reveals such an expression of self-regard.  Still, you'd have to be to see things like this:

harry callahan:  chicago 1949
I've also spent a considerable amount of time contemplating this gem from 1974, when Callahan set his sights on the Twin Towers:

harry callahan:  twin towers 1974
My friend MB, a professor of history, reminded me that Callahan was a "student" (that is to say a younger colleague) of the great Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian crypto-Jew who hired Callahan to  join the faculty of the Chicago Institute of Design ("I guess he knew I was a simple, deeply involved guy.")  This after a streak of meetings with Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and then Mies van der Rohe.         By 1948, Callahan had also met Edward Steichen; and this humble man, an accountant for the Chrysler Motor Parts Corporation, was suddenly among the most gifted and talented of modern American photographers we know.

Milton Avery comes to mind here, the painterly aspect of the photographer or is it the photographer being imitated by the painter?  Janet Malcolm wonders about that.  
harry callahan:  cape cod 1974
And then finally, there is the post-modern aspect of his work, the abstraction of nature in its pure glory--a manifestation of his genius where I see Steichen's influence, particularly those efflorescent swamp-scapes of Milwaukee that remain true and timeless.  Here is Callahan's "Weeds in Snow" from Detroit in 1943, a kind of transposed negative close up of what one might see if one were given the gift of blocking out all the background noise to life and allowed a moment to meditate on what it means to be alive in winter:
harry callahan:  weeds in snow, detroit 1943
It's a miracle, really.

Makes me wonder what I do with my days.  And how it is that the artist--perhaps more than the prophet or priest, holds our imagination, lifts our sights to higher places and deeper depths than keepers of faith have the credibility to do in this skeptical age of ours.

Everyone is so connected and so charged.  Ionic energy overflowing.  Running down poles, our own temporality, rooted in hubris, seeping into an earth already over-flowing with the wasteful run-off of generations past.  

What one could do with a good insulator!  Artfully rendered, translucent and true.

30 December 2012

All That Matters

After seven days in the midwest, I regrettably but nevertheless definitively concluded that my mother is dead.

Having visited Chicago and then Milwaukee for a week; having taken long runs along my spiritual anchor, Lake Michigan; having sucked through my nose and into my lungs the chill, razor-thin air of the Midwestern Plain, death's definitiveness was abundantly clear.  Alas.

This raised the "bullshit meter" to a whole new level of measurable discernment, which led to a few noteworthy conclusions, herewith delineated for your readerly edification.

1.  Places where you once lived with someone but where that someone no longer trods one's foot are "empty" in a whole new way.  Lake Michigan, its rusty stones, its murky and earthy tones, its well-earned reputation for rooting 19th century commerce for Middle America, was diminished.  The Grand Dame of Large Shouldered Industry was in mourning for one of her humble servants.  The gulls lacked spunk; footprints fast faded; winds pierced aimlessly those who faced their random judgements.  Though housing and business continues to take root along the Milwaukee River--a great sign of hope and rejuvenation for Mom--encountering its contours was like looking at a mutant gene under a microscope:  a sequence was missing.  Sequence of anticipation and greeting; of embrace and planning; of execution and nostalgia; of parting, missing, and longing for another visit.  What does one do when those links in the genome are no longer present?

I have considered taking piano lessons, to make a random suggestion.

2.  Facebook is, for me, corporate horseshit.  I don't know that took me so long to realize it but it's true. All week long I couldn't wait to disengage, disconnect, or, as they insidiously suggest, "de-activate."  Eww.

I found myself overwhelmed with disgust at the narcissism--obviously my own.  Ashamed at the short leash of anticipation for "friends" reactions to my self-indulgent proclamations; embarrassed by the absurdly bloated importance of my personal pronouncements; and frankly, enraged at my stupidity for allowing a schmendrik like Mark Zuckerberg to make easy dough off of me and my 3000 "friends."  Dad, also dead (since '83) was a Mad Man.  I know the advertising mentality.  They making money off of human impulse; the gaming of desire.  How could I be so stupid all these years?  I'll shamefully admit that I even thought:  "Gee, one day, maybe Mark Zuckerberg will see what important work I'm doing for the Jewish people and give my synagogue money."  Facebook as Philanthropic Cultivation Downpayment.


3.  All that matters is what you do.  Eat.  Sleep.  Run.  Love.  Live {work & play}.  Give.  Die.

Preferably, dying comes last.


I'm back in Brooklyn.  There are two thousand additional miles on my car.  I read Tom Segev's 1949:  The First Israelis; and Abba Kovner's Sloan-Kettering.  I'm moderately smarter and a wee-bit deeper for having done so.  For instance, the generation that founded Israel is a generation like no other.  I really admire them.  And (one must include Abba Kovner among those founders) dying of cancer is a horrible thing.  But if you're a brilliant poet and incomparable hero of the greatest tragedy to ever afflict the Jewish people--cancer is a text against which one paints incomparable wisdom.  I hope to apply the lessons from such explorations to my work and play.

Meanwhile, here's what I advise:  Eat.  Sleep.  Run.  Love.  Live.  And Give.  See you around.

20 December 2012

Comfort, Justice & Silence

The following piece appears in this week's Forward.

Read it there HERE.


The earth-shattering shock of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary continue to reverberate throughout communities and homes all over America.  And now, nearly a week later, rallies, vigils and proposed legislation offer opportunities for us to find a way forward.  In the midst of these expressions of activism, however, there are still the lingering questions of how we grapple with the inexplicable death of children, those sweet innocent ones we mourn over and over again.

The first time I encountered the death of a small child was when I was called upon to help a family bury a premature baby.  The death was an abstraction until the casket was removed from the hearse, at which point it became obvious that the abyss separating life from justice was real.  We built a bridge over that dark space with words of comfort, with shared grief, with a scaffolded, silent presence.  “We are here.  You will not collapse.  Promise.”

The first time I encountered the death of a child was in high school, when a classmate committed suicide.  He shot himself with his father’s gun, in bed, late one night.  He was Catholic, so was made up quite well for the wake.  The day after the funeral, our sophomore biology teacher made some remark in class about a science experiment.  Three students ran from the class in tears.  The teacher should have been fired for his stupidity and insensitivity.  But we were all too stressed out to organize an effort to censure him.

The first time I encountered the death of a child was one summer night decades ago.  1970.  There's Mom at the kitchen window.  Water running in the sink; crickets outside in the yard; apples ripening, hanging low on the trees, ready.  Her back is to us and she's crying.  "Thinking of my dad," she'd say.  And the pastoral landscape of youth was ripped thoroughly through, its horizons twisted into the junk metal of a violent and permanent alteration:  the ghost of a man, an illness, and a gun.  Mom was six in 1939 when her father was murdered by a deranged man, looking to get his job back.  One part of her died that day and she carried that death with her for the span of her entire life.  Hers was the trauma never healed.

The first time.  And the first time.  Again and again.  When a child dies our only response is to treat that death as though we are encountering the phenomenon of a child dying for the first time.  Because to enure ourselves to the radical injustice of a child’s untimely is to deny an essential law of life itself:  that life is to be lived; that the intended progression, the evolutionary genius of design is from conception to birth to growth and maturation and then, to death.  A disruption in that cycle requires our full attention, our presence, our heart’s impossible pain.  

My friend Mish Zion recently shared a great text from the Talmud:  Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina taught, ‘What is meant by the passage You shall walk after the Lord thy God?’  Is it possible for a human being to ‘walk after’ the Divine Presence?  Rather, what it means is, ‘Follow the actions of the Holy Blessed One, just as God comforted the grieving, so too do you comfort the grieving.’

The most God-like action we can take in the face of death--most certainly in the presence of one who has lost a child--is to comfort with words, comfort with our presence, build a bridge over the hole in the ground that lies before them.

For some in grief, there is the deepest desire to hear words of ease, to be held close, to be told that their angels have gone to heaven.  For others in grief, there is anger and a call to justice.  Hayim Nahman Bialik, calling not for revenge but for justice, wrote after the 1903 Kishinev massacre, “No such revenge--revenge for the blood of a little child has yet been devised by Satan.  Let the blood pierce through the abyss!  Let the blood seep down into the depths of darkness, and eat away there, in the dark, and breach all the rotting foundations of the earth.”  

For 73 years after her father was murdered, Mom felt that the foundations of the earth, the system of justice under which we lived, was compromised by laws that favored the rights of gun owners over the innocent lives lost of those who fell victim to a bullets’ searing, piercing blast to the abyss.  

Words of comfort and angels didn’t work for her.  Laws did.  Laws against guns.

The undeniable inexplicability of a child dying -- and the possible array of responses to that by the grieving survivors, brings to mind a teaching by Eliezer Berkovitz in “Faith After the Holocaust.”  He said that some survivors found meaning in their faith, trusting that the full range of evil they had experienced was part of a Divine plan for themselves and the innocent souls lost.  And yet for others, nothing could be more true than God’s absence.  To deny God in the face of such evil is the prerogative of one who has so fully suffered.  Neither position--full faith nor its total absence--is for us to judge.  

We are to listen, be present, and comfort.

Shimon ben Gamaliel said, “All my days have I grown up among the Sages and I have found nothing better for man than silence.”

17 December 2012

Opening Blessing from Today's Proceedings

Invocation for Proceedings of the Electoral College
New York State Capitol
December 17, 2012

Rabbi Andy Bachman
Brooklyn, NY


אל מלא רחמים, Source of Mercy, Source of Strength, Source of Compassion:  We begin with the offering of silence for the families of Newtown:  May the sweet souls of their pure and innocent children and their teachers live on forever in blessing.


When our Founders declared the words from Leviticus, "Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof" they were forging forward for an American proposition that if all are equal it is because our Scriptural traditions teach that man and woman are made in the Divine Image.  

The God of all people made us free to choose--between Liberty and Tyranny, between Good and Evil, between Life and Death.

And as citizens of this great state, Source of Life, you endow us with the sacred responsibility to choose our leaders who protect our freedom and guard the safety & well-being of us all--from the blessed humble to the privileged proud.

We ask you, God, to guide our leaders to do good, to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God--in service to our state, our nation and all of humanity.


16 December 2012

For Those Who Shed Tears

I grew up with this inherited trauma.  I know it in the mode of second generation.

In 1939, 24 years before I was born, my mother's father was murdered, shot in the head by a mentally unstable man.  My mother, then six, carried the weight of this unjust death throughout her life.  At first pliable, like lead, it hardened toward the end of her life.  When mass murders would race, staccato-like, across the newswire, I'd call her in Milwaukee and for a few days she wouldn't answer the phone.  It was too much to talk about.  Enough already.  What is there to say?  Really.

1970.  There's Mom at the kitchen window.  Water running in the sink; crickets outside in the yard; apples ripening, hanging low on the trees, ready.  Her back is to us and she's crying.  "Thinking of my dad," she'd say.  And the pastoral landscape of youth was ripped thoroughly through, its horizons twisted into the junk metal of a violent and permanent alteration:  the ghost of a man, an illness, and a gun.

The murders in Oak Creek at the Sikh Temple--just a couple weeks after she died this summer--would have conjured her more political outrage.  She'd have seen the racism in it, the stupidity of war, the irrational targeting of "enemy populations" and she'd have felt shame at a nation with citizens who refused to accept the inherent diversity of the human species.  But beneath the rational anger there would still have broiled the raging fires of bullets propelled through human flesh, tearing it apart, taking life.  The grotesque injustice--to be borne yet again.  An illness and a gun.

Sandy Hook's particular crimes--the total destruction of innocent lives, the blessed souls of children, the shepherding power of teachers' protective benevolence, the stupefyingly instantaneous vacuity of places where there was once only promise, potential, glory and beauty--would have been too much to bear for Mom.  It was the first time since July when I actually said aloud, "Thank God Mom's dead."  If not crushed by the weight of the loss, she'd have burst apart in anger and disgust at a distinct cowardly American civic inaction.

Our shared grief with the suffering families will be an act of citizenship.  Our mournful wails of pain at the loss of innocent life will be an act of citizenship.  Our holding close of those children we love, ensuring them of what can never truly be promised--that they are safe, watched over, protected in their places of learning--until we fundamentally change our gun laws in this country.

Watching politicians cry no longer moves me.  Power is not a luxury, after all.  In the right hands, it is a duty to be carried out.  In the wrong hands, it is an inexorable path of destruction, the genie released from the bottle, a wound that never fully heals.

And as I learned from watching my own mother weep each year at the anniversary of her father's murder by gunfire, power is meant to be a privilege.  To be employed for good.  It goes astray in the wrong hands, requiring at times an epic force to bring it under control, a battle for good over evil.

This is now our great American crossroads and the fight over gun control should be measured in these terms.

Background checks; assault weapons; cop-killer bullets; waiting periods.  These are among the most sensible regulations ever offered in a legislative body.  That they are greeted with the kind of bravado and moral outrage with which the gun lobby treats them is nothing less than a total bastardization of the Founders' constitutional intent.  And any contemporary political leader worth his or her stature of the privilege to serve the citizenry ought to say so.  Plain and simple.

When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he said, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."  He then went on to speak of the need to wage war for "many, many long months of struggle and suffering...to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime."  And he concluded, "You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word:  It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."

So you can cry over the loss of life.  It is the most profound expression of human empathy we possess.  But our blood must also brim from toil and sweat--the work required of us to fight the necessary fight to change our laws, to justify the Constitution, to release ourselves from the idolatrous tyranny of guns and those who worship them.

It was no Second Amendment sanctioned militia in Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Oak Creek, or Tuscon, (or wherever the next murders will take place); it's the work of madmen, who should be stopped, by the will of the people to write and enforce laws to stop them.

When the innocent die we will shed tears; but with blood, toil and sweat we will redeem their souls by safeguarding the future for others.

13 December 2012

Pay Attention

Imagine an American or European leader denying the very existence of Jewish nationalism; decrying homosexuality; saying degrading things about Jewish feminism and the advance of women; and wrapping it all in the veneer of Christian or Muslim religiosity and God's will.

Chances are you'd find Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and David Harris at the American Jewish Committee demanding retractions and apologies for this affront to democratic values and civil society.  And they'd be right to do so!

So why the troubling silence over the rants of the Likud Party's ascendent renegade, Moshe Feiglin, whose well-documented vituperations against women, liberals, Arabs and homosexuals (not to mention his weird and deeply disturbing rhetorical nods to Adolf Hitler)?

He wants to expel Palestinians to Arab countries; build the Third Temple and re-institute the Priesthood; he regularly disdains homosexuality; but seems to get a "pass" because he claims to favor civil unions and the legalization of cannabis.  That Feiglin is now a voice in the Likud Party practically ensured of a seat in the Knesset, representing a party headed by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, should cause people to pay attention.  Has the Prime Minister allowed a fox into the chicken coop or will he expel him (or at the very least undercut him) with the same singular focus that he publicly opposed the Obama Administration for the past four years?  (An administration that everyone agrees "had Bibi's back" in the latest Gaza conflict.)

In either case, I would expect that national Jewish leadership say something out loud in clear terms:  that Feiglin's views, coming from a place close to the top of the Likud Party list for January elections, are anathema to Jewish nationalism and Zionist aspirations for a Jewish, secular democratic in the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

A former student named Gabriel Fisher, studying in Israel this year, recently had an encounter with Feiglin that is worth a look.  Thank God the young leaders are speaking up--I would expect the old guys would say something, too.

06 December 2012

Like Peace

A lot of people have been asking me, since the Palestinians all but declared themselves a state, with support of the vast majority of the United Nations, "What should we make of this, Rabbi?"

Here's what I say:

1.  Good for them.  I like a people that thinks of itself like a state or nation.  It speaks well of their aspirations.  They say "No man is an island" but a whole bunch of 'em sure as hell can be a state!  Why not?

2.  In 1947, when mid-century Zionist leaders celebrated the United Nations partition plan of 29 November as the first real international legitimization of Jewish and Palestinian peoplehood, the Jewish people accepted this partition right away.  29 November is practically a holy day in Jewish history; streets in Israel bear its name.  Did Palestinian leaders find humor in this date for the vote?  Strategic annoyance of their mortal enemy?  Who knows and who cares.  I think the media generally could have done a better job of pointing out to all observers and interested parties that 65 years ago on the 29th of November the Jewish nation took the deal and the Arab nation united in revolt against the idea that Jews had an historic claim to an ancient homeland.  Just another missed opportunity, I suppose.  History is increasingly irrelevant when "truth" is just a click or tweet away.  At least there's the Iron Dome.

3.  Here's who voted with the United States *against* the Palestinian statehood initiative:  Canada, Czech Republic, Israel (so far so good!)  and then Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Federated States of Nauru, Panama, Palau.  Not exactly the "Coalition of the Willing."

4.  What is it, really?  Abbas, too weak to defeat Hamas in Gaza and ineffectual in getting to the negotiating table with Bibi.   Pre-conditions and demands really an excuse for not sitting down to negotiate no matter what.  So the U.N. vote is a negotiating tactic without negotiating.  And, worst case scenario, a chance to "try Israel" in Geneva, further attempting to isolate and develop a strategy depicting Israel as a "pariah state."  Bibi, never really committed to a two-state solution either.  His claims of a "ten month moratorium" on settlement expansion as much a facetious position as Abbas' proclamations for sharing the land.   

5.  Both men are one-staters and Hamas is one stater, two.  Lucky for Israel, Abbas and Hamas are not united in their one state solution, so Israel can advantage itself of that dysfunctional alliance.  

6.  Here's the really cynical part.  Egypt is clearly unstable.  Syria is a disaster unfolding.  Lebanon remains a mystery.  Jordan is now just beginning to experience its own Arab Spring.  Who knows where this all really ends.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, Bibi is not Prime Minister of Israel but a good, peace-loving Left Winger is Prime Minister (me, for instance!)  Do you trust the future borders of Israel?  Are you going to have great faith in the treaties that border you while also watching and protecting yourself from the vast instability and potentially disastrous violence that lurks at your door to the North, South and East?  Let's say things do continue to unfold.  Let's say Jordan and the Hashemite Kingdom are actually toppled by another iteration of the Arab Spring.  Can the Left even say out loud a possibility that might be true:  Jordan is Palestine?  Israel and a Palestinian Jordan would still be the most enlightened nations in the region.  Turkey would take advantage right away.  I think Bibi knows this.  I wish he'd just say it out loud.

7.  Oslo being met with suicide bombs killed the Israeli Left and emboldened the Israeli Right--including the Religious Right, both of which fostered elements which were complicit in the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.  But the Middle dug in.  Hunkered down.  A kind of "they hate us and they'll always hate us and there really isn't any solution" stance.  And it's not like political leadership has really risen to the occasion.  The Tel Aviv corridor settled in to making life and making money, figuring that strength, creativity and innovation would carry Israel through the next hundred years until the Arab states settled their fights, re-configured their borders, and re-made the states that were artificially created as the result of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Illusions are dead.  A grim reality takes hold.  

I end on two notes.

First, It's important to remember that Zionism was fundamentally for two reasons:  one, the right of Jews, like any nation. to live in its land, in its language, in its history.  And two, that this right would effectuate the Jewish people's continuity, which is biologically axiomatic.  Humans are, generally, and by definition, regenerative.  Zionism was an exertion of the right to survive.  A large segment of the world was not particularly sympathetic to our cause or existence.  We were, in effect, alone.  And the early Zionists knew that a state and an army could ensure survival.  But beyond mere survival, one must never lose track of this remarkably mind-boggling fact of history:  in 1909, when Tel Aviv was founded, a few dozen families spoke a modern Hebrew--a language that today is spoken by more than 7 million people, including more than a million Arabs.  Regardless of what a seductive cadre of left-coast literary critics and academicians might say in their incessantly useless attempts to deconstruct the language of occupation, that's a damn miracle.

Second, the power structures of American Jewish life are totally ill-equipped to deal with this reality.  Today I was invited to a "live briefing" by AIPAC of the man behind the Iron Dome.  While I'm a big fan of the Iron Dome and its inspiring ability to save lives, I hardly think this is the deep thinking our community needs to be doing.  High-fiving over self-defense when certain fundamental assumptions of the last 65 years are being re-thought in real time seems more the order of the day.  AIPAC, the AJC, the ADL--to name of few--are essentially delivering the same message.  It's not like the Federation system weighs in on this stuff.  So all we're really left with, from the money and the power, is to stay the course.  

I truly do wish for Palestinians a state of their own.  I wish that Hamas would stop calling for Israel's destruction and allying itself with genocidal maniacs like Ahmadinejad in Iran.  I wish that Rabin were alive, that Sharon wasn't on life support, that a strongman could make peace.   I wish Bibi weren't Prime Minister; I wish so many religious soldiers weren't officers.

But that world isn't the world we live in.  It's really tragic and sad.  

On the other hand, in tragic times, good people do find one another.  And when people meet for the first time, strange things can happen.  Like peace.