28 February 2013

BDS at Brooklyn College

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently asked me to weigh in on the BDS dust-up at Brooklyn College.


During the Vietnam War protests at the University of Wisconsin, students were said to have gathered on the front lawn of noted historian George Mosse, imploring him to stop supporting the university’s policy of allowing the ROTC on campus. To some students, this alignment with the machinery of war was a “fascist policy,” and they charged their teacher with the same label.
“A fascist,” he was said to have mused. “Which kind?”
Classic Mosse: He engaged his students with wit, turning questions back to them, sending them back to books to examine their claims with “critical thinking.”
Twenty years later, when I was a student and protests against Israel were taking place on campus, Mosse was equally engaged. He did not talk policy, but he made us think about context, perspective and cogency of argument. He also was fascinated by the personalities leading the debates on both sides. What historical forces made them into the students they had come to be?
This arose one winter when the infamous anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan came to campus. Someone wanted an apology from the university for hosting the speech in the field house; as a student leader, I argued one should attend the talk, hear what he has to say. That way, I figured, it would make the argument over his words more interesting and earn some respect from the other side for listening, however misguided or hateful the speech.
Watching the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions debate rear its head at Brooklyn College, a year after successfully beating it back at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, brings to mind these experiences. As someone who takes it as axiomatic that the BDS movement doesn’t have a formidable leg to stand on (on a recent trip to Israel, I visited Palestinian friends in Jericho and bought the BDS-forbidden Ahava products at the Ahava Jericho Wall concession stand, above which flew the Palestinian flag; we got good date honey, too) one could have predicted the sandstorm that would ensue once the Brooklyn College political science department co-sponsored a forum on BDS.
While there remain legitimate educational reasons to debate Israeli policy with regard to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, BDS and Brooklyn College became yet another occasion to trudge out the cottage industry of American Jewish politics and all its requisite, manifest claims and questions: Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic? Is opposing Zionism anti-Semitic? Does the strongest nation in the Middle East even care about what goes on at one end of Flatbush while dealing with a nuclear threat from Iran, unstable borders with Syria, an elected parliamentary government not yet in formation, and an unresolved conflict with Palestinians wherein neither side currently has the will to sit down, negotiate and compromise?
Seltzer makers? Hand lotion? Please.
Quick: Ask yourself whose voice you heard in the media about Brooklyn College and BDS? Can you name a historian? Political scientist? A teacher of any kind? Or can you only remember the politicians, community leaders, agitators and activists who weighed in, staking out ground for the greater battle over whether or not Israel should exist?
Some have said that Brooklyn College never should have allowed the program to take place in the first place; that a city-funded university ought not spend taxpayer dollars on a program about a movement that does not actually seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than the demographic dissolution of the Jewish state; and that since BDS advocates a binational state and seeks to delegitimize Jewish national aspirations, it’s an inherently bigoted if not anti-Semitic front.
I don’t agree.
Rather, I take issue with the political science department’s tactics. The department should have insisted that the program take place with a serious scholarly approach rather than the show trial that went on, complete with competing claims about intimidation and students being removed from the premises. The teachers should have taught, questioned, prodded and used the lecture hall to lift the discussion to the valued place higher education aspires to occupy.
Oops. There’s that word, occupy. Which is precisely the point. The objection should not be about a university sponsoring a forum on whether boycott is an effective practice for political change. The objection should be that under the guise of “academic freedom,” the agenda for a reasonable debate about difficult issues was hijacked by intellectually weak and tendentious argument.
If I were a Brooklyn College student, I’d demand a more demanding debate, more scholarship from a scholarly department. Academic freedom doesn’t mean saying whatever you want without someone pushing back in the classroom. It can also entail requiring that students learn something, be pushed to new cognitive territory, have their orthodoxies tested and maybe even shattered before being made anew -- all for the sake of a higher historical truth that the university, since its inception, is meant to offer.
BDS is insidious and stupid. It’s also wildly ineffective. The university shouldn’t censor it by not addressing it; it should bring the movement under the light of examination and expose it for what it is: an attempt by the weak to bring down the strongest nation in the Middle East that, besides being surrounded by enemies, has a population under its military control that is yearning for a state of its own. Sometimes the most basic facts are more conveniently ignored. So when one-sided programming becomes a spectacle, all we learn is how to shout louder.
At a debate over the meaning of the Vietnam War and increasing violence on campus, George Mosse said to his opponent and friend Harvey Goldberg, “You were so respectable. You thought you could make a revolution without consequences. Well, any revolution has to step over bodies, didn’t you know?”
The Israel and BDS debate needs more candor, more argument and more exposure. Brooklyn College only got it half right. Students and a jaded public lost out. Israelis and Palestinians hardly noticed.

27 February 2013

It's True

On our walk through Jaffa last week, we were taken around the old port town by two young men--one Israeli and one Palestinian--who told the story of Jaffa from each of their historical perspectives, talking about its origin as an ancient city on the sea, its evolution up and through the Ottoman Period, into the British Mandate and then its unification with the greater municipality of Tel Aviv by the time Israel was established as a state.  The program is run by Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv's Progressive synagogue, a community at the cutting edge of synagogue social justice programming in Israel.  Beit Daniel fosters Israel-Palestinian coexistence work as well engagement with the thousands of Sudanese refugees in Israel and much more.  It's become an essential stop on our tours to Israel--to understand ways in which Israel's Declaration of Independence obligates its citizens to foster universal values of justice for each person within Israel's borders.  Never easy in a region painfully divided by competing individual narratives that too often tragically seek the eradication of the other.

Our Israeli guide was (ready?) a left-wing, Communist party voting, tefilin-wearing, modern Orthodox carpenter studying to be a psycho-analyst whose paternal great-great grandfather composed one of the more traditional melodies for the Hatzi Kaddish.

Our Palestinian guide was from the Galilee.  His narrative was less quirky, more typical for a Galilean Arab from a middle-class family.

Though they were cordial to one another and guided us around with interesting stories about their lives and their devotion to sharing a land mutually beloved by both their broader familial and national narratives, we were all left with the impression that they're not actually friends.  Their accommodation to one another was not tense, mind you, just necessary in a rather mundane way.  Each man expressed a deeply jaded view of their mutual national leadership:  no faith in the Israeli political leadership to forge peace and no faith in the Palestinian political leadership.  They grew up believing in a two-state solution but now, in their thirties, they have abandoned that hope.

"What's the solution?" someone asked.  And both espoused bi-nationalism.  This then led to a frustrating discussion about demographics, the ticking time-bomb of Israel's Jewish democracy.  Park Slope wasn't so typical after all:  our group was perplexed and rather unified in the view that bi-nationalism would mean the ultimate dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.  We left the conversation with the hovering dread that both Israeli and Palestinian leadership were locked in and that without negotiations soon, the end result would be bad for Israel.

What to do?  Our guides parted ways--again, cordial but distant.  Like they both were exhausted from a youthful hope disappointed.  Of course, what is adulthood without a few shattered illusions?  Our Israeli guide pointed us up the hill from the port toward Abu Hassan, where we drowned our sorrows in the best hummus on the planet.  Palestinian and Israeli residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv crowded around the window; warm pots of boiled chick peas were transported into the kitchen; there were no distinctions among the men and women present save one:  who had yet to be served.

Practically screaming with ecstasy, a few of us gathered on a park bench to eat.  The sun beat down hard; the sea was a ridiculous blue.  A man's needs are basic:  a home; a meal; the comity of friendship. How maddeningly ironic that in such a place that reduces one to his most elemental state--after all, who has not come to Jaffa port for any other reason than finding his way home?--we can't seem to get off first base.
at a shakshuka cafe in the jaffa flea market
We shook off the sun and headed to Jaffa Flea, where again, Jews and Arabs bought and sold what has been lost and found in the land for hundreds of years.  Purim music played on the radio in a nearby cafe.  We sat down to order shakshuka for the kids.  An afternoon service began so that a shopkeeper in mourning could say Kaddish.  I stood with the group, anonymous among the prayers.  The leader recited the Hatzi Kaddish.  It wasn't the same melody as that written by our guide's ancestor which was European in origin but one from the Mizrachi or eastern tradition of Jewish liturgy.

It was a different melody, an unfamiliar sound, but it went straight to the heart nevertheless.  And in its directed trajectory, its intentional expression, the words and the song enabled the men assembled to reach the place they sought to be.

It brought to mind those fated words of Amichai:  "I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch over there from the Roman period?  It's not important.  But next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.' "

I know what you're thinking:  stupid, naive, condescending, bleeding-heart American Jew, coming to tour in Israel and telling us how to make peace, with hummus no less.  On one level, it is a problematic paradigm.  I'll admit it.

"They hate us." It's true.  So is: "We hate them."

But it doesn't apply to everyone.  Some can see through the fires of hatred, can stand strong against the headwinds of intransigence.  There one finds shared ideals like freedom, justice, a roof over one's head, a window onto a horizon, and a meal with family and friends.  I saw it with my own eyes.  That's true, too.

26 February 2013


We returned from Israel somewhat bleary-eyed on Monday morning, Oscar winners being announced at the customs terminal in JFK Airport.  Our Delta flight from Tel Aviv was delayed by 5 hours (no explanation ever given) and so after a great last day hiking up Masada, floating in the Dead Sea, and a closing dinner at Anna Ticho, we began to wile away the hours reveling in the Jerusalem Purim scene and then resting a bit more at the Mount Zion Hotel until a 2:30 am bus ride to Ben Gurion.  The Old City glowed in the distance as we loaded our bus and joining a long-practiced a tradition in the city where such behavior is if not normal than certainly ubiquitous, I spoke to the stones.

First I did what I usually do--expressed my love and a promise to return.  Having turned 50 up in the Golan Heights, I have become acutely aware not how old I am or feel (a chronic lack of maturity ensures my youthful pride) but just how rare and precious are these opportunities.  While I felt no particular pang of spiritual oneness (Jerusalem is an oddly inspiring profane place) I did feel a sea-deep binding with my teachers, with history, and with the raging current-ness of Israeli life.

It was almost as if it came to me this way:  the trouble in this land all these years is that people mistake its mystery and power with God, when in fact God is, if anything, more like the insulation meant to protect us from shocking ourselves to death.  It defies logic, after all, to think that God can possibly approve of Hezbollah rockets poised yet again in Lebanon; Hamas rockets aimed again at Sderot and Tel Aviv; nuclear centrifuges spinning toward confrontation in Iran; or Hilltop Settlers beating Palestinians or Western Wall rabbis oppressing women.  We did a graffiti tour in Tel Aviv with the brilliant Guy Sharett, walking through the Florentine neighborhood, analyzing what street art says about an area on the verge of radical gentrification, contemporary Israeli life, war and the admixtures of cynicism and the hope for peace.
One particular piece of graffiti stands out:  a "fake" quote from the Book of Proverbs, permitting the act of spitting in the face of women who dare to sit in the front of the bus.  A passerby had attempted to cover up the graffiti, a religious person no doubt offended by its irreverence.  Which of course begs the question:  what is holier?  The defamation of women not allowed to sit or pray where they choose or the defamation of a holy book, defamed by a man who through his aspirations to be near the Divine stomps out freedom and human dignity?

It was that kind of trip.

On the other hand, there were Shabbat evening services in the city at an Orthodox synagogue where women do lead.  And today's Haaretz reports that the intrepid Women of the Wall won't back down from confronting the corrupt powers of the Western Wall Authorities.  And even though Yair Lapid nixed his party's tour of East Jerusalem settlement policy, we were among three different groups working to understanding Jerusalem's complex reality with Ir Amim on a great walking tour ourselves, which is to say that despite seeming fortifications of seemingly intractable problems, there are others aiming to make things changes.

There's alot to say about our ten days, more of which will be posted here in the days to come.

My heart turns again to those silent stones, emanating with the electrical currents of fools like me, and I pray into this keyboard, backlit, to find the right words to keep her close, that City of Peace.

14 February 2013

Where We Go With What We Learn

A friend in Tel Aviv writes, "It's nice that you guys have a spiritual homeland. It's odd that your spiritual homeland is our country. Odder still is the gap between the two.  Just thought I'd point that out."

I mentioned a variation of this idea to George Mosse, soon after traveling to Israel for the first time in 1985.  He smiled.  His student Michael Berkowitz smiled a lot, too, at my initial naivete, and also took me for a beer.  He showed me some of his research on the Zionist project of constructing a modern Jewish identity.  My favorite was the story of Theodor Herzl, Zionism's founder, and an iconic photograph of Herzl looking out over the Rhine Bridge in Basel, the site of the first Zionist Congress, which would eventually be superimposed onto an image of Herzl looking out over Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

herzl at the rhine bridge, basel

herzl, jewish national fund stamp
Or, as Hank Williams once wrote, "We live in two different worlds." 

My teachers took great humor and pleasure in deconstructing mythologies in pursuit of a truth that was complex, challenging, and endlessly fascinating.  The notion that each of us inherits an image of ourselves and the world we live in, and then move into adulthood with an understanding that the engagement in the broader world is about navigating varied visions of reality, makes for an interesting life.  

At the initial meeting of our group heading to Israel tonight, someone said about our itinerary, "Look, I'm not going to Israel for my first time without going to the West Bank."  So for him, part of the confrontations with the borders of existence are the political borders, the territorial and nation demarcations of Arabs and Jews in their mutually declared homelands.  No problem.  (We're spending a day in Jericho, by the way.)

But national borders are hardly the only borders one confronts when traveling to Israel.  On Sunday several women were yet again arrested at the Western Wall for praying with "male prayer garments" which in our synagogue we call a "tallis."  Men or women are welcome to wear them.  That's a border that doesn't exist for us here but over in the most sacred city to Jews for three thousand years, you get arrested for wearing one near a site that is controlled by male rabbis who are paid by the State to enforce a singular definition of Judaism.

It certainly isn't what Theodor Herzl had in mind when he envisioned the Jewish State; nor when he created a fictional idealization of that state in his novel, Altneuland.  He assumed, naive fellow that he was, tanned in the glorious rays of hope of the late nineteenth century, that strict religious sensibilities would give way to an open tolerance of all faiths in the Holy City.  The dawn of a new era.  When he looked out over Mount Zion, he saw a liberal democratic Europe, a Swiss watch, as it were of precise civilization.  

What's not to love?

When our plane touches down tomorrow afternoon, it lands in an Israel both predictable and impossible to imagine to Herzl.  A beautiful beast of contradiction.  Choose a point of view and it's basically represented in the Knesset--capitalist, socialist, secular, religious, racist, pacifist, Arab and Jewish.  120 representatives of several million points of view, a traffic jam of mythologies and sensibilities.  Israel's borders are arguably less secure these days--massacres in Syria; continued revolt in Egypt; the quiet, ominous hum of uncertainty in Lebanon and Jordan.  Palestinian Gaza is on a low-boil, testing its relationship with moderate forces while also attempting to secure arms and weaponry from Iran.   The West Bank leadership struggles still to find its voice.  And Jewish settlement in the West Bank continues.  We'll try to understand all of this.  We won't even come close.  

Our group is 16 adults and 13 kids.  We'll climb mountains, hike near streams, eat good food, have a lot of laughs, and revel in what was practically inconceivable to but a few dreamers a century ago:  a vibrant Jewish democratic state of more than 6 million Jews and nearly 1.7 million Arabs.  Besides the usual problems not unfamiliar to us here in the United States--a widening gap between rich and poor; a tenuous social safety net; diminishing resources in the education system--there is, of course, the existential reality of internal and external enemies that threaten one's very existence.

Like at an archaeological dig, we will attempt, in ten days, to discover something new--layer after layer after layer.  

My friend Mark came on the trip last year.  He said to me about half-way through, as we were winding our way up to Syrian border on a cool but beautiful foggy day, "I've discovered that I'm a re-born secular Jew.  I just don't see God in any of this.  But I'm learning a lot."

Are you having a good time, I asked him.

He nodded thoughtfully.

So that's all you need to worry about, I told him.  Learn something and have a good time.  

We live in a world that jumps to conclusions too quickly.  There's a lot more to be said for listening, observing, asking good questions, and fearlessness in the face of inherited and self-made myths being exposed and reconfigured into new versions of reality.

Tonight we fly.  Tomorrow we land.  Where we go with what we learn is anybody's guess.

12 February 2013

God v Man: Whatever

"When a man died there had to be blame.  Jimmy Cross understood this.  You could blame the war.  You could blame the idiots who made the war.  You could blame Kiowa for going to it.  You could blame the rain.  You could blame the river.  You could blame the field, the mud, the climate.  You could blame the enemy.  You could blame the mortar rounds.  You cloud blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics.  You could blame whole nations.  You could blame God.  You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.  In the field, though, the causes were immediate.  A moment of carelessness or bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever."  (from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried)

Blame.  It's tricky.  Blame walks a fine line between its searing, condemnatory rage at 'what is wrong' and its obverse:  the needling, piecemeal, petty unraveling of a basic, axiomatic relationship we all have to 'reality', that crossroads between responsibility and chance.

Man's great trial is war.  How he behaves, the choices he makes, the judgements he renders in battle--they stand forever.  Unlike messages rendered by stunt planes in clouds for a holiday air-show or school-yard graffiti that is washed away by a custodial servant of institutional civility, war and its words, like the Ten Utterances shared between God and Moses at Sinai, are forever.

Of course, war as metaphor for life is forever, too.  (Sport and politics understand this, which contributes mightily to their allure.  Oh, and their absurd folly, too.)  Family, love, work, and even relaxation require constructs like strategic thinking, concern for open supply lines and coded communication, execution of plans, surprise attacks, battles, and of course, peace--elusive, temporary and full of grace, albeit the grace of stunt planes in clouds for a holiday air-show.

"Lord how many are mine adversaries become!  Many are they that rise up against me.  Many there are that say of my soul:  'There is no salvation for him in God.'  Selah.  But Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me; my glory and the lifter up of my head."

In other words, I don't blame.  I simply deal with the situation.  Take responsibility.  Raise my head high.  Or get it "lifted up."

Whatever.  Take credit, God.  See what I care.  Let's just get the job done.

11 February 2013

Some People

About two weeks ago, the spot in my left forearm where one would insert a needle for drawing blood began inexplicably to ache.  Neurosis crept through an opening in the door.  Bachman Family Patriarchs with various cardiac issues loomed heavily on my mind.  As my fiftieth birthday approaches, I became convinced that the second half of my proposed century on earth would begin with a real bang.  I peered from behind my own eyes onto my present and into my future, counting minutes, hours and days until I could figure out the pulsating source of the pain.  Had I thrown a snowball I forgot about?  Tripped and fell and gripped a birch tree, wrenching my arm on that walk in Berkshires a few weeks back?  Worked myself into a poetic lather, sleeping fitfully for nights on end, twisted into existential knots after tackling Louise Gluck in one fell swoop?   Am I wrapping my tefilin too tight?  (I don't love God that much, these days--do I?  He's still distant in my year of mourning.)

But then, as often happens at the oddly serendipitous intersection between science and mysterious chance, I remembered something.

You may have read here last Fall that more than a decade after doing a cheek-swab for a stem cell sample at a student-run Donor Drive at NYU Law School, I came up as a match this summer, 12 years later, for a 49 year old man with acute leukemia.   Several tests at Cornell Hospital and a five day regiment of neupogen and we were good to go.  For six hours I was on a centrifuge, nearly 4.5 million stem cells were bagged, frozen, and sent off to the other guy who is 49, the one who was wondering if he'd make it to 50.  A needle in each arm, long, invasive, foreign, made me into a machine for day, churning out product, numbers and statistics for the one-man factory I was.

Last week I heard from the Gift of Life that my recipient has experienced a "successful graft."  This means my stem cells "took" inside his body.  He's alive, ambulatory, and living life.

The pain in my arm, I decided, was the pain of another man, living.  I imagined him poked and prodded, as they say, fed his medicines intravenously, drawing blood and cells endlessly, quantitatively examining his genetic essence, feeding the data into algorithms, attempting to determine his future.

At present--thank God, thank Family, thank Science--he's alive.

According to the rules of engagement, we're not allowed to know one another yet.  The situation is still tenuous.  I respect that.  But I was allowed to write him anonymously.

Here's what I wrote:

Dear Friend:

I am your Gift of Life Donor.  This past October I had the opportunity to give you stem cells.  It was a powerful experience to be connected to you, however anonymously.  I am a 49 year old as well.  If you're up for it, I'd be happy to correspond from time to time, as you see fit.  If not, I understand that, too.  But just so you know, I think of you often and hope you're doing okay.  If my stem cells ever give you a hard time, tell them to shape up.  If they have you rooting for the under-dog in baseball, football or basketball, well, those are the cells you now have and there's not a whole lot either of us can do about that.  

Peace and Good Health.

Your Donor.

I went for humor.  And faith in the underdog.  And inklings--like, when you feel pain, maybe someone is feeling pain, too.  But if you each know that, perhaps there can be a mutual alleviation of suffering, which some people call redemption, some people call science, and others call chance.

10 February 2013

The Kindness of Torah

photo:  Julie Markes

Last Sunday, a day after Lois became Bat Mitzvah, we took our turn as a family to scribe in our new Torah, being written by the wonderful Soferet Linda Coppelson.  My sisters and brother, two brothers-in-law, and three dear friends were also present to give honor to my mom's memory.  I'll admit to having cried much of the morning, overwhelmed at times by the power of writing letters on parchment as part of chain of tradition that extends back in time nearly 3500 years in the life of our people.  The last time I scribed in a new Torah was a month before ordination as a rabbi.  My teacher Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus was working on an anniversary Torah for Temple Emanuel in Manhattan and he had invited a few of us to scribe a letter in honor of our becoming rabbis.

After the scribing, we packed up the car with my family's luggage and got them off to the airport.  Slightly dented Packers fans (from a season shortened by a poor playoff performance) they were on early flights so they could make it home to watch the Super Bowl.  Mom made a brisket for the occasion each year.

While driving out to Laguardia, I felt the kindness of Torah, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging more aggressive cars, not allowing agitation at brushes with danger, feeling what it meant be thrown so quickly from the sublime Eternal Torah to the ridiculous Flatbush Avenue and BQE.  It was still with me last night, driving down Flatbush from Marine Park and Floyd Bennett Field.  Neighbors in a rush on a Saturday night, hair and nail salons lit up, chicken joints wafting dinner aromas, cars and vans doing U-turns that were Olympian in daring and execution.  Oncoming headlights refracted through ice on the windshield seemed to spell Hebrew letters in the darkness of night.  The Clash was on the car radio.  Everything was perfect.  City Planners ought to consider a campaign to calm drivers.

Dates still remain this spring for you to scribe in our new Torah.  Celebrating 150 years in Brooklyn, we are so proud that this will be the first Torah in the history of New York City written entirely by a female scribe.  Don't miss this special opportunity to be a part of history!

And just think:  If everyone scribed in Torah, traffic would be a piece of cake.

08 February 2013


In July, after the third day of saying Kaddish for Mom, I was wrapping up my tefilin and talit when I noticed an elderly man who I hadn't seen in thirty years:  a distant cousin of my father's who always had a kindly and warm presence during my childhood when I'd see him at family events, at the deli, and through brief waves from his car as he passed our house on his way home from work. 

His cherubic face was set against a dark wooden wall with brass memorial plates bearing names of deceased Milwaukeeans--cousins, friends, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles of those I grew up with.  The image has remained with me.  He hadn't heard about Mom's death til the day after the funeral, he explained.  He had been down in Chicago visiting his grandchildren and when he came back up to town and caught up on his newspaper reading, he saw the death notice.  What a nice lady, he said.  And his face smiled, a kind of bald, glowing levitation, bobbing whimsically among the names of dead behind him.

"I used to stop in and see her at the store," he said.  "I'd lean into her counter and catch up on everything.  And sometimes we'd just talk--which would usually annoy the customers behind me who actually wanted to buy something," he added, laughing.  "She was easy to talk to."

He himself was long retired from retail and expressed a great appreciation for Mom's continuing to work.  She had to, of course--one of her enduring needs that she managed to express as a virtue: a quality I greatly admired.  

On the occasions when we spoke on the phone over the last twenty years, the counter at the store was the source of information from where she got her information--births and deaths; cancers and recoveries; marriages, divorces; failures and triumphs.  One imagined, despite it's over-lit, florescent suburban-malled department store decor (nauseated enough?  should I add the Muzak?) a kind of Town Square ledge or General Store countertop where neighbors shared news that greased the curious minds of every day commerce.

In Mom's mind's eye, I'm certain this imagined setting is what made the work bearable.

Each day this week I have been stopping in to a local business where the family that runs the business is mourning the tragic and untimely death of a brother.  At forty-four, he inexplicably died of a heart attack.  The family is understandably devastated and are doing their best to endure, to mourn, to understand, and also to keep the business going.  Today when I went into the store, customers were buying challahs for Shabbat and other culinary delights and while usually these small transactions elicits smiles and playful small talk, lately there has been a pall hanging above the exchanges, a truly and understandable mournfulness that, in its expression, is shared; and in being shared is, hopefully, a source of relief.

I invited the family to come say Kaddish for their brother, to give life to his memory, to keep him with us.  And promised that in the weeks to come, we'd say his name at our services, talk about him, over transactions like, "Shabbat Shalom" and "how's your health" and "be careful in the snow!"  Tears filled their eyes; challah and money passed hands; customers offered condolences; snow fell outside the window.  

Their heads, slowly shaking in confusion over a life stolen too soon, seemed to float against the storefront glass, the untethered grief of the mourner, finding his way amidst the simple, poetic chaos of a daily life still too strange to fully embrace.  

Like the brass names of those long dead back home, I imagined this brother's name on the storefront glass, his spoken name at Kaddish time tomorrow, those letters penetrating to the heart and soul of eternity.


07 February 2013

Shira B'Shishi: Also Like Our Own

And how to start loving again is like the dilemma
of architects in an old city:  how to build
where houses once stood, so it will look like
that time, yet also like our own.

ולאהב מחדש הוא כמו בעיה
של אדריכלים בעיר ישנה: לבנות
שוב במקומות שכבר היו
שיראו כמאז, ובכל זאת של עכשו

--Yehuda Amichai, "This is the End of the Landscape"


Jerusalem sits at the edge of the Judean Hills.  Tel Aviv churns at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  Brooklyn heaves and breathes at edge of the mighty Atlantic.

One landscape makes piles out of history like rocks;  another won't look back; and here in Brooklyn we're watching it get reclaimed, yet again.

So it goes with our incredible Israelis in Brooklyn program at CBE:  Keshet, Keshet-Tot and Shira B'Shishi, our Friday night "Israeli-style" Shabbat sing-a-long, that goes down again next Friday night February 15th at 6 pm.  As secular Israelis in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and around the country have begun in the last decade to re-claim their connection to Jewish ritual and observance as distinct from many traditional Jewish trappings, Brooklyn has become a unique proving ground for music, tradition, and innovation to come together in order that the Hebrew language and Israeli identity--far from home--can find new meaning and expression.

Sundays our synagogue is filled with hundreds of Israelis living abroad who sing, play and learn with their kids in the Hebrew language, reinvented and modernized a little more than a mere century ago--in Europe and Tel Aviv but which today is not the religious but the contemporary and decidedly secular language of exile.  Several days a week, alongside American kids learning in our Yachad family learning program, give voice to a Jewish identity that is more Israeli than American, recognizing the intuitively correct notion that while half the world's Jews live in America, the other half live in Israel; and when the two distinct cultures are brought together to co-exist, cross-pollinate, and generate new Jewish life for a new generation, "it will look like that time, yet also like our own."

Claiming Jewishness is the key that opens the door to language, identity, history, land and most important, values.  All our in play together in a remarkably inspiring way.

If you've never been with us for Shira B'Shishi, I encourage you to join us on February 15th.  Dinner is from the Hummus Place and Dan Nadel's band and Mika Hary's beautiful vocals.

You can sign up HERE and get a taste of the night by looking at this nifty video.

A leading Israeli paper recently wrote about us and so did the UJA website (UJA, along with the Charles H. Revson Foundation join CBE in supporting this great work.)

We're really proud of this special way to celebrate Shabbat would love to have you with us!

06 February 2013

A Humbling Place


Too much rain
loosens trees.
In the hills giant oaks
fall upon their knees.
You can touch parts
you have no right to--
places only birds
should fly to.

--Kay Ryan, Say Uncle, 1991

I had lunch today with Aaron Shiffman, who runs Brooklyn Workforce Innovations.  We ate with Isabel Burton, our Revson Fellow for Community Organizing.  We started talking about the tens of thousands of people we have fed since Hurricane Sandy but touched upon the homeless shelter we'll run for two months this summer; the ongoing tutorial work our members are doing at John Jay High School; the gathering storm of activism around Gun Control that has awakened since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary; the need for meaningful work among those not only on hurricane assistance but for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in and around our neighborhoods who have been in need of job training and work for years.  The storm revealed this, tore wide-open the too often easily ignored rift between rich and poor in our city.

Aaron is a very smart and thoughtful man.  Thorough in his thinking.  A natural teacher.  At one point I cracked that while the storm gave us a chance to connect with parts of the city we ordinarily don't meet on a daily basis, the atmospheric reality is that many more hurricanes are coming.  Governor Cuomo's offer this week to have New York State buy out families living on the water is just the beginning of a deepening realization that we have designed our world for one set of expectations while laboring quickly under the shifting sands of a reality we have created due to our own poor planning, our profligate spending of energy, our erroneous assumption that things will generally remain the same.  They won't.

Our world is upside down.  Our trees are on their knees, as it were.

After feeding tens of thousands, we at CBE are beginning to wrap our heads around the idea of what it would mean to feed those in need with regularity.  We have an under-utilized asset--a big kitchen--that since Sandy has been proudly brought to life like a rusty old bulldozer, sentimentally serving with civic pride those who are distant from the promise of security.  And we have a newly discovered asset as well--human capital--a motivated base of volunteers who care; the attention of city agencies who will send more sets of hands our way; and the irreducible concept of mitzvah--obligation--to care for those in need.

What we do with this cache of resources is our test.

When Mom booted Dad from the premises in 1975, and then Dad lost his job a year later, obviating reasonably expected child support and alimony payments,  I went to work in the summers.  Mostly, cutting lawns.  While adolescence descended as clouded essence, I pushed mowers through grass, past trees, and edged hedges--if only to keep up to date in the style of just the right Levis and Oxford shirts.  I sang songs in silence to the trees, blues and such, mostly; and wondered what would be.

My world was upside down.  My trees were on their knees, as it were.

I've never really left this world, this place, this perspective.  I'm a naturalized citizen of the fiercely uncertain.

After lunch I returned to my study, determined more than ever to make sure that the synagogue community I lead continues to feed, to offer aid in the promise of employment, equal access to education, a fair shake at making it upon the dry land of the uncertain shore line of our nation's dreadful edges.  A young African American man was waiting for me upon my return.  I recognized him from six months ago, his story consistently vague about his origins and his destination.  The one constant:  like a half year ago, he needed another $17.25.

"Why $17.25, " I asked.  "It seems a very specific amount."

"My father told me, 'Aim low, that way someone may choose to be more generous,'" he offered.

"Your father wasn't Jewish," I said.  "It's an odd way to bargain."

I gave him $35 and sent him on his way.  And he'll be back.  Because after all, both he and the world are upside down.

Some of us are vulnerable once or twice; a hand is extended, it lifts us out; and forever we remember.  Others never escape the pit; a hand reaches toward us; and forever we forget what to do or how to do what comes next.

It's a terribly beautiful and fascinating and dangerous and humbling place--that place where trees are brought to their knees, up there and down there, in the sky and on the ground.  "Places only birds should fly to."

05 February 2013

Tweet Tweet

Judith Butler, Alice Walker and Pink Floyd.  Wow.  Sounds like a fun night.  One is impossible to understand; the other hasn't written a relevant novel in decades; the third is touring the same record for thirty years.  This is the intellectual bulwark that is driving the Jews crazy?

So why all the stink at Brooklyn College?

60,000 dead in Syria in the last year; destabilization in Central Africa; chaos and human rights and weapons falling into the wrong hands run amok in Egypt and Iran.  Oh, did I fail to mention the greatest gap between rich and poor in the United States in the last hundred years?

But of course, the scourge of the world is Israel.

This tiresome roadshow comes to Brooklyn College this week.  Lights and mics are lit up, waiting to capture arguments and disputations about the whether or not Jews have the right to live and defend land.  Cue the soundtrack:  "We don't need no education!"


This sorry old drama played itself out when I was a Hillel director in the 1990s; a student in the 1980s; when others were students in the 1970s; and even as far back as the 1960s, when Judith Butler actually got graded on her papers.  If only.

Guess what?  Crazy programs like "BDS or BUST" hosted by the Poli Sci Department at Brooklyn College are actually irrelevant to the reality of what goes on in Israel and Palestine.  The delusion of those who think, in their rabid anti-Zionism, that they will succeed, is laughable.  Even consistent critics of Israel have dismissed BDS as ineffective.

Part of me wants to actually delve into why Alice Walker and Roger Waters care so much about Israel and not, for instance, Mali or Syria.  But most of me just doesn't care.  And I loved the Color Purple; and I certainly remember hearing the Wall on the radio tons.  And as for Judith Butler, like I said, whatever she's talking about I'm sure means something, I'm just not sure what, so, in essence, I defer to the Democratic Ungapatchka Meandering Bovians of the American Society of Semioticians (DUMBASS).  I'm not trying to be a jerk here--really.  Just realistic.  And humble--because believe you me, I'm increasingly aware that as I age in a culture that rewards youth, I'm fast becoming irrelevant, too!

But seriously:  Israel is a big boy.  And so too, I like to think, are all those impressionable college students who know a load of bull when they hear it.  BDS is not about a serious boycott movement.  It's about denying the Jews the right to a state of their own.  As broken as this record is, read the literature.  It's not a two-state movement--it's a one-state movement and that one state is not Jewish.

While Israelis and Palestinians struggle mightily to come to an understanding and a just peace for both peoples, worse and more dangerous problems plague the city, the nation, and the world.  In a perfect world, most sane people would understand that.  But some don't.  So the dramas continue.  But in reality, most people are not really listening.  Because they know that life is much more complex than a spectacle on a college campus somewhere.  And there's rent to make this month.

Last year, when BDS reared its head at the Park Slope Food Coop and got defeated, we had 22 people from CBE visiting Israel.  This year we've doubled that number and added a few.  In ten days, we're taking 52 people to Israel.  We'll visit Palestine, too.  We'll spend money in both places, talk to people in both places, and try to understand.  Engage, learn, dig in.

One of the most difficult lessons we'll teach the older kids on the trip--painful as it is to admit--is that some people hate Jews so much they will deny Jews the right to their own self-determination.  I always try to be honest to kids when they are mature enough to hear this message.

At Masada the hatred was internalized to be made manifest in suicide.  At Yad Vashem they learn that while there was resistance there was mostly slaughter.  And at the borders near Gaza and Lebanon and Jerusalem they will learn that while there is an unremitting hatred on one side, there is also an army to defend, world powers at our back, and peace-loving advocates in each nation making sure that all chances for peace and human rights and dignity are bound up in the enterprise of nation-making.

Days before the recent elections, the greatest minds in political journalism thought the Right would prevail in Israel.  Turns out the Center wants to make decisions moving forward.  Life is full of surprises, especially when calm and the middle prevails.

This is a seminar in and of itself, far greater than the sideshow more befitting of Coney Island than Flatbush (though that's an insult to Coney Island.)

As for the BDS event at Brooklyn College this week--take heart:  Most people in the audience will be tweeting and texting so much they'll barely hear what's said.

What was that sound?  The Jewbird?

01 February 2013

At Most One

God is at most One.

And really, when you think about it, shouldn't that be enough?  You get too many gods and all of a sudden there's unmanageable disagreement, idiocy, and then, god forbid, blood flowing in the streets.

"Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful."

I like how King David ( a guy with a fair amount of DNA on his hands ) begins his one hundred and fifty psalms with human intuition as the seat of happiness.  We know who's wicked; we know what sin is; we know where the scornful sit ( often taking up at least two subway seats. )

What we intuit, God knows.  On a certain level, it makes the Ten Commandments almost redundant; or, at most, an affirmation, in writing, of the perceived inherent rightness and fairness of life found in words made manifest through Law.

Like puzzle pieces, assembled slowly, patiently, assiduously, to make a whole.  An "almost One," usually with one or two jigsawed details missing.  An al Qaeda be-heading; hands lopped off in Mali; an abortion clinic bombed; a rabbi who molests boys in Brooklyn.

God is at most One.  He hides from us when we're at our shameful worst.

In my younger years, I'd think:  Blood and Frogs in the Nile!  A Red Sea parting!  Thunder and lightning on a Sinai Mountain!  Tablets carved in Stone!  Show me the proof again, God!  Save the oppressed of the world today!  Show me the archaeological evidence of such child-like fantasies!   In my younger years I'd think, "To get God's attention you have to shout."

King David must have been older when he wrote Psalm One.  In youth, who has time to meditate day and night on the Law?  And who has the luxury to even notice that the wise one "shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season."

Waters ever-flowing; branches yielding sweet vessels of seeds that fall, decay, and regenerate, over and over again.  Leaves braced against wind; clouds, sun and rain passing over-head.

Nothing quite stays the same ever to get to One.

When Moses stands atop Mount Sinai and receives from God the Law, it is interesting to note that God doesn't announce that he's One--just that He is.  אנכי יי אלהיך--I am the Eternal your God.  But, as the Sages suggest, "He is" with intentionality--"I am" in order to free the Children of Israel from Egypt; "I am" in order to release you from the house of slavery; "I am" for the purpose of rooting the reality of human existence in meaning.

A midrash teaches that the Ten Commandments begin in silence.  That the first letter of אנכי is silent.  The silence of "I am."  The silence discerned in the face the man about to lose his life by the hand of a zealously certain religious fanaticism in any corner of the globe where the distorted view of God is a bloated, hostile, arrogant power greater than One.

The tree bears fruit but the fruit falls to the earth.  The seasons pass and seed becomes tree again, rooted in regenerated ground.  A man dies and another takes his place, and again, and again, and again.

God is at most One.

Until we get there.

In the meantime, beware of sinners and scorners.  And if you're not sure, trust your instincts.