Updated: 2 days 9 hours ago
14 April 201414 Nisan 5774
With another Spring upon us and Brooklyn in bloom, we gather at communal tables this evening to celebrate Passover and tell our people's redemptive story from servitude and liberation and praise.
For generations this telling has animated our existence. In tasting the matza and maror, we embody not just the remembrance but the experience of slavery's restrictions on the human spirit. In lifting up our cups of wine, however, we also claim that we are to "revere, extol, acclaim, adore and glorify God who for our ancestors and for us took us from slavery to freedom, from despair to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption."
The promise is in the telling. In the telling there is the reification of the covenant that even in the darkest times there is hope. And in the journey from Egypt to Sinai--from the idolatrous servitude toward a cruel master to the sublime devotion through Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Loving Kindness--we have sustained ourselves and will continue to sustain ourselves for all time.
Our hearts are heavy this evening as we offer prayers of comfort to the families in Kansas City who fell victim to the cruel violence of a madman. "In every generation," the Hagadah reminds us, there will be those who rise up in hatred. The suspect in the shooting had been tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, an organization our CBE high school students visited in March on our Civil Rights tour. It is humbling and chilling to realize that such hatreds remain and a sobering reminder of the work that remains for us all. Our task, our role in this world, is to remain ever vigilant as well as a beacon of hope and light for our own people and all humankind. This is Elijah's hope. This is the Cup of Redemption.
In a world with so much need, with individuals and families seeking material, spiritual and emotional sustenance, we must always offer this Cup of Hope. We offer this cup to those who are hunger and in need of shelter; to those whose spirits are broken and require our love and support in community each Shabbat; and we offer this cup to those seeking a connection to the Jewish story, a way in, to join us on the sacred journey.
From our brothers and sisters seeking to live in peace in Israel to our community and neighbors here in Brooklyn, the Hagadah exhorts that this night is a "season of liberation." So it may be. May our efforts bring us that much closer to peace. May our efforts bring us that much closer to eradicating hunger and homelessness. May our efforts bring healing to the hearts of those in need. And may our historic community in Brooklyn at Congregation Beth Elohim remain a sanctuary of goodness and kindness for all who seek a meaningful connection to our Jewish tradition.
In these endeavors, may we "soar with arms like eagle's wings and run with the gentle grace of swiftest deer." And may each of you blessed with good health and joy in this season of liberation.
Rabbi Andy Bachman
A good friend.
A helping hand to those in need.
A lover of books.
He dreamed of his people's redemption
And dedicated himself to this day and night.
These are the favorite of the lines from the acrostic poem my great-grandfather wrote about himself, had painted on to ceramic and attached to his gravestone, which still sits in a cemetery on the South Side of Milwaukee.
Chaim Siegel, an immigrant to Wisconsin from Kopel, Minsk, Belarus in 1899, was by family legend a "rabbinical student" who instead ended up working in business in Milwaukee's center city, not far from the Golda Meir School at 3rd and Walnut.
When I did a college tour in February with my daughter, we rolled through town and pulled up to the school to take a look. It's where my grandmother was educated to be an American; it was from there that Goldie Myerson picked her up for babysitting; and it remains a symbol of our family's roots in both Minsk and Milwaukee--roots that are now deeply planted in my own kids' lives, so that they will one day tell the stories of where they origins.
Chaim Siegel never became the rabbi he had hoped to be but nevertheless he founded two synagogues was president of the Mizrachi Zionists, a small but meaningful contribution to the building and eventual founding of the Jewish state. Perhaps more important than his erstwhile desire to fulfill his service as a rabbi, he was a Jew who always showed up.
When I decided to become a rabbi, the great-grandfather I never met was foremost on my mind. Honoring his memory, exercising the privilege of Jewish leadership that perhaps economic circumstance prevented him from fulfilling, pushed me forward to Israel, rabbinic school and service. My life's work, solidified while saying Kaddish for my own father back in 1983, was alloyed to his.
Alloys, as far as the characteristics of metal are concerned, are generally stronger and more durable than the simpler, pure metals from which they are made. And the rabbinic career I wrought for myself these last thirty years has been one such mixture of sorts--sacred text and political activism; popular culture and deep spiritual traditions; deeply American and proudly Zionist. I have always strived to give life to the many dimensions of what it is to be a Jew in our age. And have, consequently, taught others to do the same.
Our lives are mixed up with each other, aren't they?
Since announcing my departure from the pulpit rabbinate of CBE last week, some people have asked me questions about my motivations for making this shift in my career. Will you stop being Jewish? Are you no longer a rabbi? And, the most often asked, will you do my funeral?
My Jewish soul is alloyed to wiry body. They are inextricably bound. I will forever read and teach and talk and argue and laugh about the many-faceted aspects of the improbable and inspiring reality of the Jewish people. As I told my Shabbat morning Torah study class, I will always teach.
As for being a rabbi, I'll say that with great pride I plan on remaining a rabbi; and am both fascinated and inspired by the notion of what it will mean to me to carry my rabbinic service out to the greater citizenship of my hometown here in Brooklyn. Wherever I land professionally in a little over a year from now, I may very well not retain the title of rabbi, but it doesn't mean that the work won't fundamentally be about service, learning, and the ethical and moral dimensions to what it is to live in community.
Just as Simeon the Righteous taught the "world stands on three things: Learning, Service, and Deeds of Loving Kindness," I see the rabbinic dimension at play in whatever I'll do because I know that equally central to the next professional chapter of my career will be that great sage's wisdom as well.
The ancient prophets were quite clear that the Jew was to be ethically attuned to both the particular aspects of his Jewish soul as well as the universal calls to serve others. I always have and always will take that prophetic mandate seriously.
Rabbi Tarfon, another great sage, comes to mind as well. "The day is short, the work is great, the workers are idle, the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing!" I have always felt this way about work at CBE, with Brooklyn Jews and with the Bronfman Center before that; and I will take this teaching with me out into the greater world. Tarfon also reminds us that while "we are not obliged to complete the work, neither are we free to evade it."
Having had the incredible privilege to serve for fourteen years at CBE (1993-98 & 2006-15) I humbly accept that the work inside the synagogue community is never done. I am also enormously hopeful that the next Senior Rabbi will bring her own or his own set of skills and unique commitments that will carry the work of Torah, Service and Deeds of Lovingkindness onward still.
In the meantime, let's agree that the most important aspect of who we are as a people is made manifest in showing up: To make a Minyan or to teach the Alef-Bet; to feed the hungry or house the homeless; to welcome those not born Jewish into our People; to speak out against injustice and to illuminate the sublime pathways of the inner spirit of human striving for the Divine; to see ourselves as one people--in Israel, America and throughout the world; and to also see ourselves as One People--humanity, bound by our aspirations to live lives of goodness and peace.
March 26, 2014
To the Beloved Members of our CBE Community:
It is with mixed emotion and after much soul searching that I am writing this letter to inform you that I do not intend to pursue a fourth contractual agreement as Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim. I am taking the step of informing you now since the general guidelines of the Central Conference of American Rabbis recommends that synagogues undergo a 15-18 month search process for Rabbinic Placement.
With my contract set to expire on June 30, 2015, this affords the synagogue a wide berth in developing a plan for succession.
Additionally, as our synagogue community navigates a temporary fiscal challenge, I remain committed to helping partner with you and the leadership over the next 15 months in order to strengthen our finances for the near and distant future.
Much thinking has gone into this decision, taking me back reflectively over a lifetime of service since my youth in Wisconsin, through college, on to rabbinical school and into the pulpit. At a critical stage in my life, at age 20, I made the decision to focus specifically on Jewish service. Inspired by my own great-grandparents commitment to Tradition and Israel, I found particular meaning in the centuries of Jewish texts and wisdom that animate our moral and ethical life as a people. From Hillel at UW and NYU to Brooklyn Jews and CBE, I have found the work to be exceptionally inspiring and rewarding. Lifelong friendships, mentorships, intellectual and political battles “for the Sake of Heaven” have animated every step of the journey.
Last year, the combination of watching our community’s response to Hurricane Sandy as well as the fortuitous and inevitable rite of passage of turning 50, I began to explore the idea of moving beyond strictly Jewish service and contemplate seriously the idea of serving disadvantaged communities broadly throughout New York City. The issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education, and violence remain central to my own concerns as a citizen of New York. And so as I thought of another chapter to my professional life, I became increasingly inspired by the opportunity to serve communities in need in Brooklyn and beyond.
I don’t know where this will lead and there is still much time to decide what that next professional step will be, but I can assure you that Rachel and I, along with Audrey, Lois and Minna, will remain devoted members of the CBE community for years to come. My Jewish soul will have a special place here at CBE in Brooklyn (and of course in Israel) but I am ready to move on to new challenges in my career.
What a privilege it has been to serve this historic Congregation.
I am enormously proud of our achievements together at CBE and grateful to the Congregation and its members for the opportunity to serve and share my vision for Jewish life in the 21st century.
Together we have:
Besides my devoted and brilliant clergy colleagues, Rabbis Epstein and Katz as well as Cantor Breitzer (along with past partners here at CBE, Rabbi Emeritus Gerald Weider and Rabbi Daniel Bronstein) I have been blessed to work with the most extraordinary team of Jewish program professionals I have ever known--April Mellas, Cindy Greenberg, Lauren Shenkman, Isabel Burton, Debbie Brukman, Yehudit Feinstein, Jaci Israel, Ilana Friedman, Bobbie Finkelstein, Lisa Rosenberg, Laura Landau, Shuli Zilberfarb-Sela, Shelley Klein and countless others. Local leaders like my dear friends Reverend Daniel Meeter, Councilmen Brad Lander and Stephen Levin, past and current Brooklyn Boro Presidents Marty Markowitz and Eric Adams, have helped forge enduring friendships across neighborhoods that make Brooklyn truly special. Throughout the past many years, I have benefited from the ongoing wisdom and guidance from Shifra Bronznick, Nessa Rapoport, Julie Sandorf, Dana Raucher, Rabbi Dan Bronstein, Dr. Michael Berkowitz, Dr. Ari Kelman, Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Rabbi Mishael Zion, John Ruskay, Mitchell Moss, Jay Kriegel, Pam Brier, and of course, as ever, the great Naomi Levine.
In addition, the past animates so much of what we do in the present in Jewish life. I have been buoyed in imagining what is possible in Jewish life today by my late friends and teachers Lisa Goldberg, Dr. George L. Mosse, Dr. Irv Saposnik, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, Rabbi Dr. Stanley Dreyfus and most recently, Edgar M. Bronfman.
Finally, in addition to working with our current president Charles Nathan, I have been blessed to have the support of past-presidents Jules Hirsch and David Kasakove as well as our current and past trustees, committee members and volunteers. Building and strengthening our synagogue with all of you has been a true blessing.
At age fifty-one and after nearly 25 years of work in the broader Jewish community, I am eager to pursue other areas of interest and public service in New York City. Rachel and the girls join me in expressing our heartfelt emotions at this time of transition and know that this strong and historic community will continue to thrive and grow for generations to come.
With sincere gratitude,
J. Turrell, Space that Sees, Israel MuseumWithout question, Facebook and Twitter and Blogging can be helpful tools.
After writing what I thought was a measured response to Israeli MK David Rotem for his remarks about Reform Judaism, a couple of friends in Israel wrote me and offered to get directly to David Rotem my remarks.
And to understand the dimensions of this ongoing struggle for some in the Jewish community--over the legitimacy and authenticity of the diversity of expression of Jewish life--it's important to know that both people who conveyed my words directly to MK Rotem were Orthodox Jews.
One, a Modern Orthodox man and committed Pluralist who has lived in Israel for nearly 40 years; and another, a Haredi woman (and best friend of a Reform woman rabbi) who works with Rotem in the Knesset.
And then this morning: I woke up to an email from a congregant who has been dialoguing with an Orthodox family member about this issue and my blog post and reported with pride that his Orthodox relative said, "Your rabbi sounds like my kind of rabbi."
I write this decidedly *not* to toot my own horn but to indicate that above all, what binds us together as Jews is not *how* we identify but *that* we identify as such. At a relatively infinitesimally small number in proportion to the world who have embraced a singularly unique historical and spiritual narrative, we ought to stretch ourselves to love one another more sincerely.
From the moment my father and then grandmother told me so, I've always identified first and foremost as a Jew. It needn't get more complicated than that.
So this is to thank my friends out there. We're all in this together.
I've never met Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem. I don't think I'd recognize him if I bumped into him on the street--whether the long, arboreal pathways of Prospect Park or the frenetic tumult of Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon. He's a guy doing his thing and I'm a guy doing mine and that's just fine.
He spends his Saturdays in the synagogue (or so I presume) which is exactly where I spend mine. He talks to my God in Hebrew and I do the same with his. We both wear tefillin and tallit each day. And we both keep Kosher (though, given some of his more recent outbursts, I guess it's safe to say he's more strict than I am about where I eat.) I love Israel and though I'm not sure how he feels about Brooklyn, he's certainly welcome here anytime. We're a tolerant lot. I'll take the Vegas odds that we're both circumcised. And we both wear glasses.
Here in New York there is a lot of tension of the rising income gap; over-testing of students in schools; perceived racial tensions in police tactics; a spate of pedestrian traffic deaths; union contracts and universal pre-K; diminishing library budgets; and always, the fear that New York remains exposed, like many great cities in the world, to the terror threat.
Jerusalem, to be sure, has no shortage of challenges. A stalled peace process with Palestinians; a rising income gap across the country; affordable housing shortages and university budget cuts; diminishing water resources and environmental challenges; the integration of Haredi populations into the public sector; the threat of a nuclear Iran; a creeping al Qaeda presence in Sinai and the Syrian border of the Golan Heights; Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It's a big agenda in both cities. Just thinking about it can take up your day.
So I'm not sure what the benefit is, exactly, in David Rotem declaring, among the many things he could be declaring these days, that "Reform Judaism is not Jewish." Unless the benefit, from his perspective, is to foster a hermetic, exclusive, extreme, one-dimensional definition of Jewishness, which cuts against the historical reality of the ongoing development of the Jewish people for the past three thousand five hundred years. I mean, it's his right to espouse that. But he'd be radically wrong.
After all, we no longer sacrifice animals to God; or sit in the dark on Shabbat; or stone people to death for capital crimes (not to mention gouging out their eyes); we don't have Kings, Prophets and Priests (in the Biblical sense) and even though Mel Brooks stopped making movies, at least we still have Larry David.
One can argue, as the 12th century Maimonides did in Guide for the Perplexed, that God's demand of Israel's animal sacrifice was God's deployment of other cultures' idolatrous practices (the impulse to slaughter an animal being so primal, being so great) in order to teach Israel that the people ought to worship the monotheistic God of the Jewish people, not the pagan deities of other cultures. One can (and many indeed have) further conclude that this Maimonidean maneuver is an example of the evolutionary adaptability to ever-changing Jewish civilization in an ongoing relationship to its God. Or you can not conclude that. And you can even vehemently disagree.
But the disagreement doesn't deprive one side of its Jewishness. It just means that two Jews disagree on something: a phenomenon, both in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, that's as old as the hills.
David Rotem, I'd guess, is not his real family name. An Orthodox man born in Bnai Brak in 1949, with a name like "Rotem," which in Hebrew is a desert plant and remains a favorite among those who rejected the Diaspora in favor of an authentic new Hebrew culture linked inextricably to the land, is a modern construct. So is the education he received at Hebrew University. Without Napoleon and other European emperors granting Jews emancipation and citizenship in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jews would never have been able to enter universities. Without universities, there'd be no critical analysis of the meaning of history and ancient texts. Without that, there'd be no philosophical or politically scientific basis for Zionism, not to mention the theological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and yes, David, even Reform Judaism.
Who were the Rotems before your own version of an intolerant Zionism? Simple Jews, no doubt. Just trying to make ends meet. Like my people, with their new names, trying to survive from Minsk to Milwaukee to Brooklyn. Your family found refuge in our people's ancient homeland, a commitment I honor and defend from the relative ease of the Diaspora each day.
But just because I don't observe God's law exactly as you do, don't drag us all down into your fundamentalist rantings of the same sectarian divisiveness that is tearing apart our Muslim neighbors as well.
We're meant to be a light unto the nations. To prove that despite our difference, we can get along. That's how we do it here in Brooklyn, in Tel Aviv, and even in certain neighborhoods in our beloved Jerusalem.
So don't waste your breath putting me down, turning "Reform" into a curse. There are rockets aimed at you from the borders, internal divisions far greater than whose Shabbat is holier. Your insults are pushing away your brothers and sisters who commit no sin other than merely respectfully disagreeing with precisely what it is God wants of us. But we're in agreement over the bulk of the message and that ought to be enough.
Cain, who slew Abel, arrogantly challenged God with the outrageous and disingenuous question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
We know the answer. And so know this, dear brother, that I'm looking out for you. Keeping you, dear brother, when I ask you not to make your brother the enemy.
I'm your friend.
The bulk of Jews have lived more years in the Diaspora than in the Land of Israel, a mind-boggling fact that begs the question: how, despite the violence and bloodshed of Jewish history, did we survive? The shul I daven in, dear brother, is the one that is built on the principle of tolerance, accommodation and good relations with our neighbors, and, when it's unavoidable, disagreement "for the sake of heaven."
So for heaven's sake, cease your vituperations. Give the brother some love.
With internal and external threats, you need all the help you can get.
I had never been covered by a noxious mixture of fecal and urine infused water before and so had no real sense of what that would be like--until last night.
Walking up Flatbush Avenue after an evening viewing of Spike Jonze's clever movie, "Her," I was standing in front of the Atlantic Center with my family when a geyser like spray of fecal urine water shot up from a small metal cover in the sidewalk, soaking me and one of my daughters in a totally disgusting shower of waste. People stopped and gawked in shared disgust. Someone offered a small bottle of Purell. In order to ward off a brief spell of insanity, we considered laughing. But then we just decided to head home, clean our clothes, and bathe.
Revelers crowded into Barclays for a Saturday night event; the restaurants and bars of Flatbush popped with pre-Super Bowl excitement. I thought of the scenes in "Schindler's List" and "Les Miserables," when brief journeys through sewage were life-saving risks undertaken by heroic innocents.
What a contrast this all was with the strangely beautiful, alluring and anti-septic love on-screen between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Though ultimately having been superseded in intelligence by their operating systems, Phoenix and Amy Adams were an inspiring sight in all their fallible humanity, atop a roof, admiring a landscape, leaning on one another with their unavoidable physicality.
"Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, 'Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know whence you came, where you are going, and before whom you will have to render account and reckoning. Whence you came--from a putrid drop. Where are you going--to a place of dust and decay and vermin. Before whom you will have to render account and reckoning--before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."
This evocative, rooted, centering rabbinical text from the 1st century remains one of my favorite calling cards for justice. As the Sages also may have said, "Hold fast to life; hold your mortality closer."
Of course, this is a grown-up message. My daughter I didn't inflict with the jaded wisdom of the Sages living under Epicurean and Stoic Roman systems. In fact, the luxuriousness of the Roman system came in handy. We each went our separate ways when we got home, took long hot showers, changed our clothes, and shook off this leveling event with a good warm meal.
For dessert we ate baklava from Jerusalem's Ja'afar Sweets, an Old City favorite, and read a couple stories from Shalom Auslander's Beward of God. His short story, "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp," seemed appropriate for the occasion, especially its opening lines:
"At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness. God. Death. Shame. Guilt. Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull."
Between chimps and operating systems, I guess being human is just enough.
Delivered in Memory of Edgar M. Bronfman
"A Life Fulfilled: A Tribute Celebration"
January 28, 2014
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
(After a beautiful opening melody by Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, I had the honor of delivering this Invocation in memory of my dear friend and mentor, Edgar.)
Good evening and ערב טוב
Tonight we gather as a community of those who have come together to express our love and admiration of Edgar M. Bronfman.
Son. Grandson. Brother. Father. Grandfather. Great-grandfather. Husband. Fierce Friend and Advocate for the Jewish people, wherever they lived. Defender of Freedom and Justice--Insistent Prophet of Learning, of Doing, of Joy.
נר השם נשמת אדם--The spirit of man, of this man, Edgar, is the light of the Eternal; and this memorial candle burns bright for Edgar, Yehiel, in whose name and memory Eternality abides.
Around the throne of this king, this man, this father, husband, brother, son, are the wrought and rendered works of a life so fully lived. Achievement. Generosity. Justice. Redeemed Captives and Revitalized Youth. Learning and Questions and Heresies and Knowledge. Ethics and Morality. And no shortage of jokes. Thank God for the jokes.
Tonight there is hallowed memory and laughter; there are tears of sadness and longing and an awestruck recognition of just how much on man can achieve.
With raw humility, goodness and kindness, his family laid his body to rest one month ago. And tonight, as Edgar insisted, we join together as one to remember him with joy. To celebrate the life of Edgar M. Bronfman.
זכר צדיק לברכה
May his memory always be a blessing.
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.
"And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the Children of Israel that they should take for me an offering; of every person whose heart so moves him, you should take My offering."
So opens this week's Torah portion, in rather prospective but no less dramatic fashion. After all, when God asks for a gift, you better bring it. Adornments of the finest jewels, hewn metals, strong and sturdy woods, the finest fabrics, skins, spices, oils and incense: each intentionally demanded, each playing an essential role in the construction of sacred space.
I work in a sacred space. It occupies two corners of 8th Avenue and Garfield Place in Brooklyn. In 1909, when the first sacred space was completed, its central purpose was to provide a place of prayer for those seeking a connection to God through traditional Jewish worship. Theologies and prayerbooks and ritual dress have changed and evolved over the century that the space has been used but the central idea remains the same--that inside the Main Sanctuary at 8th and Garfield, the principle purpose is spiritual access to God, to the Source of Life, through the mode of the recitation of words, spoken, sung and chanted, as an "offering to the Eternal." This was the vision, as carried out, by the vast majority of the German Jewish leadership that was responsible for the community at that time.
Twenty years later, another sacred space was constructed. Material manifestations of aspirational architecture and historical circumstances had changed; and so had the New York Jewish community that made its home in Park Slope. The massive wave of Eastern European Jewry was beginning to truly make its mark on Jewish life and with it came some very decidedly secular ideas, imported from Eastern and Central Europe, smelted into the American milieu and transformed into what became known as the Synagogue Center Movement. A gymnasium, a swimming pool, a social hall, a ballroom and classroom space for instruction of the masses who would need to be educated, Americanized, into this new paradigm of Jewish community which did not presume exclusively religious or spiritual orientation but presence in, a place in, community.
Community is a word that hovers, in a practically divine way, over this week's Torah portion. After all, God requests these fine, precious objects for a clearly stated purpose:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָםAnd let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
One can't help but wonder about one Jewish community, evolving in time according to historical exigencies, adapting itself to an ever-evolving notion of what it means to build "sacred space." For one generation that space is for prayer; for another that space is for education, athletics, social cohesion.
And what of our own?
Wednesday was a busy day. I visited with children in our Early Childhood Center; brainstormed with professionals from across Brooklyn, sharing ideas for expanding our reach together, despite our unique differences, to create opportunities for connection to those not yet a part of the Jewish community; met with a Hebrew language consultant to talk about the evolving curricula for passing on an ancient language in contemporary times; studied Torah as memorial to a friend; taught a Basic Judaism class; said hello to the Wednesday night Bridge class: all to the background of basketballs drumming on the gym floor, waves in the pool; and on and on.
Is God in such moments? What is the right answer? Always "yes?" Sometimes "yes?" Wherever one let's Her in?
In the midst of their own inquiries into the notion of God asking for a Sanctuary to be built so that God "may dwell among them," the Rabbis in the Midrash quote the verse from Song of Songs, "I sleep but my heart wakes." What they mean, perhaps, in deploying this particular text is that each of is asleep, metaphorically, when on the outside looking in but a wakefulness occurs when we are drawn in to the sacred space of community. The Rabbis write, "'The voice of my beloved knocks, open up for Me my sister." How long shall I wander abroad homeless but "make Me a Sanctuary" that I should not remain outside." (Exodus Rabbah)
Brilliant. And I know it to be true. It amazes me to no end when people claim that Jews don't want to be connected to Jewish life. I know the opposite of that. And their non-Jewish partners are right beside them. The opportunity to create space--sacred and secular, meaningful and enduring--is the great privilege of Jewish service.
At times the voice knocks making sandwiches for the poor and at times the voice knocks in communal song, welcoming the Shabbat.
And the door is always open. And the many hearted community thrives as one.
"Daddy, did you know that Anne Frank and Martin Luther King would be the same age if they were both alive today?"
Now I suppose you can say that is a considerable moral achievement for a 10 year old, laying in bed in the dark, contemplating life's more sublime thoughts moments before turning 11, and allowing her young, searching mind to focus on such monumental figures of twentieth century moral stature.
Athletic, moral and political heroes arise in conversation in our home all the time, as I'm certain they do in many homes. But something about the proximity to a child's birthday; to the liminal time between awake and sleep, consciousness and the dream state; between childhood and adolescence--made this articulated insight particularly poignant.
What makes a kid think such things before drifting off to sleep? Does a kind of narration of one's life play in one's mind at these transitional intersections? Is there an existential truth clamoring to be heard amid the din of popular culture usually reserved for drifting off at night? As the mind and soul settle in for a once a year journey between ages, do the bigger questions insist on being heard?
And what of the multiplicity of voices? Here they represent not quite an alchemy or concoction but more like an improvised recipe where the chef generally knows who's in the kitchen but doesn't always see exactly what goes in while trusting it'll turn out okay. In addition to our own guidance as parents, there is that of a broader family, teachers, camp counselors, grandparents, books, music, movies and television. Whatever it takes.
This is all very folksy, isn't it?
Not quite the right tone for understanding the lives and deaths of a Dutch Jewish child murdered by Nazis and an assassinated African American reverend and crusader for freedom. On the other hand, we're probing the mind of an eleven year old. There is truth and beauty and even depth in such simplicity.
Did you know they would be the same age if they were alive today?
If today were 1940, they'd be eleven, too, and their moral compasses would be similarly set to a world in flames all around them, while, at the same time, they were keenly aware of their need to be children, to be innocent, to be protected from the seemingly unavoidable sin and evil crouching at the door.
My eleven year old wakes up to radio news and paper headlines as graphic and horrific as anything we've ever known. It's no wonder one drifts off to sleep at night, dreaming of heroes.
I think of an eleven year old at Sinai, amidst the thunder and the smoke, the quaking earth, the mass of confusion, of the leaders Moses and Aaron approaching the Mount, of deafening noise, of hundreds of thousands of just freed slaves clamoring to be near. Truth, in such instances, is often filtered to the young in ways that their parents can't always control which is why one trusts pedagogic platforms to a whole array of civic structures like schools, camps, synagogues, community centers, and the like--each a conveyance of life's fractured, filtered truth.
The whole, thunderous, uproarious revelation of truth, the Giving of the Ten Commandments, life-threatening in its enormity, gives way in this week's Torah portion to rules and regulations that in their specificity, give us truths to behold.
Like, how do you help one person in need?
"When you lend my people money, the poor man with you, don't behave toward him as a creditor; don't charge him interest." The Sages contrast this verse in Exodus with a later verse in Deuteronomy, which says that "When one of your brothers in your gates and your country is in dire need, you may not harden your heart nor be closed-fisted towards your needy brother."
A debate ensues across the generations about the nature of "when." Is it conditional, tied to particular circumstances? Or is it constant, always? You'll be loaning to help the poor get back on their feet. You'll be extending your heart and hand to those in need always because they will always be at the gates and in your country.
Whether 1940 or 1960 or 2014, moral choices are made in the smallest of ways each day, making heroes' lives lived through their voices heard by those impelled to listen. And the words, like rich, alluvial soil, roll down the sides of mountains, in to the valleys and streams of young minds who keep words alive through deeds of kindness, compassion and love.
It is one of the more evocative images in rabbinic literature.
Maimonides, the great scholar of medieval Jewish thought and practice, writes about sin and repentance that "one who verbally confesses to his sins and does not affix it to his heart to abandon them is like one who immerses in a mikveh (ritual bath) while clutching on to a reptile. For such an immersion is to no avail until the reptile is gotten rid of, as it is written, "One who confesses and forsakes his sin will be shown mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)
This text emerges in the cold of winter as thoughts of spring training and the warmth of a new baseball season can be glimpsed on the horizon. And it brings to mind in particular the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, who will be returning to baseball in a month to begin a new chapter in his career after serving his 65 game suspension for steroid use.
As a lifelong fan of the game and loyal Brewers fan, I watched first with joy and then with profound disappointment as my kids learned to love the game, adopt a hero and then, in a crushing blow, face the facts of human temptation and frailty by watching Braun first deny and then, eventually, admit his cheating.
It was an important moment as a parent, one that required talking through the conflictual ideas of winning at all costs versus winning with fairness and honor. And while it's true that Braun served his suspension quietly and emerged briefly to apologize to the innocent lab assistant he had maligned as well as call a few season ticket holders to offer his regrets, one final act remains.
Ryan Braun needs to return his MVP Award from the 2011 season. Having admitted that he used steroids during that ignominious year of personal achievement, the award itself remains in his possession "like one clutching to a reptile."
Quite simply, the apology is not whole, the repentance is not complete, until the 2011 MVP Award is returned to Major League Baseball.
"I didn't earn this by playing fair," Braun should say. "And any child who looks up to me should know that the greatest of achievements in sport are those that are earned with talent, hard work, and fairness."
Braun should give it back with a bold and clear-eyed commitment to his fans: "I give you my word that I am going to earn this MVP Award in the right way. Only then will I have merited holding it in my possession."
The only reptiles in the Brewers camp, which opens soon in Maryvale, Arizona, should be those scurrying about the cacti of Phoenix, not in the hands of one of the game's best talents, seeking redemption for a redeemable error.
Give back the MVP Award, Ryan. And earn it the right way. For the home team.
Melnikov Garage/Jewish Museum in MoscowI had an extraordinary trip to Moscow this past week, with John Ruskay of UJA Federation-New York and a number of rabbis from the area. The purpose was to visit sites in Moscow that the Jewish community supports, along with partner agencies like the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. We visited Orthodox synagogues, including the Choral Synagogue, one of the birthplaces of the Soviet Jewry movement; visited a Reform synagogue, met with the Chabad Chief Rabbi; did home visits with elderly, impoverished Jews with JDC after spending a morning at the JCC of Moscow which has 120 seat day care center and a 500 student after school program; spent a day at a Winter Camp for Jewish Teens run by the Jewish Agency and led by young Jews in their twenties who learned that they were Jewish at this very same camp who only discovered they were Jewish in the past few years as well; and, toured the Kremlin, Red Square, the new Jewish Museum for Tolerance. On our last night we went to Moishe House Moscow and met several young Jewish entrepreneurs who are re-shaping the landscape of Jewish life and culture in ways that have not been re-shaped in more than a hundred years. Incredible. I ate a lot of chicken, potatoes, rice, beets and cabbage, too.
While diet has obviously not changed much, Jewish life in Russia has. Based on at least what I saw over these past few days--it is nothing less than totally inspiring and fascinating.
The story of Soviet Jewry is long and complex; my guide for understanding much of the background came from two sources--Gal Beckerman's excellent National Jewish Book Award-winning, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone; and David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Lenin's Tomb.
Context was essential to understand this unforeseen revitalization of a Jewish community that was devastated by Pogroms, War, Holocaust and Communism and whose sole focus for Diaspora Jewry was its rescue. Now, while guaranteeing the right of any Jew to migrate remains at the center of Jewish communal focus, I learned about the work that UJA is doing--alongside JDC, JAFI and many others--to ensure that the process of regeneration, creativity, education, spirituality, culture and commerce can thrive for those hundreds of thousands who have chosen to remain.
Everyone's story was inspiring. Everyone's sense of who they were as a Jew mattered deeply. Everyone I met felt a sense of privilege and purpose which was the result of both their unique sense of individual and collective will along with dogged support from the diaspora community and the state of Israel to see this project of Russian Jewry through to a new stage of life.
Many, many questions remain in my mind after this trip and I hope to return--over and over again--to help, to learn, and to continually be inspired by the lives of this broader Jewish family in Russia. Some questions that immediately come to mind:
1. Russian speaking Jewish communities are growing not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but in Berlin, Warsaw and other places across Eastern Europe. What will all this look like in 20 years?
2. John Ruskay's vision for investing in the life of the community is so truly admirable. The idea that there is "a new chapter being written," something John mentioned all week, is apparent. And it's happening because of UJA's investment, which I think is not something most Jewish communities in the United States realize. Certainly not most of the people at my shul--and I look forward to letting them know.
John Ruskay, Alan Hoffman and Camp Sheleg Educators3. Something young Russian Jews share with young American Jews--they are discovering their own stake in the Jewish future vis a vis their kids. Early childhood education; camping; arts and culture--each of these are being spear-headed by and for young people which has the added benefit of the children teaching the parents about what it is to be Jewish. Unlike America, where freedom, privilege and assimilation allowed us not to be Jewish if we didn't want, Russians obviously experienced state sanctioned anti-Semitism that prevented Jewish identity from flourishing. So the parents know little that the kids are inviting them back into.
4. Chabad clearly has a place of privilege at the right hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin. What are the implications for the development of the other expressions of Jewish spiritual life? Are there challenges in being so close to a leader whose policies are called into question by his critics? Foremost was a complaint I heard often--a large gap between rich and poor. Moscow is a city of enormous wealth and a number of people spoke about that feeling of "the collective,' while an obvious dirty word left over from days of oppression, has vanished and been replaced by the greed of individuality. It has left many poor neglected by the Oligarchs who have made money but not yet fully learned what it means to invest in the broader community.
One such example was the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Built with Oligarch money (I even saw a dedication plaque from Putin), it's a beautiful, post-modern work of art with a profoundly bizarre message. Built meticulously inside a restored Melnikov trolley garage, the Museum greets guests with a fundamentalist, nine-minute video about "the entire history of the Jewish people from Creation to the Destruction of the Second Temple." It's presentation was childish, having the effect of spoon feeding the basic tropes of Jewish life to a public that didn't quite know the story but it had an alienating effect. It felt Creationist, with an eye toward the Coming of the Messiah as the Final Message of Jewish life. The exhibit space, however, was excellent and does a terrific job of explaining the Jews to the broader public. But then one of the docents explained that only Jews visit--so that what in America we would want--a public museum for Jews and non-Jews to learn about Jewish life--in Moscow is still behind a fence, in armed compound, built by Oligarch money. Something is bizarre and troubling and amusing and confounding and inspiring about this--all at the same time.
No easy answers.
So many images remain with me which I tried to process on foggy early morning runs into Red Square. It was Russian Orthodox Christmas, so there was lots of activity and while I ran I thought of the two poor Jews, fed and cared for by the JDC, who sit inside their Socialist era apartment building, immobile but cheered by being loved and remembered. I thought of the Jewish camp counselors, so recently ennobled by their own Jewish stories, leading young teens to a similar place. I thought of the Reform rabbi of Moscow saying when asked about the future, "Ask me in twenty years. We'll know a lot more, then."
It brought to mind this week's Torah portion--Be'Shallach. The Israelites finally leave Egypt and Oppression, and cross the Red Sea to Freedom. Is that the end of the story? Freedom? Of course not. They are to move, step by step, sometimes moving backwards rather than progressing, stopping at Sinai to get the Torah. Is that the end of the story? Of course not. Then there is 40 years wandering until they arrive in the Land of Israel. The end? You get the point. We are always telling this story, over and over again, and writing a new chapter every step of the way.
The Berditchever Rebbe, Levi Isaac, noticed that whereas the Angel of God, usually preceding the Children of Israel as they moved on their journey, this time, moved behind them. Why? Because in their making their out, they had preceded in importance God's regard for angels. Common mortals a higher step on the hierarchy of life and love. When you actually "go out," you have so much to teach those of us "angels" born in to good fortune and freedom.
It brought to mind Russian Jewry, who for generations struggled and whose liberation requires of us, more fortunate in the Diaspora and Israel, to humbly experience what it means to learn from those you had the honor of helping to free.
What it all means? We'll know in twenty years. It's a story worth reading about and experiencing over and over again.
There are four characters among men: One: He who says, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours--this is neutral (some say this is Sodom.) Two: He who says, what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine--this is a boor. Three: He who says, what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours--this is a saint. Four: He who says what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine--this is a wicked man. --Pirke Avot
The older I get, the deeper my appreciation grows for you and not me. The alloyed absorption of youth but a brief and necessary training camp for the deeper rivers of the narrative of meaning. Like downy feathers falling off a young bird, the flamboyant and fearless focus of youth gives way to the utterly humbling realization that life's inherent goal is to simply to move it forward, pass it along, into the hands of the next generation who, having learned to walk and then run, grabs hold, sprints for a time, and then slows, to pass along along yet again.
This year Grandma's yahrzeit candle burned for thirty-six hours, a whole half-day past its allotted amount. Her sons, when living, didn't observe her yahrzeit and I don't begrudge them that, though I used to. That was my heroic stage, when the conquering Macabi spirit, in its devouring zeal, insisted on bearing a new standard for the family line.
But it's different now. One sees more compassionately, with the progression of time, the presumed failures of earlier generations. Having come to understand Jewish history with a greater degree of nuance and an ongoing revelatory certainty that the more one reads the less one knows, my appreciation for the flawed decisions of my father, grows. This is a gift of age.
I'm fifty now, a number that represents two seemingly opposite things to me. First, it's only half the distance to my goal of living to one hundred. I still feel very, very young. And second, since Dad died at 58, it seems ancient, dangerously close to death. As if I can see the potential for my own rapid deterioration with the same speed with with it occurred in the winter of 1983. A gust of wind, then gone.
Upon the two sides of this odd, measuring scale are the actions we use to weigh out our lives. And here, as ever, the Sages are so instructive.
To be dismissed out of hand is the bland neutrality of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours." A division of no consequence, lacking engagement. Similarly, "what's mine is your and what's yours is yours" seems to cede all power to the other, refusing even the base instinct to do something with one's life. It's obverse, "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine" is the avaricious whim of narcissistic youth. A necessary stage, perhaps, but if left unchecked, becomes greed and according to the Rabbis, the breeding ground of evil.
But the saintly position, "what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours" is the one the deepest of them all. It's the one that centers a person in a greater narrative beyond the self. It says your uniqueness is a blessing, bestowed by the cumulative forces of familial genetic configurations and the unpredictable prevarications of history. It means you are who you are because of everyone and everything that happened before and therefore what you will give back to the world is through the agency of the other. It privileges service to others.
It's not about me it's about we.
I remember the day Grandma told me I was a Jew. I already knew I was, of course, but at the time was not yet able to discern that her declaration came from beyond her, passed through her and into me, where it now goes, each day, out in to the world. I couldn't see it then but so clearly see it now.
Then it was through her cooking, her Yiddish accent, her dark Russian eyes, her arms, her warm embrace. Now it's the big picture, the scope of history, the candle that burns beyond its allotted hour.
It's funny how these things work. I light the candle to remember the mother of the men who didn't remember in that way but who, in any event, are now long gone. But for a whole half day after the commanded remembrance is credited to me, your light, Grandma, burns on.
What's mine is yours, what's yours is yours.
Saturday a.m. Drash
It all depends on how you say it.
On two of the different occasions when God deploys Moses to speak to Pharaoh regarding the right of Israel to worship as they please, two different verbs are used to tell Moses to begin his diplomatic mission.
"Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake. And say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, "Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness." But you have paid no heed until now.' " (Exodus 7:15-16)
Here the diplomatic charge is the politics of confrontation. Direct. Taunting, like on a football field or a boxing ring. The specter of violence hangs over the exchange. Pharaoh heading out to the river, facing the rebel leader, who is about to turn the river into blood.
The Hebrew command suggests a kind of distancing, if you will. לך אל פרעה--Go (away) to Pharaoh--representing the punishing impulse. There is a the rebel demand; the river turns to blood; and briefly, for a time, Pharaoh is made to relent. But of course the resentment, the anger, the need for revenge over the humiliation of loss, continues.
Levi Isaac of Berditchev suggests that in this instance, God is clear in the purpose of the bloody river plaguing the Nile: to punish the wicked Pharaoh. And the cold-hearted Pharaoh responded by hardening his own heart, even to his own people's suffering, and onward went the plagues. In the confrontation of one to one, there is no winner. Only more violence.
In this week's Torah portion, however, different language is used. "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go (toward) to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display these My signs among them." (Exodus 10:1) The force of the Hebrew here בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו--hints at a more nuanced approach to the negotiation where Levi Isaac says the tactic is meant to "change the hearts of the ministers and advisors to the good."
In the distancing of "go" negotiate, there is the direct threat of violence. In the drawing near of "go toward," there is the attempt to "give honor" (strengthen) the hearts of the enemy in order to draw them near and change their mind.
Levi Isaac reminds us of the King Ahashverus from the Purim story in the Book of Esther, who changes Haman's decree against the Jews and instead punishes the truly evil person in the story, the wildly conspiratorial and anti-Semitic Haman. What changed this "course of history?" Diplomacy, persuasion, the concerted effort to "harden/give honor to" the hearts of the advisors and ministers in the greater court of Ahashverus/Pharaoh.
We're reading metaphorically here, folks. No illusions about what really happened, in either ancient Egypt or Persia.
But a humbling reminder that persuasion deserves a chance to succeed in negotiations for liberation in equal measure to the last resort of violence.
One thinks of today's battles--between Democrats and Republicans and Tea Party activists; between Israelis and Palestinians; between the the rich and the poor in the current metaphor-in-vogue of the "Tale of Two Cities"--and the choices we face in emerging whole, each side honored, in its quest for dignity and freedom.
Levi Isaac reminds us that in reading these contrasting views, we're closer right now to Purim--where persuasion worked--than to the ultimate punishing plagues of the Exodus story.
A worthy reminder and perhaps a hope against hope but nevertheless a hope: that the hands of diplomacy and persuasion will win the day over more bombs--real and rhetorical--that are thrown as a last resort in the spirit of hopelessness.
Here's to honor. And changing hearts and minds for a better world. Shabbat Shalom.
"Folk song calls the native back to his roots and prepares him emotionally to dance, worship, work, fight, or make love in ways normal to his place." Alan Lomax, Folk Songs of North America
Over sushi in Brooklyn the other night, I was asked to justify why we made the kids see Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers spectacular new movie. The answers flowed easily. One: the creators of the film are geniuses and as far as art is concerned, kids, go with the geniuses. They always have something to say. Two: the movie is a snapshot of an historical moment in your hometown, New York. It's important to know these things. An appreciation for the context of your life is important. And three (which took a bit more time to explain): there was once this guy named Alan Lomax, whose father John Lomax was the grandfather of the folk archival project for the Library of Congress and the WPA, who was a friend of your late great aunt and who gave her a copy of his book which we have at home, one of a number of essential cataloguing efforts that believe it or not changed the face of music history. There are Harry Smith's recordings to talk about too, but the kids usually still complain when those go on.
The third, surprisingly, took no heavy lifting. For good measure we reviewed other facts about this rebel aunt: she stepped over her mother blocking the doorway to prevent her from going to college (UW-Madison in the 1930s, take a bow, please) and worked in DP camps for the JDC after the Holocaust before returning to a practice in New York.
So you see, folk song does call "the native back to his roots."
Jews are about roots, of course. How could it not be? Meaning: who are we without them? And yet the often derided roots (and the ignorance thereof) gives me great anxiety in our age. I suppose it helps explain why it is that for me, in a world of increasingly surface encounters, where the immediacy of experience and digitally rendered, character-limited responses (the idiot wind of discourse) which are prized over long-held beliefs and practices, I fear for the future.
We're all so cosmopolitan, I know, I know. The grand melding that is taking place in our Digital Age has allowed for a greater confluence of cultural mixtures that pushes the boundaries of creativity to new heights, it's true. Bieber has Hebrew tatoos and One Direction apparently "love" Jews. On balance, these are wins for our side. But not so much in a world where the tides are turning and leaving their marks on the shores of Jewish history: Too much distinction is a bad thing. Even Dave Van Ronk thought so: "We banded together for mutual support because we didn't make as much noise as the other groups, and we hated them all--the Zionists, the summer camp kids, and the bluegrassers--every last, dead one of them. Of course, we hated a lot of people in those days."
It was powerful to watch Llewyn Davis sing into the hurricane of popularizing forces that he knew he could never join; and it was downright energizing to hear a young Bob Dylan ascend at precisely the moment Llewyn Davis was getting his ass kicked by a prideful, defensive Southern man in a Greenwich Village back alley. History was being made; time moving forward; one soul crushed, another breaking through, cultural rebels commercial successes converging, diverging, and forging new paths on life's journey.
It's an old trope in America, this tension between roots authenticity and commercial success. And it applies to work in the Jewish community as well. Who we are. What we stand for. What we demand of ourselves and those in our community.
From literacy to ethically mandated behavior; from rite and ritual to the music and poetry of prayer; from what we eat to who we are and what we call home: each are a manifestational limb emerging from the roots of Jewish history.
In a way, I was motivated to write this insignificant little blog as an homage to always remembering what matters. There's a desperate scene in Llewyn Davis where the singer is stranded in a Chicago diner, his feet soaked and frozen, clinging to his bottomless cup of coffee, his only hope. I had days like that as a young man--feet frozen as a student in Madison, Jerusalem, or New York. Unsure of the future but dogged and determined to remain true.
I bet many of you can remember days like that. When you didn't quite know how things would turn out but you knew you were a principled participant in a story larger, more expansive, and greater than yourself. Maybe a bud or blossom, at most a branch, on the many limbed project of your rooted existence.
Who knows? Maybe one's life is like that branch, which for one brief moment, buoys the squirrel passing by, lifts his foot in a fleeting moment as an acorn falls, and after time, a new tree grows. Takes root.
We all do our part, don't we?
So here's to those with frozen feet and dreams to walk on dry land here or there, or, perhaps, on the Bonny Shoals of Herring.
I mean: what Jew doesn't love herring?