it eventually sinks in
Updated: 5 hours 11 minutes ago
Two things disturb me about House Speaker John Boehner's decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress: that he didn't clear the invitation with the White House and that Bibi accepted it.
It should be no surprise to anyone anymore that Mr. Boehner pulled a stunt like this as Washington sinks lower and lower into the great sandbox fights of our most petulantly partisan and child-like civic selves. Since 2008, Republican strategy has been quite clear in its decisions to block the President's path whenever possible and to execute a scorched earth political plan often rooted in mockery, denigration, and on more than one occasion, racism.
And while it is no secret that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a terrible relationship, fraught with tension and disagreement not only about Iran but about Israeli settlement policy, the Israeli Prime Minister's decision to take the American political bait in the midst of his own election campaign in Israel where numbers show he may actually lose, is a cynical move and frankly, embarrassing.
Imagine if you will the maturity of a nation's leader having the self-discipline to simply say, "Many of you are aware of the differences between President Obama and myself on various matters but it would be inappropriate of me to accept an invitation to speak to Congress without being invited to do so by the President of the United States. Our nations are the deepest of friends and united in our fight against terror and extremism. And though we have our differences, I intend, as I often do, to share them directly with the President and not insert myself into divisive partisan politics. After all, Israel has no shortage of the politics of division itself! I have many friends in the Republican and Democratic parties whose unwavering support for Israel is deeply appreciated by myself and my nation and I would never want to unnecessarily disturb that relationship for temporary political gain."
Alas, that is not the case.
The challenges we are confronting today are enormous and dangerous. Disagreements among allies is not unusual or new--certainly to the America-Israel relationship. Regarding Iran, turmoil and instability in the Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond; the rise of Muslim terror threats in Europe coinciding with Far Right extremism there as well, and the ongoing lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--there is both room for disagreement while remaining united over the general direction of the alliance.
That Mr. Boehner and Mr. Netanyahu would openly ally themselves against the President strikes me as a dangerous precedent and signals both to our other trusted allies and more significant, our enemies, that this division and weakness can only further be exploited by those who would seek to do us maximal damage.
The first time I ever got behind the wheel of a car on the highway was on my way to my grandma's funeral. Grandma had died, six years after her beloved Charlie, the heroic grandfather doctor of my youth, a man (if not known or conjured by John McPhee as one of his "heirs of general practice") true and good. Grandma had despaired after Grandpa died. At his cold, snow covered grave on a February afternoon in 1973, she threw her body to the ground only to be pulled back by her sons, her heirs, and then, haltingly set about to remove herself from the world until she figured out that an assiduously waged campaign of low-grade depression could drain of her of the essentialness, the immediacy, of the will to live.
She died quietly, with others of her generation already gone, with the many mysteries of her life and how it unfolded, from there, in Russia (then still unlocked from the shackles of fascism and communism and anti-Semitism and dislocation and war and migration and settlement and citizenship and the acquisition of an identity necessary yet not quite chosen) to Milwaukee: hospitable--yet foreign in its banal, benign blandness.
Not for me, of course. I loved my childhood. An American boy, I was infatuated with my busty Jewish bubbe; enamored of my dashing, virulent, healing grandpa; enlivened by sport; and aroused by the redolence of our suburban yard, teeming with the arboreal urgency of possibility and renewal.
Grandpa's death both devastated and shaped me. It's when I first saw my father cry. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Bernstein, upon my return to class after his funeral, read his Jewish Chronicle obituary aloud to the class in order to demonstrate Grandpa's mythic greatness and model to my fellow students that we support one another in times of need. The pedagogy of Jewish death and mourning, brought to bear into the public school classroom. We had arrived. Our customs as a people were on the way to being Ever-Present. Grandma, having thrown herself down to that ice cold, cold ground stayed with me like a song, part Yiddish folk tale, party Johnny Cash. She wailed and mourned.
In the six years between their deaths, Mom and Dad got divorced; Dad lost his job; Mom re-married; Dad, too late, expressed regret; and I had found out about books, girls, basketball, politics, weed and Richard Pryor. A lot goes on, I guess.
As it was, we drove divided to the cemetery on the south side and because I needed some road work behind the wheel. I drove Dad's 74 red Chevy Impala convertible (top down, heater blasting) to the Second Home Cemetery which required for this novice in mourning on ramps, off ramps, signaling, merging and, a gesture I would never quite learn to moderate to this very day, acceleration. It seemed like just a moment before I was in the back of that car on a warm summer night, eating custard on the way home from a ballgame, stars flying by overhead like a warp-speed observatory show, luxuriating in the tender innocence of the father-son dyad. A flash-forward to the cold, cracked concrete, salt-covered highway barriers and ugly orange collision cones, signifying fallibility, boundaries and danger.
Death, the ineffable expression of finality, our guide.
But Goddamnit if I didn't want to drive that car. And Dad gave me the keys as much to teach me as a relinquishment of the throne. Unspoken: Not a usurpation but a betrothal. A marriage to the story of our people, he seemed to say, which has eluded me in my quest to escape the mad, red-hot hatred of anti-Semitism, I give to you. I couldn't tell the story, son, he seemed to say, passive, in silence beside me. But you can.
So I did.
And so I have. Merged into family. Identity. History. When I played point guard in grade school and high school, Dad would sit in the stands and shout at me, "Drive, son, drive!"
Ah, it's all metaphor, isn't it? The ancestors; the parents; the keys to the car or the castle.
And who are we but those who ask, who dare to question, who take the risk of peeling back the layers to understand.
There is of course, a danger to the inquiry. "You peel back an onion too far, son," my dad said, "And you're left with nothing."
So you have to eat. To sustain yourself. I get that.
At Benji's in Milwaukee it was corned beef; hopple-popple; chocolate phosphates. I'd sit there with Dad in the early divorce years, the Bucks game on the tv screen above the counter, Benji's goyim slicing meat in the ways of our people, Dad kibbutzing his cousins who were also there, consuming the peculiar culinary identity of our European forbearers.
Today in New York, in the comfort-countered home base of Russ and Daughters, it's mostly fish and eggs. But as equally sustaining as the food is, there is another element: the reification of Jewish migratory narrative; the celebration of hospitality; the humorous, self-reflective, honoring of the past in the present; and the very act of being, the paradox of the permanence of change.
My lunchmate was talking about the Holocaust and DP camps; about Yiddish and German and English; about Lodz and Munich and New York and Israel. And I was talking about Israel and New York, and White and Black, Rich and Poor, and Justice. And underneath the table, my foot was on fire, pedal to the metal, going full speed ahead toward understanding.
Like even in mourning, you can drive to a funeral in a convertible: wind in your face; brisk and cold; and then, in an instant, you can do what you've never done before which is to merge into life.
Merge into life.
I imagine if I had a chance to talk to Edgar this week, he'd be very practical about everything. And brutally honest.
He'd see and say that political constructs aren't necessarily either/or but both/and in the events playing out in the world. From New York to Paris to Jerusalem.
He'd say that the NYPD have a right to be pissed about being targeted by angry citizens but that certain racist and rogue cops and overly excessive stop and frisk policies need to be curtailed. He'd say that for the sake of the city, Mayor deBlasio and the NYPD need to stop fighting NOW, sit down, and make peace. (After all, given the horrific events in Paris of the past few days--the abhorrent attack on Charlie Hebdo followed by the horrifying anti-Semitic outrage on Paris Jews--a unity between City Hall and the One Police Plaza is absolutely essential for the safety of New York.)
He'd say that one of the reasons he served as he did as President of the World Jewish Congress had to do with the undeniable reality that in many parts of the world today, Jews are still in danger. And he'd be fearless in using his considerable power, wealth, incisive wit and pragmatic sensibility to speak out, persuade, and do whatever was in his strength to save Jewish lives. And in the same conversation, he'd say that it actually is possible to find the expansion of Jihadi movements beyond dangerous, necessary to confront; but that didn't mean that one couldn't also be critical of Israeli governments and settlement policy. That the debate about what was right and wrong in the world didn't mean that if you opposed the spread of violent and radical Islam, it meant by necessity that the movement for a greater Israel was correct. You could believe both/and.
But as I stood above his grave on the one year anniversary of his death this week; as a steady snow lightened the weight of the granite stone that bore his name; as I remembered back to burying my friend last year beneath a heavy December rain while a flock of Canada geese flew mercifully overhead, I remembered with pain and sadness that his voice--his moral voice, his playful voice, his fearless voice--could only be as discernible as his very name below, obscured by the light film of frozen condensation, near, approximate, but no longer plainly known.
The evils bastards who try to kill free expression and murder innocent Jews shopping for Shabbat in Paris is categorically evil. Period. And one can justifiably say that the attempt by Jihadists to draw Israel in to their orbit, to triangulate the world against the Jews because, according to their twisted logic, the Jihadists wouldn't be so angry if Israel didn't exist as the exemplar and perpetrator-extraordinaire of Western colonialist values, is the worst kind of reasoning imaginable. Transparent in its pure, unadulterated hatred of the Jew, it can and ought to be rejected. Categorically and with confidence.
And of course, no sooner would one do that than some other partisan, would draw a similar inference and we'd be back at the barricades again, alas, fighting the battle for what is true and just.
We are weary, God. Let us rest.
"God?" I'd hear my friend Edgar say. "By God you mean who exactly?" And he'd be right. There is just too much God wrapped up in all this and it presses against the limits of, if not reason, than what any sane person can tolerate. Jihadists crying out their understanding of God's name spray machine gun fire into newsrooms and onto sidewalks and inside grocery stores where others, seeking to observe their God's Sabbath, buy food to bless and eat. And while being held hostage, others offer prayers in God's name that the hostages should remain safe but no sooner are those prayers uttered than other prayers are necessitated because the first set of prayers didn't work, the murders occurred, and now God's name is called upon to offer comfort. Comfort for the families of Jihadists whose sons lost their way; comfort for the families of innocent writers and innocent Jews who prayers didn't protect.
Perhaps we are not the only ones who are weary, God. Perhaps you are, too.
Our Torah teaches us this week the following: "And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them."
This part of the Torah has always confounded me. It seems to imply that here in Exodus, at the beginning of the narrative of an enslaved people, that only after some of the most intense expressions of human suffering did God hear, remember and then--take cognizance? He didn't immediately throw plagues, or thunder, or cause an earthquake. He didn't even kick anybody's ass. He took cognizance. The passivity inherent in this construct upsets me greatly. It seems to make us God's plaything, an object of reflection until a plan can be put into place to actually save us.
I find that the commentators come up short here. God's taking note of the suffering at this juncture seems to be the activating of an earlier promise to redeem Israel. But it is still Moses' lesson to learn, in the next chapter, that the God of Existence ("I am that I am") is the closest approximation to God's power that Moses will get in order to convince Moses that Israel's redemption relies as much upon Moses as it does on God.
Or, as Edgar used to like to say, "I don't know about God; but I like the term "Godliness."
It will be up to Moses to answer the call; to "go down, way down, in Egypt land;" it will have to be Moses as an agent of freedom; justice; righteousness; compassion--to be, by necessity, the animating and the closest approximation to the manifestations of God's will that we can conjure through the fog of suffering and strife and terror and war.
Cassuto argued that the notion of God "taking note" is exactly similar to God taking note before Sodom and Gomorroh. Thinking aloud in Genesis 18:21, God says of Abraham that he can be counted upon to "do righteousness and justice." And he does, doesn't he? After all, it's Abraham who speaks up, bargains, and makes sure that the innocent don't die in God's path of rageful, Divine destruction.
In other words, pray with all your might but it's still up to us.
I demand that the Mayor and the Police here in New York City make peace--NOW!--before we make ourselves vulnerable to more attacks from those maniacs who would exploit division for an opportunity to do violence.
I am grateful for the Paris police in hunting down the bastards who killed innocent people but they need to do a much better job fighting terror and anti-Semitism in France. This shouldn't have happened! And tonight Paris Jews didn't worship in the Grand Synagogue for Shabbat for the first time since World War Two?! This is outrageous. Truly.
I want reasonable and peace-loving Israelis and Palestinians who know in their hearts that peace is the only way to live together to be strengthened in all that they do.
And in the spirit of my friend, my mentor, my teacher Edgar, on this one year of anniversary of missing your voice, I pray: for the strength to endure; to question my own assumptions and grow; to speak the truth as I see it; and to not only remember the covenant, not only take note of it, but to use all my heart and soul and strength to build a world of justice and peace.
After a year in which peace talks collapsed between Israelis and Palestinians; the Gaza War of the summer further isolated Israel from world opinion while confirming that Hamas and an ever-radicalizing Islamist movement rejects dialogue and favors ongoing terror; the growing rift between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu burst into the open; the continued strengthening of ISIS and its particularly virulent and murderous expression of fundamentalist Islam caused increased concern; an increase in racist attacks against Israeli Arabs brought shame; Israeli settlement policy continued unabated; increased terror incidents and random acts of murder against Israeli civilians enraged; and a general sense in the broader Israeli population that the basic services of the government--the economy, infrastructure, housing, education and health care--were not being met as well as they should be, topped off by the divisive "nation-state" measures encoding Jewishness over democracy in the Jewish state, it seems appropriate that Israel's Knesset dissolved itself and decided to head to new elections.
American Jews, who often sit at a considerable distance and judge Israel without ever having to really live in the shoes of Israelis -- a region unlike anything within North American borders (though in a post-9-11 world those borders are shrinking, aren't they?) -- would do well to roll up their sleeves, follow the news closely, and even better, hop on a plane and go talk to Israelis. See things up close.
One could argue that this is the most critically important election in Israel's history since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Just as Rabin's murder set into motion certain forces that maintain the agenda in Israel to this day, the current dissolution of this year's Knesset is a chance for Israelis, should they dare, to choose a new direction.
I'd like to see them choose democracy. This is actually eminently achievable. It requires a coalition of the Center, the Left, some willing Center-Right members of Knesset, at least one ultra-religious Israeli party (Shas, United Torah Judaism) and the Arab parties.
Impossible, you say? Could it be more "impossible" than the lack of progress we are currently witnessing?
Unworkable, you say? Could it be more "unworkable" than what we now have?
If, as Israel's Declaration of Independence originally stated, the Jewish state is to "ensure complete equality of political and social rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," than what is the problem? The foundation exists for a Jewish and democratic state, for equal rights before the law, and for the opportunity, for those Israelis of good will--Jewish and Arab Israelis and--to find a way to live together in peace.
It's an election made to call everyone's bluff:
The Left can't govern with strength?
The Right can't tolerate democratic rights?
The Arabs can't accept citizenship with minority rights?
The Ultra-Religious can't accept the reality of the contemporary world with innovations like secular education, equal rights for women, some form of mandatory service beyond the house of study?
If there is not a parliamentary majority of at least 61 Israelis who cannot line up behind the reality that the way forward for a democratic Israel is a majority of diverse Israelis committed to finding a way to live together, now, than these indeed are dark days.
To somehow believe that this is not possible flies in the face of history. Israel remains for me one of the great, unimaginable miracles of the twentieth century. What small, far-flung, persecuted but determined nation builds itself a state, reclaims its national homeland, revives its language, and creates, in less than a century, one of the most vibrant, creative, economies and democracies the world has ever known? Who does that?
This is not apologist writing for all you cynics out there. This is pride in the unparalelled uniqueness of the Jewish people, which, while it has its own terrible, dark forces it is obligated to tame, prosecute and mend, still stands as a state whose good far outweighs the bad.
I don't live in Israel and I don't vote there. But as an American Jew, a Zionist, frequent guest in the country, a man whose heart bleeds for peace and co-existence, and a rabid fan of the good Jews can do, I'm cheering like hell from the sidelines.
It is interesting to think of Jacob wrestling the angel on the banks of the Jabbok River, moments before meeting his sibling rival Esau (from whom he wrangled birthright and blessing) in the context of our nation's coming to terms with issues of race, violence and the law in the era of Ferguson & Michael Brown and Staten Island & Eric Garner.
Jacob, the dweller in tents, as a lad; Esau, the man of the field. The privileged white child of the manor and the slave, the toiler, the real builder of a nation.
Jacob, the kid from a good neighborhood, sound schools, college and workforce bound; Esau, dodging bullets and mired in poverty, suspicious and always suspected.
Jacob behind the invisible gilded walls of power where it's not even necessary to ask for protection; Esau, who in the wrestling, can't breathe. Can't breathe. Can't breathe.
In from the fields in the heat of the day. Exhausted. Spent. In need of a bowl of lentils. The tradition often credits Jacob for his cleverness in discerning that Esau was not of the moral stature to lead the covenanted people of the God of Abraham and Isaac. But turn the narrative on its head and it becomes a tale of exploitation: the starving manual laborer who would be satisfied for a crust of bread, a bowl of soup, and in his haste with the cards stacked against him trades away an unseen future for the immediacy of sustenance and temporary relief.
Yesterday I took a ride around Brooklyn with some friends. We began in the bricked and brownstoned order of Park Slope; rolled into Gowanus, Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, ending up back in Crown Heights for a beer. The admirably singular growth, creativity, and vibrancy of gentrification were everywhere to be seen and, in real time, were gestating social and economic challenges that ought to occupy our imagination and devotion for a generation.
Education. Health-Care. Housing. Work. Like words of Torah, as the Sages say: Each cried out, "Interpret me!" Meaning: Deal with the issues. Create solutions. Fulfill the covenant of our own national sacred scripture, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
I see my doctor in an office tour across the street from Carnegie Hall. It's a very pleasant experience to go there. We speak the same language; we're of the same world. Yesterday I drove for blocks and for the life of me couldn't figure out where one would go if one needed a doctor except a hospital emergency room. The inherent wrong in that was as discernible as the distinction between, well, black and white.
If you drive into the Gowanus from Third Street, just after Staples and Pep Boys, the new Whole Foods comes into view. Solar powered parking lamps and wind turbines tower over a lot filled with large, new, well-fueled cars. Building and development is churning up earth at a rate that far outpaces the herculean effort to dredge the contaminated canal. Among its many deleterious qualities are PCBs, coal-tar wastes, heavy metal and volatile organics.
Volatile organics indeed. The people are restless. As the sun set and day turned to night, helicopters buzzed overhead. Demonstrators blocked roads throughout the city, their bodies wrestling injustice, monitored by a hovering whir above.
Drive down Bond Street from Whole Foods and you'll see an abandoned factory about to be converted into artists lofts and galleries; luxury housing rises on the now fetid waters, but renderings envision redemption. The Ample Hills Ice Cream factory leans into Royal Palms Shuffleboard. One wonders whether or not Brooklyn's ironic brand has lost its way--they say it's now the most expensive place to buy a home in America. What a bowl of lentils goes for on one side of the Jabbok River is not what it goes for on the other.
Across the street from the NYCHA Gowanus Houses, with 1134 apartments and 2836 residents, there's a C-Town, the dystopic meme of Whole Foods. What is sold in the aisles of both stores we ought to know. Food and Justice bring us back to the elemental fundaments of Torah.
To say that we brothers have our issues is an understatement.
Jacob was terrified the night before he met his brother Esau. We don't know what Esau felt but we discern his anger, the pain and suffering of disappointment, of being on the outside, of having had to sell his fate in anguished hunger, of simply never having been equitably, fairly, brought in.
"And Jacob was left alone and there a man wrestled with him until the break of day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." And Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
It is the greatest challenge of our generation to realize, yet again, that when we wrestle with black and white in this country, that conflict still too often leads to violence, prison, and most tragically, death.
After receiving his blessing from the angel, from his conscience, from his twin Esau, from God--Jacob awakes and prepares to meet his brother. At this stage, Esau had been left alone long enough to create his own life, accumulate his own wealth, and regain the dignity he had lost in selling off his birthright in a moment of vulnerability and need. He had the self-respect of being his own man, in charge of his own destiny. Expecting confrontation, even war, both brothers fall upon one another's neck and as the Torah indicates, embraced and kissed as brothers. Their hunger not for food but for love, sated.
No wrestling. No chokehold. Just two brothers, by a river, reconciled to the possibilities and blessings of life.
My thoughts on the Eric Garner ruling are published over at Tablet Magazine.
You can read the piece here as well.
The Staten Island grand jury decision to not bring to trial an NYPD officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner is a tragedy on many levels. First, there is the fundamental tragedy of an unarmed black man dying in police custody. Second, there is the additional outrage of each of us bearing witness to Garner’s death. It’s one thing for most people to read in the abstract about the disproportionate number of black men to white men who die in police custody—whether by gunshot or, in the case of Eric Garner, by a banned chokehold. But with social media, we must bear witness and see with our own eyes, hear with our own ears, the pleas of a man pinned to the ground by police exclaiming, “I can’t breathe,” and then watch him pass into convulsions and death. It is gruesome. And it is wrong. It is also unjust.The specter of injustice haunts the entire African American experience in the United States in ways this country’s Jewish community can only attempt to comprehend. For African Americans, brought to this country against their will as slaves, there would be 200 years of slavery followed by 100 years of endemic racism, lynching, and the denial of equal rights. As a nation we are far from the end of this tragic journey with miles to go. And a black man dying in police custody in Staten Island, or getting shot in Ferguson, or a housing project stairwell, is simply and unacceptably, an all too common event.As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative continually reminds us, racism and poverty go hand in hand for the African American community. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One of three black men between ages 18 and 30 in America is either in jail, prison, probation, or on parole. Inequality—in schools, in the workplace, in housing, and before the law—is pervasive. America, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” has a long way to go.When facing off with God over the potential miscarriage of justice—innocent lives being swept away with evil in Sodom and Gomorrah—Abraham famously said to God, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?”That is to say: we are all meant to be equal before the law. And the required sacred trust required between the citizenry and law enforcement officers—who, make no mistake about it, put their lives on the line to keep us all safe every day—is essential. We all must be held to the same standard of the law in the execution of the law in order for, to paraphrase Abraham, the law of the land to do justly.The chokehold is an illegal move. Even in an NFL marred by its own despicable scandals these days, an illegal move is penalized. It is a tragic perpetuation of the legacy of injustice for blacks in America that a police officer is at the very least not being put to trial, where, with all evidence weighed in the light of day, he can be found innocent or guilty of taking a man’s life. And as Jews, as a people founded on such notions of a Just God being called to justice—and of a Civil Society founded on the idea of Equality Before the Law—we should find today’s ruling a grave injustice.
As a rabbi, Jewish community leader and board member of the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, I abhor and condemn the vandalism that has yet again attacked this beloved and valued center of education in Israel.
Tonight's news out of Jerusalem has demonstrated that there are those in the Holy City who are insistent on destroying the will of good people to live together in peace. But in the face of such acts, we simply will not back down. Peace and coexistence are the only true path for all of Jerusalem's residents.
As a rabbinic leader in the American Jewish community, committed Zionist, and strong supporter of Israel, I expect Jerusalem's Mayor Nir Barkat and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strongly condemn this attack and apprehend the perpetrators, punishing them to the fullest extent of the law.
The Hand in Hand School, Israel's only bilingual school system, is a beacon of hope, light and tolerance in a city that is yet again, tragically embroiled in nationalist fervor, acts of hatred, recrimination, violence and murder.
Long admired and praised for the excellent education it provides for Israel and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and its surrounding communities, the Hand in Hand Schools deserves our ongoing support in the face of these acts of hate.
The teachers, parents and children of this remarkable school should know that they are admired and loved for their simple acts of courage--going to school each day, celebrating one another's difference, and through ongoing encounters with each other, building peace and tolerance in a city loved by Jews, Christians and Muslims the world over.
In the face of such acts of hate, we will not waver in our belief that with children learning together and families supporting these efforts, the citizens of Jerusalem and Israel will be shown the way of coexistence and peace. We Jews are the "People of the Book." Violence against schools is an abomination.
We will extinguish the fires of hatred with the ever-renewing spring of education, tolerance and peace.
--Rabbi Andy Bachman
The Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, an enduring American symbol of religious freedom for those inhabitants who established its existence in Massachusetts nearly 400 years ago, were lofty in their aspirations but far from perfect. The meal of Thanksgiving, which they commemorated in 1621, was meant to offer praise to God for the many blessings of their lives. And as we look back, and know our history with open eyes, to be ever mindful that in each generation, we still have some distance to travel.
Though the early decades of Plymouth Plantation included a number of fortuitous alliances as well as violent skirmishes with Native tribes, the famous meal shared between Natives and Pilgrims became, ultimately, the American institution known as Thanksgiving. That was then and this is now, a considerable distance from crowded, clouded with fossil fuel hazed highways, parades swollen with cartoon floats, nachos drenched in squeeze-cheese and pickled jalapeños consumed during breaks in bone-crushing football games, those early meals had vision. Perhaps then they could even see a reality far beyond what they knew of the prosaic day-to-day: they conjured Jerusalem.
And so it was for the authors of the Plymouth Sabbath School Hymnal, published in Brooklyn in 1858, more than two hundred years removed from Plymouth in 1620, this imagined Jerusalem was, in its own way, far away from the trouble and torture of their (and our) mundane existence. Yet its allure was so dear as to be near and beloved. "Jerusalem! my glorious home. Name ever dear to me! When shall my labors have an end, in joy and peace and thee! When shall these eyes, thy heaven built walls, and pearly gates behold? Thy bulwarks with salvation strong, and streets of shining gold?"
The early Pilgrims were Calvinists, strict in their enduring faith. The first pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was Henry Ward Beecher, a descendent of Calvinists and fierce abolitionist, who would have found the Pilgrims' yearning toward Jerusalem 200 years earlier to be totally intolerable. Though make no mistake: he yearned himself--just in the language and in the time and in the historical framework that was more suited to his generation. "There happier bowers than Eden's bloom, nor sin nor sorrow know; Blessed seats! Thro' rude and stormy scenes I onward press to you. Why should I shrink at pain and woe? Or feel at death, dismay? I've Canaan's goodly land in view, and realms of endless day."
In this yearning is a lesson. We don't have to accept the world for what it is--even its idealizations. We can always change what we inherit while giving honor to and singing the praises of those who came before us.
Last night while walking to meet a friend for a beer, my own fellow settlers on the sidewalks of Vanderbilt peered heavenward to see helicopters, like flying army jeeps, hovering overhead, tracking the protests of New Yorkers who marched in solidarity with those in Ferguson. A few wealthy enough to own slaves were able to do so in Plymouth; but seeds were planted then for an American enterprise that would capture, enslave, torture and murder countless lives sacrificed on the altar of the idea of religious freedom. It would require war, more death, Reconstruction, lynching, the Civil Rights movement and countless more lives, given up for a greater, ever expansive freedom, but a freedom no less setting its sights upon "Canaan's goodly land in view." Some of Plymouth's early inhabitants held slaves; others killed Native Americans. Still others loved the Other unconditionally. In every generation we get to decide who we want to be.
My friend and I spoke about the helicopters and the protests and the still long road ahead in overcoming the pain and woe of racism. But mostly we talked about earthly Jerusalem.
The summer's war with Gaza. The lives lost. The hardened hatreds. Stabbings. Shootings. Lynchings. Cars running down pedestrians. The total collapse of the peace process. The dreadful, fearful, irretrievable sense of lost hope.
Pilgrims of one God marching on Pilgrims of another God, each seeking to extinguish the other.
We talked and we argued and we talked and we argued; and as the night wore on we heard each other more and more. He in his insistence that the Jewish people remain a "light unto the nations" and me in my insistence that especially when we see our brothers and sisters saying and doing things that we find morally repugnant we never stop trying, never stop believing, that "Canaan's goodly land" is within our grasp. We live in the world we inherit. Where we go and what we do with it is up to us.
This is the Jewish Hymnal. This is how we do it. Words--and the deeds they breed--can break the chains of hopelessness.
Here is my Thanksgiving wish for you:
Where there is hunger, feed it.
Where there is no shelter, build it.
Where there is hatred and bigotry, banish it.
There is too much pain we are causing one another in this world.
And so, where another states his pain, listen. Reach and speak across the divide. Difference need not be mired in stasis but rather should flow, be in a constant state of change in growth: "let justice roll down like water, righteousness as a mighty stream."
Let us all be Pilgrims of Hope. Let's break bread for Peace. Now.
"Jerusalem, my glorious home! My soul still pants for thee; then shall my labors have an end, when I thy joys shall see."
The picture above is a photograph. Taken with an iPhone 4s, it depicts a freeze-frame image of Jerusalem in 1964 as captured by my grandfather on his Super 8 movie camera. The film was transferred to DVD, played on a Samsung HD 32" screen, sent over the ether to an 11 inch MacBook Air and uploaded to you.
Jerusalem: A refraction of a refraction of a refraction of a refraction.
Whose eyes? Whose soul? Whose narrative? Whose God?
And now, to our great shame, whose democracy?
When news came through various outlets late yesterday that the Israeli Cabinet passed its controversial "nation-state" bill, mandating Jewish character over democratic character for an already Jewish democracy, a further fractionalization occurred for Israeli and American Jews, as well as Arab Israeli citizens of Israel who embrace Israel's democracy, however imperfect.
But the bill's content, calling for a two-tiered civic structure, demoting Arabic from an official language of the state and not allowing for equal housing growth and development in the Arab sector, means, in fact, that for the first time in its history, Israel is taking a dangerous step toward unraveling the founding vision of the country as encoded in the Declaration of Independence, ratified in 1948: Israel "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions."
As political experts debate the finer points of the bill and its harder and softer versions (coalition politics mandating the assuaging of the most extreme voices who yet again win the day in a Netanyahu government) clouds the picture for Israel's future in new and uncertain ways. Make no mistake about it: Prime Minister Netanyahu's Cabinet is now officially less concerned with Israel as a democracy--arguably it's greatest claim and most salient point of self-defense in an ever extreme region--than it is with Israel as a Jewish state. And the very claim of those who built the state with their blood, toil, tears and sweat--that the Jewish people's political redemption in our historic homeland is made real through the unique agency of "freedom, justice and peace"--is, unabashedly under attack.
This is a moment of great potential despair and disillusionment for Jewish communities both here in America and in Israel that in the long run will do great harm to Israel's future. The continued descent into extreme politics; the closing off of any real hope of dialogue and engagement with Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors; and the trading of a truly democratic Israel for an exclusively Jewish Israel, runs directly against the greatest strengths and aspirations of Zionism's original intent.
When, as Zionists and Jews, we claim to be: a "light unto the nations" in the best prophetic tradition; when others seek Israel's aid in times of crisis; when Israeli ingenuity, technological know-how, surfeit of Nobel prizes and claims as a bulwark against Islamic extremism (in partnership with countless Western governments and moderate Arab allies in an increasingly inflamed Middle East--are we really helping our own cause by creating a legal encoded caste system, one for Jews and one for Arabs? In explaining Israel to young people--the Golden Ticket of Engagement for the future of Zionism--are we winning an argument by encoding Otherness as lower than Jewishness? Was Zionism's original demand, to be a normal people with a normal nation, nothing but a temporary down payment for an ethno-centric, modified democracy of qualified equalities?
I was thinking of those lapel pins that certain supporters in the pro-Israel community like to wear of the Israeli and American flag side-by-side, each a potent symbol for each nation's commitment to a unique vision of freedom and justice, gifts for the privilege of citizenship.
From the Israeli Declaration of Independence: "it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."
From the American Pledge of Allegiance: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The shared vision is clear in words pledged and encoded in documents but in our day it is now under attack. It was for my grandparents whose first and only trip to Israel bequeathed to me irrevocable connection between American values and Jewish values; between the shared principles of our two civilizations--that freedom and equality always win the day.
A vision blurred. A future made less clear and more dangerous by the certain alienation that will occur by diluting and cheapening the definition and parameters of Israeli democracy.
War refracts. Extremism refracts. Hatred refracts. Racism refracts.
But the Ur-Image of Jewish existence--that the human being (not the Jew, the human being!) is made in the Divine Image--is the unrefracted, the pure, the foundation value of any society in which we have always, and will always, aspire to live.
A couple years ago, just before Mom died, the girls gave her a call. They wanted to say good-bye before heading off to camp--with the painful awareness that we would lose her during the summer. This awareness of death, unavoidable but carefully managed, is part of what it means to be human and certainly what it means to be a parent.
The home I grew up in did death at a half-time rate. Dad, the Jew, talked about it. Mom, whose father's life was cut short by a murder in 1939, plowed under her grief, buried it out in the yard, as it were, and kept it very much to herself. Like the plants she kept cultivated on the window sill of the kitchen and living room, there was a solitary, lonely and dark, unresolved, tragic beauty to her suffering that burst forth into bloom once a year when I'd catch her crying at the window, a distant gaze in her eyes out into the yard and beyond--to her own childhood, unredeemed. A mysterious gift, this grief; like a present you don't ever really want to open, I carried it with me throughout my own life until Dad died of a heart attack in 1983, leaving me at the crossroads of a road less traveled. I chose to talk about the loss (at times even to him) to express it fully, to go, however haltingly, toward death; and to discover what I wished Mom could have known--that staring it in the face has its own redemptive power.
Anyway, there were the girls, on the phone with their Nana, she in a bed in Milwaukee, at the precipice of the valley of the shadow of death; they, in the full bloom summer of their youth in Brooklyn, saying goodbye, with love.
"What did you have for lunch today, Nana?" one asked.
"Uch," she began. "A bland turkey sandwich and some really shitty pea soup. I don't know how you can screw up pea soup but they did."
Laughter. Thus a memory is born. And along with it a value laden lesson in facing death, in grieving together, in laughing at the absurdities of the time we're allotted in this world.
Last spring I buried a man who had stopped eating for the two weeks before he died but then, to celebrate the resolution of a family conflict over funeral and burial plans, was fed frozen chips of Pinot Grigio--his favorite five o'clock drink--raised his brow in one last mischievous gesture of agency before the Throne of Inevitability, and days later expired.
I shared these stories with a friend who called it "eating into death," a new way of thinking about the desire for dignity at such moments. It made sense immediately. I remembered the back and forth to Wisconsin during those two years of Mom's dying; the plane to the car to the apartment and then to the hospice.
"How you doing, Ma?" I'd ask.
"If I see one more bottle of Ensure I'm going to shoot someone," she'd say. She'd add a big eye roll for effect. And then I'd poach her some eggs, roast some potatoes and asparagus, dole out the medical marijuana to get the appetite started; and she'd eat and wax rhapsodic about pulling up wild asparagus at the roadsides of her youth. Comfort food.
Someone recently told me about how, back in the 80s during the AIDS crisis, he was working in a hospice for homeless men with AIDS which lost its funding and was shut down. In an act of uncommon and unheralded heroism and generosity, the six men were divided among six homes where each man went to die.
"If my guy didn't like what I'd cook for him, he'd really yell at me!" he said. "And when I protested that I was doing the best I could, he'd say, 'This is the last bit of power I have in the world!' It was powerful."
Maybe it was yesterday's cold weather in the City; or the catastrophic snow in Buffalo; or the incessantly disturbing backdrop to our lives of the least fortunate, digging through the trash for food, quietly suffering in hunger in cold apartments on cold nights, losing taste and losing hope. We barely notice them, almost gargoyle-like in the social architecture of our cityscape. You have to really stop and look. And take note.
That's the moment. Terrifying because it's evocative of the death we all avoid but in the engagement, it's reifying, hopeful, even redeeming, if we choose to act.
In families the act of feeding can heal. In communities it can shatter the frozen, glacial anonymity between those who have and those who lack and scatter the darkness of despair with light.
It's a story that doesn't need images.
It's images, after all, we Jews are meant to destroy if true love among neighbors is to reign.
And the early Zionists, fed up with the homelessness and powerlessness of Exile, destroyed the image of the Wandering Jew by forgoing the theological mandate to wait patiently for the Messiah and chose instead to kickstart a new Jewish narrative by redeeming the land themselves--even with their own blood.
But re-entry to the stage of history has not been without its complications. Zionist historiography, for those dispassionate enough to assess it as honestly as they can, has not explained away the sins inherent in the execution of contemporary power--and laudably, faced it head-on. Criticality, self-reflection, taking responsibility for the unfortunate and sometimes abhorrent results of conflict and violence is what ought to differentiate us a species between those who more often choose good than evil and as a Zionist--even one who at times disagrees with the policy or direction of any particular Israeli governmental majority--this ability to allow for open disagreement, opposition, and dissent.
I don't know why I need to say any of this anymore--this Apologia for the Jewish right to live in freedom wherever we are: Belgium, London, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, New York and again, today, horrifically, tragically, bloodily, in Jerusalem.
But here we go: When Baruch Goldstein walked into a mosque in 1994 and killed 29 Palestinian Muslims worshipping God, Jewish and Israeli leaders condemned loudly and forcefully this abhorrent crime. When Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered this summer in Jerusalem, Jewish and Israeli leaders condemned loudly and forcefully this abhorrent crime. So why is it, yet again, so difficult for Palestinian allies to condemn openly and unequivocally, the massacre that took place today in Har Nof? Why the constant moral equivalencies? Why the disgusting celebrations that are not then condemned by moderate Palestinian leaders and their friends?
Why, despite our perceived power and control of banks and media (as the anti-Semites love to say) is Jewish blood still so cheap, even in a city we have rightfully claimed for more than three thousand years?
The hypocrisy is stunning--if ever so briefly--because frankly, we're used to it.
As one such typical leader among so many in the Jewish community, do I really need to temper my condemnation of the murder of praying Jews this morning with an equally forceful condemnation of Israeli settlement policy if, as the record will show for so many of us, we have been demanding a two-state solution, tolerance, and co-existence, for our whole careers?
There is blood hatred in the land. There are Palestinians who hate all Jews and there are Jews who hate all Palestinians. This, to our great shame and ultimate challenge, may never end. Our job, in what brief time we have allotted to us on Earth, is to condemn, resoundingly, when it occurs, the unjust, senseless and brutal murder of innocents whenever it occurs. Full stop.
Just look at this statement by those who dare call themselves the "Jewish Voice for Peace:"
Jewish Voice for Peace is deeply alarmed at the crisis building in Jerusalem over the last several weeks as terrible violence mounts. We mourn all the lives that have been lost, both Palestinian and Israeli. Early this morning, four Jews at prayer were brutally murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue and on Sunday a Palestinian bus driver was likely lynched.It's always one for the other. Four brutal murders equal one likely lynching. It's never enough to simply say that murder is wrong. Period. Everything gets weighed against everything else. Had there not been the lynching, there would not have been the murders. Am I exaggerating?
We call on the Israeli government and its supporters to cease further calls to incitement and collective punishment. The international community must bring pressure to bear on the root causes of ongoing violence. Israel’s continual system of occupation, dispossession, and discrimination against Palestinians by its very nature puts the lives and dignity of all people in Israel and Palestine in jeopardy. The Israeli government continues to escalate state violence against Palestinians, as well as enabling increasingly aggressive actions of settlers. In Abu Dis, Issawiya, and Silwan, to name just three neighborhoods, mobility is severely restricted, and residents are subject to collective punishment as homes and schools are covered in skunk water, which makes them almost unbearable to enter. Last week a mosque and holy Qur’ans were torched in the West Bank village of Al Mughayir by Jewish individuals. The Israeli government continues to declare its intention to build more settlements; the Third Temple Movement, backed by government ministers, continues its provocations at the Temple Mount; laws that mandate 20 year sentences for stone-throwing and to declare Israel a Jewish nation-state, and threats to withdraw the citizenship of Palestinian citizens who protest are being proposed at the highest levels. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s declared intention to further entrench Israeli control over all of Israel/Palestine and pursue the collective punishment of Palestinians will bring neither peace nor quiet. Palestinians, whether inside Israel, in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza, face a future of continued inequality, discrimination, home demolitions, land expropriation, and military violence. A true and just peace for both peoples will only come when Israel is willing to commit to equality, freedom and justice for all people. The logic is clear: Jew-hatred be damned. It's all Israel's fault.
So goes the "Jewish Voice for Peace." Cue the Orwellian laughter.
In the meantime, it won't be long before a kid breaks a tooth on candy being handed out to celebrate the murder of Jews and his dentist says, "Those Jews and their candy!"
It makes me sad to have lost friends on the Left these last few years; but their inability to simply see the hatred of Jews for what it is--even in the face of some Jews behaving badly or doing unjust things--is plain and simple inexcusable. And a damn shame on them.
Our imageless Torah demanded long ago something I still have faith is true: We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. If only this were achievable in our increasingly intolerant world.
Guest Sermon Old First Reformed ChurchDelivered for their Consecration SundayNovember 9, 2014
My teacher Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, always demonstrated to his students the need to love words. Study sessions with him were often opportunities to relish the construction of language and the varieties of evocations that words brought forth from we mere humans in our hopefully humble and sometimes, all too often hubristic seeking of the Divine.
Consecration. Now there’s a word. The shared experience of the sacred. The “being present with another” for the experience of “the holy.” Consecration.
Its meaning is clear to us from the Scriptural readings you have chosen for today’s service here at Old First. The Psalmist’s aspirational language--to articulate the past so that future generations might know the face of God--makes the claim that in the mindful and persistent telling of the story of the deeds of our Mothers and Fathers, in their awareness of the goodness and the kindness of the God of our Ancestors--we reify, we make real again and again and again, the covenant of Truth and Justice and Peace.
Consecration. Being present with the past, in the present, for the sake of those generations which will arise in the future.
This idea is rooted in the reading from Joshua as well. Lofty, heroic, battle-tested Joshua. A man who actually knew Moses, obeyed his command, and received from Moses, who would lead the people to the border but never enter the Land of Israel, therefore necessitating the generational passage of leadership, the gift of ordination, the consecration of service, the duty to demand of Joshua, the next generation, that which they are obligated to do. In Judaism we call this the Shalshelet--the Chain of Tradition.
Joshua’s time, like ours, was a transitional time. He was aware that the project of Freedom, Justice, and Redemption was at a critical moment. A crossing over from slavery to freedom was one thing; developing a society rooted in such values and therefore worthy of God’s continued blessing was quite another. Whether it is the Biblical Exodus from Slavery to Freedom; the Dutch Reformed Church of Brooklyn’s role in the Underground Railroad; and the call to address poverty, hunger, homelessness, education equality, access to housing and work in our own day--it is what we do with the world we inherit that is the very measure of our lives. Maybe they got it wrong in that movie, “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner heard a voice that said, “If you build it, he will come.” Joshua offers another view, saying, “We came. We’re here. Now we must build it. And therefore, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”
“WItnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” Boy, if that doesn’t capture one of the quintessential spiritual challenges of our age, I don’t know what does. Choice. An an embarrassment of riches of choice. An App for every impulse and desire. From the endless varieties of choices available to us during every waking moment, Joshua reminds us that we have agency, we have power over our choices; and in choosing the right path, to serve, together, one another, those in need, and the God who animates our very existence, in choosing the right path, the covenant is renewed.
In Emden, a founding city of the Dutch Reformed Church, Jews were welcomed by Dutch authorities. Many Marranos, those who had fled persecutions and the Inquisition in Spain, found refuge there. In fact it wasn’t really until the annexation to Prussia in the 19th century when Jews faced persecution in Emden; and in Kristallnacht in 1938, the beginning of the Holocaust, the synagogue of Emden was burned and destroyed. In the Berlin of that time, Rabbi Dreyfus’ grandfather-in-law, Rabbi Leo Baeck, head of the Berlin Jewish community, was facing deportation to Theresienstadt. As he was led away by the Nazis, a Christian neighbor, at risk of her own life, stepped out of a line of witnesses and gave bread to Rabbi Baeck for the journey. Years later, when his rabbinical students asked him how he could go back to Germany, which had been so cruel to our people, he said, “If there was only one good person willing to do good, that’s reason enough to return.”
The consecration of shared service in suffering; of being together in times of great need; of being witnesses against ourselves for doing what is just and right and true.
I remember the first time that I met your Reverend Daniel Meeter. I had just assumed the pulpit at Congregation Beth Elohim and in my first week in the job, Daniel invited me to lunch. “Let’s be friends,” he said. We shared Mexican food and prayed together before we ate agreed to serve as witnesses against each other in our own traditions of making the sacred real. When it was clear that as New York City continued to grow and thrive in wealth certain sectors but that many countless others continued to suffer, increasing homelessness across the city, our houses of worship opened temporary respite shelters. When our ceiling collapsed at Beth Elohim, Daniel was standing on our front step, offering us your sacred space for our holy days worship. When your ceiling collapsed--prompting from your rabbi the only appropriate response--”Jesus Christ! What is happening here?” Beth Elohim offered your church its worship space for the holy days. And when Sandy struck our city, we cooked, delivered and fed thousands upon thousands of people across Brooklyn and Queens because together, in consecration, our communities held each other accountable, as witnesses, to do what is right and just and true.
From the simplest of meals to the most sublime spiritual service, our friendship together bears witness to what we are called upon to do. And each of our communities here in this ever-renewing spring of eternal hope, in one of the most fortunate neighborhoods, truly, in human history, the voices of our ancestors calling upon us to serve so that we may be, in awe and humility, that spring of inspiration and hope for future generations to carry out deeds of lovingkindness and peace in their time as well.
The rabbis of our Tradition, more than two thousand years ago, in the shadows of the Great Temple that stood in Jerusalem, conceived of the notion of what they called the “Mikdash Me’at--the Miniature Temple.” This was the true, intimate place where men and women would find God--at the locus of the most Intimate Divine. On the Bimah of neighborhood synagogues and the Pulpit of neighborhood churches, to be sure. But not only there. The Mikdash Me’at was a table where a meal was served and blessings were spoken. Where learning was shared and where family and friends and neighbors could articulate their loftiest of dreams and aspirations for better lives and a better world. “Where two or more sit and share words of learning,” our Sages taught, “the Shechinah--the Divine Presence dwells.”
God the Most Intimate. God who dwells in us and among us. Who connects us, Who binds us in Covenants of Love and Peace, Who consecrates us, together, as One.
May this Sacred Community of Old First Reformed Church and its pastor, Reverend Daniel Meeter, know only blessing and goodness from its neighbors as witness to the goodness and blessings that emanate from this house of worship; and may this sacred community know and receive God’s abundant gifts of kindness and love.
When I was a kid growing up in Milwaukee, my dad preferred to drive from the East Side to the West Side of town by the street and not the highway, mostly for sentimental reasons. His sentimentality, mind you, was a many headed hydra. One was wistful and memory laden, almost romantic about his own childhood in the twenties and thirties, when he'd visit his grandparents who had started on the East Side, in the ghetto, and then moved west of the lake to the more wide open expanses near Sherman Park. He'd point out landmarks like old delis and grocers, parks and playgrounds where legendary games were played, and always the Kilbourn Reservoir, a wooded hill, fenced off and overgrown, the locus for a twenty million gallon tank which provided that section of Milwaukee with its drinking water. The decrepit nature of the reservoir; its location in heart of the once Jewish and then African American ghetto, symbolized for him, in our passes around it, a city and a world in transition, the proverbial, prophetic waters dried up, chained off, in a state of decay.
This indulged Dad's most cynical calculus. The mathematical formula for the Unmovable, the Insurmountable. He voted as one who knew "something should be done about it" but was never counted among those who actually had any skin in the game for determining which steps could or would actually be taken. And by "it" I mean the inexorable march toward the distinct separations between black and white that was coming to increasingly signify America--fueled by white upward mobility, the flight to the suburbs, vast disparities in educational and economic opportunities, the taken-for-granted belief in the future. Already by the late 1960s and early 1970s, one could see and experience the steady and then precipitous decline of whole neighborhoods into depression and poverty as well as the bottomless pit of their fleeting, addicting salves, substance abuse and violence.
Dad had enough trouble keeping ahead of himself. His anger and at times fragile emotional state were the challenging counterforce to his brilliance, humor and charisma, the latter qualities always the source for a great story.
One story he should have told was the story of the last ten years of his, a tragic descending spiral toward death that I tell; but there have been so many times in which I wish I could have heard it from his perspective.
In 1973, his father died. In 1974, Mom filed for divorce. In 1975, he moved out. In 1976, he lost his job with CBS. From 1977 to 1979 he failed as a real estate broker. From 1980 to 1983, he was the assistant manager of a shoe store in town, a job he hated, except for the 40% discount he got on socks for everyone he knew. Seriously. The guy came to really love socks.
When he died of a heart attack in the cold, early spring of 1983, it was a surprise to no one but a shock nevertheless. It's like he willed it to be the way Houdini would do a trick. Mind over matter. The Reservoir, he must have figured, had gone dry.
But the measure of a man, at least as I've come to understand it, is how he tells the story of his life (particularly when he has the opportunity, the time and the perspective) from the spot where one can look back down into the pit--having pulled himself out of it--and reflect upon what that journey meant.
From the Biblical patriarchs to Ulysses and Heracles and on throughout the Western canon, there is a long tradition of the triumphant narrative, of great risk in the face of tragedy and enormous suffering but in the telling, in the survival, a kind of victory. Primo Levi, in his dedicatory page to his book The Periodic Table, deployed the Yiddish proverb, "Troubles overcome are good to tell." As Levi explained to Herbert Mitgang in a 1985 New York Times interview, "Life is a texture of victories and defeats. If you haven't experienced at least a victory and a defeat, you are not a full-grown man."
Dad was two years gone by the time I read that and I was off on my own journey, seeking wisdom from other father figures, still living. Neither fully formed nor fully aware of the dimensions at play, I slowly chronicled my dad's downfall as it was happening, knowledgable of its impending reality but never a real believer in his inevitable end. After all, imagine being told as a kid: these will be the last ten years that you will know this man. How would you map out those conversations? For me those the years between the ages of ten and twenty. What the hell did I know? It wasn't cancer, after all. It was just life happening.
So I saved the pictures and the stories; the postcards, the letters, and the impressions. And the driving routes, from east to west to north to south. The short-cuts and scenic paths of his own past that before he could fully make sense of them himself he was already passing them on to me. His life, his gift to me, a big box with a surprise at the bottom, musty, dusty and overflowing with half-finished drafts of a man's life: the beginning, the middle and then, like Buster Keaton stepping on a rake, hit between the eyes with the suddenness-of-death-at-the-end.
This past weekend, while canvassing for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, I walked up to the Kilbourn Reservoir to look out over the city where my dad raised me. I looked south and a bit west where his grandparents settled after escaping Minsk for a better life in America; I looked east to where my grandfather opened his medical practice and where my dad excelled in school; I looked north toward where he he raised his family and then, slowly, year by year, toward the places where his life came apart. Down the hill, at the base of the reservoir, aged oak trees and their drying leaves swayed slowly, like they were singing a memorial prayer. And up on top, near where I stood, were saplings, newly rooted and hopeful, drawing from the waters that once were.
"Look away from the camera, son," I could hear Dad say. "It looks better that way." And so I looked, toward the future, just as he taught me.
A few weeks ago, I reflected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's attempts to suppress voter turnout through the agency of the oft-discredited "Voter ID" law, which was fortuitously overturned by US Federal Judge Lynn Adelman. Judge Adelman pointed out that the law would disproportionately and unfairly single out the poor, the elderly, African Americans, Latinos and immigrants--many of whom are without a drivers license or the means of easily obtaining photo IDs. Voter suppression has long been a strategy of conservatives seeking to move elections in their direction and with the assist from judges like Adelman and defenders of democracy like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, reasonable Americans are beginning to recognize that there is in fact negligible voter fraud in the United States and that the right to vote, while under attack, is one of American democracy's sacred secular rites.
I flew out to Milwaukee over the weekend with my friends Harriet and Lester Yassky to canvas in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood, a gentrifying area near the Milwaukee River with an interesting mix of longtime African Americans and whites, immigrants and gentrifying hipsters. It was a classic "get out the vote" effort, aimed at knocking on doors and engaging people in the conversation about why their voices needed to be heard. Basic issues separate the Wisconsin governor from the candidate Mary Burke, who seeks to unseat him: living wage; funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools; more than $100 million in federal aid for state health insurance for the elderly; and the fact that job growth in Milwaukee remains relatively low compared to elsewhere in the nation.
The campaign office out of which we worked was a perfect tapestry of lives from every segment of the spectrum of background and age. There was a united sense of purpose, a cheerful optimism, a sense of adventure for the long road there is to travel to make things right.
One quick walk around a random block and it became apparent that many of these people were hurting. For every few encounters with eager voters--especially those who had taken advantage of early voting (which is of enormous benefit to working people and the elderly)--there were those who had simply given up on the system and were not planning to vote. Often these conversations hewed to racial lines. African American citizens questioning the benefit of a governmental system that had regularly ignored, under-funded, or failed to engage them as equals was simply not worthy of their time.
Obviously, those were rich, complicated and powerful encounters. The insidious trap of failed efforts--poorly funded schools; lack of adequate jobs; decreased governmental services and assistance--combined with broken families, drug abuse and violence--makes for an overwhelmingly potent challenge to overcome. I was thrilled by how much hope and resilience I encountered from young and old, those who can see the horizon, however distant; and humbled by the challenge of being asked to defend a democratic system that had often left the poorest of the poor on the outside looking in.
One homeowner argued with me loudly, telling me the whole system was corrupt and not worthy of his time. His wife disagreed, prodded him, asked me for help in getting him to vote. I noticed a scar on her chest from a chemo stent and thinning hair and explained that during my mom's last summer, we had administrative hurdles placed in front of us by Governor Walker's decision to refuse federal aid for BadgerCare, the Wisconsin medicare program. The husband rolled his eyes at me in exasperation and said, "Alright. I'll do what my wife tells me to do."
On another block a man very politely answered the door, kept up his cellphone conversation, apologized and said quickly to me, "You'll forgive me if I don't vote. I'm tired of it all." And then he closed the door.
A crowd of Latino immigrants scrambled when I walked nearby, despite my attempts to assure them I wasn't there to report them to immigration authorities--just as another man approached with a wad of cash, waved it toward them, and recruited three guys for a job. In the shared backyard of three row houses, chickens roamed, kale grew, and three beehives buzzed with activity next to a large compost pit. Urban organic hipsters, fired up to save the planet. They had already voted the prior week.
In one of the last blocks I walked, as the sun set on Saturday afternoon, I looked down at a list of five names all at the same address and all of voting age. When I got the address, I saw the burnt out remains of a house and no door to knock on. Upon closer examination, the upper floors were bore fresh beams--perhaps a slow comeback was in play. It seemed like a metaphor for our democratic system. Despite the persistence of millions in outside campaign money--anonymously infused into these elections--and a tiring and juvenile discourse lacking in thoughtful, intelligent debate, I saw a real hunger for making this country better.
I'm not sure if my candidate will win in Wisconsin--I certainly hope she does. But either way, I came away from the weekend deeply moved by what I saw and heard, reminded that the road is long and hard but worth traveling, every step of the way.
I heard a good story recently and wanted to write it down. To share it, so it could be remembered.
A short time after his survival in a work camp during the Second World War, a Jewish immigrant to the United States, who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust, was brought out of the Displaced Persons camp where he was placed immediately after the war's end and then transported to America with his wife and son by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
American Jewish communities in virtually every part of the United States participated in this highly coordinated effort to relocate refugees and allow them an opportunity to begin life all over again, an often devastatingly difficult endeavor, given all that had been lost and destroyed. "Since one starts with absolutely nothing--no family, no town, no history--one had to decide who one would be."
Some transcended the destruction with a will to begin again--vibrant, hopeful, alluringly engaging, reflecting the notion that every breath of life is an expression of good fortune, a blessing. Others remained in place, if not in unavoidable decline, shrouded in the darkness of death, mired in the shadowed valley.
One such man, yeshiva-trained in Poland, fiercely intellectual, destined for a higher education and an exemplary professional life, emerged from the war never quite able to break free from its bonds. He would have no such luxury. His pride and dignity bolstered his refusal to take "charity" once he was brought to America and with no time to devote himself to getting the university training once he was distributed and settled into a small, southern Jewish community, he set out to find whatever work he could. He wouldn't aspire. He would merely work. But his Jewish principles remained rock solid.
He saw an ad for a job with the designation, "Colored Only Need Apply," so he applied.
"I'm Colored," he declared. After all, he explained, everyone kept calling him "Greenhorn" when he arrived. The application was for a driving job and the man who taught him to drive was an older African American, who graciously accepted him into his world. Others, seeing the Jewish survivor driven around town by a Black man as he received his lessons asked what he was doing with a "Colored person." "I'm Colored," he said. "I'm Green."
As I heard this I was reminded of a story I once read about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German Jewish refugee himself who was a rabbi in Berlin before serving with distinction in Newark, New Jersey. American Jews often refer to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in near iconic terms, from his stand against the Vietnam War to marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights era; but it was Prinz who preceded King on the dais at the March on Washington in 1963.
You can find and listen to his speech here.
In 1937, Prinz also went south for a time following his arrival in America; and as the story goes, was on a speaking tour in Atlanta, raising awareness of the Jewish plight in Europe and for the Zionist cause. One of his first stops in Atlanta, then still deeply segregated, was a visit to Dr. Willis Jefferson King, an African American Bible scholar. Prinz had actually met King the prior year in Jerusalem at an academic conference under the auspices of the American School for Oriental Research.
After their visit, explained Prinz in his autobiography, he invited the professor for a drink and dinner in his hotel. "We should eat in your room," said Dr. King, fully aware of the racially divide, taboos against inter-racial amity, and the undergirding assumptions and racist barriers of "southern etiquette."
Later, on the same trip, Prinz was in a Jewish home when his host expressed shock that he had broken bread with a Black man. "I simply did not understand nor had I known that Jews, the classical victims of racial persecution, could themselves be racist," wrote Prinz. "I said that what was evidently happening to the black people of America was the very same thing that was happening to the Jewish people in Europe." The argument ensued and to break the tension, the host offered Rabbi Prinz a drink. Hoping for a stiff whiskey to ease the impasse, he was passed a Coca Cola. It would be the first and last time in his life he'd drink a Coke. "Coca-Cola was for me a symbol of hatred and prejudice with which I did not want to be identified."
While there was great Jewish heroism during the Civil Rights movement, there were also pockets of Jewish racism and Prinz's story has always been an inspiring one. The insidious associations to color and race in American history is an ongoing, ever-unfolding burden that each of us continue to bear as citizens obligated to uphold the greatest values embedded in our democratic ideals.
In his speech to the March on Washington in 1963, Prinz said, "America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of all, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself."
He knew that truth--from heart to his bones to the surface of skin. And it showed on the surface. As apparent to all as if he were green.
Some time ago I called Mom on a rainy day in November, just as the Holiday Season was kicking in to gear at the Bay Shore Mall in Milwaukee where she worked. Intrepid, hard-working, a cheerful demeanor for her customers always hiding the jaded perspective she hid well beneath the surface, she brought me up to speed on the goings on at Boston Store.
"Some genius went to the bathroom in the changing room yesterday," she sighed. "Such is the nature of the work. I put on gloves and cleaned it up."
I was silent on the other end of the phone. Seeing public defecation in New York isn't exactly news. However the relative anonymity of the city tends to often veil us from this excremental reality, other than its malodorous intrusions or, God forbid, an unfortunate misstep. Additionally, in the heart of Baby-Centric Brooklyn, one's day is often punctuated by moms and dads changing kids in all sorts of venues--coffee shops, restaurant benches, beneath the arboreal canopy of the park, on a subway seat, what have you. So, you know, everyone poops.
But there was something particularly violative of changing room poop. It conveyed, what? A lack of self-control; a malevolent intent; mental illness; a political statement? Against malls?
Mom was unmoved.
"I'm a wage earner," she explained. "This is the kind of shit we deal with."
We laughed, but not uproariously.
Yesterday, after a meeting in a nice Midtown office, speaking about the loftiness of Jewish values, identity and Israel engagement, I jumped over to Macy's to buy some socks. I needed socks. After making my selections--solids and a few trendy stripes (when did stripes get so trendy? everyone's wearing striped socks)--I went to ring up.
The man behind the counter was in his early seventies. He was wearing nice slacks, a grey shirt and a floral patterned tie. We talked about the book I had set on the counter (Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns) just next to my umbrella, and the incessant rain. I politely declined his invitation to apply for a Macy's card and as he totalled me up, I could sense the next customer in line tensing over our conversation and the salesclerk reading the awkwardness, if not the yearning, for more such encounters, the social grease of capitalism's "weal" that is perhaps a dying art in our click-to-shop material culture. When he asked if I wanted my receipt emailed or in print, I said, "Give me the paper," and he generously placed it in the plastic bag, at rest among the socks.
As I walked away I thought of Mom--how could I not?--and back to man, wondering what rooms he'd clean that day; what customers would look right past him, down into their phone, their wallet, the exigencies of their own transactional lives. Would he work Black Friday, folding and refolding the piles of clothes left on the floor in the mad rush of sale shoppers? Would his packed lunch sit uneaten, lost in time to too much work on the floor? And when he went home at night, would he have a kid to call and recount the day's work to, the din of late night television in the background, the newspaper out on the table next to dinner, a story, a laugh?
Earlier that day I had gone down to our corner grocer to get some laundry detergent and conscientious Brooklyn consumer that I am, had taken my cloth bag, to avoid the plastic. At the end of the day I went back to get some popcorn kernels and seltzer as an after school snack for the girls. I forgot the cloth bag as I approached the cash register. The clerk from the morning was still there, ringing people up all day.
"What happened to your principles?" she asked with a wink.
"How was your day?" I responded. It was the best answer I could come up with.
Hand in Hand members: Neighbors at PeaceAs I begin to plan my post-pulpit career, I recently joined two non-profit boards that represent two ongoing issues I intend to work closely on for the coming many years: New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
Each organization and its leaders are right at the proverbial cutting edge of dealing substantively with two of the most urgent issues facing us today--gun violence and the seeming insolubility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And to my mind, both NYAGV and Hand in Hand offer practical, this-worldly, meaningful solutions. And they get it done.
NYAGV has been on the ground for years now and my own involvement has been in speaking at rallies, showing up for meetings with political leaders when advocacy is needed, and helping foster a relationship with communities that want to be involved. For example, in the past nearly two years since Sandy Hook, NYAGV has helped organize an Anti-Gun Violence Working group at CBE in Brooklyn, where I will serve until June, led by a number of members, including fellow NYGAV board member Rebecca Fischer. There is a focus and a resiliency to this work that the traditional gun lobby, the NRA, may very well be underestimating; and though there has been no major, headline grabbing legislative victory as yet, my sense is that the national momentum for sane gun laws is really, truly building in this country. The only obvious tragedy is that we can't work fast enough to prevent the ever-present senseless deaths that occur. But we can try.
At the NYGAV fundraiser on Monday night, I presented an award to Amy Domini, a mutual fund investor whose company, Domini Social Investments, simply refuses to invest in business that support gun manufacturing. Her plainspoken, ethical approach to doing business was inspiring to hear. I also met a member of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr (there to accept an award on his boss' behalf) who has done remarkable work helping stop the flow of illegal guns into New York. The assistant DA was introduced by Detective Steven McDonald, a New York City police detective who was gunned down in Central Park while on duty. A quadriplegic who breathes with a ventilator, he is one of the most soulful and spiritually generous men I ever met. Whose son is now in the NYPD. Extraordinary.
Finally, I met Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, whose crusade in Washington for gun control is heroic and inspiring. She retires this year and so was awarded by NYGAV with the Allard Lowenstein Award. For those who don't know, Allard Lowenstein was a one-term Congressman from New York City who was murdered by a mentally ill student, paranoid that Lowenstein was "out to get him." Circumstances that were chillingly similar to my grandfather's murder in 1939, an event that I grew up hearing about and shaped my view about guns. Rep. McCarthy first ran for Congress, remember, when her husband was killed and son was wounded in the 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad.
But here's what also stuck with me from Monday night. Conversation after conversation with other board members and guests, each of whom have been irrevocably touched by the scourge of gun violence. There are so many inter-connected issues here: poverty, education, economics, faith, social policy, and politics. It can be overwhelming; but the human capacity for triumph and the determination to do something to make a positive difference after seeing one's life ripped open by senseless violence made me so damn proud to be committing to this new work in this new chapter of my life.
Hand in Hand, the bi-lingual K-12 school system in Israel, is another such endlessly inspiring organization. As I've written about before and as Roger Cohen helped amplify this past summer, Hand in Hand is doing what every self-respecting educator knows to be the ultimate solution for bringing peace to the world: teaching, one student at a time.
I first visited the school with fellow board members of the UJA Federation of New York in April 2013 and fell in love with the school and its faculty. From campuses in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and the Galilee, Hand in Hand is committed to the idea that, as its website says, "there is another way."
This past summer, when violence, war and racism were at all time highs and when both Palestinian and Jewish residents of Jerusalem were fearful for their safety, the parents, teachers and staff of Hand in Hand stepped into the breach, embraced their methodological framework of education and community building, and let a series of peaceful walks that were meant to demonstrate that in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. It's a basic but essential and powerful statement that needs to be heard, needs to be taught, and needs to be practiced by more and more people.
In addition to bi-lingual education having a whole host of benefits to those recipients of its pedagogical practice, Hand in Hand models what public education is meant to do in democracies--bring people together from diverse backgrounds in order to instill in them a shared value system.
Moving forward, I'm interested in strengthening the school, broadcasting its message to the greater world, and helping build connections between Brooklyn (New York City's great heartland of public education (though imperfectly democratic according to today's New York Times) and my other favorite places in the world--Jerusalem, Tel Aviv/Jaffa and the Galilee.
More to come in the weeks ahead but there's an update for you.
If you want to read an exercise in passive aggressive, moral obfuscation, read the statement on the Jewish Voice Peace website about the physical attack on Leonard Petlakh at the Barclays Center on Tuesday night.
Typical of JVP's moralistic stance on Middle East Peace in which they defend only the rights of those who are victims of the Jewish right to self-defense, JVP nods its hypocritical head toward peace while casting blame on the Jews for bad behavior. Beating Leonard was deplorable. But bad Jewish behavior made someone do it.
1. "JVP members held signs and handed out flyers expressing the view that honoring the IDF only a few weeks after Israel's attack on Gaza has ended contradicts our values as Jewish New Yorkers."
Which values? Some Jews have the right to protection and self-defense but others don't? And JVP gets to determine which ones, according to their Jewish values? And was it the IDF being honored or the specific project of supporting wounded soldiers? I was at the game. "Friends of the IDF" was mentioned once. Which clearly was not enough, but too much for JVP.
During this summer's war in Israel, several friends--Zionists and Israelis who live in Israel and vote in elections and support the two-state solution by voting for the left-wing parties that support territorial compromise, had sons, who also vote for those same political parties, defending Israel's borders by fighting in Gaza. One lost an eye in the ground invasion. While JVP leaders were drawing protest posters with Sharpies in Brooklyn, other Jews, with other Jewish values, were both defending their right to live as Jews and taking the daily risk of working for peace, on the ground, in Israel and Palestine. One such price of citizenship is service in the IDF, a people's army, with soldiers who vote across the political spectrum.
2. "We were there as part of a large coalition of organizations who were all committed to non-violently protesting this event."
Which organizations? Name them. What are their views? What are their values? Does speech approximate violence when basketball fans are called "murderers?"
3. This is the most egregious. "The police had us behind a barricade on the sidewalk, while many people aggressively waving Israeli flags were in front of Barclays yelling at us and making rude gestures."
Was Leonard Petlakh aggressively waving an Israeli flag and making rude gestures? Is the claim here that because somehow, somewhere Jews were behaving aggressively that the later violence which victimized Leonard and his family was justified? Is this part of the Jewish values construct that JVP deploys? "If it happened, you must have deserved it" they seem to be implying.
Here's more: "Before we left, a police official said to us, 'Thanks for making our job easier.' I don't think he would have said that if someone from the protest had attacked someone."
So you organize a protest, you build a broad coalition as your allies, one of your allies assaults a man, breaking his nose, causing a wound requiring 8 stitches to mend, and you imply, strongly, it was deserved. What you don't say, in your deplorable deploring, is "JVP will fully cooperate with the NYPD in finding the identity of the attacker and see that he or she is brought to justice. We are a Jewish Voice for Peace and believe that anyone who disturbs the peace by using violence on innocent people should be brought to justice."
The reason that statement does not exist on the JVP website is that JVP doesn't believe it. Their Jewish values extend only to those they determine to be the true victims of hate and violence and this, in their weird calculation, does not extend to innocent Jews.
Here's another one: "However, while a small group of us were leaving the area, a group 3 (sic) young men with Israeli flags harassed us and said that we 'need Israeli dick.'"
Vile. Disgusting. But did Leonard say that to the person who hit him? I don't understand the relevance.
Again, this summer in Tel Aviv, while attending a peace rally to protest the war in Gaza, I saw a few feet from where I was standing, a right wing demonstrator assault an Israeli police officer. The assailant was grabbed violently, wrestled to the ground, and hauled away. Instantly, police on horseback and others in riot gear, pushed the right wingers two blocks further from the peaceful protest so that the left wing rally could continue. My point? People do and say horrible things in political conflict. Our job, as people of conscience, is to condemn the evil talk and the violent actions--without muddying the waters through doublespeak.
Finally: "We reaffirm our steadfast opposition to all forms of bigotry, violence and hate, including anti-semitism, anti-arab hate, and misogyny."
I'd correct the spelling to "anti-Semitism" and "anti-Arab." Capitalizing letters is both correct grammar in this instance as well as a justified expression of pride for both Jews and Arabs to claim the right to national self-determination.
Which brings me to my last point.
Does JVP support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state? Or is that only a quaint idea debated over drip coffee in a Brooklyn roasting joint?
Meanwhile, what did Bob Dylan say on "Infidels" about "the man of peace?" Sometimes he's actually the Adversary.
I remain unconvinced of JVPs righteousness.
What would would have been so wrong about deploring the attack on Leonard Petlakh, wishing him a fast recovery, and encouraging authorities to find the perpetrator?
What would have been wrong is that it would have gone against JVPs main Jewish value: to undermine the right of Israel to exist.
Congregation Beth Elohim deplores the recent anti-Semitic attack Tuesday evening against our friend and colleague Leonard Petlakh, Executive Director of the Kings Bay Y, who was beaten by pro-Palestinian demonstrators after attending the Brooklyn Nets v Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game at the Barclays Center with his family. Leonard suffered a broken nose and lacerations requiring eight stitches. He is safe and home recovering. Hate and violence have no place in our diverse city. This attack is totally deplorable and we demand that the NYPD will do all in its power to apprehend and prosecute those responsible for this crime.
As a leader in the Jewish community of New York, reaching across Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities to strengthen our diversity with a voice of tolerance and respect, Leonard is the very model of the Jewish ethic of "love thy neighbor as thyself."
We wish Leonard a full recovery and pray that our city's leaders will speak out against this anti-Jewish incident and all acts of hate.
On the Eve of Sukkot, a holy day on the Jewish calendar celebrating both Freedom and the Blessing of a Harvest, we are especially mindful of the need to strengthen our community in the spirit of friendship and gratitude. Together and tolerant we are a stronger, better city.
Rabbi Andy BachmanSenior Rabbi