How things change.
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In his classic Yiddish story, "If Not Higher," the writer I.L. Peretz writes about the Rebbe of Nemirov who travels the countryside during the Days of Awe while his community recites the Slichot prayers in penitence in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He disguises himself to look like a simple peasant and in his anonymity, he does good deeds for the poor while the community sleeps in during the quiet hours before the daily morning prayers--a kind of saintly substitution and, if you will, a more verifiable form of penance in a season when actions surely count for something--maybe even more than mere words of prayer.
I thought of this story--l'havdil!--yesterday when I pulled myself out of bed from a late night of Shavuot study, threw a baseball cap on my head, and came over to Shul to pick up several hundred meals for our daily delivery to families at the Red Hook Initiative and a housing project on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island--two of the several communities we have been helping to feed since Sandy.
The recipients of the meals were predominantly African American and Latino; native born and immigrants; and all were poor. Inside of the Red Hook Initiative, the center was busy with clients learning English, getting job training and resume writing skills, and facing one another in counseling and health education sessions. There was a palpable hunger for advancement in the room and quick expressions of appreciation for the food delivery. So quick as to be barely noticed.
That's when I thought of the Peretz story. Along with my driving partner, we were just two guys dropping off food. Others were hungry and we had more food to deliver. What did the Sages say? The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah. Indeed.
On the way out to Coney Island, I played the story in my mind. I remembered the wood fire the rabbi chops and lights for the poor and the peasant clothes he wore. I had forgotten the scornful Litvak who is converted to the rabbi's discipleship in watching his teacher's humble service. Driving down Neptune Avenue, I remembered those first days after Sandy: cars overturned; banks of sand piled above homes; soaked and frigid devastation. A kind of apocalyptic hopelessness cast against the absurd carnivalesque shoreline.
Half a year later most yards are clean. Mold still clings to the brick houses but a beginning, however halting, takes steps into spring and summer.
At the housing project, men and women, some leaning against walkers, others in wheelchairs and blankets, wait patiently for the meal to begin. Wordlessly the other anonymous public servants take the food from us and nod in tired recognition of the ongoing, terrible, humbling and rewarding fact of it all.
CBE's Sandy Relief recently changed its name to CBE Feeds--a solemn recognition that we will continue to feed our neighbors in need as an expression of our core values as a community. New York Cares sends of generous-hearted volunteers each day; CBE members and Brooklyn neighbors rise early Monday through Friday and fill our kitchen for three hours in a devotion that is among the most prayerful activity I have ever encountered as a rabbi. Yesterday, while carrying boxfuls of food to the car I passed our chapel where from within I heard offerings of Torah, of first fruits, of a counting out of weeks in humble service to God. Revelations from a mountainous altar at Sinai mingled perfectly with revelations from the altar of kitchen counter. Who would dare say one is more pure than the other? That one such offering ascends higher than the other?
And on Sunday evening, in partnership with CAMBA, we open our Homeless Shelter which will run from May 19-June 27. We have a few more slots, you know. You can sign up here.
At the end of the Peretz story, the skeptical Litvak becomes a follower of the Rebbe. Where does the great rabbi go each morning when he disappears during prayer time? Heaven! The Litvak knows the greater truth that in doing good deeds for the most humble among us, that we have the opportunity to do go where "heaven" asks us to go--"if not higher."
In the face of the other we have an opportunity to transcend ourselves and bring a greater sense of justice and kindness to the world.
I write these words as Shavuot comes to a close with a profound sense of gratitude to all those in greater Brooklyn community who have understood and incorporated into their daily offerings the care and feeding of our most humble neighbors. May we continue to travel there--if not higher--together.
Women of the Wall should reject Natan Sharansky's offer to create an egalitarian prayer section in the excavations of the Kotel plaza known as "Robinson's Arch." One of the most vitally important sites in all of Jerusalem, the excavations around Robinson's Arch (named for the British archaeologist who identified its significance in the early 19th century) the area remains a bastion of knowable science and ancient history at the base of a broader neighborhood weighted down and at more times than is necessary, is often intoxicated on the ephemeral ascents of Jewish, Christian and Muslim spirituality.
The knotted rope of triumphalist spiritual aspiration, which Temple Mount Jews seek to climb and build a Third Temple while Dome of the Rock Muslims pelt them with stones so that their God can rule forever, is a hanging rope of messianic insanity.
I believe in the God of history.
That is to stay, I'm naturally skeptical about what people tell me their faith tells them without weighing it against what we know by what we see, hold and touch. Like an archaeological site. Which is made up, in toto, of several faiths throughout the walled Old City, whose prayers too often clang in dissonant collision while historians with voracious appetites for provable evidence try to figure out what actually went on there, way back when.
As Nir Hasson ably points out in Haaretz, Robinson's Arch is simply too valuable a piece of history to hand it over for the sake of political compromise with the triumphalist and overly territorial rabbis of the Kotel Plaza. The brave paratroopers who recaptured Jerusalem from the Jordanians in the Six Day War didn't stand at the Western Wall in order to bequeath to a leadership that would silence the spiritual aspirations of nearly 80% of the Jewish people. Zionism, lest we forget, was meant to liberate us internally from such "orthodoxies" of faith and observance.
Gershom Scholem pointed out a generation ago that even prior to Zionism, the "Emancipation" of European Jewry into civil life necessitated a new paradigm--heterodoxies--of Jewish civilizational expression. The denominations of Jewish spiritual life; Jewish cultural and political movements; and Zionism, of course, comprise the most obvious examples of such a vibrant and healthy diversifying of Jews.
One such way of being Jewish is organizing ones world view along an historical paradigm. To be sure, one can still be a believer, be observant. I count myself in that camp. But one's feet walk on historical ground and one appreciates the balance among forces that are provable and knowable as well as unprovable and unknown.
To mar a site of profound historical and archaeological value in order to create yet another space for prayer seems an expediency whose only victory is in the short-term.
Rather, Women of the Wall, whose critical and heroic fight for civil spiritual rights in the Jewish state has the potential to galvanize the nation toward a new stage of spiritual growth, ought to dig in and demand of the government a simple division of the existing Kotel Plaza into three sections--men, women and egalitarian (or mixed.) Further, it will, in time, plant the first step toward the reading of Torah and wearing of tallit and tefilin in the women's section if that is what a woman chooses to do in order to pray to her God. A man who dares to tell her she cannot pray as she sees fit is free to pray in the men's section.
There's room enough now for prayer. We need only make room. And get on with the work of doing what it is our prayers demand of us: to feed, to clothe, to make justice and peace.
Yehuda Amichai, one of my favorite Jerusalemites, perhaps said it best: "So come, let's build no house and pave no road! Let's make a house folded up in the heart and road rolled up in a coil in the soul, inside, and we shall not die forever."
Let's learn about the old roads before we build new ones. And where the men need to make room for the women, let's use the power of the state as it was intended to be used by Zionism's founders--to liberate us not only from others but from ourselves.
What is with Either/Or constructs?
Why, as Ron Wolfson argues in the JTA, is the choice for American Jewry between synagogue programs and what Wolfson coins, in this generation's ongoing obsession with re-branding Judaism, "Relational Judaism." Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal and now Relational Judaism.
Stating the obvious--synagogues should be putting people before programs--Wolfson trots out the old canard that Chabad Lubavitch, with its outreach model, meets Jews where they're at in a more effective way. Though no one ever really has the data to prove that. Except to anecdotally say that a rabbi was warm and inviting to some Jewish event or another. And didn't ask for money. At least at first. Heck, I'd be willing to bet that there are more people influenced positively in the psycho-spiritual healing of their soul from the real messiah of world Jewry--Sigmund Freud--than from Menachem Mendel Schneerson. There are more shrinks practicing the Jewish art of psycho-analysis than missionaries shaking lulavs in the public square. Just saying.
But somewhere between the great wave of immigration a hundred years ago and today, the mass of Jewry has grown squeamish about fulfilling the mitzvah of supporting one's Jewish community financially. The great spoiled child of post-modernity is the phenomenon that everything has to be free and meaningful, because, as Wolfson implies, meaning can now be downloaded onto an app, accessed on the go, and deliver timeless content anytime, anywhere.
Chabad has the luxury of not asking for dues because their rabbis don't inherit the massive institutions that prior generations of American Jews built in order to assimilate our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents into contemporary American life. Synagogues in America have been one of the key generative organizations for acculturation, inter-faith dialogue, expression Jewish values in civic life, supporting Israel, and providing relief for Russian and Ethiopian Jews. Making dues payment the eternal bogeyman for a generation reluctant to understand that it's part of a chain of tradition that sees obligation as the necessary corollary to Jewish identity is overstating the case and Wolfson, using another generational buzzword--transformation--sets up a false dichotomy between programs and relationships.
After all, Shabbat and Holy Days are programs, with their requisite rituals, prayers, songs, meals and Torah based learning. Weddings, brises, baby namings and even funerals are programs, offering public events to engage multi-generational "audiences" in a "conversation" about Jewish life, Judaism, and the Jewish people. Visiting Israel and engaging Israelis in the United States is a program, deepening relationships with the largest Jewish population in the world and coming "face-to-face" with the revived Hebrew language, spoken now by nearly 8 million people in a thriving land.
Synagogues have long been the whipping boy of American Jewish life when in fact the misallocation of resources lies elsewhere. Do we need the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center fighting anti-Semitism? Do we need 7 rabbinical schools in North America to graduate barely 100 rabbinical students each year? Do we need Boards of Jewish Education in various cities if synagogues and day schools already have educators? Do we need to spend millions in philanthropic dollars for studies and consultants when we already know what works: meaningful relationships, affordable synagogue affiliation, Jewish summer camps, day schools and trips to Israel. The second half of the twentieth century and now well into the twenty-first has led to one of most inexcusable misallocation of resources in Jewish history. We owe it to the future to fix that now.
In fact, I might argue that the Jewish people survived for the better part of the last three thousand years because we knew how to thrive with less; we knew how to triumph in times of great oppression and restriction; we galvanized our existence around the greatest of ideas: one God; revelation as law; care for the stranger and the oppressed; the rebirth of a language and the reconstitution of a people in its land after two thousand years.
It's not that our dues are too high or that our programs are bad. The key to engaging another generation of Jews is to tell, over and over again and with enormous pride, that we have the privilege to be a part of one of the greatest stories in all of human civilization.
That's a program I'd pay dues for til I die.
We need 27.
27 people is all out of synagogue community of nearly 1000 families and a broader community of thousands--to volunteer for one night of cooking a meal and sleeping over in our CBE Homeless Shelter between May 20 and June 27.
27 people. We can do it!
This past Shabbat on both Friday evening and Saturday morning, I shared our synagogue's lessons learned from our volunteer efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Since early November more than 2500 unique volunteers have cooked in our kitchen and delivered food and needed supplies to the thousands of those in need at the most extreme borders of our city. From Red Hook to Coney Island to the Rockaways, we lived out the Torah's teaching that "if thy brother that dwelleth by thee grow poor," we are obligated to share food, drink, apparel and shelter as if it were our own lives we were satisfying. The Sages were clear that a just society recognizes that "if you sleep on a featherbed, he ought not to sleep on a bed of straw."
While CBE's home in Park Slope was spared the devastation of Sandy, we learned by coming face to face with the perimeters of the city that poverty and inequality are real issues involving real people demanding our substantive and meaningful response. In a word, we really are responsible for one another. As the Talmud put it: כל הקונה עבד עברי כקונה אדון לעצמו--he who acquires a servant acquires a master over himself.
The biblical critic Nehama Leibowitz points out, in a brilliant re-reading of this text, that embedded in the Talmud's concern for a humane attitude toward the Bible's laws concerning slavery are the seeds of progress which would eventually lead to the banning of the institution altogether. When the laws mitigate toward a humane treatment of a slaves in an ancient institution, is it any wonder that the logical conclusion is the dissolving of the institution altogether?
The limits of the logic of justice? Equality in society.
We move closer to this ideal in our own time when we take responsibility for the care, feeding and shelter of homeless men in Brooklyn. Twelve men will be sleeping at CBE from May 19-June 27 and we will learn alot about their lives, their struggles and triumphs, their failures and successes, and be brought close to poverty's face in order to understand its dimensions and strengthen one in another in its alleviation.
Moses, God's messenger, in one of Judaism's most vitally important social justice teachings in the entire Torah, taught the people that "the poor shalt never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying, 'Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto the poor and needy brother, in thy land.'"
There you have it.
We are commanded to do it. So let's do it.
We need 27.
You can sign up HERE.
new growth = hope. Grand Army Plaza.I remember sitting with my sister and mom in a small hospital room, watching one of her four oncologists enthusiastically manipulate digital images on a computer screen, demonstrating the scope, dimension and aggressiveness of cancer cells that had spread into her spine and brain, indicating that the road ahead would be treacherous. The most minuscule measurements opened up vistas of theoretical possibilities and in my own mind, there was the paradoxical pull toward what humans and science can know about the body and then, of course, the ethical dimension of what it means to subject oneself hypotheses, research and experimentation when the fundamental concern is survival.
So it goes. I could see Mom begin to lose her agency at that moment, become a figure in a greater fight to cure cancer. Her body a vessel, if sacred, in the pursuit of a truth that may save a future life but likely not hers. She was always a very giving person; but it was never fully clear to us whether her willingness to subject herself to the last blasts of radiation and chemotherapy were her selfless contributions to the furtherance of human progress, a fear of death, or, perhaps, another season of baseball. She never really said.
In April and May she crumbled, hobbled to her 79th birthday lunch a year ago today, quit her therapy soon thereafter following an incomprehensibly brutal reaction to the chosen chemicals' decimating onslaught, folded herself up in her bed, and finally let us make life comfortable for her as she spent June and July preparing to die.
These thoughts came rushing back to me yesterday reading Gina Kolata's health report in the Times about cancer research--the tracking of genetic patterns, the hope for new conclusions, innovative therapies, the possible extension of life on the way to a cure.
I'll admit that there were moments, sitting in those rooms, pushing Mom through the antiseptic hallways, reading signs on the faces of oncological nurses and doctors and social workers, that we were mere puppets in a vast science fair, pressed like specimens between two glass slides, pinned against our will under the peering lens of a high powered microscope. A plurality of powerlessness; in a word: "statistics."
On the other hand, the body is nature and science is nature and everything comes from somewhere, even the toxic tools coursing through veins in apheresis labs across the country are nature, as it were, and so the other experiment going on was the unbridled determination of human research attempting to save and extend life precisely because it is precious, even sacred.
In this cool but glorious spring, with New York blooming in ways it seems I've never quite seen it bloom before, the trees seem to hold a clue to what I can only describe as the inexorable march of life that insists on moving, growing, spreading, reaching to a place beyond. Cancer grows in its evil mutations, to be sure; but one cannot deny that it grows. And in fighting the growth we array the forces of science, innovation and ingenuity to inhabit its growth, stop it even, so that other growth, the good mutations, can continue to thrive. It's an endless battle, heroic even. Where we fight for the underdog; where you hope for the good guys to win. It's a classic struggle, cliche even. Just the kind of story Mom loved.
The 49 year old with leukemia, whose life I'm trying to save because our stem cells match, made it through the winter. But next week he needs white blood cells from me so it's back to the machine for a few hours, needles in my arms, a centrifuge humming in a clean lab, singing its machinated song of hope.
I kept wondering all April what I'd have given Mom for her 80th birthday today and realized just now what it would be: white blood cells for a man neither of us have ever met. Genetic material and science wrapped in hope.
May was always Mom's month; not the least reason being that her birthday was May 3, making an early appearance at the top of the calendar and setting a tone for the rest of the count down until Memorial Day. Unlike the beginning of May, which began with her birthday and a trip to the garden center and the purveyance of new plantings for her front yard garden--the end of the month meant a trip to the cemetery to see her father's grave, and plant hope there, too.
On my way to a wedding in the Village on Sunday, I walked past the garden behind the Jefferson Market Library and saw a gated garden in full bloom. Like the phantom limb amputees struggle to face, I reached for my phone to take a picture and send to Mom, only to remember that this year she wouldn't make it to 80. I surveyed the site, imagined her pleasure in the sunlight and the color patterns arrayed, and considered a victory for her legacy that 900 miles from where she's buried, she gets a garden, by proxy.
"One could say, following von Clausewitz, that the cemetery is a continuation of life by other means," wrote Vasily Grossman about the Vagankovo Cemetery in Byelorussia. One can see trains pass between Warsaw and Berlin through the gates, he writes, evoking a European Jewry that is no more.
Describing those with buckets, spades and brushes who head to the cemetery on spring weekends to tend the graves, he writes, "Working in the air feels good. It's satisfying to plant some flowers and to pull out a few weeds that have come up through the earth of the grave...Life is powerful. It bursts through the fence around the cemetery. And the cemetery surrenders; it becomes a part of life."
The time period between Passover, our freedom from slavery, and Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the Law, consists of 49 days, or seven times seven weeks of recognition that just as spring leads to summer, planting leads to bloom and of course, by implication, to full fade and ultimately death. The Omer offering is mandated, by Torah, to be a "new offering." Like the first fruits offered in late spring, it is meant to convey a newness that is radically unique, unlike anything ever offered before. Which of course is rather terrifying if you think about it. It's an offering heavily loaded with expectation, complicated, as these things often are, with a fear of disappointment, rejection, maybe even death.
Perhaps that is why there is a mournful presence to the seven weeks of the Omer counting, the meaning of which the Sages debate. A plague that struck Rabbi Akiva; harsh and hurtful words used within the community; Roman persecutions--all to mitigate the idea that there is no effluence of newness in spring without an awareness of its eventual decline.
I am particularly tuned into this idea this spring as, paradoxically, my mourning for Mom recedes into spring and summer. Her July yahrzeit is on one hand anticipated with relief. It's been a long, hard year. I am eager for a summer of teaching in Jerusalem, to lose myself in this new present, only to be confronted yet again in the fall, with the new moon of the seventh month of Tishri on the Hebrew calendar, with Rosh Hashanah's most challenging prayer, asking: Who shall live and who shall die?
We cast this prayer as one in which God chooses but really, isn't it us? Choosing to live. Choosing not to die.
Eliyahu Dessler taught that at every moment of choosing, a person confronts her uniqueness. Every choice is an opportunity to recognize that no one has made that exact choice, in that exact way, at that exact time. "Since no two human beings are exactly alike, the choice that presents itself to this individual at this instant in time has a unique purpose which can be satisfied by no other person in the whole history of the universe. It is absolutely new. This is what the Torah calls the 'new offering.'"
Last May I took Mom for a walk on her 79th birthday, knowing she wouldn't make it to 80. She was a sport about riding in her wheelchair, picking lilacs, mischievously plucking a tulip and fresh rosemary along our route. It was warm in Milwaukee that afternoon and so we parked ourselves along Lake Michigan and baked a bit in the sun before heading back in the late afternoon for an early dinner. We moved along in silence for few minutes, her eyes closed, holding a lilac branch, inhaling deep its new fragrance.
"What are you thinking, Ma?" I asked.
That I love lilacs, she said. And this tulip isn't half bad, either.
As if she had never encountered them before.
"A new offering."
Should rabbis date non-Jews? asks the Forward.
That's my answer to one of the latest issues to distract the Jewish community from more pressing issues at hand, like making Torah relevant, preserving the Hebrew language, engaging Israel in a meaningful way, connecting to God, and strengthening people's connection to Jewish history, culture and civilization where spirituality doesn't satisfy.
But using the pulpit to say that rabbinical students are being discriminated against because their spouses have not converted to Judaism?
Give me a break.
Rabbi-to-be Dan Kirzane has been making the rounds with this argument which frankly, embarrases me as a rabbi who represents both an open approach to intermarried families as well as a principled approach to representing the Jewish tradition more broadly among all the Jewish people--not only Reform Jews. More succinctly, Kirzane's position makes us look bad.
Like a lot of people who choose the rabbinate, Kirzane confuses his role as a Jewish leader, not able to avoid the pitfall wherein lay leaders and clergy live by the same rules. We don't. Rabbis are supposed represent the aspirations of the tradition and living Jewish lives as Jews is one of them.
One core principle of his argument--that there exists a "double-standard" between Reform synagogues that allow lay leaders to be intermarried and HUC-JIR, which trains rabbis, cantors and educators and does not--is most illustrative of the flaws in his thinking.
While it's true that Judaism's core values of Shabbat, Torah, Hebrew prayer, and mitzvot can, in theory, be performed by anyone in a family regardless of religious status, the rabbi is expected to model another value: the Jewish people.
A potential rabbinical student married to or dating a non-Jew needs to have the courage and the principles to state unequivocally to his or her partner, "Please become a Jew. Being a Jew is the most important thing in the world to me and I want you to share that destiny with me."
That statement to a loved one is, to my mind, the most compelling form of "outreach" we possess.
Monday night Seymour Zeises and I called our friend Naomi Levine, who was celebrating her 90th birthday. It was Yom Ha'Atzmaut and we were in Jerusalem on a UJA mission. Naomi was in her apartment in New York, working. Which is what you'd expect from Naomi on her 90th birthday. Not only should we all be so lucky; we should all be so brilliant, committed, determined and successful. And tough and funny and charming. Never, in all the years that I've known Naomi, have I not learned something. Her wisdom grows with time.
This morning President Shimon Peres came to address our UJA mission. He was brilliant, charming, resilient and funny, too. One person commented about how in the last few years he's really turned up the "Yoda Effect." I guess that means his wisdom is deep and cute and iconic--all at the same time.
One marvels at having lived to reflect upon the past century of Jewish life. And for Peres, born in Poland, the great-great grandson of the great Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who as a child also had an audience with the Chofetz Chaim, another great sage of the late 19th century who lived well into his nineties. Clearly, knowledge extends life.
This is a Jewish value: wisdom extends life.
On Yom Ha'Zikaron I went for a run late in the day. From downtown to Jerusalem, out along the old Jerusalem-Jaffa rail road, out to Beit Safafa. On the return leg, as I passed by the memorial site of a suicide bombing, covered with wreaths and yahrzeit candles remembering the dead, I recited the Kaddish as I ran by. The memories of souls I never knew but by sheer force of familiarity--I've passed that site dozens of times--I knew they hovered there, physically absent, spiritually present, an ephemeral testimony to Jewish strength and resilience.
And I imagined--with the street aptly, hauntingly named Emek Refaim (Valley of Ghosts) paralleling the track, the hundreds of lives taken in suicide bombings during the terrible years of the Second Intifada coming back each year on Memorial Day to stand guard over the promise that their lives were not lost in vain.
I heard so many stories this past week about "that time" of suicide bombings, a time which, increasingly, is coming to represent a time that Israelis will never return to. The will and determination that I see--even among those jaded by the death of a peace process, rightward turns of Israeli governments and increased radicalization among Palestinians--this will and determination is pushing the new reality we now see.
And it's best understood by the wisdom refracted through Peres' life--an optimism that in balance life is getting better; that democracy is "on the march" as he said; that the world is opening up and equalizing; and that in Israel in particular, the achievements of a small nation with precious few resources and surrounded by hostile powers has accomplished more than anyone ever could have imagined. When you're 90 and you look back over that horizon of having lived your life, so fully, created a state and fought in every war and then, late in your career, seen your comrade assassinated before your eyes, your nation almost fall apart and then, revive with strength, unbridled creativity and innovation? Well, you've earned the right to say what you think.
So Peres implored optimism. To hope. To have faith in Jewish civilization's eternal teachings to do good, to bring justice and freedom to those who seek it. And, as he put it so humorously, to never be satisfied with enough. This is the drive to continue the march. "What can I say? To be dissatisfied is so...Jewish." It rang true.
As our day unfolded, we met a general in an elite intelligence unit of the IDF who spoke about fighting enemies with the mind while understanding that the conventional wisdom past generations was always in need of refinement and adaptation. This was the Jewish way. We met a young man who is determined to win the Google contest to put the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon, leading a scrappy R & D effort that insists on non-profit status, raising space-age proportion dollars in order to inspire a new generation of Israelis to study math and science--if only to open new vistas of discovery and possibility. Even at Citibank's center for innovation in North Tel Aviv, one was struck by the positively optimistic sense that while the turmoil and recklessness of a comatose peace process languished on the burning hills of Canaan, a determined center was without question forging ahead.
A well-crafted talk in the evening by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro left our group with the sense that the White House and the Prime Minister's office had made great strides in restoring order and friendship to an alliance; and Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid and the current great white hope of Israeli electoral politics (shining, charismatic and handsome but let's face it folks--with no legislative achievements yet to hang a hat upon) wowed us with his words of democracy, the middle class and pluralistic Judaism.
Forgotten perhaps was Dalia Rabin, the late Prime Minister's daughter, who built from the blood and radical injustice of her father's immoral assassination the Yitzhak Rabin Center, which was yet another structure of stone and glass to rise from the destruction of the Second Intifada.
All day long we kept hearing about "start-up nation" but never did those words pass from the lips of Dalia Rabin. Rather, she spoke of her father's vision, his quiet strength, and his fatal belief that we Jews are obligated, as a measure of the strength of our character, to seek justice and peace.
Some gain wisdom with age; others gain wisdom through suffering too much before their time. In a land which has produced more than its share of justice and wisdom and blood and violence for the whole world, here's to our hope that justice and wisdom will prevail.
I start at the end of the day. During the Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration last night at the Barkan Winery on Kibbutz Hulda, just down the road from one of the first JNF forests planted in the Land of Israel--a forest named for Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl--we heard a stirring and inspiring testimony from Noam Gershony, the gold medal paralympian, who spoke quietly, humbly and with incredible strength about his return from a fatal helicopter crash to reclaim his life on new terms.
This young man's determination to live, to not succumb to despair, was one of the greatest stories I had ever heard. Looking out into the dark and distant night, to the forest of Herzl's trees in the distance, I thought of Herzl's compatriot Max Nordau's concern for the development of new Jews--of muskeljuden, whose bodies and new found strength would represent a physical triumph over diaspora weakness--and added Gershony's narrative to the complexity of a day that had us examining varieties of forms of strength and resilience.
Moments after Gershony's emotional talk, while leaning on the crutches he uses to walk, the conductor of a singing troupe of Holocaust survivors surrounded him with a bear hug and kissed him on the cheek. The chorus of Holocaust survivors sang Yiddish songs and turned some impressive dance moves, a joyous expression of resilience. The conductor's hug was a mildly stunning off-stage disturbance that was as rich as it was complicated. One survivor embracing another survivor. A man in his eighties having made it through unspeakable historical horrors and genocide grabbing hold of another man, a survivor in his early thirties, the generation of the realization of Jewish strength in his homeland, who leans on crutches because of a helicopter crash on the way to provide air support during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Hezbollah was launching hundreds of rockets on Israel that summer and its terror vanguard in Lebanon, fueled by Iran's insidious rhetoric and support for extermination of Jewish life in the Land of Israel, here was a young man not rounded up and threatened but manning a fighting machine that hit the ground, took his friend's life and brought his to the age.
The survivor embracing the survivor on crutches for having survived a crash on the way to fighting for survival.
My mind drifted back to earlier the day. We had gone to visit Moshav Netiv Ha'Asarah, on the Gaza border, to learn about how this community copes with the traumas related to terrorism and rocket fire from Gaza and the work of the Israel Trauma Center, which has trained dozens of local residents in the delivery of trauma services to their fellow community members. We met Tali Levanon, a social worker whose own family descended from Italian and Polish diaspora communities who is married to a man whose family descends from the Jews of Beirut, and, as we spoke, was a student of my father-in-law's mentor from Hebrew University, Dr. Avraham Doron, recipient of the Israel Prize and Holocaust survivor.
Communities members in Netiv Ha'Asarah are in the first inner circle next to Gaza and so when a terror attack begins, there are less than 15 seconds to make it safely to shelter. The trauma of this experience and what it does to anyone--from the smallest to the youngest--takes deep root and requires enormous work to undo, to heal, in order that a person is not held captive by fear. Off in the distance, through the bright sun, one could see Gaza City and Jabaliya. In the foreground, a young Palestinian on the other side of the smart security fence, armed by remote electronics and maintained virtually by female soldiers at an alternative location, was collecting scrap metal and hauling it away on his donkey. He'll sell the scrap metal, I thought. And maybe it will become one of those primitive rockets; or maybe not. But what a life on both sides of the fence. Since it's certain that the young man on the Palestinian side has surely suffered his own traumas, inflicted upon him by Israeli rockets and guns, brought about in response to terror, the result of a fatally stupid and intransigent strategy of the terror leadership in Gaza.
The land in Gaza is the same land as that in Netiv Ha'Asarah. It can yield the same flora; draw the same birds and animals; produce the same fruits and vegetables. This was equally evident when we drove in to Sderot. Just beyond border fences the land was a mirror image of what we were seeing in Israel. Marginal communities living in direct proximity to one another.
In Sderot we went to the police station to see the macabre display of Qassam rockets and other primitive tools of terror that have wreaked havoc on Israelis and drawn devastating fire not only upon the Palestinians who fired them but the many thousands who live among them. The absurd disparity of looking at the simple, man-made tools, welded in garages and underground tunnels, sourced by Iran via Lebanon, being countered by complex military technology deployed by Israel with the support of the United States, left me depressed.
It had me thinking in biblical terms--of Cain and Abel; of Isaac and Ishmael; of Jacob and Esau--and of the seemingly endless ways in which the inflictions of traumas sometimes come not from far away but from close at hand, from the family. And how generation after generation we suffer from the tragedy of leaders and interpreters of narrative traditions who get it wrong.
I found myself furious at Palestinian leaders for perpetrating lies about Jews (denial of Jewish connections to this land; Hitler-like fantasies about the Jewish thirst for blood and mendacity) while simultaneously troubled by our own Jewish internal denials. Driving back from the Gaza border we took a short cut through the West Bank, blithely gliding past lush Jewish settlements, secure, well-watered and generously supported by infrastructure, across the road from Palestinian towns wrapped inside a wall that certainly keeps Israelis safe but equally if not more important, keeps Palestinians "in."
It's the hardening that troubles me. I fully understand and support Israel's own efforts to protect itself and its people. As a tourist here each year, I surely benefit from such safety and don't begrudge it one bit. But it is critically important to do so with eyes wide open, with an insistent sensitivity to the effects of such traumas on one's ability to see and understand the plight of the other. Especially in our deeply cynical world, when there is an obviously devastating lack of brave spiritual or political leadership on the Arab side, we Jews, despite the temptation to look the other way, must demonstrate a sensitivity and understanding that is has always been a pillar of our uniqueness as a people.
These are impressions. These are incomplete thoughts. They are culled from a day in which I couldn't help but conclude that one of the challenging lessons of seemingly miraculous survival is that it's not miraculous at all to survive--rather, those who do often do so because of interminably complex weaving of lives, resiliencies, hopes and deep wells of generosity.
Yesterday during our morning prayers, we recited the "al ha'nisim" prayer, words dedicated to thanking God for the miracles of surviving those who sought our destruction--Hanukah, Purim, and Yom Ha'Atzmaut. Yesterday I refused to say them. My mind was still darkened from thinking of soldiers who died in Israel's wars; and as immediate, my heart torn from the images of obliterated bodies and dead innocents in Boston; and more, from the continuing smoke and ashes that rise from God's absence when six million Jews and countless millions others died during the Holocaust and the Second World War.
How can I thank God for the miracle of Israel's founding after bearing witness to God's manifest physical powerlessness during the Shoah? My faith wouldn't tolerate it.
But yesterday, in the resilience, I saw light. A tennis champion in a wheelchair; a chorus of survivors; a team of trauma specialists; and maybe, just maybe, a young man searching for scrap metal, to beat it into a plowshare.
This is Isaiah's image, forged nearly three thousand years ago and "miraculously" remains relevant today.
I look back over our second day in Jerusalem on this UJA Rosenwald Mission through the complex lens of having traveled the emotional journey with Israelis yesterday--the journey from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut made even more complex by the horrible and tragic news from Boston about the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
This morning, as I write, before hearing from the head of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, we gathered for silence in solidarity with Boston, the many victims of this senseless and evil act, and with the families who have lost loved ones. Hopefully, law enforcement will quickly find the perpetrators of this cowardly act and bring them to justice.
Our Monday morning began with an extraordinary presentation from the JDC--the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish community's long-standing humanitarian aid agency. Three compelling stories from an Ethiopian woman who has benefited from a JDC education and integration program; a young Haredi man who has joined the IDF and is getting a valuable education that is an example of the kind of necessary integration that thousands of Israeli Haredim will need to experience in order to transform this country's economic and religious landscape; and finally, an incredibly inspiring young woman who made aliyah, was one of the first females to serve in a combat unit, was injured and paralyzed in a random car accident, and is now a leader in the crusade for equality and access for the disabled in this country.
Soon we were off to the Israel Supreme Court for an all too brief presentation by Noa Sattath, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement's social justice arm here in the country that advocates for justice and religious equality, fights racism, sexism and homophobia, and has played an integral role keeping Israel's Declaration of Independence true to its intention of rooting this country in justice and freedom for all its citizens.
We also heard from Tamar Herman, a sociologist at the Open University and the Israel Democracy Institute. Tamar echoed Noa's message and also underscored the necessity of shedding light on the great discrepancies that remain in Israeli society--both social and economic--that on such an important and somber day of Remembrance and preparing to celebrate Independence reminds us of the long and vibrant road ahead.
A lunch at the Botanic Garden with several entrepreneurs who have benefited from some interesting new loan programs was enlightening and it was soon followed by a security tour of East Jerusalem with a retired army intelligence officer named Avi Melamed, which was then complemented by a sobering talk from Danny Seidmann, who, fortuitously featured in the Daily Beast yesterday. Danny has been mapping Jerusalem for his entire career and his message about the necessity for compromise in this complex and beautiful city is a message that is not always easy to hear but is even more necessary to hear--especially now. Our shul always avails itself of Danny's tours when we are in Jerusalem and it was good to see him again!
I had some time between returning to the hotel and dinner, so took an hour long run out along the Jerusalem Rail Road path that now is one of Jerusalem's great new public parks. Along the route families and individuals were preparing for the transition from Remembrance to Independence and along the route were Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life. The path was rich and redolent with springtime, history, and tenuous coexistence. Religious and secular Jews bumped against one another in celebration and Palestinians mingled comfortably as well. The sky was mercy-filled with this amity. The soccer fields of Beit Safafa were busy, mosques silhouetted against this canvas of hope.
After dinner I walked into the Old City to watch celebrations along the paths leading to Jaffa Gate and then inside at David's Tower. The strength of pride in this young state's accomplishments so evident. While security was surely tight at the perimeters of the city, the young Palestinians mingling among the young Israelis was a tiny, fleeting glimmer of hope for what future celebrations may one day be.
I thought of this idea as fireworks blasted in the celebratory sky, thinking back to dinner as Micah Feldman, the "Abba" of saving Ethiopian Jewry, addressed our group before introducing Yityash Aynaw, the country's first Ethiopian Miss Israel. When the young woman took the microphone after Micah's jaw-dropping description of the tens of thousands of lives saved, the hotel's Palestinian wait staff came out to see this newest pop culture icon. The smiles on the faces of these young men were radiant and I couldn't discern if they were so happy to see a celebrity (and their reactions were certainly no different from all the yuck-yuck Catskills comments from the Jewish men in the room about the tall beauty) or if, in some way, they saw in Yityash Aynaw's ascent as a minority as a symbol of hope for themselves.
Maybe it's just another case of Jerusalem Syndrome--I'm forever looking for glimmers of hope during my visits. Nevertheless, I maintain this view that there are far more people than we ordinarily hear about, hungry for peace in this city.
Today I am off to Sederot near the Gaza border. More reports later tonight.
foreground: Jerusalem sandbox. background: King David HotelLanding in Tel Aviv on Sunday late afternoon, we boarded the buses quickly for the climb to Jerusalem and the beginning of Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and others who died in service to the Jewish state.
I am with 200 New Yorkers as part of the UJA Federation Rosenwald Mission--and am very honored to be here.
It's a somber, muted day, heavy with memory and song and reflection on the sacrifices we make in order to be free.
Haaretz carried a couple of interesting stories about the ways in which the language of Israeli national bereavement has shifted from the national to the personal in the past generation, something writers have been talking about for some time. And it was an interesting complement to a general feeling that I've had coming to Israel so often in the past few years--that the center of the country is coalescing around the idea of digging in, building the core identity of the state, and waiting for another moment to make peace. The danger of this approach, says one side of the debate, is that avoiding making peace at all costs will cause more trouble down the road. Hence, others gathered in Tel Aviv last night--Israelis and Palestinians--to mourn the dead on both sides and to insist on peace. It's an uphill battle to keep that flame alive. On the other hand, with so much turmoil all around the region, it makes for a very destabilizing environment in which to settle borders.
Hence, economic issues, equal rights, religious pluralism, Haredi army service--and many more issues--rise to the top while the waiting game between Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the region settles down.
I see the wisdom in strengthening the core, a view I'm sometimes surprised by. But it's an evolution which is not itself settled so I watch and listen, even to my own troubled soul.
As our bus wound into Jerusalem, flags were being handed out and sold; music on the radio shifted; and at dinner at the hotel, Sallai Meridor spoke in low, personally anguished tones about family, friends and neighbors lost in past wars and terror attacks. Back in my room, I watched memorial concerts on television, mournful songs, family testimonies, a nation stilled and united.
It's cliche to say so but nevertheless, I couldn't help myself from feeling that commercialized shame one feels (does one feel that or is it just me?) of being an American on Memorial Day when the big excitement might be a sale at Macy's. But with a volunteer professional army, how many Americans--despite more than a decade of war---are really any longer intimately connected to the valor and value of sacrifice and national service. What do we really know?
Of course, one could argue that not sending our children off to fight wars en masse is a good thing (leaving aside the deeply problematic schism between those who put their lives on the line to defend American democratic values and others who do not.) But the question of volunteer versus mandatory army service really ought to make us face the idea of service in general and its value as the great unifier in a democratic country.
Here's where I land--given all the great flaws and economic divisions that remain a reality both in the United States and Israel: mandatory service is better than no service at all.
When I arrive here each visit--however distanced I may be from the day-to-day realities of Israelis and Palestinians--I am immediately overcome with powerful grip of a collective narrative, a personal identity rooted in a national idea. Unquestionably, it's what drew me to Israel as young man, feeling rather alienated from an increasingly individualistic America in the 1980s.
I calculated on the plane Saturday night that this is my sixteenth trip to Israel. The pull is as strong now as it was in 1985; the country, old and new, never stands in one place.
But on a day of memorial and remembrance to honor those whose blood truly makes this possible is as humbling an expression of citizenship as one can imagine. Americans, lost in our pursuits of the self, would do well to listen.
relatives of victims of gun violence (photo: NYT)The Gun is the Golden Calf of American Politics. It's made of precious metal; it drives people mad; they worship it like a god. And so far our nation lacks the unified leadership that Moses and God were able to muster in knocking back this idolatrous obsession with individual rights, forming militias, and supposedly protecting a particular American value.
Connecticut, ahead the rest of the country, passes the most comprehensive gun legislation since Sandy Hook and what's the response? A flood of gun buyers bum rush the gun stores to arm up. The perversity is mind-blowing.
A few months after Cerberus (named for the hellhound who guards the Gates of Hades) and its gun-hawking CEO Stephen Feinberg, bowing to pressure from investors, offers to sell the cynically named Freedom Group but so far, no major bank will even come close. Who would want to buy the major conglomerate of gun manufacturers knowing what we know about how they distort the Constitution, intimidate Congress, and peddle the most dangerous and insidious arsenal in the nation with a shamefully high murder rate for a supposedly advanced civilization.
We check resumes and references when we hire someone in the workplace--it's a principle of business acumen that sure makes a lot of sense. We have to register to drive and allow ourselves to be subjected to government scrutiny with our finances when we pay taxes. In more dire circumstances, we have lists of registered names of sex offenders so that their distance from children can be maintained.
So why don't we check on the background of individuals who would like the privilege of owning a weapon and arming it with ammunition that can kill people? If you're of sound mind and have nothing to hide, a background check is totally routine. And yet, it appears that even background checks are running into trouble in Congress. If we cannot set up the most basic of regulations that ensure our safety, we certainly don't merit our claim to being an exceptional representational democracy.
Call Senator Schumer. Call Tom Coburn. Call Harry Reid. Call Joe Manchin. Call Mark Kirk. They are all in the United States Senate. Let them know they need to get something done.
In one of the most cynical displays of our broken political system, a former U.S. Representative, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, touted a newly released study paid for by the N.R.A. that advocates arming teachers, administrators and security guards at schools across the country. A little Golden Calf for each and every guardian of every girl and boy across the Land. What a shameful exercise we are being subjected to.
Our Gun Control Working Group at CBE has been working hard since Sandy Hook. Mostly writing letters, making phone calls, building a coalition of others who feel strongly that something must be done to curb the use of guns.
We cannot fund studies but I'd bet on a Mall in Washington, DC or at Grand Central Station or Central Park in New York, we can show up en masse, over and over again, and demand real legislation to stop this madness.
Before we get fooled again--and then, as the saying goes, and as the President stated clearly, it's 'shame on us.'
More advice from my FB friend Jonathan Kopp:
Andy, here's some very specific, actionable information your CBE gun group can take this week, straight from Senator Feinstein's office:A vote in the Senate on gun legislation is scheduled to occur during the week of April 8th. Leader Reid has filed a base package that includes provisions designed to combat gun trafficking, require universal background checks, and improve school safety. The Assault Weapons Ban will be considered under two amendments:
· An amendment that reflects the full Assault Weapons Ban (i.e., a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines); and
· An amendment to ban large-capacity ammunition magazines.
This week and next will be critical in persuading Senators to vote in favor of these two amendments. We need to generate calls/e-mails/letters to Senators’ offices, particularly those Senators we are targeting (listed at the end of this e-mail). Please consider the following action items from your organization and let me know what you are able to do so we can update Senator Feinstein:
· Ask your membership to call/write/visit their Senators to support the Assault Weapons Ban (through sending e-mail “action alerts” and other means of communication);
· Have your organization’s leadership personally call or write to targeted Senators;
· Have your organization’s leadership submit an op-ed or letter to the editor to a major newspaper on the importance of banning assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines; and
· Have your organization’s leadership issue a press release or hold a press event on the importance of banning assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
The following is a list of senators who we believe may be open to supporting the Assault Weapons Ban and whose support we will need to pass the bill.
Ayotte (NH), Baldwin (WI), Coats (IN), Collins (ME), Corker (TN), Fischer (NE), Hagan (NC), Heinrich (NM), Hoeven (ND), Johanns (NE), T. Johnson (SD), King (ME), Kirk (IL), Landrieu (LA), Manchin (WV), Merkley (OR), Portman (OH), Reid (NV), Sanders (VT), Scott (SC), Shaheen (NH), Toomey (PA), T. Udall (NM), Warner (VA), Wyden (OR)
We also believe the following conservative Democrats may be open to a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines. Although our primary message is to pass the full Assault Weapons Ban, advocates that would like to contact these offices should focus on the ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
Baucus (MT), Begich (AK), Donnelly (IN), Heitkamp (ND), Pryor (AR), Tester (MT)Let's do this!
I wrote to wish Reverend Daniel Meeter a Happy Easter on Sunday morning, figuring he'd pick up the text on his walk through Prospect Park to worship on Sunday morning. He wrote back, "God bless you and thank you. Psalm 114."
That's my favorite from the Hallel. Seas flee; rivers turn backward; mountains skip like rams, hills like young sheep. What's not to like?
In the midst of the Matzah Fast, it's important to remember the joy associated with the Festival and the particularly monumental and engaging texts the Sages chose for framing the experience of remembering the Redemption from Slavery.
Part of Passover's particularly American expression is that families will often invite non-Jews to the Seder as a symbol of Elijah's message of welcome. Of course, the Medievalists initiated Elijah's coming to the Seder as an expression of messianic hope to free the Jews from the evil and violent persecutions of the Crusades ("Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You and on the kingdoms that do not know Thy name") but in America, where religious freedom is encoded in the Constitution, Elijah gets to channel less wrath and more love.
In Rachel's family, their non-Jewish friend Roger Peterson, a lapsed Protestant turned atheist intellectual, of blessed memory, used to love to read and laugh at the metaphor of hills skipping sheep.
Psalm 114's opening line, "When Israel came forth from Egypt, the House of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion." The Sages, in the Midrash to Psalms, have a good time with this. "There are those who say that Egypt was happy when Israel left. Rabbi Berachiah said, "It's like when a man is riding his ass. The man says, 'When is this trip going to be over,' and the ass says, 'When is this guy getting off of me!' When they finally reach their destination, I can't tell who was happier!"
Sometimes people are just happy to be rid of one another; and sometimes, centuries later, they become best friends.
This year I was particularly taken with the beauty of Song of Songs, which Rabbi Akiva claimed was merely channeled eroticism offered up as metaphor for God's love of the people Israel. But watching men and women of different ages, at different stages of relationships of their own, read it aloud made me think it's also a text about love, and renewal of vows, and how the Jewish calendar invites the Jew to "touch base" (hey, baseball season opened yesterday so let's go with that metaphor) with himself and those implicated in his world.
Toward the end of the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Passover, the community hears the end of the story of the Golden Calf, when Moses asks to see God's face and when the people receive the second set of tablets. In one particular place, the line "you must not worship any other god" has the scribal innovation of enlarging a letter--כי לא תשתחוה לאל אחר--where the "resh" is enlarged so that it not be confused with a "dalet," which would make one read the line as, "you must not worship *one* God."
There's humor in that. Since everyone knows, certainly in my shul, that most people barely have time to worship only One God, let alone two or three.
I marveled at the Haftarah that Shabbat morning--Ezekiel's stunning vision of resurrected bones, of dust re-animated, of a people returning to its land. While a huge believer in keeping religion out of Zionism, read as a purely historical text I am continually in awe of the Jewish people's facility with making ancient words come alive and renew, year after year, an ancient people.
Maybe this is just a way of saying to you readers out there--even if you don't believe, it's an excuse for coming to shul and reading while others are praying. The insights are stunning and filled with surprises.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua and from Joshua it went to the Elders and from the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgement; raise many disciples; and build a fence around the Torah. (Pirke Avot 1:1)
Who has never held the Torah close and heard the voice of past generations? Felt the worn parchment beneath ones hands of those long gone who embraced its words? Sensed the pulse of times other than one's own?
The Torah does none other than call out and say, 'Interpret me!' said the Sages. While protecting me with the fence of embracing arms, practiced customs and rituals, family stories of challenge and triumph and love.
More than a thousand years ago the rabbinical tradition knew that the world was not created in seven days. While protecting the story in Genesis, Rabbi Isaac--as recounted by the medieval interpreter Rashi--famously said, "The Torah doesn't really begin at Genesis but rather at the first instance of God commanding the Jewish people to observe the first Passover. The science is faulty here in Genesis, Rabbi Isaac was saying, but the intent of the Creation is there, in Exodus: as a nation we are obligated to serve.
Later in the Torah, handed down to us by the generations recounted above, we read that it's forbidden for a man to lie with another man as one lies with a woman. We are told that to do so is an abomination.
While this text is seemingly unambiguous, one has three choices here.
1. A man can lie with another man as a man. Just not as a woman. So, you know, be gay. Embrace who you are.
2. Being homosexual is a sin. Don't do it.
3. Ignore it altogether because the Bible is a bunch of superstitious nonsense and there is no such God anyway so what's the point.
The first allows for interpretation. The second leaves no room for debate. And the third simply breaks the chain.
For as long as I've read Torah, I've been in the first category. Mostly driven by my generational bias and the contours of my own life, I refuse to break the chain of history and identity by throwing away the text merely because I vehemently disagree and even viscerally reject some of it. Like a long-gone relative whose ideas around a Seder table I may have found ridiculous and wrong, he was a part of my family whose voice, thank God, no longer dominates the conversation. But he's not written out of history. Just contextualized. In other words, with regards to Torah, I'd rather keep it and re-interpret it. Observing much of it, setting aside what I don't regard as true, and relishing texture of this reality.
Of course, even my embrace of principle one--"embrace who you are"--extends to guys who feel like dressing up as women or women who feel like dressing up as men. What do I care? Wherein the what-do-I-care-ness derives from three places: One, a general openness to life that I received from the Torah of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, a characterological trait that I have passed down to my children: Don't be judgmental. Two, an imperfect but nevertheless generally well intended American Constitutional tradition that steadily keeps religion and state separate. And three, a Torah tradition that calls out, 'Interpret me.'
And so it goes.
On any given Saturday in my synagogue, I look out at gay and lesbian parents raising their children to read prayers said by generations of their ancestors, observe Jewish practices, feed the hungry, house the homeless, support Israel, and learn, step-by-step, to grab hold of the Torah in their own way--while taking with them the words inherited from those who came before.
Their arms, like a fence around the Torah.
Today I am heading to Washington with my oldest child. We'll take a train from Baltimore to DC, walk over to the Supreme Court steps, and watch the democratic drama surrounding the gay marriage debate.
We'll go as a Jewish family which both loves Torah and the progression of history--where our most Sacred Book teaches that we are all made in the Divine image and where our Constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens of this great nation.
Hopefully a majority of the Supreme Court will decide in favor of gay marriage. All it needs is a 5-4 vote, you know. A rule that originates in Exodus 23:2--"after the majority one must incline."
The messy imperfections of God's word in man's hands.
A Passover Message from Rabbi Andy Bachman
As we gather around the Passover Seder table tonight, telling stories old and new, grabbing hold of the matzah--the bread of affliction--recounting plagues, lifting our cups in triumph, our voices sing out in celebration and gratitude for life and freedom as well as the privilege and responsibility in recognizing that hunger and slavery continue to persist in our world.
This year Congregation Beth Elohim celebrates its 150th Anniversary--a monumental feat for our sacred community here in Brooklyn. The challenges from a century and a half ago are different from today but no less urgent. In 1862, African Americans were slaves and women were not granted the right to vote, Israel did not exist and the First Zionist Congress would not yet meet for another thirty years. But bondages were broken and history was made, by the inspiring work of men and women who insisted that in every generation we are all obligated to break the chains of oppression
What challenges plague us today? Hunger. Homelessness. Guns. Homophobia. War. Addiction. Many are the Pharaohs of our age.
This remarkable and eternally inspiring story that we tell, that "in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as leaving Egypt," continues to animate our existence. For more than three thousand years, the Jewish People have shared with the world our story of overcoming oppression, of conquering despair, and of meriting the joy to sing aloud, "Next year in Jerusalem." Through song, story, faith and food, our Hagadah offers a timeless tale of triumph each year, reinforced each week at Shabbat services where we lift up our voices in celebration of that first Exodus: "Who is like You, God, doing wonders?"
Passover teaches us many things; perhaps most important is that Judaism calls upon us--through Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness--that we are God's partner in bringing about a more just and peaceful world.
After an historic visit to Israel by President Obama, the hope for peace is rekindled. Congress is debating laws concerning guns and immigration and economic justice. Closer to home, Congregation Beth Elohim, its tireless staff, its intrepid membership and volunteers from across the city, continue to daily feed hundreds of our neighbors still suffering under the deprivations of Hurricane Sandy. In May and June we will serve as a respite shelter for a dozen homeless men. We continue to tutor students at John Jay High School. And throughout the spring, we will continue to build homes in Brooklyn in partnership with Habitat NYC.
For every plague we recall in the Hagadah, there is an answer, a small redemption, that we can bring about in our world with the work of our hands and the message of hope beating strong in our hearts.
May this Passover season of renewal bring you and your families a year of good health, good learning, and a greater measure of peace in our time.
!חג שמח/Hag Sameach!
March 22 thirty years ago was a cold day. Madison's blustery winds forced one to steel oneself against its insistent, beating heart: an extension of winter that, despite the bright sun that day, was typical.
I lost my thoughts in the middle of a favorite lecture; my right hand, ordinarily perched at attention with pen in place, drifted to the margins of my notebook. In an instant I knew that change had occurred. Someone had moved on.
After class I walked quickly home. I picked up a carton of milk at a local grocery. When I got to the door of my apartment, my roommates distraught eyes said it all. My uncle stood next to him, out of place by 70 miles or so.
"So Dad is gone," I concluded. And then I went to pack my bag. Like I was ready. I knew it was coming in exactly the way a fateful, pseudo-noirish twenty year old kid would. The smoking; the lack of exercise; the depression; the high blood pressure. His heart was a balloon waiting to burst. On March 22, 1983, it did.
Down the road to the southeast during that late morning hour when my mind left the classroom, my sister and her husband were trying to resuscitate Dad on the floor of his apartment. While my car moved down the highway home to mother, sisters and brother, word began to spread, seeping as it does like black ink on weedy shoreline rocks.
I've told this story before. Driving along I-94 in silence, my uncle's hands on the wheel. Me, staring out the window. "You know your Dad worked on jeeps and tanks during the War," he said.
"I know," I answered.
"And yet he never looked under the hood of his own car," said the uncle. Testing the statement as tall grass bent in the wind outside the passing cars, pulsed to spring by melting snow, I recalled changing the oil, the plugs, a fan belt, and draining the radiator with Dad. But just once each time. It's not like it was a regular thing. I took the metaphor at its meaning.
"Yeah," I said.
And as I look back at my life, now at fifty, thirty years removed from that day, 8 months after burying my mother, I think that on a certain level I'd actually like to actually stop looking under the hood of my own car, live my life with a bit less criticality, a moderately diminished obsession with searching for truth under every rock.
Would that it were. But it ain't gonna happen.
I was out in Milwaukee earlier this week. For a day. My sisters and I went to buy a gravestone for Mom, using the last bit of money left over from her modest estate. Medicaid and a Wisconsin health care trust narrowly escaped the ideological surgical knife of Governor Scott Walker so Mom (who worked as a wage earner until last December, half-way toward her 79th year while battling cancer and making ends meet) had saved enough to buy herself some peace of mind as she drifted toward death in the last month of her life at the wonderful Jewish Home in Milwaukee, surrounded by her children. Dad and Mom were real children of the Depression; Dad served in the Second World War and though Mom was just a kid, she too was shaped by those years, by patriotism, by the New Deal, and by the belief that if you work hard or are down on your luck, the government, as an agent of good, will support you.
My parents passed those values on to me. Living them out in the world keeps them alive. While moving back and forth across the skies between Queens and Lake Michigan, I facebooked and tweeted messages and called congressional offices about immigration reform and gun control. Tuesday on the Hebrew calendar was the 8th day of Nisan, Dad's yahrzeit. It was that day we also bought a stone for mom. In the phone calls advocating justice and in the words carved into granite, they live.
Here's the design we selected. It's printed on paper, sent to the carver who will chisel the message in to quarried Blue Granite from Vermont. We will lay it down in June, the eleventh month of saying Kaddish for her.
I was sitting with a congregant earlier this week and talking about her father who died about three months ago. We got together for coffee to see how each other's mourning was going. "Does the pain ever go away?" she asked. And without thinking I said, "The pain grows like a tree. It strengthens and will eventually give you shade. It might even bear fruit." It felt honest.
I told her about a dream I had when I was sitting shiva. Mom was gone less than a week. In this dream Dad had pulled into our driveway in his red Chevy convertible. He was there to pick up Mom for a date. It seemed that their divorce was in the distant past. Now both dead, they appeared ready to get on with their Forever Life, together. Mom looked beautiful. Dad kissed her cheek. And they drove away.
When I woke up I knew I had another day of shiva ahead of me but I was happy that my folks had found each other again.
"My dad visits me at the Kedusha," the congregant said. "All the angels assembled, singing God's praises; I feel my dad strongly there, and then sometimes I don't, and sometimes he just passes by."
These moments are real gifts, the best kind, the ones you don't expect.
Late yesterday afternoon I had a meeting on the Upper West Side and with a few minutes to spare I dipped into a bookstore to see if, serendipitously, there was a new book of poetry to buy. My eyes moved across the shelves and there was a new volume of poems by Philip Levine. On the cover, a Walker Evans photograph called, "Joe's Auto Graveyard." Sweet Will was first published in 1985, was out of print, and was recently brought back by the angels at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.
That year I went to Jerusalem, in search of "Father," then gone two years. I met the poet Yehuda Amichai, first on the pages in the Steimatzky Bookstore on Jaffa Road and then later in the year at Hebrew University where I introduced myself to him at a reading. In his 1986 book, שעת החסד/Hour of Grace, Amichai had a poem called "1924," written in dedication to himself about the year of his birth. Thrilled to see the number on the page, since that was the year my father was born, I asked him about the significance of the title. "Look," he said with a mild annoyance at my eager fandom, "If I'd have been born in 1933, I'd have called the poem, '1933.'
"But that's the year my mother was born!" I said, practically unhinged.
"So write your own poems," he said with a smile.
We all have to make sense of our own lives, our accumulations and our losses.
We gather like people in a bus station, Amichai wrote in the title poem of that book. We gather and slowly move apart. Fleeting moments to be near one another, to have the chance to build the world anew.
"But they disperse," he wrote. "The hour of grace has passed. It won't come again."
Cold air outside on Upper Broadway, Philip Levine's book in my hands, Walker Evans' captured headlights darkened, like shaded gravestones in a field of dry grass.
The last sequence of poems in Sweet Will is entitled "Jewish Graveyards." A copy of Mom's stone layout is folded neatly in my backpack, beside a waxy blue etching of Dad's, made by the salesman to approximate their styles to one another. And with this book in my hand, whose re-publication I knew nothing about, my heart thrills to the sound of the words I read aloud, with focus, savoring each shape as they pass from my mouth before this 'hour of grace' comes to an end.
"A truck gearing down to enter town,
an auto horn, perhaps the voices
of children leaving school, for it's
almost that time. A low wind
raises the hankie I've knotted
at the corners, and with one hand
I hold it and bend to the names
and say them as slowly as I can.
Full, majestic, vanished names
that fill my mouth and go out
into the densely yellowed air
of this great valley and dissolve
as even the sea dissolves beating
on a stone shore or as love does
when the beloved turns to stone
or dust or water. The old man
rocks and whistles by turns
into the long afternoon, and I
bow again to what I don't know."
What I don't know is what happens next.
Which may be the only opening we need for those moments of grace that, when stacked up, may even allow for the merit of hours, or days or years.
These are important days for Gun Control legislation in Congress and if you want to help prevent the kinds of tragic and inexcusable massacres we have witnessed in this country, NOW is your chance to speak and be heard.
The CBE Gun Control Group has assembled some very helpful information for you to use and share.
Here it is:
1. Start calling OUR elected officials TOMORROW. All of our sources have indicated that CALLING is the best approach to applying pressure. Even Schumer’s office wants to hear from us and they want to hear from us daily. Even those elected officials that have sponsored gun control legislation need to know that their constituents still care about this. Call during your lunch break/child’s nap/in between meetings/or even walking down the street but please call.
NYAGV sent us this great video of a woman making a call. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=5HzPwr7ASuQ
We have also created this talking point template for calls to elected officials:https://docs.google.com/document/d/1asrL0NI-kptm2bQpSgzYD0goENuECeOwALrlGAFqV0Q/edit?usp=sharing
As a second option, send a letter (but call too!). Have your child color on it or include a drawing. Send a photo. Make it noteworthy. Here is our letter template:
2. Start contacting your friends and family in the “Key States” TODAY. Here is a link to our working spreadsheet of key states:
And here is a link to talking points for your call or e-mail to friends, family, and local points of contact:https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TBpT2_IGHsfjEiQadPiyBgq6YaQxDgy758WTOu9rBbE/edit?usp=sharing
The states in BOLD are potential "swing" states. Some of the elected officials in those states have expressed support for gun control legislation but they really need to know their constituents care about this issue or they may lose interest or change their mind by the time the bills are up for vote.
Send your friends and family etc. all the template links and the video and relay our message.
I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier.
If you want to control 7th graders, read to them. The process of pacification that commences is so definitively calming as to be nothing less than an airtight theory for the seamless execution of controlling an adolescent mind on a weekday afternoon between 4-6 pm.
Read to them.
Last week I read to them S.Y. Agnon's "The Fable of the Goat," allowing them to grapple with Diaspora ideas, Zionism, and the attenuated reality of messianic yearning. This week it was Y.L. Peretz's two classics, "Bontsha the Silent," about a bone-crushingly frustrating Man of Great Meekness, whose humility is only an occasion to be mocked; contrasted with Peretz's stunningly elegant and inspiring "If Not Higher," the tale of a Hasidic rebbe who delivers firewood to the poor dressed as a Gentile, Russian woodchopper.
His humility, as the students quickly grasped, equally humble but without a trace of the viscerally depressing meekness and self-hatred.
And then there was the matter of their own silence--less a silence of course and more the sign of a quaint, tender, innocent and calming thought process: the pacifying contextualization of Jewish content that made them cognizant of characters, values and the Holy Grail of the skeptical crowd, Jewish narrative.
Around the room a dozen young minds listened to a Jewish story from a Jewish writer told in a Jewish voice which prompted Jewish questions and Jewish responses.
It's beautiful, and a moment worthy of celebration, when it comes together.
Today it did.
Next week I'd like to take it to a new place, "if not higher."
The Diaspora is a trauma inflicted not just once but twice; and for each occasion in Jewish history, the Prophets and Sages of Jewish history understood the exile in fundamentally self-referential terms: "We brought this expulsion upon ourselves." When the Babylonian Empire destroyed the 1st Temple in 586 BC, the Prophets wrote, "מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו--Because of our sins we were exiled from our land," a statement of radical responsibility for national disaster. And when the Roman Empire, in 70 AD, destroyed the Second Temple, the Sages decreed that Jerusalem fell because of שינאת חינם--unbridled hatred among Jews.
Not the greatest and mightiest of ancient empires but rather our own sense of responsibility: We are our own undoing.
Compounding this: the trauma and dislocation of the Crusades, the Spanish Expulsion, Pogroms, and the incomprehensibly vast destruction, the Shoah.
It's no wonder, then, I suppose, that despite the collective mass-tragedies to befall the Jewish people consistently throughout at three thousand year history, we still have among us those who take a kind of macabre and precious pleasure in questioning the very right of our own territorially actualized national collective consciousness, as in, like, "Why should Israel even exist?"
So mused Professor Joseph Levine, UMass-Amherst philosopher, in the Times this past week. He could very well have questioned America's right to exist; or a Brit could have questioned the very Britishness of national claims to highlands, lowlands and William Shakespeare's Stratford upon Avon; or a Frenchman could have questioned the legitimacy of territorial, historical and linguistic attachment to national self-determination in the Land of the Brie; but there's nothing quite as titillating as a Jew questioning the very right of *the* Jew to national self-determination.
O' ye Stateless Wanderer! How dare ye find your way home!
Levine's analysis hinges on his distinction between a hegemonic Jewish culture, which he sees as inherently ethnocentric and problematic and a hegemonic Israeli culture, which, while linked inextricably to historic, territorial and linguistically Jewish antecedents, are somehow more acceptable than those that call themselves primarily Jewish. One can, Levine argues, be an Israeli Arab but not an Arab Jew or Jewish Arab--or can he?
The nuances of course are the exception that prove the rule. With any number of caveats, Israel stands as a wildly imperfect but triumphantly fascinating testimony to the insistence on Jewish renewal and self-determination. (I write this from a country, after all, that has yet to rectify inherently racist foundations of its Constitution, not to mention an incessantly wrong-headed read of the Second Amendment and so, as a result of said imperfections, lo, these centuries later, battles rage on. Even a non-ethnicated people such as "Americans" struggle with defining their very essence but nevertheless continue to validate the seeking to stake a claim to an essential Americanness, rooted in the values of land, language and the history of ideas along with the events that created them.)
But no one takes seriously the idea that America shouldn't exist. Or that France shouldn't exist. Or best yet: South Africa shouldn't exist, where, sure, whites can be South Africans but everyone knows what we mean when we say South Africa.
Say it ain't so, Joe. Don't let that comfy Ivory Tower in Amherst protect you from the demands of responsibility your Sacred Tradition demands of you: To honor the 'stranger,' for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; to do justice, to love, mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. In your language, in your land, in the complicated mess of democracy that is the successful but imperfect assertion of the Jewish right to self-determination.
Barney Ross first made a living knocking guys around a ring; then he was a hero in the Second World War fighting Nazis and fascists; and then, in the twilight of his life cut too short by pain and addiction, he died. You might more accurately say 'extinguished,' it being a more descriptive term for the abruptness, the incompleteness, of the end of man's life.
Others go the distance, as they say, and leave behind a legacy of deeds and statements and artifacts to organize a memorial around--trails to follow, words to mull, objects imbued with the sacred to turn in your hands.
Last May I held in my grasp a book of poetry by the late Abba Kovner, hero of the Vilna Ghetto, partisan warrior, Zionist fighter, witness against genocide, pioneer, teacher, poet, man. It was given as a gift by Kovner to the father of shul member who had died, and whose memorial I was asked to help convene to remember a father touched by history, by language, by nation and land. The son read from the book of the father at the funeral and I sat listening in awe; and then after, like a kid at a rock show, waited to get a glimpse, to touch the book, to hold it in my hand.
A few months into mourning I found Kovner's Sloan Kettering, his collection of poems from the days he lay in treatment here in New York, facing his last battle--with cancer. I remembered back to May, to the funeral, to his hovering presence in Brooklyn. Not a ghost by any stretch but rather a light, a flame as present and eternal as the lamp above the Scrolls in every synagogue everywhere.
Funerals in the synagogue, with a coffin laid in close proximity to an ark containing a Torah are, for me, perfect Jewish choreography. Like two magnetic forces attracting and repelling one another, it is sight to behold.
S.Y. Agnon wrote in the "Tale of the Scribe," "Likewise, when a man comes to the next world, and the evil angels meet him and ask, 'Who are you and where are you from?' if in his earthly life he had been an upright and blameless man, and left behind him good deeds, or sons busy with Torah and commandments, then these certainly serve as his good advocates. But if he had none of these then he is lost. However, when Jews come to the synagogue to pray and take a Torah scroll out of the Ark and read from it, if the scroll was written as a memorial for the ascent of this man's soul, then it is immediately known on high that he had been So-and-so, a resident of such-and-such a place, and that is his identification. They then say to him, enter and rest in peace."
"The scroll was written." As if something moves the hand. Poets describe this sensation. Scribes know. Sometimes fighters and partisans know it, too.
Today I received a thank-you note in the mail from the son of the man who died. In it he offered words of condolence on my mother's death, which occurred a couple short months after his own dad had died. These many months later his words were a presence in my heart both past and immediate; time collapsed with beauty and grace.
Like a fighter, felled by a punch.
"While cleaning up my dad's apartment, I found the enclosed card from Barney Ross to my dad. I thought you might enjoy it."
It's a Rosh Hashanah card. It shows the Eternal Flame of a Synagogue Lamp steadily burning. In Yiddish it is written, "A year of blessing and success." It's signed by Barney Ross. A champion in three weight classes; a hero at Guadalcanal; gone before he was 58. But the flame burns.
For him. For my friend's dad. For my mother. For their lives lived and written. And for the Book, above which hangs the Flame, burning for them all.