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After writing what I thought was a measured response to Israeli MK David Rotem for his remarks about Reform Judaism, a couple of friends in Israel wrote me and offered to get directly to David Rotem my remarks.
And to understand the dimensions of this ongoing struggle for some in the Jewish community--over the legitimacy and authenticity of the diversity of expression of Jewish life--it's important to know that both people who conveyed my words directly to MK Rotem were Orthodox Jews.
One, a Modern Orthodox man and committed Pluralist who has lived in Israel for nearly 40 years; and another, a Haredi woman (and best friend of a Reform woman rabbi) who works with Rotem in the Knesset.
And then this morning: I woke up to an email from a congregant who has been dialoguing with an Orthodox family member about this issue and my blog post and reported with pride that his Orthodox relative said, "Your rabbi sounds like my kind of rabbi."
I write this decidedly *not* to toot my own horn but to indicate that above all, what binds us together as Jews is not *how* we identify but *that* we identify as such. At a relatively infinitesimally small number in proportion to the world who have embraced a singularly unique historical and spiritual narrative, we ought to stretch ourselves to love one another more sincerely.
From the moment my father and then grandmother told me so, I've always identified first and foremost as a Jew. It needn't get more complicated than that.
So this is to thank my friends out there. We're all in this together.
I've never met Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem. I don't think I'd recognize him if I bumped into him on the street--whether the long, arboreal pathways of Prospect Park or the frenetic tumult of Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon. He's a guy doing his thing and I'm a guy doing mine and that's just fine.
He spends his Saturdays in the synagogue (or so I presume) which is exactly where I spend mine. He talks to my God in Hebrew and I do the same with his. We both wear tefillin and tallit each day. And we both keep Kosher (though, given some of his more recent outbursts, I guess it's safe to say he's more strict than I am about where I eat.) I love Israel and though I'm not sure how he feels about Brooklyn, he's certainly welcome here anytime. We're a tolerant lot. I'll take the Vegas odds that we're both circumcised. And we both wear glasses.
Here in New York there is a lot of tension of the rising income gap; over-testing of students in schools; perceived racial tensions in police tactics; a spate of pedestrian traffic deaths; union contracts and universal pre-K; diminishing library budgets; and always, the fear that New York remains exposed, like many great cities in the world, to the terror threat.
Jerusalem, to be sure, has no shortage of challenges. A stalled peace process with Palestinians; a rising income gap across the country; affordable housing shortages and university budget cuts; diminishing water resources and environmental challenges; the integration of Haredi populations into the public sector; the threat of a nuclear Iran; a creeping al Qaeda presence in Sinai and the Syrian border of the Golan Heights; Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It's a big agenda in both cities. Just thinking about it can take up your day.
So I'm not sure what the benefit is, exactly, in David Rotem declaring, among the many things he could be declaring these days, that "Reform Judaism is not Jewish." Unless the benefit, from his perspective, is to foster a hermetic, exclusive, extreme, one-dimensional definition of Jewishness, which cuts against the historical reality of the ongoing development of the Jewish people for the past three thousand five hundred years. I mean, it's his right to espouse that. But he'd be radically wrong.
After all, we no longer sacrifice animals to God; or sit in the dark on Shabbat; or stone people to death for capital crimes (not to mention gouging out their eyes); we don't have Kings, Prophets and Priests (in the Biblical sense) and even though Mel Brooks stopped making movies, at least we still have Larry David.
One can argue, as the 12th century Maimonides did in Guide for the Perplexed, that God's demand of Israel's animal sacrifice was God's deployment of other cultures' idolatrous practices (the impulse to slaughter an animal being so primal, being so great) in order to teach Israel that the people ought to worship the monotheistic God of the Jewish people, not the pagan deities of other cultures. One can (and many indeed have) further conclude that this Maimonidean maneuver is an example of the evolutionary adaptability to ever-changing Jewish civilization in an ongoing relationship to its God. Or you can not conclude that. And you can even vehemently disagree.
But the disagreement doesn't deprive one side of its Jewishness. It just means that two Jews disagree on something: a phenomenon, both in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, that's as old as the hills.
David Rotem, I'd guess, is not his real family name. An Orthodox man born in Bnai Brak in 1949, with a name like "Rotem," which in Hebrew is a desert plant and remains a favorite among those who rejected the Diaspora in favor of an authentic new Hebrew culture linked inextricably to the land, is a modern construct. So is the education he received at Hebrew University. Without Napoleon and other European emperors granting Jews emancipation and citizenship in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jews would never have been able to enter universities. Without universities, there'd be no critical analysis of the meaning of history and ancient texts. Without that, there'd be no philosophical or politically scientific basis for Zionism, not to mention the theological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and yes, David, even Reform Judaism.
Who were the Rotems before your own version of an intolerant Zionism? Simple Jews, no doubt. Just trying to make ends meet. Like my people, with their new names, trying to survive from Minsk to Milwaukee to Brooklyn. Your family found refuge in our people's ancient homeland, a commitment I honor and defend from the relative ease of the Diaspora each day.
But just because I don't observe God's law exactly as you do, don't drag us all down into your fundamentalist rantings of the same sectarian divisiveness that is tearing apart our Muslim neighbors as well.
We're meant to be a light unto the nations. To prove that despite our difference, we can get along. That's how we do it here in Brooklyn, in Tel Aviv, and even in certain neighborhoods in our beloved Jerusalem.
So don't waste your breath putting me down, turning "Reform" into a curse. There are rockets aimed at you from the borders, internal divisions far greater than whose Shabbat is holier. Your insults are pushing away your brothers and sisters who commit no sin other than merely respectfully disagreeing with precisely what it is God wants of us. But we're in agreement over the bulk of the message and that ought to be enough.
Cain, who slew Abel, arrogantly challenged God with the outrageous and disingenuous question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
We know the answer. And so know this, dear brother, that I'm looking out for you. Keeping you, dear brother, when I ask you not to make your brother the enemy.
I'm your friend.
The bulk of Jews have lived more years in the Diaspora than in the Land of Israel, a mind-boggling fact that begs the question: how, despite the violence and bloodshed of Jewish history, did we survive? The shul I daven in, dear brother, is the one that is built on the principle of tolerance, accommodation and good relations with our neighbors, and, when it's unavoidable, disagreement "for the sake of heaven."
So for heaven's sake, cease your vituperations. Give the brother some love.
With internal and external threats, you need all the help you can get.
I had never been covered by a noxious mixture of fecal and urine infused water before and so had no real sense of what that would be like--until last night.
Walking up Flatbush Avenue after an evening viewing of Spike Jonze's clever movie, "Her," I was standing in front of the Atlantic Center with my family when a geyser like spray of fecal urine water shot up from a small metal cover in the sidewalk, soaking me and one of my daughters in a totally disgusting shower of waste. People stopped and gawked in shared disgust. Someone offered a small bottle of Purell. In order to ward off a brief spell of insanity, we considered laughing. But then we just decided to head home, clean our clothes, and bathe.
Revelers crowded into Barclays for a Saturday night event; the restaurants and bars of Flatbush popped with pre-Super Bowl excitement. I thought of the scenes in "Schindler's List" and "Les Miserables," when brief journeys through sewage were life-saving risks undertaken by heroic innocents.
What a contrast this all was with the strangely beautiful, alluring and anti-septic love on-screen between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Though ultimately having been superseded in intelligence by their operating systems, Phoenix and Amy Adams were an inspiring sight in all their fallible humanity, atop a roof, admiring a landscape, leaning on one another with their unavoidable physicality.
"Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, 'Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know whence you came, where you are going, and before whom you will have to render account and reckoning. Whence you came--from a putrid drop. Where are you going--to a place of dust and decay and vermin. Before whom you will have to render account and reckoning--before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."
This evocative, rooted, centering rabbinical text from the 1st century remains one of my favorite calling cards for justice. As the Sages also may have said, "Hold fast to life; hold your mortality closer."
Of course, this is a grown-up message. My daughter I didn't inflict with the jaded wisdom of the Sages living under Epicurean and Stoic Roman systems. In fact, the luxuriousness of the Roman system came in handy. We each went our separate ways when we got home, took long hot showers, changed our clothes, and shook off this leveling event with a good warm meal.
For dessert we ate baklava from Jerusalem's Ja'afar Sweets, an Old City favorite, and read a couple stories from Shalom Auslander's Beward of God. His short story, "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp," seemed appropriate for the occasion, especially its opening lines:
"At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness. God. Death. Shame. Guilt. Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull."
Between chimps and operating systems, I guess being human is just enough.
Delivered in Memory of Edgar M. Bronfman
"A Life Fulfilled: A Tribute Celebration"
January 28, 2014
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
(After a beautiful opening melody by Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, I had the honor of delivering this Invocation in memory of my dear friend and mentor, Edgar.)
Good evening and ערב טוב
Tonight we gather as a community of those who have come together to express our love and admiration of Edgar M. Bronfman.
Son. Grandson. Brother. Father. Grandfather. Great-grandfather. Husband. Fierce Friend and Advocate for the Jewish people, wherever they lived. Defender of Freedom and Justice--Insistent Prophet of Learning, of Doing, of Joy.
נר השם נשמת אדם--The spirit of man, of this man, Edgar, is the light of the Eternal; and this memorial candle burns bright for Edgar, Yehiel, in whose name and memory Eternality abides.
Around the throne of this king, this man, this father, husband, brother, son, are the wrought and rendered works of a life so fully lived. Achievement. Generosity. Justice. Redeemed Captives and Revitalized Youth. Learning and Questions and Heresies and Knowledge. Ethics and Morality. And no shortage of jokes. Thank God for the jokes.
Tonight there is hallowed memory and laughter; there are tears of sadness and longing and an awestruck recognition of just how much on man can achieve.
With raw humility, goodness and kindness, his family laid his body to rest one month ago. And tonight, as Edgar insisted, we join together as one to remember him with joy. To celebrate the life of Edgar M. Bronfman.
זכר צדיק לברכה
May his memory always be a blessing.
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.
"And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the Children of Israel that they should take for me an offering; of every person whose heart so moves him, you should take My offering."
So opens this week's Torah portion, in rather prospective but no less dramatic fashion. After all, when God asks for a gift, you better bring it. Adornments of the finest jewels, hewn metals, strong and sturdy woods, the finest fabrics, skins, spices, oils and incense: each intentionally demanded, each playing an essential role in the construction of sacred space.
I work in a sacred space. It occupies two corners of 8th Avenue and Garfield Place in Brooklyn. In 1909, when the first sacred space was completed, its central purpose was to provide a place of prayer for those seeking a connection to God through traditional Jewish worship. Theologies and prayerbooks and ritual dress have changed and evolved over the century that the space has been used but the central idea remains the same--that inside the Main Sanctuary at 8th and Garfield, the principle purpose is spiritual access to God, to the Source of Life, through the mode of the recitation of words, spoken, sung and chanted, as an "offering to the Eternal." This was the vision, as carried out, by the vast majority of the German Jewish leadership that was responsible for the community at that time.
Twenty years later, another sacred space was constructed. Material manifestations of aspirational architecture and historical circumstances had changed; and so had the New York Jewish community that made its home in Park Slope. The massive wave of Eastern European Jewry was beginning to truly make its mark on Jewish life and with it came some very decidedly secular ideas, imported from Eastern and Central Europe, smelted into the American milieu and transformed into what became known as the Synagogue Center Movement. A gymnasium, a swimming pool, a social hall, a ballroom and classroom space for instruction of the masses who would need to be educated, Americanized, into this new paradigm of Jewish community which did not presume exclusively religious or spiritual orientation but presence in, a place in, community.
Community is a word that hovers, in a practically divine way, over this week's Torah portion. After all, God requests these fine, precious objects for a clearly stated purpose:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָםAnd let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
One can't help but wonder about one Jewish community, evolving in time according to historical exigencies, adapting itself to an ever-evolving notion of what it means to build "sacred space." For one generation that space is for prayer; for another that space is for education, athletics, social cohesion.
And what of our own?
Wednesday was a busy day. I visited with children in our Early Childhood Center; brainstormed with professionals from across Brooklyn, sharing ideas for expanding our reach together, despite our unique differences, to create opportunities for connection to those not yet a part of the Jewish community; met with a Hebrew language consultant to talk about the evolving curricula for passing on an ancient language in contemporary times; studied Torah as memorial to a friend; taught a Basic Judaism class; said hello to the Wednesday night Bridge class: all to the background of basketballs drumming on the gym floor, waves in the pool; and on and on.
Is God in such moments? What is the right answer? Always "yes?" Sometimes "yes?" Wherever one let's Her in?
In the midst of their own inquiries into the notion of God asking for a Sanctuary to be built so that God "may dwell among them," the Rabbis in the Midrash quote the verse from Song of Songs, "I sleep but my heart wakes." What they mean, perhaps, in deploying this particular text is that each of is asleep, metaphorically, when on the outside looking in but a wakefulness occurs when we are drawn in to the sacred space of community. The Rabbis write, "'The voice of my beloved knocks, open up for Me my sister." How long shall I wander abroad homeless but "make Me a Sanctuary" that I should not remain outside." (Exodus Rabbah)
Brilliant. And I know it to be true. It amazes me to no end when people claim that Jews don't want to be connected to Jewish life. I know the opposite of that. And their non-Jewish partners are right beside them. The opportunity to create space--sacred and secular, meaningful and enduring--is the great privilege of Jewish service.
At times the voice knocks making sandwiches for the poor and at times the voice knocks in communal song, welcoming the Shabbat.
And the door is always open. And the many hearted community thrives as one.
"Daddy, did you know that Anne Frank and Martin Luther King would be the same age if they were both alive today?"
Now I suppose you can say that is a considerable moral achievement for a 10 year old, laying in bed in the dark, contemplating life's more sublime thoughts moments before turning 11, and allowing her young, searching mind to focus on such monumental figures of twentieth century moral stature.
Athletic, moral and political heroes arise in conversation in our home all the time, as I'm certain they do in many homes. But something about the proximity to a child's birthday; to the liminal time between awake and sleep, consciousness and the dream state; between childhood and adolescence--made this articulated insight particularly poignant.
What makes a kid think such things before drifting off to sleep? Does a kind of narration of one's life play in one's mind at these transitional intersections? Is there an existential truth clamoring to be heard amid the din of popular culture usually reserved for drifting off at night? As the mind and soul settle in for a once a year journey between ages, do the bigger questions insist on being heard?
And what of the multiplicity of voices? Here they represent not quite an alchemy or concoction but more like an improvised recipe where the chef generally knows who's in the kitchen but doesn't always see exactly what goes in while trusting it'll turn out okay. In addition to our own guidance as parents, there is that of a broader family, teachers, camp counselors, grandparents, books, music, movies and television. Whatever it takes.
This is all very folksy, isn't it?
Not quite the right tone for understanding the lives and deaths of a Dutch Jewish child murdered by Nazis and an assassinated African American reverend and crusader for freedom. On the other hand, we're probing the mind of an eleven year old. There is truth and beauty and even depth in such simplicity.
Did you know they would be the same age if they were alive today?
If today were 1940, they'd be eleven, too, and their moral compasses would be similarly set to a world in flames all around them, while, at the same time, they were keenly aware of their need to be children, to be innocent, to be protected from the seemingly unavoidable sin and evil crouching at the door.
My eleven year old wakes up to radio news and paper headlines as graphic and horrific as anything we've ever known. It's no wonder one drifts off to sleep at night, dreaming of heroes.
I think of an eleven year old at Sinai, amidst the thunder and the smoke, the quaking earth, the mass of confusion, of the leaders Moses and Aaron approaching the Mount, of deafening noise, of hundreds of thousands of just freed slaves clamoring to be near. Truth, in such instances, is often filtered to the young in ways that their parents can't always control which is why one trusts pedagogic platforms to a whole array of civic structures like schools, camps, synagogues, community centers, and the like--each a conveyance of life's fractured, filtered truth.
The whole, thunderous, uproarious revelation of truth, the Giving of the Ten Commandments, life-threatening in its enormity, gives way in this week's Torah portion to rules and regulations that in their specificity, give us truths to behold.
Like, how do you help one person in need?
"When you lend my people money, the poor man with you, don't behave toward him as a creditor; don't charge him interest." The Sages contrast this verse in Exodus with a later verse in Deuteronomy, which says that "When one of your brothers in your gates and your country is in dire need, you may not harden your heart nor be closed-fisted towards your needy brother."
A debate ensues across the generations about the nature of "when." Is it conditional, tied to particular circumstances? Or is it constant, always? You'll be loaning to help the poor get back on their feet. You'll be extending your heart and hand to those in need always because they will always be at the gates and in your country.
Whether 1940 or 1960 or 2014, moral choices are made in the smallest of ways each day, making heroes' lives lived through their voices heard by those impelled to listen. And the words, like rich, alluvial soil, roll down the sides of mountains, in to the valleys and streams of young minds who keep words alive through deeds of kindness, compassion and love.
It is one of the more evocative images in rabbinic literature.
Maimonides, the great scholar of medieval Jewish thought and practice, writes about sin and repentance that "one who verbally confesses to his sins and does not affix it to his heart to abandon them is like one who immerses in a mikveh (ritual bath) while clutching on to a reptile. For such an immersion is to no avail until the reptile is gotten rid of, as it is written, "One who confesses and forsakes his sin will be shown mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)
This text emerges in the cold of winter as thoughts of spring training and the warmth of a new baseball season can be glimpsed on the horizon. And it brings to mind in particular the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, who will be returning to baseball in a month to begin a new chapter in his career after serving his 65 game suspension for steroid use.
As a lifelong fan of the game and loyal Brewers fan, I watched first with joy and then with profound disappointment as my kids learned to love the game, adopt a hero and then, in a crushing blow, face the facts of human temptation and frailty by watching Braun first deny and then, eventually, admit his cheating.
It was an important moment as a parent, one that required talking through the conflictual ideas of winning at all costs versus winning with fairness and honor. And while it's true that Braun served his suspension quietly and emerged briefly to apologize to the innocent lab assistant he had maligned as well as call a few season ticket holders to offer his regrets, one final act remains.
Ryan Braun needs to return his MVP Award from the 2011 season. Having admitted that he used steroids during that ignominious year of personal achievement, the award itself remains in his possession "like one clutching to a reptile."
Quite simply, the apology is not whole, the repentance is not complete, until the 2011 MVP Award is returned to Major League Baseball.
"I didn't earn this by playing fair," Braun should say. "And any child who looks up to me should know that the greatest of achievements in sport are those that are earned with talent, hard work, and fairness."
Braun should give it back with a bold and clear-eyed commitment to his fans: "I give you my word that I am going to earn this MVP Award in the right way. Only then will I have merited holding it in my possession."
The only reptiles in the Brewers camp, which opens soon in Maryvale, Arizona, should be those scurrying about the cacti of Phoenix, not in the hands of one of the game's best talents, seeking redemption for a redeemable error.
Give back the MVP Award, Ryan. And earn it the right way. For the home team.
Melnikov Garage/Jewish Museum in MoscowI had an extraordinary trip to Moscow this past week, with John Ruskay of UJA Federation-New York and a number of rabbis from the area. The purpose was to visit sites in Moscow that the Jewish community supports, along with partner agencies like the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel. We visited Orthodox synagogues, including the Choral Synagogue, one of the birthplaces of the Soviet Jewry movement; visited a Reform synagogue, met with the Chabad Chief Rabbi; did home visits with elderly, impoverished Jews with JDC after spending a morning at the JCC of Moscow which has 120 seat day care center and a 500 student after school program; spent a day at a Winter Camp for Jewish Teens run by the Jewish Agency and led by young Jews in their twenties who learned that they were Jewish at this very same camp who only discovered they were Jewish in the past few years as well; and, toured the Kremlin, Red Square, the new Jewish Museum for Tolerance. On our last night we went to Moishe House Moscow and met several young Jewish entrepreneurs who are re-shaping the landscape of Jewish life and culture in ways that have not been re-shaped in more than a hundred years. Incredible. I ate a lot of chicken, potatoes, rice, beets and cabbage, too.
While diet has obviously not changed much, Jewish life in Russia has. Based on at least what I saw over these past few days--it is nothing less than totally inspiring and fascinating.
The story of Soviet Jewry is long and complex; my guide for understanding much of the background came from two sources--Gal Beckerman's excellent National Jewish Book Award-winning, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone; and David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Lenin's Tomb.
Context was essential to understand this unforeseen revitalization of a Jewish community that was devastated by Pogroms, War, Holocaust and Communism and whose sole focus for Diaspora Jewry was its rescue. Now, while guaranteeing the right of any Jew to migrate remains at the center of Jewish communal focus, I learned about the work that UJA is doing--alongside JDC, JAFI and many others--to ensure that the process of regeneration, creativity, education, spirituality, culture and commerce can thrive for those hundreds of thousands who have chosen to remain.
Everyone's story was inspiring. Everyone's sense of who they were as a Jew mattered deeply. Everyone I met felt a sense of privilege and purpose which was the result of both their unique sense of individual and collective will along with dogged support from the diaspora community and the state of Israel to see this project of Russian Jewry through to a new stage of life.
Many, many questions remain in my mind after this trip and I hope to return--over and over again--to help, to learn, and to continually be inspired by the lives of this broader Jewish family in Russia. Some questions that immediately come to mind:
1. Russian speaking Jewish communities are growing not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but in Berlin, Warsaw and other places across Eastern Europe. What will all this look like in 20 years?
2. John Ruskay's vision for investing in the life of the community is so truly admirable. The idea that there is "a new chapter being written," something John mentioned all week, is apparent. And it's happening because of UJA's investment, which I think is not something most Jewish communities in the United States realize. Certainly not most of the people at my shul--and I look forward to letting them know.
John Ruskay, Alan Hoffman and Camp Sheleg Educators3. Something young Russian Jews share with young American Jews--they are discovering their own stake in the Jewish future vis a vis their kids. Early childhood education; camping; arts and culture--each of these are being spear-headed by and for young people which has the added benefit of the children teaching the parents about what it is to be Jewish. Unlike America, where freedom, privilege and assimilation allowed us not to be Jewish if we didn't want, Russians obviously experienced state sanctioned anti-Semitism that prevented Jewish identity from flourishing. So the parents know little that the kids are inviting them back into.
4. Chabad clearly has a place of privilege at the right hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin. What are the implications for the development of the other expressions of Jewish spiritual life? Are there challenges in being so close to a leader whose policies are called into question by his critics? Foremost was a complaint I heard often--a large gap between rich and poor. Moscow is a city of enormous wealth and a number of people spoke about that feeling of "the collective,' while an obvious dirty word left over from days of oppression, has vanished and been replaced by the greed of individuality. It has left many poor neglected by the Oligarchs who have made money but not yet fully learned what it means to invest in the broader community.
One such example was the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Built with Oligarch money (I even saw a dedication plaque from Putin), it's a beautiful, post-modern work of art with a profoundly bizarre message. Built meticulously inside a restored Melnikov trolley garage, the Museum greets guests with a fundamentalist, nine-minute video about "the entire history of the Jewish people from Creation to the Destruction of the Second Temple." It's presentation was childish, having the effect of spoon feeding the basic tropes of Jewish life to a public that didn't quite know the story but it had an alienating effect. It felt Creationist, with an eye toward the Coming of the Messiah as the Final Message of Jewish life. The exhibit space, however, was excellent and does a terrific job of explaining the Jews to the broader public. But then one of the docents explained that only Jews visit--so that what in America we would want--a public museum for Jews and non-Jews to learn about Jewish life--in Moscow is still behind a fence, in armed compound, built by Oligarch money. Something is bizarre and troubling and amusing and confounding and inspiring about this--all at the same time.
No easy answers.
So many images remain with me which I tried to process on foggy early morning runs into Red Square. It was Russian Orthodox Christmas, so there was lots of activity and while I ran I thought of the two poor Jews, fed and cared for by the JDC, who sit inside their Socialist era apartment building, immobile but cheered by being loved and remembered. I thought of the Jewish camp counselors, so recently ennobled by their own Jewish stories, leading young teens to a similar place. I thought of the Reform rabbi of Moscow saying when asked about the future, "Ask me in twenty years. We'll know a lot more, then."
It brought to mind this week's Torah portion--Be'Shallach. The Israelites finally leave Egypt and Oppression, and cross the Red Sea to Freedom. Is that the end of the story? Freedom? Of course not. They are to move, step by step, sometimes moving backwards rather than progressing, stopping at Sinai to get the Torah. Is that the end of the story? Of course not. Then there is 40 years wandering until they arrive in the Land of Israel. The end? You get the point. We are always telling this story, over and over again, and writing a new chapter every step of the way.
The Berditchever Rebbe, Levi Isaac, noticed that whereas the Angel of God, usually preceding the Children of Israel as they moved on their journey, this time, moved behind them. Why? Because in their making their out, they had preceded in importance God's regard for angels. Common mortals a higher step on the hierarchy of life and love. When you actually "go out," you have so much to teach those of us "angels" born in to good fortune and freedom.
It brought to mind Russian Jewry, who for generations struggled and whose liberation requires of us, more fortunate in the Diaspora and Israel, to humbly experience what it means to learn from those you had the honor of helping to free.
What it all means? We'll know in twenty years. It's a story worth reading about and experiencing over and over again.
There are four characters among men: One: He who says, what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours--this is neutral (some say this is Sodom.) Two: He who says, what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine--this is a boor. Three: He who says, what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours--this is a saint. Four: He who says what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine--this is a wicked man. --Pirke Avot
The older I get, the deeper my appreciation grows for you and not me. The alloyed absorption of youth but a brief and necessary training camp for the deeper rivers of the narrative of meaning. Like downy feathers falling off a young bird, the flamboyant and fearless focus of youth gives way to the utterly humbling realization that life's inherent goal is to simply to move it forward, pass it along, into the hands of the next generation who, having learned to walk and then run, grabs hold, sprints for a time, and then slows, to pass along along yet again.
This year Grandma's yahrzeit candle burned for thirty-six hours, a whole half-day past its allotted amount. Her sons, when living, didn't observe her yahrzeit and I don't begrudge them that, though I used to. That was my heroic stage, when the conquering Macabi spirit, in its devouring zeal, insisted on bearing a new standard for the family line.
But it's different now. One sees more compassionately, with the progression of time, the presumed failures of earlier generations. Having come to understand Jewish history with a greater degree of nuance and an ongoing revelatory certainty that the more one reads the less one knows, my appreciation for the flawed decisions of my father, grows. This is a gift of age.
I'm fifty now, a number that represents two seemingly opposite things to me. First, it's only half the distance to my goal of living to one hundred. I still feel very, very young. And second, since Dad died at 58, it seems ancient, dangerously close to death. As if I can see the potential for my own rapid deterioration with the same speed with with it occurred in the winter of 1983. A gust of wind, then gone.
Upon the two sides of this odd, measuring scale are the actions we use to weigh out our lives. And here, as ever, the Sages are so instructive.
To be dismissed out of hand is the bland neutrality of "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours." A division of no consequence, lacking engagement. Similarly, "what's mine is your and what's yours is yours" seems to cede all power to the other, refusing even the base instinct to do something with one's life. It's obverse, "what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine" is the avaricious whim of narcissistic youth. A necessary stage, perhaps, but if left unchecked, becomes greed and according to the Rabbis, the breeding ground of evil.
But the saintly position, "what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours" is the one the deepest of them all. It's the one that centers a person in a greater narrative beyond the self. It says your uniqueness is a blessing, bestowed by the cumulative forces of familial genetic configurations and the unpredictable prevarications of history. It means you are who you are because of everyone and everything that happened before and therefore what you will give back to the world is through the agency of the other. It privileges service to others.
It's not about me it's about we.
I remember the day Grandma told me I was a Jew. I already knew I was, of course, but at the time was not yet able to discern that her declaration came from beyond her, passed through her and into me, where it now goes, each day, out in to the world. I couldn't see it then but so clearly see it now.
Then it was through her cooking, her Yiddish accent, her dark Russian eyes, her arms, her warm embrace. Now it's the big picture, the scope of history, the candle that burns beyond its allotted hour.
It's funny how these things work. I light the candle to remember the mother of the men who didn't remember in that way but who, in any event, are now long gone. But for a whole half day after the commanded remembrance is credited to me, your light, Grandma, burns on.
What's mine is yours, what's yours is yours.
Saturday a.m. Drash
It all depends on how you say it.
On two of the different occasions when God deploys Moses to speak to Pharaoh regarding the right of Israel to worship as they please, two different verbs are used to tell Moses to begin his diplomatic mission.
"Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake. And say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, "Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness." But you have paid no heed until now.' " (Exodus 7:15-16)
Here the diplomatic charge is the politics of confrontation. Direct. Taunting, like on a football field or a boxing ring. The specter of violence hangs over the exchange. Pharaoh heading out to the river, facing the rebel leader, who is about to turn the river into blood.
The Hebrew command suggests a kind of distancing, if you will. לך אל פרעה--Go (away) to Pharaoh--representing the punishing impulse. There is a the rebel demand; the river turns to blood; and briefly, for a time, Pharaoh is made to relent. But of course the resentment, the anger, the need for revenge over the humiliation of loss, continues.
Levi Isaac of Berditchev suggests that in this instance, God is clear in the purpose of the bloody river plaguing the Nile: to punish the wicked Pharaoh. And the cold-hearted Pharaoh responded by hardening his own heart, even to his own people's suffering, and onward went the plagues. In the confrontation of one to one, there is no winner. Only more violence.
In this week's Torah portion, however, different language is used. "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go (toward) to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers in order that I may display these My signs among them." (Exodus 10:1) The force of the Hebrew here בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו--hints at a more nuanced approach to the negotiation where Levi Isaac says the tactic is meant to "change the hearts of the ministers and advisors to the good."
In the distancing of "go" negotiate, there is the direct threat of violence. In the drawing near of "go toward," there is the attempt to "give honor" (strengthen) the hearts of the enemy in order to draw them near and change their mind.
Levi Isaac reminds us of the King Ahashverus from the Purim story in the Book of Esther, who changes Haman's decree against the Jews and instead punishes the truly evil person in the story, the wildly conspiratorial and anti-Semitic Haman. What changed this "course of history?" Diplomacy, persuasion, the concerted effort to "harden/give honor to" the hearts of the advisors and ministers in the greater court of Ahashverus/Pharaoh.
We're reading metaphorically here, folks. No illusions about what really happened, in either ancient Egypt or Persia.
But a humbling reminder that persuasion deserves a chance to succeed in negotiations for liberation in equal measure to the last resort of violence.
One thinks of today's battles--between Democrats and Republicans and Tea Party activists; between Israelis and Palestinians; between the the rich and the poor in the current metaphor-in-vogue of the "Tale of Two Cities"--and the choices we face in emerging whole, each side honored, in its quest for dignity and freedom.
Levi Isaac reminds us that in reading these contrasting views, we're closer right now to Purim--where persuasion worked--than to the ultimate punishing plagues of the Exodus story.
A worthy reminder and perhaps a hope against hope but nevertheless a hope: that the hands of diplomacy and persuasion will win the day over more bombs--real and rhetorical--that are thrown as a last resort in the spirit of hopelessness.
Here's to honor. And changing hearts and minds for a better world. Shabbat Shalom.
"Folk song calls the native back to his roots and prepares him emotionally to dance, worship, work, fight, or make love in ways normal to his place." Alan Lomax, Folk Songs of North America
Over sushi in Brooklyn the other night, I was asked to justify why we made the kids see Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers spectacular new movie. The answers flowed easily. One: the creators of the film are geniuses and as far as art is concerned, kids, go with the geniuses. They always have something to say. Two: the movie is a snapshot of an historical moment in your hometown, New York. It's important to know these things. An appreciation for the context of your life is important. And three (which took a bit more time to explain): there was once this guy named Alan Lomax, whose father John Lomax was the grandfather of the folk archival project for the Library of Congress and the WPA, who was a friend of your late great aunt and who gave her a copy of his book which we have at home, one of a number of essential cataloguing efforts that believe it or not changed the face of music history. There are Harry Smith's recordings to talk about too, but the kids usually still complain when those go on.
The third, surprisingly, took no heavy lifting. For good measure we reviewed other facts about this rebel aunt: she stepped over her mother blocking the doorway to prevent her from going to college (UW-Madison in the 1930s, take a bow, please) and worked in DP camps for the JDC after the Holocaust before returning to a practice in New York.
So you see, folk song does call "the native back to his roots."
Jews are about roots, of course. How could it not be? Meaning: who are we without them? And yet the often derided roots (and the ignorance thereof) gives me great anxiety in our age. I suppose it helps explain why it is that for me, in a world of increasingly surface encounters, where the immediacy of experience and digitally rendered, character-limited responses (the idiot wind of discourse) which are prized over long-held beliefs and practices, I fear for the future.
We're all so cosmopolitan, I know, I know. The grand melding that is taking place in our Digital Age has allowed for a greater confluence of cultural mixtures that pushes the boundaries of creativity to new heights, it's true. Bieber has Hebrew tatoos and One Direction apparently "love" Jews. On balance, these are wins for our side. But not so much in a world where the tides are turning and leaving their marks on the shores of Jewish history: Too much distinction is a bad thing. Even Dave Van Ronk thought so: "We banded together for mutual support because we didn't make as much noise as the other groups, and we hated them all--the Zionists, the summer camp kids, and the bluegrassers--every last, dead one of them. Of course, we hated a lot of people in those days."
It was powerful to watch Llewyn Davis sing into the hurricane of popularizing forces that he knew he could never join; and it was downright energizing to hear a young Bob Dylan ascend at precisely the moment Llewyn Davis was getting his ass kicked by a prideful, defensive Southern man in a Greenwich Village back alley. History was being made; time moving forward; one soul crushed, another breaking through, cultural rebels commercial successes converging, diverging, and forging new paths on life's journey.
It's an old trope in America, this tension between roots authenticity and commercial success. And it applies to work in the Jewish community as well. Who we are. What we stand for. What we demand of ourselves and those in our community.
From literacy to ethically mandated behavior; from rite and ritual to the music and poetry of prayer; from what we eat to who we are and what we call home: each are a manifestational limb emerging from the roots of Jewish history.
In a way, I was motivated to write this insignificant little blog as an homage to always remembering what matters. There's a desperate scene in Llewyn Davis where the singer is stranded in a Chicago diner, his feet soaked and frozen, clinging to his bottomless cup of coffee, his only hope. I had days like that as a young man--feet frozen as a student in Madison, Jerusalem, or New York. Unsure of the future but dogged and determined to remain true.
I bet many of you can remember days like that. When you didn't quite know how things would turn out but you knew you were a principled participant in a story larger, more expansive, and greater than yourself. Maybe a bud or blossom, at most a branch, on the many limbed project of your rooted existence.
Who knows? Maybe one's life is like that branch, which for one brief moment, buoys the squirrel passing by, lifts his foot in a fleeting moment as an acorn falls, and after time, a new tree grows. Takes root.
We all do our part, don't we?
So here's to those with frozen feet and dreams to walk on dry land here or there, or, perhaps, on the Bonny Shoals of Herring.
I mean: what Jew doesn't love herring?
A warm rain is appropriate for this gray December day, as I sit down to write and mourn the loss of a friend. Edgar Bronfman died last night, at the physical age of 84 but forever young, as they say, surrounded by his family. Until he drew his last breath, he kept making jokes, the mind sharp, the soul strong.
He was a strong man. Powerful. Determined that his wealth and wit would make a difference in the world. He commanded the attention of governments and business leaders; fought valiantly and successfully for Holocaust victims, Soviet Jewry, restitution from Swiss banks, exposed Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past and represented a proud Jewish power for a post-Holocaust generation that was still very much in the process of being regenerated.
Edgar's wading into the past was his way of taking the still damp clay of history and forming into a present condition of Jewish life that was predicated, as he like to say, "on hope, not fear."
His laughter and disarming, ribald humor; his joyful generosity; his steely realism and unparalleled support of youthful innovation in Jewish life; his constitutional inability to do anything other than tell the truth as he saw it; his love of learning--Torah, Talmud, philosophy, music, and art with his beloved Jan--which kept his mind open to the endless well of Jewish civilization's greatest ideas; his pride in family, his children, and grandchildren: all these and more still don't adequately approximate the measure of the man.
From Seagrams to the World Jewish Congress; from the Bronfman Youth Fellowships to Hillel to Birthright and everything in between (including Brooklyn Jews and then our work at CBE), Edgar made the most brilliant and generous of calculations in the last chapters of his life--to stand at the front of world Jewish leadership and boldly insist that so soon after the destructions and dislocations of the first half of the twentieth century, Jews had the opportunity to be renew our tradition, to celebrate the plurality of Jewish belief and expression, to proudly assert our ethical and moral mandate to be a light unto the nations, and to live life with joy and meaning.
Whether he spoke to the most powerful heads of state or a 17 year old Bronfman Youth Fellow stammering in awe of a legend, his message was always the same and delivered with the confident smile of a man who knew he was right. The Jewish people have an obligation to spread hope and justice throughout the world. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Making of a Jew, "Let us get to work, for there is much to be done."
Since 1998, when I became the Executive Director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, Edgar and I became friends. It was explained to me by my boss, Naomi Levine, that if Edgar and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg liked me, I would get to keep the job. Weekly I'd show up at Arthur's office at NYU with a tuna sandwich and be tutored in his uniquely brilliant methodology of speaking truth to power (not infrequently tempered by the adage, "do as I say, not as I do!")
Edgar's sessions were more infrequent. They were lunch at the Four Seasons, a New York power matrix, the dining room of the King of the Jews; and, especially in the last decade, Torah study, where teachers were asked to present texts and ideas to Edgar and the staff at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. These were moments of Jewish animation, the likes of which I will never forget. Ancient Jewish stories would regularly ignite in Edgar the raging fires for justice, memory, pride and joy in being Jewish. Torah study would trigger remembrances of political encounters; battles won and lost; and deep, spontaneous reflections on the choices one makes over the course of nearly 9 decades on Earth. Remarkably, each session would end on a high note, a lingering laugh, and then Edgar would excuse himself to get home for Chili Night.
"Give my love to Rachel," he'd say with a glimmer in his eye, pronouncing my wife's Hebrew name.
That spark was his animated Jewish being, a stubborn rationalist's knowledge that one word in Hebrew can signify a prideful claim to Patrimony. This was his later-in-life discovery about the centrality of Jewishness to the story of who he was that he felt, in turn, obligated to help young people discover themselves to also become.
I had the privilege of getting to know Edgar during the last chapter of his life, loosening his tie, as it were, on a lifetime that was using power and philanthropy for Jewish renewal. On one such occasion, his first visit to NYU in 1998, we had the Bronfman Center shining bright, food arrayed for a reception in his honor, and every last detail of protocol ready for the entrance of a king. Suddenly word came through that Edgar hated the color yellow and that if we didn't want heads to roll, we better do one last look over the room. Sure enough, there on the vegetable platter were sliced yellow peppers--gone; on the fruit platter, offending sliced pineapple--gone.
Staff breathed a sigh of relief as Edgar's car pulled up and he walked into the room wearing the brightest yellow tie I've ever seen in my life. It was radiant, like the sun.
But nothing like the smile on his face being among young people, from every walk of Jewish life imaginable, fulfilling the promise he had made to himself, to live a joyful present with a commitment to a hopeful future.
In September, the last time we studied together, Edgar shared some thoughts about his grandfather Yehiel, whom he never met but for whom he was named in Hebrew. A proud non-believer, Edgar wrestled with the notion that the very person whom he never knew, whose name means, "God lives," inspired him perhaps more than any other, prompted Edgar to say after that study session, "For me, being named after my brave grandfather was enough to influence me to love my Jewish heritage, and want to begin a renaissance of Jewish life."
Thank you Edgar for the strength, the generosity, and the laughter you gave us.
Your life and your soul will be forever a source of inspiration to our people.
And may your family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
I guess if you regularly see pink pigs floating in the air over Prog Rock guitar licks and hazy weed clouds, it's not too hard to grasp seeing Nazis around every corner, too.
No, Roger, that Israeli soldier you see is not a Nazi and the Knesset, with democratically elected Arab members whose political parties call for the end of Israeli as a Jewish and democratic state, is not the Reichstag.
The Nazis were defeated, nearly 70 years ago, by Allied forces who believed deeply that genocidal fascism, responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, needed to end. It was a genocidal fascism that had Great Britain in its crosshairs as well--not just the Jews of Europe. Hitler, whose dead, had his own delusions, far more sinister and dangerous than flying pork.
And while it's tempting to ignore your latest hate-filled art, you have influence on some of your followers because of your art, though one might say that while a pig flying through the air is concert history repeating as farce, accusing Jews of acting like Nazis is not a farce but a hate-filled diatribe that, only because it gets repeated ad nauseam, has lost its true force so as to be a true threat.
Instead you look like a raging lunatic. Obviously powerless to effectuate change or exert your influence in a meaningful way, you are relegated to say the "outrageous" (if tired, rehearsed, platitudinous, and predictable) to get attention for your own failure to effectively care for your personal favorite underdog of contemporary political history.
The bone-crushing machinery of Syria's Assad regime doesn't offend you. The willful destruction of democratic movements in Russia or China mean nothing to you. I suppose, based on your own strange pleasure in Nazi get-up, the maniacal ragings of Iranian rhetoric over the last decade to obtain a nuclear weapon in order to rid the Middle East of Zionism, is oddly comforting to you. Did you miss the part where Iranians demonstrated in the street for democracy a few years ago and were mowed down by bullets?
It may surprise you but I feel your pain. I oppose Israeli policies in the West Bank, too. I think the Palestinians deserve a state of their own. It's a worthy cause, despite decades of failure and frustration to bring it about--failures and frustrations caused as much by Palestinian terror and refusal to accept a Jewish claim to the land and an historical narrative rooted in that very land as well as the intransigence of Israeli policy, guided by a settlement policy that has impeded progress for peace as well.
It's a mouthful, Roger, I know. It requires subtle thinking, long, drawn out arguments. Hard work. Engagement. Education. Even political pressure and local organizing.
But your Pink Pig Trial Balloon of calling an Israeli a Nazi is just another bad trip from one of your shows. A dime a dozen. Maybe it will even sell you a few more records. But ultimately, it's the sad, pathetic joke of someone who just can't control his worst impulses.
This appears at the Forward.
Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult. The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims--all to rattle the unflappable teacher. But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.
Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely. And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath. While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.
In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.
It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.
As a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s, Hillel was an expansive place of expression for Jews on campus of every point of view--from secular to religious and from Zionist to non-Zionist. This level of debate was fostered in order to mirror the general atmosphere of free inquiry and debate which took place in classrooms across campus. As the home for Jewish students during the critically formative years of developing their own world-view, it was vitally important for Hillel to represent an unwavering pride in Judaism and Israel while also defending a free and open discourse on the Jewish past, present and future. Simply put, this openness would make us stronger, smarter, and more deeply connected to the narrative of our people.
I upheld this point of view as the Hillel director at NYU for seven years as well. During a time which spanned the hope of the Oslo Accords to the disillusionment of the Second Intifada, 9-11 and the Global War on Terror, it was critically important that Hillel at NYU mirror the range and depth of debate on the broader NYU campus.
Ceding to the campus classrooms the most open debate on the most important issues facing us as Jews and Americans and not fostering them in the Hillels runs the risk of making Hillel simply irrelevant to the vast majority of young Jews today. It sends the message that the real learning they’ll do on campus is in the classroom and that Hillel will be a Jewish choice for a select few who adhere to a wider directive from above. Hardly the choice of most young people I know today. This would be an enormous missed opportunity to engage young Jews in a substantive and meaningful way at a time in their lives when they are making some of their own most important decisions about Jewish identity and Israel.
Closer to home now, here in Brooklyn, our own synagogue community at CBE represents a range of expressions and views on Israel and even as we often must wade into the debate--most recently, for example, with the BDS movement and the Park Slope Food Coop--we have always done so not by censoring those whose views are offensive but rather by bringing open debate into the light of day and, with skill, intelligence, and a little sport, defeating it. That’s the campus spirit as well.
Just last night at CBE, we hosted Peter Beinart and David Suissa. They debated Israel from the left and the right. The sky didn’t fall. Everyone left the richer for it.
My sense is that the dynamism of young Jews, Jewish identity and Israeli politics is shifting more quickly than any of us realize. All indications point to a new reality in Jewish life where openness is the preeminent value, where horizontal leadership structures challenge national or international hierarchies, and where democracy and a fearlessness to ask difficult questions is privileged over policy guidelines that demand allegiance to Israel without reasonable, diverse, and even at times risky, debate.
On one level, I don’t like it. It makes me worry about the future of the Jewish people. We run the risk of “legitimizing” a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist point of view. On the other hand, if we don’t wade into the water and debate on campus, we lose the bigger battle. After all, is it not the most powerful expression of Jewish pride for Hillel to state loud and clear: “We are an international Jewish student organization that is proudly Jewish and proudly Zionist--so proud that we are unafraid of any argument and feel confident that we will prevail in the public arena of debate on campus.”
As Hillel himself would have said back then: “All the rest is commentary, go forth and learn.”
I suppose if he were around today, he’d simply say, “Bring it.”
Nelson Mandela died on the 8th day of Hanukah.
That I'll never forget.
One of the brightest lights that burned in the darkness of prison and oppression during the second half of the twentieth century is gone.
There was warning of his death. For days, news feeds would flash on phones and desktops, the digital countdown of a man who was a giant of flesh and blood.
Others more accomplished and knowledgable than I will laud and mourn and eulogize the man.
I just have a small story to tell.
I had first heard of Mandela through the Special A.K.A.'s "Free Nelson Mandela" song from 1984. My friend Steve Dinkin was listening to it as he was winding up his studies in Madison and preparing to head off to the Peace Corps in Niger. For Dinkin, as a Jew growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Mandela was the epitome of Moses from the Exodus story. He was the world's most powerful and righteous symbol of the African struggle for freedom and we used to talk a lot about our diverging but complementary Jewish journeys: mine, which would take me to Israel, the rabbinate and serving community; and his, which would take him to Africa, international development, and now, as President of the National Conflict Resolution Center. Deep in Steve's heart burns the flame of freedom, lit by Mandela, Biko, and his own experiences as a young American serving his small town in Niger and now, slowly and painstakingly help resolve conflict in his corner of San Diego.
Yesterday, when walking through the Village for a morning meeting, a shopkeeper put up an iconic picture of Mandela. I figured he must have just died and she read the news, on her phone, before I could read it on mine.
Mandela casting a vote in the 1994 elections in South Africa. An extraordinary moment in the history of the struggle for human rights.
A basic expression of human dignity. The ultimate victory in the struggle for freedom. The sacrifice of millions of lives, all over the world, demanding to be heard.
On the 8th day of Hanukah, the light finally burned out. But the Soul of Freedom burns forever.
Last night at our community-wide Hanukah celebration, four different versions of musical leadership sang Hanukah songs (our Cantor, Josh Breitzer; Mika Hary, who leads the Keshet/Shira b'Shishi ensemble; world music instructors from our After School program; and our congregational choir.) Each iteration represented a different texture to the varied musical traditions that give lift to the festival of lights and it was gratifying to see them sing alone and then together, in various forms, as projected words scrolled past beside them.
Latkes spilled over onto tables, virtually indistinguishable from the dreidels and gelt; and local vendors--Miriam, International Taste, De Nonna Rosa and Pinkberry plied their trade.
The 8th graders were there, too, collecting donations to help fund their upcoming February trip to Israel. 8 years ago, when we decided to remake Hebrew school, one of the initiatives was to link 6th, 7th and 8th grade in a kind of inseparable, three year program that culminated in the Israel trip. It's been working great so far and leads to a greater sense of bonding among the kids. If you want to support the 8th graders trip, by the way, you can donate HERE.
As we gathered to light the seventh candle, more light poured out of the kitchen; and in a moment of quiet reflection, I thought about the thousands and thousands of meals our community has made and delivered since Sandy last year. I thought about Macabees fighting for freedom more than two thousand years ago so that millenia later, in a land and under conditions that would have been totally unimaginable to a Jewish community then, we live in freedom in America and as an expression of the very values we fought for then--that we believe in a God who commands to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give shelter to the homeless--we do those things today as a clear-eyed, full-throated, celebratory expression of who we are.
I told this last story to our Early Childhood Center kids today at the celebration. We are here today in large part because of the good that we do in the name of what our Tradition demands of us. I'm not sure they grasped it but I have a feeling it might seep in. Like the Hanukah oil burned beyond it's expected, allotted time. Miraculous that we are still here, isn't it. Unique and miraculous.
I wish war was as funny as Duck Soup. Seriously.
And it certainly isn't latkes, jelly donuts, and gorgeous dreamy candle lights, burning low, winter hymned to waxy oblivion.
War is painful. Dreadfully so.
Here's Ivor Gurney (1890-1937):
Pain, pain continual; pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty...Not the wisest knows,
Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour's way meant. Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruelest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in the shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun. --
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out to God.
There's a reason the rabbis of the Talmud downplayed Hanukah. It's reality is too bellicose. To celebrate the religiosity of revolution and death is fundamentally dangerous. So rather than reveal and expose the "pitiful eyes of men foredone," the Sages decided that the Hanukah miracle was light--pure, refined oil, lost then found, rededicated and burned beyond its allotted time. "It happened there." You'd have to see it to believe it.
In his amazing literary history of the First World War, Geoff Dyer writes that much of the war's first writing was an act of remembrance, written before the war began, "a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining."
I have been thinking of this so much this Hanukah. The Jewish spirit. The inexorable rush to remembrance as an anticipatory forward gesture. Looking forward to Hanukah to tell the stories of past triumphs, to gird our loins for future ones. Looking forward to Passover to tell the stories of triumph over tyranny, to strengthen ourselves for future oppressions. To live bound by a past, and in its memorial encoding, generating an ability to break the chains, victorious, at a known past but as yet unforeseen and certain future.
Dyer movingly writes, "I remember John Berger in a lecture suggesting that ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus--of disappearance. 'The century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.'"
The pogroms and dislocations of Eastern Europe. The rise of Nazism, mass deportation, and Holocaust. The painful threat of extinction and fight for survival in the reclaiming of a homeland. What for Berger may very well be a 'century of departure,' has for the Jew been both departure and arrival. Always both. The very paradoxical definition of Jewishness. Perfect in its contradiction.
I saw my friend Adam tonight at the Hanukah celebration at CBE. He told me about the haftarah he chanted at his bar mitzvah, more than 30 years ago, in the spring; and how its words from Zechariah--"not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit saith the Lord of hosts" is also the haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukah. His oldest daughter, now 9, was born during Hanukah. And tonight they agreed that when she became Bat Mitzvah in a few years, she's chant the same words as her dad did, more than 30 years ago.
"That's so cool," he said, bursting with pride.
He smiled, took another bite of his latke, eyed a jelly donut. Behind him the candles on the menorah burned bright.
War isn't funny, that's true. But life, and how we remember our troubles and triumphs, is uncommonly beautiful.
We're coming up on the one year anniversary since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
Since then, a number of people in our community at CBE have come together to advocate and lobby for tougher gun laws in New York City and across the country. We write letters, make phone calls, and show up at rallies.
It's never enough until the work is done, until fewer guns are out there, but we keep on pushing as hard as we can.
Yesterday, a number of us set up outside of PS 321 in Park Slope and gathered signatures asking Governor Cuomo to ensure that CAP Laws--Child Access Prevention--are added to legislation in New York State. This legislation has been shown to serve as an important deterrent to gun owners in that it levies severe fines when children get access to these powerful weapons.
Here's what we asked people to sign:
Dear Governor Cuomo, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Schumer,
On January 15, 2013, The NY SAFE Act (New York Secure Ammunition and
Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013) was passed by a bipartisan state legislature
and signed into law by Governor Cuomo. The NY SAFE Act gives New Yorkers
some of the strongest protections against gun violence in the nation. We are
grateful for the concern and action taken by our legislature and are proud that
New York was the first state to strengthen its gun safety laws in the aftermath of
the Sandy Hook massacre.
Omitted from the new law, however, was a “Child Access Prevention” (CAP)
law. CAP laws are intended to prevent firearm injuries to children by limiting their
access to guns. CAP laws make gun owners criminally liable if they negligently
leave guns accessible to children or otherwise allow children to obtain firearms.
The strongest CAP laws set criminal penalties for owners who do not store
firearms properly so that children cannot easily access them unsupervised.
Other CAP laws simply prohibit someone from directly providing a gun to a
minor. More than half the states in the nation have enacted CAP legislation, but
there is currently no Child Access Prevention law in New York State.
CAP laws are needed because too many children live in homes with access to
guns. A Daily News story in July 2013 listed 40 children who had accidentally
shot themselves or another child in the past 6 months. Studies show that poor
gun storage is directly correlated to accidental gun-related death and injury.
The more we do to keep guns from children, the more we can prevent such
I am a member of the Congregation Beth Elohim community in Brooklyn, New
York. The synagogue has a history of leadership in social action and in curbing
gun violence. I, the undersigned, urge you to take action and approve CAP
legislation. New York State is a leader in gun safety legislation. Let us also
be a leader in protecting our children from guns. New York Assembly bull A-
03941, the Children’s Weapon Accident Prevention Act, proposed last year, was
designed to enact CAP laws in New York State. We urge you to support this or
similar legislation. As stated in the Book of Psalms, "Our children are a gift from
On December 12th I'll be at City Hall with New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, led by my friend and fierce advocate, Leah Gunn Barrett. I hope you can join us.
We will also be continuing to pressure Stephen Feinberg, CEO of Cerberus Capital, whose company owns more than $900 million worth of gun manufacturers in this country, to fulfill a promise he made after Sandy Hook to DIVEST from that ownership in Freedom Group. Here are the remarks I made in September that will simply be updated for the one-year anniversary of this tragic and senseless event in Connecticut.
I hope you'll join us in the weeks ahead for this important fight.
I was sad to see that Saul Leiter died this past week, a diminishment of light in this festival of Hanukah. Leiter's exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2006/7 was one of the great, small, unsung art shows of the last ten years.
We walked through with Mom back then, just a small time after her triumphant scrum with radiation for a small node in one of her breasts. In fact, we marked a fair bit of time over those seven years of cancer with semi-annual trips to the museum.
An example of art's power to heal. Especially for those who live unsung lives. Leiter never achieved the stature his talent deserved, and that suited him just fine, as the Times obit described him saying in 2008, "One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music and to paint when I feel like it."
"Seeing is a neglected enterprise," he also famously said. The power of simple observation, sharpened with practice. The images that then settle into the mind can change things.
One imagines Mark Rothko painting this photograph. His vision was extraordinary.
In the latest iteration of communal thinkers parsing the meaning of how Jews mate and what it means for our numbers, the sociologist Steven Cohen and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky propose a new path to affiliation with the Jewish people in order to capture the ever elusive number of people who identify as Jews even though they have no Jewish parents. That group was 7% in a recent study of New York Jews--5% who never converted but considered themselves part of the Jewish people and 2% who actually converted.
They even have a name for this process. It's called Jewish Cultural Affirmation. It's meant to provide a formal entryway to the Jewish community by actually creating a learning process, a group of people to oversee it, and then there'd be a ceremony and even a certificate.
Of course, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, you get the point.
But it's not conversion. God forbid.
As someone who has been working in the community as a rabbi at the grassroots level my whole career, I have to say that this is one of the sillier ideas I've ever heard come from my friends Steven and Kerry.
At so many turns in the process of working with couples and individuals who are interested in affiliating with and living among the Jewish people, I have encountered virtually every degree of expression between faith and faithlessness and have never seen someone walk away from their connection to Jewish peoplehood by virtue of "having to believe in God" or being required to demonstrate anything other than a commitment to learning, observance of rituals they find meaningful, and fealty to the values and traditions of Judaism as well as the Jewish people. And most, in fact, explicitly state that what they love about becoming Jewish is that there isn't one definition of Jewishness; that Jewish discourse requires critical thinking and dissent; and that one's faith (or lack thereof) are as much a source of self-examination and discourse as any other aspect of their identity.
I'll grant that "conversion" is not the right word. It is borrowed from other religious traditions, which privilege the centrality of a 'conversionary' experience (think Paul on the road to Damascus) that Judaism is inherently skeptical of. In fact, while many people are familiar with the relatively apocryphal notion of rabbis turning away would-be converts three times (to test their sincerity) one sees beneath the surface a healthy degree of doubt exhibited about those claiming to have experienced revelation.
On a certain level, then, it's not about what you believe but about what you do.
Which is not to say that anything goes with regard to faith. Jews for Jesus, for instance, may think they're "doing Jewish" while obviously serving Jesus. It's a free country, of course. They're just not Jews by faith. They're Christian.
But back to the point. I've converted Chinese Buddhists who've said, "Sorry, Rabbi. I just don't believe in God. But I love Judaism and Jewish ritual and the Jewish people." In. "Rabbi, I certainly don't believe in Jesus, am not sure about God, but I love the way Judaism allows me to question, commands me to live a moral life, and fills my life with meaningful ritual, holidays, great food, humor and a strong sense of family." In. "Rabbi. My husband doesn't believe in God. Regrets having had a Bar Mitzvah. I'm not sure what I think but I know that leading this family and raising these children as Jews will fall to me." In.
So maybe it's not "Conversion" per se but Citizenship. That's what I tell people, anyway. You study for a period of time, you demonstrate knowledge and loyalty, you get to become a citizen. That's how we do it in America and I would argue that this is what the Sages had in mind when they created the process.
Some were strict (Shammai) and others were lenient (Hillel.) And without a doubt there were multiple choices of varying levels of commitment in between. But the notion of separating faith and culture when dealing with Judaism, Jews and Jewish civilization, is like making a kugel without eggs. Or drawing Woody Allen without glasses. Or Larry David *with* hair. It doesn't work.
What is Jewish culture anyway if not the aggregation of our experiences through multiple lenses of language and learning; land and faith; ritual observance, morality, ethics and values? Whether or not you believe in the divine attributes of the Jewish god, he/she/it is certainly a character in the story.
You don't want to believe? So don't believe. Someone/Something inspired Abraham to start a new nation; Someone/Something inspired Moses to start a revolution and free an enslaved nation; Someone/Something enraged the Prophets to speak of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and turning swords into plowshares; and, Someone/Something spoke our Ancestors and said, "Every seventh day, it would be a good idea for everyone involved to stop working and rest. It will remind you about what really matters."
A non-Jew once came to Hillel the Elder and asked to be taught the essence of Torah. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Go forth and learn."
This is the point. Not even as easy to do as say deciding whether or not you believe in God.