Updated: 6 minutes 15 sec ago
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.
It never ceases to amaze me--the human capacity to do what is necessary to survive. The quiet, dignified efforts of millions of people to provide the most basic material--food, shelter, health care, transportation--to their families. We move so quickly these days you might fail to notice, in the rush to get by yourself, how someone always has it worse than you and despite that, makes the "oil burn" for that additional minute, hour or day. Miraculous.
Alan Feuer's portrait of fast food worker Eduardo Shoy is one such example. I urge you to read it. Personally, it brings to mind my own mother's working ethic. For years she supported her kids through a divorce and her need for independence. And after a second divorce, near a time in her life when her friends where beginning to slow down and contemplate retirement, she stayed at work, just ahead of a living wage, and worked right up to the last year of her life when cancer struck her down at seventy-nine.
Her employers were incredibly compassionate. They allowed for flexible hours to help accommodate her chemotherapy protocol; they kept her insured; and in staying in touch, gave her the dignity to claim that despite being on a kind of medical leave, she was employed.
One can think of a Macabee as a kind of scrappy rebel, teeming with revolutionary spirit, heroically heading down from the hills on horseback, bearing the standard of freedom.
Feuer describes, in contrast to this image, a man of quiet and humble dignity, logging miles on his grease stained Honda, delivering fast food to other workers throughout the city. With barely a moment to rest between both wage jobs, he reaches the conclusion that his work may also entail showing up to organize, with other workers, for better wages and benefits.
The contrast between workers' wages and executive compensation is startling in any circumstance. In the illuminated moments of a man's life--delivering KFC, a brief nap, driving forklift at JFK--ought to humble any executive and politician into doing what's right for working people.
Last year Bloomberg News covered the wage gap at McDonalds. Take a few minutes to read it. It will read faster than your Hanukah candles take to burn. Noticing that IS the point of Hanukah.
Oil that burns for freedom. That deep fries the fast food people eat. That fuels the car and the lift which move us, and our things, from here to there.
I had thought the crisp Quincy air would have earned me points but dumb luck. After all, you should be freezing cold when you come to honor the soul of this Founder whose own internal fire protected him from those harsh Revolutionary winters. But the lady at the church couldn't let me in and even after offering to come worship on Sunday morning, to pray in comity and national unity just a few feet above the crypt where the hero lies buried, the way remained blocked by a friendly but stalwart follower of the rules. "You can't see the grave til April," she said. "We're closed til then."
Imagine that. John and Abigail Adams, bereft of visitors until the spring thaw. And so I yearn for the greening, five months hence.
This need to yearn, this longing to remember, sent me packing back to the car, a coffee, and a second plan: pay respects to the image and go say Kaddish where he died: the Old House at Peacefield. Though stripped of its garden growth for the usual Massachusetts winter, the paths were nevertheless an easy route to walk and take in the cantankerous spirt of this brilliant man.
I had the Macabees in mind, tangentially, in so far as I imagined their reconnaissance of Jerusalem before recovering the sacred center. No access to graves; denied worship; left to look at the statue, an idol to memory, while barred from giving honor in my way, our way, as a people.
I know, I know. I'm exaggerating; and having a little fun with it. But it didn't escape me that this is what has become of national memory: subjected to the arbitrariness of one person's will and budget cuts to the National Park Service while other displays of wayward national pride like aircraft carriers or tax rebates or inhumane budget cuts to shelters and feeding programs fatten the gusto of some while depriving others. Our national spirit is too cold to remember correctly what truly matters.
Good grief. And then, to add insult to injury, standing outside the doors to the Old House in Peacefield, where Adams drew his last breath, I thought I heard the driving leaves whisper Adams' last words, "Jefferson lives."
True--but only when the National Parks are open.
These two men were talking to each other one day in Budapest in 1937. They were captured by the photographer Ferenc Berko, the son of a Hungarian Jewish refugee who prior to 1937 had already made the decision that Hungary was a hostile place for Jews. By the end of the Second World War nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews would be killed in concentration camps and ditches, victims of Hitler's Final Solution.
We have no idea as we look at this picture if the two men survived. But their demeanor evokes anxiety. Each with a walking stick--though the forces arrayed against them beyond mythic, der Führer an über-Pharaoh, rendering their Moses staffs powerless to part seas. The man in the darker beard and glasses intently questioning the older man whose gaze is fixed westward, mid-stride, leaving.
I hope they made it out. It's likely they did not, leaving their lives as a sacrifice to the idea that to be a 'stranger in a strange land' is fraught with danger. And this is why our texts demand that we tell our story over and over again: "The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you." The ethical dimension to the emigre's reality is clear.
Despite its imperfections, America has been a place of refuge and blessing for the Jewish people. It has been, without question, the safest Diaspora home for our people. All the more reason, they say, that we ought to be sensitive to the strivings and yearnings for those contemporary emigres to feel a sense of welcome and opportunity in the face of a cruel world that challenges one's livelihood, safety and even existence.
On this first day of Hanukah, fortuitously coinciding with Thanksgiving, let's remember that we too were strangers in a strange land and that for many, our ability to immigrate and seek shelter and life has preserved us down to this day.
And HERE you can even do something about it. The Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, provides an easy and helpful way for you to let legislators know that they should take up serious immigration reform to ease the path to citizenship that so many seek.
To be trapped in the no-man's land of statelessness is a terrible anxiety at best and at worst a threat to one's very existence.
Write a letter. Put the pressure on. Save a life. Dedicate this first day to those strangers in our land and let the light of the first day be a beacon of hope and welcome on the path to citizenship.
Before you go off to war, you have to dress up for war, something little kids know, often forget as youth, and then, when necessary, remember. Or, in wartime, are commanded to wear the mantel of honor and defense. My dad was still 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and by the summer of 1942 was enlisted. His studies were suspended and his training took him to various points in the Lower Forty-Eight before he was shipped over seas to serve his country as an Army Engineer. Nothing to glamorous--jeep and tank repair is about it. A lot sitting around. A quiet period; and, one which I have filled in over the years with noisy speculation about an imagined transitional time for Dad between boyhood and adulthood, wherein were made fateful choices, habituated into the sinewy stuff of his grown up life.
His posture is a deceit. Look closely and you'll see that his shoulders rear back some, defensive against the inevitable onslaught of moral choice, career commitment, and the complex navigational systems required for building a career, a family, a life. Nattily put together then, the tie perfectly knotted and tucked away, thumbs confidently holstered in his pockets, his fingers are, nevertheless, clenched, tensed, holding on to himself.
Dad loved this pose: he'd demand the half profile throughout our childhood. He thought it classy. Here is in 1958: boat, cap, cigarette. It's a good look.
But at enlistment there was the boy's smile with his lips peeping open and the faintest of squints into distance, his right side face is shaded and brimmed by the Army cap that never seemed to get passed down.
I had one of his dog-tags for many years, which included the famous designation of "H" for Hebrew and the small wedge at the top, for jamming into the dead's mouth to aid in speedy identification on the battlefield. Thankfully, he made it home. The dog-tags were stolen from my apartment one year in college by an oddball political campaign volunteer who I never was able to convince to return the i.d. despite my pleas for the sentimental value of the loot.
But his ring I got.
Actually, before it was his ring it was my grandfather's ring. Ridged gold, classically modern, with an opaque jade stone setting. It seems elaborate for my tastes. Not something I'd ordinarily be inclined to wear. On Grandpa it seemed just right. He wore it well and it represented, to my kid's eye view, the adornment of a man who had earned it. When Grandpa died, Dad started to wear it, though not on his ring finger where his father carried but rather on his pinky, given my father a kind of mobster chic that I think he relished. Even though by that point his advertising career had bitten the dust and he was finding his way to make a buck through an anemic real estate market and discount shoes.
I don't know what Dad hated more: selling shoes or selling real estate. He had sold television time for the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee, led a team of young hotshots who worked and partied hard and took team trips with their wives to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, San Francisco and of course, New York. In those days he could have chosen a ring of his own but for all I know, maybe he expected to receive the ring as a blessing, bestowed from father to son. Maybe Grandpa never bought it but received it from his father. If true, this bit of the narrative is lost forever.
So from Grandpa to Dad, the silent passing; and then from Dad to me. After Shiva in the early spring of 1983, I took the ring (which was removed from his body by the funeral home) and his Clark Wallabees and headed back up to Madison. With the ring in my pocket and his shoes on my feet, I walked up Bascom Hill in a kind of other-worldly march both backward and forward into time.
I was aware that time had shifted, tectonically, and that my steps were my own but were also being guided, by forces of history and memory that would no longer be exclusively my own. Dad hadn't walked those prairie hills in those exact shoes, but he traveled the trails of Madison well and I had a sense of mission and purpose to the work that lie ahead. Book spines, notepads, dialogue with faculty--each of these mundane expressions of campus life would be overlaid with an intentionality priorly unknown.
I became, as it were, a soldier in the battle to overcome silence; to reawaken a muted family narrative; to reify a broken covenant with our Tradition; and to walk, intentionally, in the steps of our ancestors.
These dark days of the year, Kislev's cold, clear skies, paint hued truths in suspended rays of silver, orange and blue. It's no wonder, I suppose, that we read of the Biblical Joseph in these days. A man who wore his father's clothes, too soon. He took them willfully, vaunting his favored status. And paid a price. Joseph's descent, a journey of years in another land, including jail, rescue and elevation, brought to bear the hard-earned truths of his most humbling characteristic: what talents he had to use for the good came not solely from him but from his God. His older brothers hated him for this and as we know, it was nearly a generation before he himself could fully grasp its depth dimensions.
Who among us would not admit that there is both the torment and the reward of hard-earned reconstruction in the trajectory of our lives, seen through the lens not of days but years? Who among us--after an uncountable number of consecutive winters, years of waning light, withering cold, deadened branches and blown leaves--who among us would not count as one part merit and one part dumb luck the very ability to stand at the horizon and notice time pass with the wisdom one gains merely by surviving?
We are what we are and we are always what we say we are, over and over again.
And sometimes, to celebrate having made it, you get dressed up. A tie with a crisp knot. A new hat. What the hell--maybe even an old ring.
According to what I was told, my grandfather's volunteer hours delivering free vaccinations, or not taking payment for services rendered, was a minor source of annoyance to my grandmother, who felt his working hours ought to be devoted to making money for the family. If he had something to say about that difference of opinion, I never heard about it from my dad. Charlie Bachman's quiet station got one's attention through doing more than saying.
This photograph, all that remains from the newspaper clipping it once was, is a cherished piece of archival material. My grandfather's Roman head; that Mod paisley tie; his gentle hands; the child's bonnet-blindered gaze back at her doctor; the formal mother, dressed for a visit to the physician, a far cry from the way our casual age shows up in any manner of dress. (Heck, these days, with health care in turmoil, I'd imagine a Miley Cyrus Twerking Jumper could get you to the front of the line in a crowded emergency room.)
"The health department's mobile clinic" begins the caption. Diphtheria immunizations were in order in this yellowed Milwaukee paper; and Dr. C.H. Bachman was ready with the needle. Edith Hastirman didn't look unhappy (despite reports) and her mother, "Mrs Ray Hastirman," doesn't seem to mind missing her first name. Such were the structures in which we once built our lives.
Mobile medicine, food pantries, and legal clinics are still around. My brother-in-law Mike Gonring, a lawyer in Milwaukee with a career long commitment to pro bono legal work, helped make one such mobile legal clinic come to be in our hometown.
Mike married my sister Robin long after Grandpa died. But Grandpa went to Marquette University for medical school and I'm certain he would have appreciated his grandson-in-law's commitment to justice and the poor. And I have it on good information that unlike Grandma, my sister doesn't bust my brother-in-laws chops about money. So, you know, there's progress in the family. Though apparently moments before my mother died last year, she pulled my brother-in-law close and whispered to him, "Get Robin a boat." There's aspirational thinking for you.
Anyway, I've been playing with this image of my grandfather as the Biblical Joseph: as the assimilated, diaspora exemplar. The man who blends in and uses his success to do good. And then, quietly, at the end, reveals the deep rivers of family narrative, passes on the story, releasing the next generation to make of their story what they will. In the Biblical narrative, Joseph's revelation of Jewishness is deployed for two distinct purposes. One, he exacts a kind of playful revenge on his brothers for their shoddy treatment of him by dangling fate before their eyes and then revealing his own true self to them, causing great emotional release and then grandiose justifications for his own suffering at their hands, effectively playing the same game he had played since his youth--namely, that he was the one touched by God to lead. And while honorably carrying away his father Jacob's body to be buried in the Land of Israel, Joseph requires no such ritual for himself. He dies at 110--an Egyptian age of achievement, a half-step beneath the 120 years allotted to the fulfilled Jew--and is essentially mummified and buried as an Egyptian. It's a puzzling choice, sending a mixed message to his descendants: he paid Jewish respects to his father but chose the assimilationist path for himself. A paradoxical helix of twisted fate, left to future generations to unravel.
I remember Grandpa's voice; his agile and muscular hands; his gold band and jade stone that rode high, just beneath a knuckled finger; and at the end, his rough-whiskered kisses--playful, lasting. When Jacob takes Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe and blesses them out of their birth order (exacting a karmic revenge over perhaps his own repressed guilt at having bilked the birthright from his brother Esau) Jacob enjoys some late-in-life mischief but effectively says little beyond "I know my son, I know" when Joseph queries him. Jacob changes history, subverting primogeniture, disturbing presumed order, but conveying very little about it. It's almost as if he presumes of subsequent generations the blithe colloquial, "they'll figure it out."
As I look back on my own visits with Grandpa, I too come up short. There are very few explanations for why he did what he did.
Like an archaeologist of memory, I am left to conjure stories from faded pages, the ephemera of sensory recall, the echoes of a time past, occasionally knocked loose from the knotted gray corridors of the mind.
From the faintest of voices, we often draw the most meaning. It's really rather extraordinary. I'd imagine Grandpa would be impressed. He'd raise a humorous brow but say little.
Why talk? It's the doing that counts.
The young man, looking forward, westward, to the future. The shovel, leaning against the tree, having done its work: burying the past.
My grandfather was heroic. Monumentally so. As a Bachman, he soared past six feet in stature, a miracle no less compelling than the parting of the Red Sea. The "L"on his muscle-tee stood for Lapham Park, the ghetto hangout for Milwaukee kids in the early decades of the twentieth century. Charlie Bachman was a counselor to kids on the playgrounds, a peacemaker among those competing for attention and respect among the mixed assortment of immigrants that crowded this urban stew of new American narrative.
I know this because when he died in 1973, my fourth grade teacher read a letter to the Milwaukee Jewish Chronicle from one of those kids who called my grandpa his "knight in shining armor." Apparently he broke up a few fights and protected his own. He never mentioned it. Typical.
The son of immigrants himself, whose parents traveled from a region in Pinsk to Chicago and then to Milwaukee, Charlie went to Marquette University, a Jesuit school, for medical school.
This was his "Joseph" moment. When one melds into the Disapora. Finds success. Vaporizes Jewishness. In his medical school graduation program, for instance, from the spring of 1924, months before my father was born, Charlie is one of a couple Jews in his class; and had I known enough to ask then (echoes of the "child who doesn't know how to ask" from the Passover Seder) I'd have queried that experience as a lad of 9 before his second heart attack removed him from the world. What was the thought process of eliding one's Jewish narrative?
Grandpa's Jewishness as a practice, as a theology, as a ritually-rooted commitment to the greater narrative and textual tradition from Abraham to the present, seemed to matter less than the reality of the present. Like our Biblical forefather Joseph (Abraham's great-grandson) who found himself a leader in Egypt as an Egyptian, Charlie was heroic precisely because he was so quintessentially American. It was his wife, my grandma, who spoke Yiddish, whose father founded shuls and organized Milwaukee Zionists.
Grandpa, my hero, had the hidden name: Charles Haskel Bachman. Haskel for Yehezkel, the prophet Ezekiel, mystic, chariot rider, Radical Seeker of the Name.
There was a burn there that went unspoken. If Ezekiel's chariot wheels burned; if Joseph's identity, after being sold by his brothers, burned; what fires roared in Charlie's soul? He never said. Both his sons inherited a kind of deafening silence that they in turn denied their sons. A muted, mutated patrimony.
But Joseph evolves, doesn't he?
This is the man I knew, in Kodachrome.
The confident lean. His beloved wife, the stocky looker from Minsk, and my mother, his non-Jewish daughter-in-law, on each arm. His sons on the flank. That mid-century wood-panelling, modernity's perfection, as background. This is a statement.
When Joseph goes down to Egypt, apparently the victim of his brothers' spite, we know, given his favored status by the father Jacob, that he'll be just fine. So fine that he'll thrive, adapt,and succeed--with his priorities in order.
But because he will have been sold down into slavery, as it were, he will have a ruthless individualism; a rugged and singular determination to make it on his own. I've always loved that about Joseph. He knows who he is, despite looking like the successful Egyptian that he is.
My only memory of going to Shul as a kid came from some year on a timeline, indecipherable, blurry and nondescript, in which I sat in a seat next to my dad and grandpa. The room was warm and I was transfixed by the Hebrew, by the tallises, by the windowed abstractions, by the mystery of it all. I fit myself, like a puzzle piece, between these two generations of Bachman men, asking questions in silence that would take years to vocalize and decades to answer.
It never ceases to amaze me how compelling their silence was. How present was their absence in the conveyance of Judaism's required transmission from one generation to the next.
On the other hand, I strove. I was an athlete. I led. And when it came to rooting those impulses in a value system, I came to realize that my own actions were derived from a narrative structure that they too embraced, albeit through the lens of the universal, the typical American strivings toward success.
Joseph comes to Torah each year to remind us that distance from the narrative is also redemptive; that future generations, especially those who at times "don't know how to ask," eventually ask. And their questions -- who am I? where do I come from? -- part seas.
I saw a moon over rush hour yesterday, in the early evening, hovering above buildings, winking confidently through the hues of a proud city sunset. Cars lined up on Varick Street, nudging their way toward the Holland Tunnel: slipping out of town just as that rounded lesser sun made a brief evening bow.
You have to be looking to notice, in the city; but when you do the reward is great. It's not necessarily a benefit on the scale of descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky or sand of the sea but it's not chump change, either.
It's cognition. The awareness that there is privilege in being after someone and before someone else. And that maybe there's even a story to tell of how you got there and where you might be going.
Here's my father at age one, held by his grandmother Rebecca, almost cupped in her ample hand, while his grandfather Chaim towers over, the faintest of prideful smiles engages the camera, saying, "I am a man who came here, made a living, sent for my wife, and this child is our first American." I don't think he ever said that but I imagine he did. The pen in his pocket even hints that he may be writing the story in real time.
My father and his grandmother, on the other hand, are fixing their glance a bit up and to the left. I haven't the faintest notion what it could be. The photographer's elaborate flash mechanism? A toy bird or monkey to distract the child? We'll never know. And that's the best part. We get to keep making it up over and over again.
The night before Jacob meets his brother Esau, he lays himself down by the banks of the Yabok River. His family is safe on one side and he goes to meet his fate, alone, on another. When he last saw his brother he was running for his life, their rivalrous fire stoked by their mother's ambitious plan to elevate Jacob, not Esau, as the leader of the family. Deep within his soul on that terrifyingly dark night of fratricidal fear, moral searching, military strategizing, or at best, simple, quiet confusion, Jacob dreams of wrestling. With whom, we'll never really know. The Torah says "a man" though after the dream he whom Jacob struggles with declares that "thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed."
It was never clear to me that the one wrestling Jacob was God or even angelic. On the other hand, who is really to know? What matters more is what Jacob said of the event himself: "Jacob called the name of the place 'Peniel, for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.'"
The angel/man/God never said that. Jacob did. He ascribed to an event of the unconscious the strivings and perceptions of a spiritual seeker. Like a baseball player who crosses himself before a 94 mile per hour fastball comes steaming across the plate, God is his invocation to power, his wish for success, his lucky rabbit foot on the dangling key chain to the many doors of life he will always walk through.
Another player on the scene might simply say, "Keep your eye on the ball. And when it comes at your head, duck."
My sense is that my great-grandfather made the decision, somewhere either in Minsk, on the steam ship, at Ellis Island, or on his horse and buggy in Western Wisconsin--somewhere out there on rivers both mythic and real--to lose his faith and build his family. To survive at all costs. He hedged his bets, it seems. A "learned layman" on the scene; a Mizrachi Zionist president. But by 1942 when he died, with that first American grandson in the war to save human civilization from Hitler, not a single one of his children were living any kind of serious Jewish lives and his grandchildren would virtually opt out of anything but the most tangential connections to the Jewish narrative. It's as if the dark night of those dark years of wrestling his own conscience, half a world away from the land he fled, yielded the end of the family line.
The Sages teach that according to one view, the man who wrestled with Jacob "threatened him with spiritual annihilation." Forced to argue for his own existence in such a way that would tempt Jacob into admitting that the fight for survival simply wasn't worth it. I know Jews like that. I meet them all the time. And it pains me, to be quite honest. Cuts to the quick, as they say. Not like a knife but like a baseball barreling down at you so fast you can't get out of its way.
But then again there's that moon over rush hour. It reveals an outcome that is sometimes unexpected.
So there's that.
And then there's the other thing, too. Like when people sit in the stands and watch a ball game. There's the guy who sees the whole history of the game, from its inception to its latest iteration, with his revered players from his favorite eras, who have risen and fallen with every challenge along the way. And then there's the guy who's there to just take in the game on a sunny afternoon. Its rhythm soothes him; the sounds of the fans in the stands, the crack of the bat, even the lad in the aisles sustains him with the sentimentality of ballpark fare. It's fun once in a while, nostalgic.
Jacob at the river is either a monumental spiritual hero or a spiritually annihilated forefather whose only surviving last resort is a nostalgia for crumbling sepia prints.
Or a moon over rush hour, storing secret light for an unforeseen future.
A Jewish fraternity Purim Party. 1947. Madison, Wisconsin.
Two years removed from the ashes of the end of the Second World War. In the pastoral hopefulness of a victorious nation, young Jews dress up in costume and celebrate their innocence on one side of the earth while across the globe, young Zionists fighting for their lives and their survival in a British Mandate Palestine not yet legally partitioned by the United Nations wonder, legitimately, if they'll be the last Jews on the planet. In fact, by February 1947 the British said they'd leave but in March there was no plan yet in place.
The way I like to look at my dad's frat party from this year is that despite the revelry, the Jewish future stood in the balance. Despite what appeared to be a kind of silly, blithe, even banal carelessness was an apparent molten turmoil, just out of reach.
What a world we're always living in: some lives torn apart, limb from limb, while others dress up, ape before cameras, delve into the carefree. Whether the 1940s or today: Why are we so lucky to be able to appreciate November's chill in Brooklyn while in the Philippines, all feels lost?
Not longer after Rachel and I moved to New York I met her Aunt Becky, who, as a secular leftist, stepped over the blockading body of her immigrant mother in Brooklyn in order to go study in Wisconsin in the 1930s. Mythic, transcendent striving. And then, after the war, wound up processing for relocation, to both the United States and Palestine, lives of Jews in Displaced Persons camps in Europe seeking better horizons than the typhoon of history that had obliterated what they previously defined, in the most mundane of terms, as "existence."
It's always been that way for us, hasn't it? Like one body divided into at least two: one of us enjoying an amber sun sinking into deep green hills while others run for their lives. How to hold such dissonance except to never shrink from doing what we can, whenever we can, from wherever we are.
If I were a poet I'd try to make you cry over the inexplicably random power of nature and its cruel trajectories this past week in the Philippines. Instead I'm merely a man with a broken heart at the loss of life, the loss of everything, and so simply ask you to join me in doing what we can, from a distance, while we live our fortunate lives, to help those in need, half a world away.
Here are two places you can give.
The American Jewish World Service
The Joint-Distribution Committee
Both are exemplary organizations who excel at getting what is needed to those in need.
Please do what you can. And let's hope and pray that those whose lives can be saved and restored will be saved and restored, by the intrepid kindnesses called forth in such shatteringly humbling disasters.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman with deep, dark eyes, soft hands and an ample breast. She retained a slight accent, though had come to America at age 3 or 4, following her father Chaim Siegel, who had paved the way in the late 19th century. From a small town in Minsk, obliterated of its Jews first by a wave of pogroms and then the Shoah, Grandma retained her Jewishness in her manner, her friendships, and her food. Though her father Chaim was clearly learned and among the founders of a Milwaukee synagogue, the orphanage, and the Mizrachi Zionists in town, the family seemed to locate its Jewishness with a moderate distancing from faith, far as I can tell.
Like many immigrants at the turn of the century, he cobbled together a living selling things from town to town. Here is a picture of him with his rig--"one horse heavey, one blind" while traveling upstate near Eau Claire.
The Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers run through town and a hundred years ago, the city was a lumber and milling center. It's no wonder that a Jew from rural Minsk would gravitate toward business in the small industrial areas outside the big cities. I once heard from an uncle that Chaim couldn't get out of New York faster after he arrived and even found Milwaukee too large and dirty. I guess you'd have to hate the city if you'd be willing to peddle junk in the countryside just to get away.
Grandma once told me, while shoveling her sour kugle my way, that while roaming the country scouring up business, he taught a devout upstate Lutheran named Olson how to read Hebrew in exchange for lessons in speaking English. Eighty years later when I was an aspiring student politician and went to Badger Boys State, I roomed with a kid from upstate named Olson. He seemed less impressed with the coincidence than I but no matter; in those days I was already assembling the narrative in the manner of a kid who finds a precious toy ship, disassembled in the family attic, and endeavors to reassemble, piece by piece, what had been left in storage for a couple generations. For a time, everything fit together perfectly.
Dad was silent on those visits, but devoted. He was present each week when we went to see our grandparents, but somehow out of focus, not quite in view, as his mother told me stories about her father: from Minsk to Milwaukee, the country peddler, the bag maker in Milwaukee, the community leader, a writer and poet. "He davened with the Twerskys but kept Shakespeare folios inside his siddur." I recently started really appreciating that. (Take no offense, God. The language soars!)
So while he didn't seem to say much about the Patrimony that was passed my way by his mother via his grandfather, he certainly condoned it. And in some ways, I suppose, like Joseph bringing his sons Ephraim and Menasheh to his father Jacob for a blessing, perhaps Dad honored his Patrimony by giving that right of passage to a more worthy generation. It worked. At fifty I can still feel my grandmother's hands on my head, lovingly trying to fatten me up; and my grandfather, the doctor, lifting me confidently for a kiss from his stubbly chin. The sheer physicality of the conveyance. Judaism--the faith of action and deed.
Dad's reticence used to mystify me until I started studying pictures of his grandfather, who I began to understand must have been a kind of towering and moderately terrifying figure. The sheer heroism of picking oneself up and making the journey across the sea; the fear of leaving your family behind; the singular focus on making money to send for them four years later; and the decades long drive to survive financially while establishing and leading Jewish institutions, creating the building blocks for a thriving Diaspora community in relatively welcoming, industrial, heartland city; and Americanizing your children and grandchildren to not only survive but thrive in the New Land. When Dad went off to join the service, he wrote letters back home to his mother. I have some of those. I wonder if he ever wrote his grandfather, the Patriarch, who was alive until 1949. If so, they're lost to history. That's a dialogue one can only imagine in most families. A chapter of time, etherized.
Sometimes I think Chaim Siegel was too much for my father to face. Dad carried his middle name, he looked a bit like him, but that's where it seems to end. It frustrates not to know, to fill in the blanks with speculation, to encounter the ellipses and be left, alas, with a shaky narrative built more on image than words.
Here's Chaim in 1925. He cleaned up nice after the horse rides out in western Wisconsin. He has the look of a man of success, steely focus and strength. But in a curious twist of neo-Abstract Expressionism, the painted grays that surround him in this photograph have always represented for me that image of man quite conscious of his image, both covering up and making larger than life the precious few mundane details that, for whatever reasons, remain a mystery. An absence: less discernible and growing greater with time.
Here's where the smoldering begins.
In 1946, when my dad returned from serving in the Second World War, he finished his degree at UW-Madison on the GI Bill of Rights. By the time I heard about these legendary events--fighting to save civilization and having a good time as a college student, there was more than enough myth-making to last a lifetime. There were his buddies from the war--a collection of Americans from every corner of the country, identified primarily by their uniforms and only secondarily, in my dad's case, for example, by their religion (I used to marvel at the embossed "H" in his dog-tags that identified him as a "Hebrew" or Jew.) There were stories of court martial trials for too much ping-pong, coffee and donuts; grabbing an extra case of beer for the journey home from the Philippines; ladies in Paris who loved American boys; and tender notes home to his mother, an immigrant from Minsk, who no doubt took pride in her patriotic son.
Back in Madison, certain unified myths broke apart a bit. One such example, an iconic favorite of mine, are the annual pictures from my dad's fraternity, Phi Sigma Delta. It was, as might be apparent from the photograph above, a Jewish fraternity, a relic from a time of restricted membership in social clubs throughout the country. My dad was a statistician in high school (his slight, brainy frame necessitated finding any means necessary to get close to his love of sport) and as such, he kept meticulous notes on who was who in his photos. The names themselves tell a story. Dads row, in the front, seated: Bob Sunder, Bob Epstein, Eddie Zimmerman, Jimmy Silverman, Steve Simon, Burt Sernovitz, Alvin Holzman, Mel Cohen, Stan Mohr, Monas Bachman. In the second to last row, standing, sixth from the right, is Abner Mikva, US Congressman from Chicago, Federal judge, councilor to Presidents. Of course, back then, he was just "Ab."
As a kid, I could look at these pictures for hours, thinking about the lives lived by these young men, their adventures and aspirations at the mid-century pivot of American history, and then wonder what came of them. Dad kept track of most, as far as he could, caught up with them at reunions, on the golf course and at business gatherings; but once his own life imploded in professional failure and defeat, the silent migration transferred, almost wordlessly, to me.
He, the son of an immigrant mother who fled pogroms in Minsk, bow-tied and saddle-shoed into post-war American success; but haunted, I maintain, by the burning fires of a destroyed European Jewry. Unable to really look back and a stubborn refuser of Jewish religious, linguistic, intellectual or cultural traditions, Dad punted, effectively, on developing a cohesive, hopeful, and rooted story to tell his kids. Oh, I could sing his high school and college alma maters, recount his Langdon Street fights with anti-Semitic youth ("if he's drunk enough, son, you just grab his tie, keep him off balance, and punch his lights out!") and his world map of his service hangs on my office wall. But it's as if a dark place precedes his own story, an empty grave waiting to be filled in, and once his name was made, his service, and his children were born, he realized, tragically, that that was all the gas he had in his tank.
On one hand it's sad, I'll admit. The story of a man who did just enough. A transitional man. The first of his generation raised in English. Navigating a new world for a mother who remained emotionally bound to a lost history in Jewish Russia. An exemplary student. A loyal, if moderately playful, soldier--and then the pivot.
The only real conversation Dad and I had about God was related to the war. He didn't do battle. He repaired jeeps and laid track as an Army Engineer. But when I pushed hard at him in high school about why he chose to not educate his kids as Jews, he said with a resigned succinctness: "After the Holocaust, it was clear there was no God."
He would be dead two years later, lost to self-neglect and a heart attack. But if I could talk to him today, knowing what I know about the burdens of first-generation kids; mid-century anti-Semitism; the grand narrative of war, destruction, genocide immediately and incomprehensibly followed by the founding of the Jewish state and the accelerated path to assimilation for American Jewry, I might have said to his erstwhile theological crisis, "So what if there's no God? Look at all those Jews you got to hang out with?"
His atheism, in other words, was a copout. It was a rejection of the weaving and the work necessary to build a life of meaning, of narrative, of passing on the values and morality from the smelting pot of his historical experience.
I've grown more compassionate toward him over the years, and in my own work try to make the case that simply not caring about one's identity is not an option. But I also remember, especially on days like today, Veterans Day, that some people, even those not scarred by battle, nevertheless return home from war as wounded soldiers, damaged by the cataclysm of battle, unable to withstand the enormous guilt of survival and the weighted responsibility to carry on.
But for a while, Dad, you looked good and you did good for the cause. You got us through a hell of a mid-century, brought your children into the world, and now it's our job to take it from here.
It was a week of milestones for us in Brooklyn and so an appropriate moment in time to take stock, now well into the new year, at the inspiring growth of our community.
This morning, as I have virtually every morning since Hurricane Sandy struck New York, I delivered a fresh cup of coffee to our amazing members Rozanne Gold and Michael Whiteman, who have taken the lead in making sure that the hungry of Brooklyn are fed. Monday through Friday since last November with a brief summer respite, they have continued to lead a volunteer staff of committed community members and teams of individuals from New York Cares to daily deliver more than 500 meals. And today, in the quiet of the CBE Kitchen, with warm coffees held aloft like sweet kiddush wine, we celebrated our 100,000th meal.
This is a number that was virtually unfathomable a year ago; but when our Council Member Brad Lander called and asked for a few hundred meals for residents staying at the Park Slope Armory, we said "yes" and have continued to do so--long since the storm has passed--because we learned that by affirming the call to serve, we have found areas of New York that labor under hunger and need our continued love and support. So we deliver to the Gravesend Houses, up and down Neptune Avenue, into Canarsie to church kitchens and over to Red Hook--and CBE Feeds does just that, if only so that those we encounter who are hungry should be fed.
Last week we were humbled and honored to learn that for our efforts, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Office of Storm Recovery had awarded us $309,000, enabling us to continue our feeding program for several years. This adds to a growing list of civic partnerships that have helped us to do this work - UJA Federation of NY, the Union for Reform Judaism, Brooklyn Community Foundation, Brooklyn Recovery Fund, City Councilman Brad Lander, the Ford Foundation, the Mayor's Fund for the City of New York, the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Our inspiring staff and volunteers have enabled us, through their work, and the generous contributions of so many more, to fulfill one of our Tradition's most ancient of commands. Thank you.
Since the synagogue was established as an institution in Jewish life more than two thousand years ago, it has served as a Gathering Place, a House of Prayer, and a House of Study. Not only do hundreds gather each Shabbat to sing and pray together; not only do dozens gather each week for learning across the Jewish spectrum; but several times a month now our Main Sanctuary is nearly full to capacity for our Brooklyn by the Book series which we run with our friends at the Community Bookstore and the Brooklyn Public Library. In the last ten days we've been filled to capacity for Diane Ravitch's new book about education in America; for an intimate conversation with David Gershon-Harris about the 2002 Hebrew University terrorist bombing; and next Tuesday, Brooklyn by the Book will have its largest event yet with the author Donna Tartt's only Brooklyn visit.
Events like this, that we have doubled in membership in the last six years, that our community reach is tireless and mission-driven--and last year's American Express contest to restore our stained glass windows--have grown our email advisory list to more than 10,000 unique names. This means that we can reach a lot of people. Which is, you know, awesome.
I'd go on and on but I have to run. Our over-subscribed dual-language Hebrew-English Early Childhood Center class is calling me for Shabbat. A classroom of three year olds, learning together and climbing all over the building blocks of our people's ancient language made new.
Anyway, the real purpose of this was a just a quick note to say how grateful we are for our successes in doing what we do--from feeding the hungry to expanding the minds of young and old and allowing all of those who seek a place of inspiration and loving kindness to call this place home. A community that has been teaching one of Jewish civilization's most enduring values, echoed genuinely in the American discourse as well: from the many, one. Wherever you come from, you're home at CBE.
Thanks. And Shabbat Shalom.
I'm always struck by those awkward moments when I see you but you don't see me and you're saying something nasty or doing something mean but then your eye catches mine, your demeanor changes, you smile and say, "Oh, hello Rabbi!"
I exchange pleasantries right back but sometimes I want to say, "Hey, don't do me any favors. I'm not God. Or your conscience. Or a camera." Knock it off, I want to say. You know what you're doing and you know it is wrong. In other words, don't put on faces--just do what's right.
But let's face it--sometimes I'm glad they saw me just so they can stop being mean to the person they're with, pause, re-consider their behavior and do a mid-course correction. I mean, it's not like there's a God who will suddenly appear like a bolt of lightening and wake them up from their lugubrious slumber from decency. Whatever works, I guess.
To the extent that one's prayer is meant to be an enactment of aspirational behavior, certain aggregate forms of anger and vituperation were hovering above my head like a dark cloud on Thursday morning, having read in the New York Times that as Affordable Health Care went into effect, millions of our country's poor went uninsured because Republican state governments chose not to extend Medicaid to those impoverished, often working people, mostly because the way the law was designed, written, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President was meant to offer Federal subsidies for the poor and Medicaid expansion for the very poor. But as we all have grown tired of hearing, our government is locked in a battle between a Republican party controlled by a fringe minority that is opposing the President at all costs--even to the radical disadvantage to the poor--in this case, 8 million people denied health care. One middle age woman with high blood pressure who lives in Virginia is considering moving to Maryland and living out of her car--just to get health insurance. Ted Cruz: you hate the President that much?
Hatred of the President is so great that rather than talk to him, this democratically empowered rump group is taking out its anger on the least advantaged. Kick the poor but smile for the cameras. It's really quite nauseating.
At 7:15 am I was already riled up. So I strapped myself in for the ride, tallis and tefilin like a mad man's constraints and words of the Psalms coursing through my veins: "Halleluyah. It is good to sing Psalms to our God, it is pleasant to praise Him. The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathers Israel's dispersed. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. He numbers all the stars and gives each one a name."
Metaphor. ME-TA-PHOR. The mantra of praise. Don't get caught up in whether or not God hears you or whether or not you actually believe in a God who hears you. That doesn't matter right now. What matters is that you say nice things. The cognitive behavioral therapy of saying good things even when you're thinking bad things. Say good things with all your breath it might turn out to be true.
You have a nice sun tan, Mr. Boehner. You sure are passionate about your beliefs, Mr. Cruz. Would you like to have lunch sometime?
Let's face it: these characters don't body-check each other enough. Isn't their a bowling alley in the White House? A basketball court? Wasn't there a Beer Summit once? Why just once?
Open your mouths and smile--not to your constituents or your donors or the cameras--but to each other.
I once fantasized that if I ever ran for Congress, I'd host a regular text study on Capitol Hill. Being the only rabbi in the House or Senate, it would be an interesting novelty to practice the pluralism I love so much in serving the Jewish people and teach it to these men and women on the Hill. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Native Americans, Atheists, Agnostics--all serving the American people and sitting around the lingo-vocal plurality of Jewish text. They'd see that God has many faces, many voices. Just like the American people. They'd understand that there is more that unites us than divides us, as they say.
I suppose we'd also eat. I'd teach Michele Bachmann to pronounce "shmear" properly. Angels would sing.
There I was in our Shul at 7:15 am. Reading that "He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds." I was wondering who pays for that?
Our CBE Feeds program started up again on Wednesday. We're back to feeding 500 people a day. Are things so bad that we have to think of opening a health care clinic, too? Hey, we'll do it if we have to; but is that really our job?
Could be a good text study on Capitol Hill. In reading Psalm 147, the Sages suggest that when the Psalmist writes, "He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds" it's a healing in response to the destruction of Jerusalem, caused in no small part, the Sages continue, by the "free and causeless hatred fellow Jews had for one another."
In other words, if people in Congress could actually speak to one another and identify what unites them in service to our country, rebuild their city, gather in the dispersed sent away in anger--they'd heal one another from their own senseless destruction, and prevent themselves from truly undesirable result of their mutual hatred--which is the poorest of the poor denied basic health-care coverage.
When God decides to obliterate the face of the earth with an enormous flood in the Noah story, the text in Genesis attributes this divine decree to God's telling Noah, "The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth."
The Dubner Magid, a Hasidic master, taught that this is like when someone hosts a huge banquet with the finest foods that, sadly, descends into a massive, greedy fight over what is laid on the table. So the host removes everything, saying, "With an empty table, there's nothing to fight over."
Of course, those at a banquet generally are used to having enough to eat. So while the government shutdown may be like the empty banquet table, quietly humbling our civil servants into the embarrassment over their fight that may get them back to compromise, to pass laws, and to get things working again, the poor stand on the outside looking in, waiting for the relatively wealthy among us to cease their games so that the business of taking care of the least advantaged can get back on track.
What did the Magid of Mezeritch say about the earth being filled with violence in Noah's time? "The sin of the generation of the flood was that the people preferred the 'earth'--their material wants--to their idea of God and a higher calling. They made their own materialism the most important value and holiness secondary."
Holiness, however we may define it, makes clear demands: It heals the broken-hearted. It binds up their wounds. And this, like the mythic idea of Jerusalem, makes us whole.
Shemini Atzeret 5774
I know a man who once asked me to bury his father. The father, who had died after a moderately long life but a life that wasn’t long enough, was buried in the heart of winter, with a heavy snow falling outside, and cold, bracing winds blowing between New York and New Jersey. We eulogized the father in a funeral home on the Upper West Side, with Kleenex boxes and serious undertakers and glasses of water, at room temperature, set aside for thirsty mourners throats, tired from talking and crying. A time for talking and a time for crying.
The ride to the cemetery was brief. At the graveside the wind kicked up. Family and friends steeled into it and looked for sunlight, for hope, through the scattered clouds. A time for sun and a time for clouds.
The grave, it’s frozen earth arranged in small heaps, curated, as it were, welcomed the pine box and the body of the man. A time for bodies and a time for souls.
He was a hardware man. He owned a store that sons and nephews and cousins had worked in, grown in, evolved in. When the box was lowered into the ground one had a sense that the men who gathered around it like a team at a loading dock wordlessly dispatches deliveries, knew what to do.
They grabbed the shovels and went to work. The hardened earth, the frozen earth, became molded clay, softened by the blows and then conveyed, lovingly, down, down, down into the ground. A time for up and a time for down.
One such man signalled the cemetery workers standing off to the side in observance of this viscerally timeless Jewish gathering on the winter land which was New Jersey but could have easily been Minsk; and in a seamless consonance of purpose and understanding, conveyed to the cemetery workers, mostly Latinos to let the Jews do their work.
“Dad would love this,” one said. And they kept on digging and lifting and tossing that earth, down, down, down into the cold, cold ground. They were committed to complete the job. The grave workers would sit off to the side. Watching the Jews bury their dead. “This is what we do,” the Jews said. “This is our job. This is our work now.”
Just then, before the job was complete, an uncle, the brother of the deceased, “the atheist,” a philosopher, steps forward toward the hole in the ground. I am propelled back twenty-five years in time, to my own grandfather’s frozen graveside, to a hole in the ground that my grieving grandmother, Russian-born, offered herself down to--take me, take me, she cried. A dead man. A dead man. I feared the worst. That the brother would throw himself down, like Esau returning, once and for all, to Jacob. But at the moment, in a flash, he opened, his jacket, pulled out a camera, aimed its lens, and shot a picture of the casket, nestled into the earth. In a moment, beneath a Jersey sky, he made his own memorial.
“No monuments need be put up for the righteous,” the Talmud teaches us, “their words are their monuments.” Then the son of the dead father spoke. “Let him take the picture,” he said. “It’s his way of dealing with this.”
Robert Frost wrote, “God once spoke to people by name. The sun once imparted its flame. One impulse persists as our breath. The other persists as our faith.”
The son, like many of us at the graveside, had faith. The brother, like many of us at the graveside, had his needs. And both stories, wound around each other like the tefilin straps holding near the words bound to our hearts and souls, are a greater memorial to those who lived and died than that which is carved in stone, only to be one day worn away by wind and rain and sun and snow.
קחו עמכם דברים--take with you words, said the prophet Hosea, on Shabbat Shuva, nearly three weeks ago--ושובו אל ה אלוהיך--and return to the Eternal your God. Take with you words and return to the Source of All Life, to Everything that was and is and always will be.
We work so hard to mourn. We work so hard to remember. We work so hard to hold on to the memories of those we love, to keep their souls, their goodness, their decency, their kindness and even their complications, alive with us in the world. And we shape and mold our understanding with words, expressed in laughter and tears and revelry and bitterness and frustration and exaltation, words upon words upon words, like rocks, piled high on a stone, marking time and our presence, bearing witness that they were here, that we are here.
Recently, nearly 15 years after burying the man’s father, I buried his mother. Time, that beautiful, paradoxical, inexorable force of metamorphosis, had made its mark. Living, talking, growing, changing and evolving had deepened understanding; it had softened the hard, frozen edges of death’s searing mandate.
Some of those who stood over the family plots fifteen years ago were still there; others were now gone. Surveying the scene one cousin said, “Let’s go. Let’s fill it in. This is our job. This is the work we have to do now.” This time the son was satisfied filling in *most* of the way and letting the cemetery workers do the rest.
“It’s just what we’re going to do this time,” said the son. “I did my work for Daddy.” He was more rooted now, it seemed. More deeply reflective. With a second parent gone, the horizon, drawing near, demanded a more open posture.
And at that moment, under a late summer sky, trees still full and in ripe anticipation of their own impending deciduousness, a great truth was spoken. A child knew his mourning work. He knew what he needed to remember and he knew what he could forget. When to work and when to rest. He knew when to laugh and when to cry, when to seek and when to lose, when to love and when to hate, when to be silent and when to speak.
With time, in his memory, in the words he spoke, he had attained wisdom. “It’s not work. It’s just what we do.”
“Because Koheleth was a sage,” we learn, “he listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims. The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks.”
Words are the ways we make memorial for the righteous. Their words and our words. Deeds are the ways we grant eternal life to those we remember. Ecclesiastes, so seemingly cynical in his ordered, seasonal affective post-mortem on loss and life and fate, concludes with this deepest of lessons about life and death, gain and loss, and wisdom:
“The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments. For this applies to all mankind: that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלוהים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם--It’s just what we do. We laugh and we cry. We remember and we forget. We build memorials and we make new life. And in the doing is the remembering, the souls of those who live forever, the Source of All Life who is forever, together with those we love, בצרור החיים--Bound up in the bonds of everlasting life, forever.