Monthly Archives: June 2012

For Now

Today is my last entry as Before Shabbat goes into summer mode. I’ll be taking several summer weeks away from the blog, though my idea folder will continue to be open and at the ready. I appreciate the weekly rhythm writing establishes for me. I can communicate with you and share reflections, reactions, and responses. It’s almost never difficult to come up with a theme for the week. The days are so long and so busy. There’s always a plethora of inspiration and news: local, international, Israel-related, good, bad, etc. I appreciate in the deepest and most profound way your readership, your comments, your kindness.
Tonight I will be blessing my son, Jonah, and his wife-to-be, Maggie, on the bimah, in honor of their upcoming July 1st wedding. In this quiet time prior to that big moment, I find myself feeling so full of joy and gratitude. Without being too maudlin, let me just say that I grew up without many expectations that I deserved good things.
Now as a man approaching 60, I find that my cup runneth over. It may just be possible that, as it also says in Psalm 23, “…goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” What a turnaround! What a concept!!
Everyone deserves goodness and mercy. Everyone is due good things. It is equally true that there are no guarantees that we will get them. To live is to know suffering and loss and pain. I used to think like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s role in Annie Hall. Remember he said that he would only read books with the word ‘death’ in the title.
But there is more. Yehudah Amichai, the greatest modern 20th century poet of Israel once wrote a book entitled, Beyond All This There Hides a Great Happiness. If we can keep our hearts open, if we end up with the right partner, if we can find work that we love, if we can surround ourselves with family and friends whom we honor and who honor us, then we have a fighting chance. There is a great happiness. Have a healthy summer filled with relaxation, great books, good company, and love.
Shabbat Shalom
rebhayim

I wrote a poem this past week to honor Ruth Neiterman, a long time Hebrew teacher who tragically died of cancer. I read it at her funeral and several folks requested that I reprint it here.

For Ruth
by Keith Stern

Little Jewish kids are afraid of Hebrew
Who can blame them?
The sharp, scary letters
the gutteral challenge of a chaf
The laryngeal mystery of an ayin or a chet
The unnatural buzz of a tzade…
The blinding smear of dots
Flying across the pages like angry bees from a Hebrew hive
direct the destiny
Of random letters
Sussing or shushing
Being or ve-ing…
And all flowing backwards…

Hebrew spins off
Desiccated parchments and
Old rabbis wrinkled hands
Ancient dust devils
Swirling over the heads of little Jewish kids

Surrounded by dark primal sounds
Panicked by walls of alien symbols
They lift their eyes to the mountains
They say help!

And if they are very lucky
There is a teacher – a Hebrew teacher
A woman of patience and virtue
So much more than an eshet hayil
Who is not afraid of the letters
In fact she loves the letters
And she shows them to the children and she says
So calmly,
No don’t be afraid
Here look you can pet this daled
You can hold a final mem
See! You can do it!
The kaf won’t bite.

So they approach her
They look in her kind face
And the little Jewish kids trust her
They come closer
Pulled in by her gentle wisdom
And they know that this teacher
Will challenge the brightest student
And will wait for every ADHD IEP on-the-spectrum kid
Who’s lucky enough to end up in her class

There are little Jewish kids
Scattered all over the world
Grown men and women now in their 30s and 40s and older
Hundreds – thousands
Successful educated people
And if you ask them
Do you remember who guided them through the thicket of aleph-bet
They will say, it was Mrs. Neiterman
Who loved Hebrew letters
But who most of all
Loved us.

The Creator

The first book I ever bought with my own money was Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It was a Bantam Pathfinder paperback with a black framed cover. In the middle was a painting of a man entirely covered with tattoos. I think it cost 50¢, which was 2 weeks of allowance.
I always loved speculating about the stars and the planets and aliens. So when one day, a family friend started talking about science fiction, I was on the lookout. In the little bookstore in Middletown on the corner of Court and Broad Street, I found the tiny Sci-Fi section and struck gold.
Two things really surprised me when I began reading Bradbury’s short story collection. One was how instantly accessible and enjoyable his writing was. The second was that, well, he was breaking the rule my English teachers always gave before any writing assignment: “Write what you know.” I was 10 years old, but I was certainly old enough to know that from the very first story, Bradbury was creating images entirely out of his imagination. I liked that so much!
We are all creators, inventors of narratives that we hatch deep in our unconscious. That’s what it means when the Torah says that we are created in God’s image. Of course it’s not about body type or skin color or the ability to procreate. We are like God because like the Holy One, we create narrative. We are storytellers, just like God.
“From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” Hemingway wrote that, and I trust Hemingway to tell the truth about fishing, women, war, and writing. The great short story author, Bret Johnston once wrote, “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things. Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.”
Ray Bradbury, who died last week at age 91, taught me to appreciate my own creativity and that of others, too. His best short stories took me into other worlds: flying to Mars, trying to stay sane in the rain forests of Venus, dealing with the loneliness of space, and more. Reading his work, like listening to great music, is entering another person’s universe and luxuriating, like all the people who lined up to enter John Malkovich’s head in the movie, Being John Malkovich. It’s all about amazement and wonder.
One night, at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, I saw the late, great Michael Brecker. He was playing a tenor sax solo that was truly extraordinary. Deep, rich, complex, captivating, searching, weeping, exalting – it was all those things – and more. In the middle of the 7 minute solo he paused for a breath. I will never forget that moment. As he took his breath he opened his eyes and looked at his horn – his own horn – looked with amazement and awe. He was creating something new and profound that was beyond him. And he was the one creating it!
None of us will ever play the horn like Michael Brecker. None of us will probably ever write with the insight of Ray Bradbury. But each of us has the sacred power of creation. Each one of us, created in God’s image, can create a universe in our art, our sport, our appreciation. We can create space: supportive and loving space for our children, our partners, our friends.
Ray Bradbury once said, “Do what you love and love what you do.”
Amen. Goodbye Ray.

Changes

I am hardly a traditionalist, yet I must admit that I have said, more than once, “Some things will never change.” I never imagined that a black man would become president of the United States. I never imagined that I would become an Apple person (“I’ll never leave my PC behind!”). Of course when I was 10 I never imagined that I would eat salad or broccoli or actually anything green. And now I am a vegetable king!
I have remained resolutely certain that some things will never change within the ranks of our ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters. After all, their mission is to stave off as much innovation and modernity as they can (see last week’s Before Shabbat about the anti-Internet rally) From this perspective, they could do harmony with Christian fundamentalists when they sing, “Give me that old time religion/It’s good enough for me”.
The fact that change is considered anathema for most traditionally religious people guarantees that there will never be women Catholic priests. The same truth guarantees that there will never be a female Orthodox rabbi. Some things will never change.
And yet… Rabbi Avi Weiss, a popular traditional rabbi who propounds what he calls open Orthodoxy created a yeshiva that instructs men and women. One of his brilliant students, Sara Hurwitz, was so distinguished that last year he ordained her. She is called rabba, the female variation of rabbi. He originally chose the title maharat, which is some sort of Hebrew acronym for “scholar” that almost nobody knows. So he changed his mind. “These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” declared Agudath Israel of America, ultra-Orthodoxy’s most authoritative rabbinic body. “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” Weiss, never a favorite among the hard-liners, was accused of sabotaging his community. Steven Pruzansky, a rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey, wrote on his popular blog, “Those who seek to infiltrate the Torah with the three pillars of modern Western life—feminism, egalitarianism, and humanism—corrupt the Torah, cheapen the word of G-d.” [New York Magazine]
All of which goes to prove that if one is willing to stand the slings and arrows of fanatics, maybe it is possible to move things. Perhaps some things can change. Even amongst Orthodox Jews, albeit open Orthodox Jews, the unthinkable is happening. There lives an Orthodox rabbi who is a female – in my lifetime. Traditional Jews who abhor open Orthodoxy are right to be afraid. When an American Orthodox rabbi like Rabbi Pruzansky writes a blog condemning feminism, egalitarianism and humanism as not only contrary to Judaism, but destructive to it, then you know that Rabbi Weiss has cut too close to the bone. You know that change is going to come, kicking and screaming all the way.
Another huge transformation for female rabbis and for Reform Jews occurred this week in Israel. Now don’t get too excited. Remember, 3 women were arrested last Tuesday at the Kotel for wearing a tallit. No, that’s not a typo. Arrested for wearing a tallit. However, as that injustice was being perpetrated, in an unprecedented move, Israel has announced that it is prepared to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries. Rabbis belonging to either stream will be classified as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” The attorney general advised the High Court that the state will begin equally financing non-Orthodox rabbis in regional councils and farming communities that are interested in doing so.
The state of Israel, recognizing non-Orthodox rabbis? Men and women?? That will never happen… Only it has happened. Now before we break out the champagne, let’s review the extent of the compromise. The non-Orthodox rabbis will be called “community leaders” and not rabbis. They will have no authority to wed or perform halachic duties. They will however sit on various committees and get paid by the state like their Orthodox counterparts. They will be paid, not by the Religious Affairs department, but rather the Culture and Sports Ministry. Is this ideal? Hardly. But it’s a beginning. The precedent has been set.
Now it’s just a matter of time. And a matter of faith. Instead of proclaiming that some things will never change, it might be wiser and much more positive to repeat Sam Cooke’s lyric: “It’s been a long time coming/But a change is going to come.” And it will come. With God’s help. And with our dedication and hard work.