Monthly Archives: April 2018

So Long, Fat Albert

I need to preface this week’s Before Shabbat with the following disclaimer: I have loved listening to and watching Bill Cosby for 50 years. From his I Spy days to all of his comedy albums to the Cosby Show: I couldn’t get enough. I learned the “Snowball” segment of Revenge by heart. I do a perfect impression of Fat Albert.
Cosby’s revolutionary humor was to veer away from one-liners and shtick, to long, rambling monologues about his life. And even if you weren’t a black, inner-city raised kid, you could relate to him and his escapades. His storytelling was thoughtful, intimate, and so well crafted. His timing was impeccable.
He would often sit in a chair in the middle of a big stage when doing his monologues. The way Cosby used his face; his smirks and eye rolls and the looks of shock, disbelief, mischief, and so forth, was truly brilliant. Every one of his gestures was enough to make the crowds howl. And we did howl.
I incessantly listened to Cosby’s early albums: I Started Out as a Child; Why Is There Air?; Revenge; To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and more. You’d think with a comedy album, once listened to was useless. But no. I must have listened a 100 times and laughed at the same fabulous dénouements. I would be so pleased when a friend came over who never heard Cosby’s albums. I was proud to introduce them to a man I considered one of the funniest humans around.
Cosby’s allure was not simply that he was a fabulous storyteller comedian. It was not only that he was a black man redefining an entire genre of comedy. It was not just that his appearance with Robert Culp on I Spy declared a new beginning in the lily-white world of television drama. Cosby was a funny, successful, brilliant mensch. His stories were never vituperative or cruel. He made a point of describing real life with honesty and insight. He was not afraid to reveal his flaws and shortcomings as a father and as a husband.
NBC passed on the Fat Albert Show because Cosby insisted on making every episode educational. They just wanted entertainment. But Cosby would not edit the pilot and sold it to CBS.
Fat Albert always had a theme of honesty or loyalty or fairness. In the middle of the cartoon, Cosby would break in and talk for a minute or two or so, reiterating the lesson of the show. Fat Albert aired in 1972. I was 17 years old, and I religiously watched with my younger siblings and then, years later, my children. I distinctly remember singing with them, days later, weeks later, the refrain of a song that played on an episode we watched (there was always a musical interlude at the end of each episode repeating the lesson of the day): “There’s no fool like a fool/That’s playing hooky (hey hey hey)”…
When the allegations about Cosby began to surface, I couldn’t believe it. Someone with such a highly successful career! A teacher’s teacher! How could this man of moral rectitude, this giant of philanthropy, Doctor Cliff Huxtable, for God’s sake! How could Bill Cosby possibly be a sick sexual predator? There had to be a mistake, some explanation.
But of course, there is no explanation. Bill Cosby, over many years, abused the trust of women – many, many women. He lured them into his hotel suite, or at times, into his own home. He would coo and compliment and then offer a drink that he laced with a heavy sedative. Then Cosby would sexually assault them.
Could Cosby’s behavior be signs of profound mental illness?  Could this need to express sexual dominance be a sickness? Or is it another post #Me Too realization of the depths to which a man can sink as he exercises a need for dominance and control? Is it another example in an infinitely long line of men who believe they are above the law, that sexually abusing women is somehow their prerogative?
A jury found Mr. Cosby guilty on three counts of assaulting Andrea Constand: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant. These are felonies, each punishable by up to 10 years in state prison, though the sentences could be served concurrently.
I am disgusted, truly disgusted by Cosby’s crimes. I hope he spends the rest of his life in jail. After hurting, physically and mentally, so many women – perhaps as many as 50 or even more, Cosby deserves nothing less.
Now I have an existential dilemma. And I don’t know the answer to this conundrum. Can we separate the art from the artist? Is it politically incorrect to want to listen to an old Cosby monologue for entertainment’s sake? Can I still appreciate Modigliani? Or Picasso? Or Chuck Close? Knowing they sexually harassed models? Can I watch American Beauty, one of my favorite American movies? Or another one of my all-time favorites, The Usual Suspects, ever again? Or does Kevin Spacey’s predatory behavior make it taboo, or what we call in Yiddish, pahst nisht? What about Woody Allen? Should these men now be in herem (culturally excommunicated)?
I honestly do not know how to answer these questions. There are gradations of offenses, from harassment to actual physical violation. Do the gradations make a difference in how we should respond? Is it that the longer ago it is, the more we might find it acceptable to view or read the offenders’ art, while still condemning the behavior of the artist? Or is there no statute of limitations for any work by any man who has sought to use and abuse women as sexual objects?
I would appreciate your feedback on this vexing issue. How have you made peace from your perspective? Upon what principles do you base a decision you have made about this dilemma? Because I don’t know how to parse it. Not yet.
I applaud the strength and the fortitude of Andrea Constand, and the many other women who were hurt and damaged and raped by Bill Cosby. I am so deeply offended by Cosby’s behavior and his slick dodging of the truth. The number of lives he compromised and destroyed, hiding behind a well-built wall of deception and authority, is too high. It blots out the possibility of enjoying whatever old performances I might watch. And it may be that way for the rest of my life.
So long, Fat Albert.

Thinking About Israel: Year 70

I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel. How could I not? Yesterday was Yom Ha-atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. It’s a time to acknowledge Jewish pride, strength and resolve.  It’s a time to praise the men and women, many not much older than 25 years old, who went to Eretz Yisrael in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They faced a herculean, Sisyphean task: to transform a land wracked by drought, swamps, and poverty – not to mention marauders and malaria – into a homeland.

Many of these pioneers had parents who disowned them because they went to Eretz Yisrael to create a true autonomous Jewish entity, rather than waiting for a divine decree from God. For the pious Jewish families of Eastern Europe, from which so many of the early Zionist pioneers came, it was an article of faith to pray to the Holy One to reestablish the land of Israel. They did not envision Israel as a political entity with a president and a DMV and a bus company and police, but rather as the Messianic fulfillment of God’s promise to gather all the Jews together at the end of time and to create a place of perfection and truth and God.

Look what they did. David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee recently wrote, “Step back from the twists and turns of the daily information overload and consider the sweep of the last seven decades. Look at the light-years traveled since the darkness of the Holocaust, and marvel at the miracle of a decimated people returning to a tiny sliver of land — the land of our ancestors — and successfully building a modern, vibrant state against all the odds.

In the final analysis, the story of Israel is the wondrous realization of a 3,500-year link among a land, a faith, a language, a people, and a vision. It is an unparalleled story of tenacity and determination, courage and renewal. And it is ultimately a metaphor for the triumph of enduring hope over the temptation of despair.”

Yes! But… it turned out that Eretz Yisrael was not just the land of our ancestors. It was also the land of the Palestinian people. And while we did build a modern, vibrant state, it was after banishing Palestinians from their rightful ancestral homes and creating a series of facts on the ground that turned Palestinians into second-class citizens – in their own land. And yes! It is “a story of tenacity and determination, courage and renewal,” it is also a story of mendacity and betrayal, of theft and violence.

 When my generation of babyboomers studied American history, no one suggested the savagery of the colonizers. The European explorers like Columbus and Cortez and Magellan were all exciting guys doing brave things. But over these last 25 years, as revisionist history has exposed some of the sordid pieces of the American myth, we have had to honestly reassess what we did to arrive at this great nation. How were Native Americans treated? How deep are the scars of slavery? How does racism continue to disease the soul of America? What went into the decision to intern Japanese Americans during WWII?

To ask these questions and many more, to explore their depth, does not make one a bad American. Rather it makes one a loyal American, willing to expose the whole truth and nothing but the truth to arrive at the true heart and soul of America. Criticism and honesty are key to a free, open society.

One doesn’t need to accept all historical judgments; there are lots of interpretations on the what and why of history. But to turn away from acknowledging tragic flaws or racist ideology is willful ignorance, which is good for no one.

With all my heart, I believe this teaching holds true for Israel, too. How can we not speak out when we see injustice in Israel? How can we remain as bystanders? What kind of example do we share with our children and grandchildren if we do not stand with the millions of Israelis who are appalled by the steady assault on democracy in Israel? As Millennials back away from Israel, regardless of their Birthright experience, how do we move them back inside when they see the tragedy of Gaza? How can we maintain the Occupation? How will we initiate a true dialogue to enable a two-state solution to come to fruition? When will the settlement movement, at last, be stopped?

Some of you may find this harsh language for a birthday card…. But it is only written out of my love for Israel and my enormous concern about the road they are traveling. Of course, I am not saying I agree with any and all protests against Israeli policies. I am very opposed to Jewish Voices for Peace and any other group that uses BDS as a tool to hurt Israel. I am and have been gravely concerned about the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist trope found in lots of the rhetoric on the Left. They are neither friends nor allies.

I am aware of how difficult it is to connect with Palestinian leaders who are able and willing to enter into a true dialogue with Israelis about a two-state solution. But we are the strong ones. Israel has the upper hand – and arm and leg, too. We are the ones who must make the opening moves. We are the ones who must make the connections and the risks, all from a place of strength and security – and humanity and Jewish ethics.

My prayer on this 70th year of Israel is that we work together, Jews of America and Jews of Israel, to exalt all that is extraordinary and sacred about the state of Israel. But not just the easy work of pointing out the good and the holy. We must also work to lift the state of Israel to a place of peace and comity. Israel can be a true light to the nations.

As it says in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

To this, I say, Amen. Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will. And ours.

Happy birthday Israel.


Shabbat Shalom




On April 12, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, entered Ohrdruf concentration camp with Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. What he saw utterly overwhelmed him.
I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British public in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Eisenhower understood that the moral fabric of the Universe had frayed and torn, revealing the absolute ugliest manifestation of human evil. He took responsibility as commanding general to insist that the ethical imperative was to direct the United States to look full on at the horrors of the Holocaust. He differentiated between WWII and the Holocaust. He saw that they were two different wars: one was a war of territorial conquest. The other war was a war against the Jews.
The US Army has maintained a commitment to Holocaust education that began with Eisenhower. For the Army, liberating the camps was a deed of courage. It also reinforced, for every officer and foot soldier who participated in the liberation, the necessity of the war. It provided a context for the sacrifices of the military. It was a matter of life and mass death.
Lieutenant General Thomas Vandal wrote the following to every soldier in the Army:
“Each year, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum leads the nation in the Days of Remembrance, a week-long observance established in 1978 to pay respect to the millions of victims subjected to Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s…
Out of the chaos of war emerged the will of individuals whose collective actions across the world joined to eliminate tyranny. This year marks the 73d anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces. The U.S. Army played a pivotal role and proudly upheld our Army Values as part of this international effort to end the injustice of the Holocaust.
All of us must do our part as members of our Army and global society to stand up for injustice. It is our duty to be members of exceptional character and live the Army Values at all times. As we take time to remember, we encourage each of you to attend your local observance for the Days of Remembrance events… Remain vigilant at all times against acts of hatred and intolerance wherever they occur. Learn from the Holocaust: Choose to Act!”
This is how I found myself at the Natick United States Army Soldier Systems Center this past Wednesday. I was invited to give the invocation and the benediction for a Holocaust memorial presentation. There were three survivors in attendance, including the guest speaker. All three were part of the German orphanage into which my father was placed in 1938. Together with 37 other kids, they made their way into France to escape the Nazi terror. Additionally, there were local Jewish community attendees, veterans, and active duty soldiers and officers from the base.
It was deeply moving to see the soldiers, particularly the young ones, in attendance. Men and women in their 20s, who probably had a modicum of education about the Holocaust, they sat with rapt attention, clearly moved by Holocaust survivor, Stephan Loewy’s testimony.
These ceremonies occur now on Army bases in all 50 states. How reassuring that there are base commanders all over the United States who understand the larger context of moral education.  They realize that the Army must train soldiers to develop a sensitivity to the evil that is inherent in world and regional conflicts. We have got to be on the moral side of war. When we are not, it wounds the soul of our nation.
I watched the three survivors with whom my father wandered in France. They are not young men. But they still move with purpose and conviction. They continue to see their lives as a gift. They continue to go to memorials and services and events that commemorate the Holocaust.
I don’t know if it’s easy for them. It’s not for me. But as I watched them leave the auditorium, I clearly saw that I am obligated to push through my sadness, the pain, the dark memories, and to keep testifying as they have. My father died so young. He never spoke of his experiences, even as they haunted him.
He did not speak, and I must. This is the legacy of the Holocaust, passed down to the second and third generations: choose to act!

Remarks from the 20th Anniversary Celebration

It is rare when I am tongue-tied. It’s usually due to being emotionally overwhelmed In such situations words are simply inadequate. They fail to measure up to the task of truly expressing the depths of my soul.
But I won’t hide behind the inadequacy of words. I want to share this attempt, from March 10th, to somehow verbalize my deepest gratitude.
There’s not a good Hebrew word for “anniversary”. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Maybe the Jewish calendar is already filled up with so many holidays and special fasting days, not to mention every Shabbat… maybe adding anything too personal was considered pahst nisht — something that’s not done. Well, I’m glad I speak English because I think anniversaries are precious. It’s a reason to stop and reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and then imagine the next anniversary.
Twenty years. A time of innocence. A time of confidences. I came in like gangbusters, filled with ideas for change and transition. I was a ready, fire, aim kind of guy. We were in a new building, and the runway looked wide open. I was raring to go.
In all of my exuberance, I did not stop and empathize that Rabbi Miller and Ann Cherenson, the mom and dad of Beth Avodah, were no longer in the house. I didn’t fully appreciate the experience of loss that people felt, and just how traumatic the new rabbi’s arrival would be. That anybody stayed is a blessing. That you didn’t send me back to Texas is a testimony to your patience and forbearance.
Bev Holzman has always been my fiercely loyal critic. The length of my sermons and my beard, my kittel, Hasidic niggunim, all of these and more were topics she brought to my attention. Once she said to me, “I don’t like a lot of this stuff you’re doing, but where else am I gonna go?” I love Bev, her honesty, her loyalty, her ever clicking knitting needles.
We managed to make it work. I tried to listen better, to slow down and let things take their course. You agreed to think about liturgy and sermons and rabbis in a new way. You gave me a chance. Some of you came to me to help me refocus my energy, a gesture I will never forget. You were honest and forthright.
From time to time someone will ask me, “How many Bar Mitzvahs have you officiated at?” I think it would be cool to know the answer. I started officiating at B’nai mitzvah as a student rabbi in 1979. The first funeral service I officiated at was in 1978. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was scary and awesome in the religious sense of the word. It was for Joel Davis’ grandmother. That’s how traumatic it was for me – I remember his name 40 years later.
My first congregation was in Tulsa, OK. I was an assistant rabbi to a very top-down senior. Charles had a book for lifecycle events. He wrote down every wedding, funeral bar/bat mitzvah, confirmation class, bris and baby naming he performed. I think maybe he’s like Achashveros. When he can’t sleep he leafs through those books.
To keep records like that you need to be organized. I know this is big news for you but – I’m not so organized. But it’s more than this. I think the answer to the question, “How many b’nai mitzvah services have you performed,” is a lot. The number simply doesn’t matter.
For me it’s not the number, it’s the relationship that endures. It is what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described as an I-Thou experience, a moment when defenses fall away, and all that’s left is an authentic encounter. It’s a moment of mutual respect and celebration. To be sure, this is what I strive for, not what happens all or even some of the time. But I strive to be a human, to be a mensch.
I was not raised in a home where there was a north star example of how to be a mensch. In fact, when Born in the USA came out in 1982, whenever Bruce sang the lyrics, “You end up like a dog who’s been beat too much/Til you spend half your life just covering up” I would get teary. Every time. I knew what that meant. When you spend time covering up, it’s hard to see, hard to feel anything.
Tonight I want to acknowledge my friend David Wrubel, my oldest friend from 9th grade, who showed me a kind of friendship that enabled me, after my father’s death, to unclench and stand up. He showed me a pathway to normalcy. I credit David as the person who taught me how to be a leader, to find my voice, how to stand in front of a roomful of people and feel confident and at home.
I want to acknowledge my dear friends Kerry Stackpole and Hesh Shorey. We three called ourselves the Rowdy Brothers, inspired by Zap Comix or Cheech and Chong. We were all three in homes with utterly overwhelmed mothers and no fathers. We were feral wolves who banded together. We recognized each other from afar. It is not an exaggeration to say that these two men saved my life, gave me a sense of home and safety. I knew that, with them, I would be ok. I still feel that way about them.
Over these past 20 years, you have allowed me into your homes and into your lives. Annie Dillard, a great American writer and thinker, once described clergy as boatmen. Our duty is to board our passengers onto the boat, and then we ferry them across the river to the other side. The waters are sometimes rough and dark, frightening beyond words. On the maps to the far shore is often written the warning, “There be dragons here!” And there are monsters, monsters of loss and pain and sickness and death.
But sometimes the waters are calm, dappled in warm sunlight, and there is no need to fear because the journey is all joy and ecstasy. And every trip is unique, and every passenger carries their own special baggage with them.
I have done my best to keep the boat steady, to navigate the whirlpools and the sandbars. I have always tried to hold the center, to keep the rudder steady but not to hold it too tightly, to follow the current and not fight against it – that is, unless we were drifting too close to a waterfall or other turbulence.
We get in that boat and go, and your trust in me is such a gift. You know that the voyage will be a safe one. I have dedicated my life to you to make sure that the passage will be a good one.
My gratitude for you is infinite and undying. I look forward to the next years together. It’s true what they say in the song: “the best is yet to come.”