Monthly Archives: December 2018

Looking Up

 As a child, few things excited me as much as outer space. I loved fantasizing the about distant stars and planets and aliens and asteroids. Will we be living on the moon someday? Will I walk on the surface of a distant planet?

I didn’t know anything at all about space travel – but then, no one else did either, not really. It was a new frontier beckoning to restless humans, who have, since prehistory, looked up at the stars and the planets and wondered. When Alan Shepard took his sub-orbital ride, I was seven years old. I vaguely remember watching coverage of his trip and being amazed. A year later, John Glenn orbited the earth three times. I was hooked. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to fly into outer space.

Glenn’s trip in his tiny Mercury space capsule, the Friendship 7, made a significant impression on me and so many other baby boomers. It also made an impression on our parents’ generation who, after all, were the ones who dreamt up this wild notion of manned space flight. Not coincidentally, The Jetsons appeared on tv the same year Glenn was launched away in space. Is this what it will be like?, I wondered. Will all of us live this utopian lifestyle? Will we all have an AI robot like Rosie?

My parents realized my interest in space was deep. They bought me what may have been my first nonfiction: a little paperback, called Stars, by Herbert Zim, from a collection of science guides for kids, called Simon & Schuster’s Golden Nature Guides. I loved this book. I mean, I really loved this book. I must’ve looked it over a million times, and every time it was with reverence and glee.

Stars was more than a good reference book for a curious child. It was a ticket that took me right off of this planet. I could imagine numerous space voyages. And in every imagining, I was on my own: isolated, quiet, streaking toward our nearest star (outside the Sun, of course), Alpha Centauri. I gazed at the illustrations often, which helped further the fantasy.

My theory is that I needed to escape the semi-toxic world in which I lived; imagining an interstellar voyage was a great move. This may be why fantasy books for kids, like Harry Potter, for instance, are so compelling. It’s all about living in an alternate Universe, far from parents and school and the nonsense of labile peer groups and mean girls and bully boys. I don’t have the same need to escape that I had as a child. 

My life is so much more joyful, filled with a much greater sense of blessing over curse. I also know enough about space travel to know that I ain’t a candidate, because of my age, and because a ticket to space is just a bit outside my tax bracket (Elon Musk says that a one-way ticket to Mars is $10 billion; it only costs $250,000 to fly to where outer space officially begins…).

However, I still look up at the nighttime sky with awe and amazement. And I still gaze upward with a new appreciation for what thinking about the stars gave me: a way out, an alternative to a harsh, capricious world. The ability to dream, to fantasize, leads us to believe in hope. This is the only world I will ever walk upon. Which is really ok with me. I will keep dreaming of other worlds. But I will take the fantasies of a better world out there somewhere and bring them earthward.

I will be praying for, and working in this world. This is where hope is needed, now more than ever. But keep looking up. 

Not What, But Who

What do you want to be when you grow up? Baby boomers grew up hearing this question from our elders all the time. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it was that many of our parents were raised during the Depression. The memories of joblessness and homelessness were frightening and soul-scarring. Just the stories of those times and the optics of breadlines were enough to leave quite an impression.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Like so many boys, I wanted to have a macho job. So I leaned towards being a policeman or a firefighter or a soldier. I also wanted to be a cowboy, though I didn’t exactly know what cowboys did in the 20th century…

The concern with a choice of occupation didn’t ever let up. Most of my peers and I had to have at least some idea of what we wanted to study in college so we could get good jobs. I remember a few friends at college who were pre-med because their parents had decided that they would be premed. They were miserable, but they felt constrained by their parents and family to respond to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” with the noblest of answers: “A doctor.”

In the old days, we Boomers felt like we had to have an affirmative answer to all questions about our future employment. It was if as our worth was measured according to whether or not we were in the groove that would lead us to a workplace – any workplace. The idea of a gap year – in our day it was called, ‘taking a year off’ – was viewed with some suspicion.Where are you going to go? What will you do? The questions were always tinged with some sarcasm and doubt. If one were bound for Europe with a backpack and a guidebook to youth hostels across around the world, the suspicion was that one was going to smoke hash in Amsterdam and get in trouble, or just ‘be a bum.’

If you ask young kids today what they want to be when they grow up, they will typically not have a clue. If you ask the same kids the same question when they’re 20 or 30, they might still shrug their shoulders. So few students have a destination job in mind when they enter college – and when they graduate, too. And given how often they will change positions in the course of their lifetimes, I suppose that makes some sense.

How much does what we want to do when we grow up really matter? In all those many years of answering the question about our employment future, no one asked something far more critical. It’s a question we need to be asking our kids and grandkids. It’s not “What do you want to be when you grow up.” Rather, we need to ask,”WHO do you want to be when you grow up?”

Millennials and younger rarely have an answer to the question. And if they do, often they will say, ” I want to be rich and famous,” or “I want to be a pro baller.” They want to be known like the Kardashians, who are famous for absolutely no reason (why ARE they famous?).

What sort of human being are you going become? How will you use your education to be a mensch? Who do you want to be in the eyes of the world? In your own eyes? What are you willing to do to make the world a better place? These are the questions we should be asking our younger generations. And frankly, we should be asking these questions of ourselves.We should be wondering out loud what kind of legacy we want to create. We should not shy away from challenging ourselves to measure how much time we spend on deeds of lovingkindness. Climate change is ravaging the earth – right now. Antisemitism is growing. Asylum seekers are being treated like criminals. There’s work to do.

Who do you want to be? 

Shabbat Shalom,


Getting to Hanukkah

I was born in Pittsburgh, PA and moved to Cromwell, CT in 1959-60.
Cromwell was a little town near Middletown. That was, as far as I know,
its only claim to fame. I was the only Jewish kid in the elementary school I attended. This “Lone Jew” phenomenon was recapitulated when we
moved in 1962 to a brand-new housing development in Middletown,
where I was one of 3 Jewish kids.
Being the sole Yid was a perpetual experience of unease. At Christmas
time, this angst became flat-out dread. It was always scary. I had to
navigate perilous waters from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. So many questions, so many hazards. What if? What if someone says “Merry
Christmas”? Do I say “Thank you”? Do I say nothing and feign deafness?
Do I say “I’m Jewish – I celebrate Hanukkah.”?
Unfortunately, my fear and loathing at this time of year were exacerbated by my own trepidation around expressing my fears to my parents,
particularly my father. I was convinced that if I even hinted that I felt
alienated or threatened by the Gentile world, my father would destroy
the entire town. We never explicitly spoke of protecting me or looking out for me – ever. And even though I did not know a thing about his
Holocaust  experiences, I was surely aware of his unbridled rage that was always  bubbling like some heinous, toxic brew. To mention anything that might tip that cauldron over was absurdly dangerous. And I knew this as lived experience.
As Christmas music played and trees were decorated, and caroling could be heard in the land, I walked through the days as if I were in a minefield without a sapper. I know this sounds a little over-the-top. But it was as if I were a character in a Woody Allen movie, not quite knowing where I fit, or how.
In those days, there were Christmas concerts in public school. There was no Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It was O Come, All Ye Faithful. It was
Silent Night. It was In Excelsis Gloria – which was not by Van Morrison. It was Away in a Manger. The most secular tune was Deck the Halls, and I
had no idea what boughs of holly were.
What am I supposed to do when I get to the name of Jesus in a song that
praises him as the Messiah? Do I just say it, theology is damned? Do I
stand there, mute? Or do I sing with gusto until I get to the name of Jesus, at which time I would mumble meaningless syllables?
In 1964, my Middletown elementary school concert included a Hanukkah song for the first time. It was not a great day for me. The entire school
was singing about dreidels made of clay (“What the heck is a dreidel?”), and it felt like everyone was looking at me. Were they? I can’t imagine that many kids knew I was Jewish, but it sure felt that way. Hence, more angst.
I was always fairly miserable during this season, moody, moaning to
myself all the time. Everywhere I went. Every window. Every door. Every yard in Middletown was festooned with Christmas decorations. Every TV station – all seven of them – were almost exclusively Christmas
programming. Every radio station – endless loops of Bing Crosby and
Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, all singing Christmas songs. Even my
rock n’ roll stations – WDRC and WPOP – were taken over by the
Christmas season.
When Hanukkah arrived, it was a balm for my chapped spirit. Every
Hanukkah my home became a holy refuge. Surrounded by some simple
decorations, our simple menorah out on the dining room table, I no
longer experienced terrible angst. I felt complete. Healed. Whole.
I’ve come a long way since my angst about feeling so lonely and left out at Christmas. I am still not a fan of the carols and the jingling bells, but I’m
not Scrooge either. It helps that more people respectfully say “Have a
beautiful holiday,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It’s all about live and
let live; I can live with that.
The comfort of the Hanukkah candles has never diminished. I still look at them and see in the light the reflection of peoplehood and continuity. We call Hanukkah a minor holiday – it’s impact is anything but.
As I watch my adult children around the menorahs, along with the 2
grandkids, or the big TBA Hanukkah menorah lighting, or as I make a
huge batch of perfect latkes, I get a sense of the miracle of Hanukkah. It’s not about the cruse of oil. It’s not about a military victory. The miracle is us. We’re still here, still banishing the darkness with more light, still
thankful for our freedom.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah,