Monthly Archives: January 2021

Be Concerned

“Should I be worried?” That’s the question of the hour. There are troops in the Capitol building. The National Mall is closed. Rioters last Wednesday wanted to “capture and assassinate lawmakers” and came “dangerously close to Pence”. All fifty states have been warned by the FBI to increase security around the state houses and other government buildings for fear of violent attacks.

“Should I be worried?”

All of my adult life I have forcefully responded to those seeking to use the rise of Naziism as an analogy to anything happening in American history. Too many differences in the cultures and the zeitgeists. Too many unique pieces to the puzzles of each society.

“Should I be worried?” I’ve been asked that question dozens upon dozens of times over the last decades. After assassinations. After school shootings. After riots and unrest.

My answer has always been, “No. I believe in the steadfastness of American democracy. As hard as it may be, all Americans hold certain truths to be self-evident.” There is an overarching reality that we share, common dreams and goals.

I don’t want to answer yes. I don’t want to knuckle under to the brutish violence of neofascism and militias and conspiracies that implicate Jews in everything from cannibalism to world domination to banking to God knows what. And I don’t want to feign indifference to those who would prefer the world to be a place dominated by the pathology of white supremacy.

So here’s my answer. I am very concerned. But I am not worried. This is more than semantics. To be worried is about anxiety and fear. To be worried presupposes that bad things are about to happen. Being worried is building a bomb shelter or buying cases of toilet paper. Concern means close attention. I am paying very close attention. I am reading and watching.

I am concerned. I am cognizant of our collective dependence on American democracy and its role in protecting the Jews of America and other minorities under the law in ways that we, as a minority culture everywhere we lived, never had. I am aware of the fact that we Jews are vulnerable, subjects of dark, rabid Q Anon fantasies that have proponents in Congress and a major place in the minds of the Capitol raiders.

We don’t have a script for this new chapter in America. We are in new territory. It’s like groping around in a pitch -black room. But I’m not worried. I’m concerned. I’m walking cautiously, carefully. Even in this darkness I feel like I can move forward without falling. If I’m careful.

You notice I’m not quoting Bobby McFerrin. I’m not urging you to be happy. And I’m not urging you to worry. I am urging concern. Now more than ever we need to lean into what it means to be a strong and loyal community. We need to carefully move forward, believing in our ancient tradition of gratitude and vision, and our American tradition of compassion and equality. We need to trust the legal system, which is not always so easy. We must think about present and future alliances between Jews and communities of color who understand historically how vulnerable we might be.

If you ask me whether or not to be worried, I will tell you not to worry. I will invite you to join me as we feel our way to a better place for us and for our kids. I will tell you that anxiety can paralyze us into an inactive, apprehensive funk. I will share with you the phrase repeated every time we conclude a book of the Torah. “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.” Be strong, and we will all be strengthened.

We Are All Co-Authors

Long-form journalism is an increasingly popular genre. In stark contrast to standard print or online journalism that is tightly edited and limited by a predetermined word count, long-form essays are looser. Authors have room to follow multiple tangents and connect them together.

The New Yorker, my favorite magazine online and in print, is the source par excellence of long-form essays. And no – I don’t read it just for the cartoons… It is somewhat of an inside joke amongst subscribers about how many issues are stacked up and dog-eared and left on various surfaces, all open to an essay that’s between 10000-25000 words.

In fact, the latest New Yorker is a double issue featuring one long-form essay by the Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright. Titled The Plague Year, it is a deep dive into the terrible, twisted tale of Covid and the astounding ineptitude of leaders and bureaucrats all over the world who got so much so wrong. I would urge everyone to read it. The essay is profound and painful, but also illuminates the brilliant, extraordinary scientists who made the vaccine possible.

As I was finishing my read of The Plague Year, I was interrupted by the first notification reporting the insurrection at the Capitol. The newsflash scared me, as did each subsequent elaboration. Throughout the afternoon I was alternately horrified, terrified, disgusted, and overwhelmed. Various friends and family began an ongoing chain of texts and emails decrying the violence and what it portended. We did a lot of handwringing.

A dear friend of mine wrote: “JFK assassination/9-11/1-6.” I thought about that for a long time. It did feel apocalyptic as the first photos appeared: a fool in bearskin, a thief stealing a podium, a vandal posing with his feet up on a desk in a Federal office he’s broken into, a guy in a MAGA hat breaking windows with a Confederate flagpole: you’ve seen them.

But as I thought about it, it came to me that this event, this preposterous illegal action that will be, along with the awful destruction that is Covid, the legacy of our outgoing president, will not be a date swathed in black. 1/6/21 will be a date of reckoning. It will be a reminder to all of us of just how powerful fear can be as a motivation for violence. It will remind us that words have consequences, even when they are spoken by hateful, bigoted people.

I’m not afraid. After all, history is a long-form story. There is no one moment that alone determines the trajectory of the arrow of time. The history of the Jewish people is nothing if not a large, ever-growing, ever-morphing long-form story. We have a deep sense of this continuing unfolding of our story, replete with tragedy and triumph.

January 6th will always be a reminder of just how low our nation can go. But the days after are and will continue to be a testimony to American fortitude and determination. Our story continues to unfold, and our dedication to an openhearted democracy that embraces all people who want to be here is tenacious.

American history continues to blaze forward, long-form style. It lurches, veers, disappoints, inspires, and grows, long-form style. We are engaged in a process of hope and fortitude. It’s not easy. It’s not over; not by a long shot.

I hope in this time of transition and honest self-reflection that we will continue to study the story of our nation. We will have many disagreements. They will be contentious. But my hope is that we can rise to a place of patient sensitivity. Each one of us is a co-author of this story. Let’s write a story that will lift up the hearts of our children. On that we must all agree.

Giant Steps

A college roommate from long ago and far away once gave me a life lesson. He was one of those guys who loved pointing out things I should know or do. It was often obnoxious, but occasionally he had real wisdom to share. I have no idea where he is now, but I want to give credit where credit is due. Thank you, Steve, wherever you are.

One day, Steve and I were walking outdoors without shoes or socks. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to hazard a guess – people did weird things living in West College at Wesleyan… We hit a patch of gravel, and I began saying ouch at every step, trying to avoid the gravel – which was impossible, since the entire path was made of it! I was doing that ridiculous dance people do when they’re in pain as they walk when it’s too hot or too rocky, lifting my feet quickly and taking short stabbing steps.

Steve wasn’t doing the dance. He was walking with a slow, deliberate stride. “Stern,” he said, “You’re doing it wrong. You know there’s nothing but gravel up ahead. So, don’t fight it – it’s too big to fight. Just take sure steps and it won’t hurt.” This advice made no sense to me. Putting my foot down with assurance would just cause more pain, I reasoned. However, as usual, I followed Steve’s instructions. To my astonishment, it turned out that Steve was correct. It was so much easier to just walk as normally as I could.

The path is gravel. There is no other path, no other way. Going back is not an option. Calling an Uber is not realistic. The only way forward is to keep on course to the destination. Is it comfortable to walk on little stones? No. Does complaining about the discomfort make the task itself easier or more uplifting? Not at all. Bemoaning the difficulty of the trek seems to make it feel even more onerous.

Steve’s wisdom points out that the way is long, and pain is unavoidable. It just is. It’s the truth of the human condition, to journey into places that make us wince. Mortality is assured. Complexity and disappointment are inevitable. The more we deny this, the harder it gets. The more little steps we take, the more exhausting it gets. There is no solution, no short cut.

So just put your foot down. Resolutely. Bravely. One committed step at a time. It makes it all so much easier. It would be nice if walking the path felt like treading on pillows or a shag rug. But it will never be so. We accept the pain because it is woven into the essence of the Universe. And because there’s so much more than pain! There is the pleasure found in connecting, in celebrating, in being fully present, loving, and alive.

It’s a brand-new year open before us. How will we move forward? It may get much rougher out there. The gravel might get sharper, the path itself more perilous. I’m going to try my roommate’s advice. I want to do less tiptoeing and more affirming steps. I will be safe and measured about staying well. And I will keep moving, stepping forward. Our temple community has continued to be a loving and strong place, as Bob Dylan might say, a “shelter from the storm.” We aim to keep it that way and to plan for what’s next. Being tentative doesn’t help us achieve our goal of being a place of warmth and openheartedness.

On this first day of the new year, I urge you to take a firm step forward – and to then keep walking, rough road notwithstanding. It is a time to be bold and imagine what happens next. As a popular Israeli song promises, “See how good it will be next year.” May it be so for all of us.