Monthly Archives: December 2021

Blessing Time

[I wrote this on Thursday night… I am deeply thankful that so far, so good.]

I am so excited! December 25th is almost here. And what an extraordinary day it will be. No, I’m not referring to Christmas. At least not for me. This Shabbat morning, at long last, after more than two decades of budget cuts, cost overruns, internecine squabbling amongst astronomers, feckless politicians trying to hack it to pieces, accidents, errors, Covid, and a price tag of 10 billion dollars, the James Webb Space Telescope – JWST will launch from Kourou in French Guiana. Kourou is closer to the Earth’s equator than launch sites like Cape Canaveral.  This takes full advantage of the Earth’s rotational speed. That rotational speed (460 meters/second) gives the launch an extra velocity boost, allowing the rocket to carry a bit more payload to space than it otherwise would were it launched from a higher latitude. (Maybe that’s already too much information… but I thought you should know.)

JWST is a classic example of American chutzpah and brilliance. NASA is sending this extraordinary product of singular aerospace engineering into deep space, beyond the reach of human hands. It’ll be too far away if, God forbid, it needs to be adjusted or repaired. There are 344 “points of failure”, i.e., unique programs or transitions that could scuttle the JWST, rendering it into another piece of space junk. This is science without a net.

To get JWST on the launchpad required the cooperation of scientists and engineers from all over the world. Yes: cooperation, a noun that we don’t use much these days. Cooperation amongst people with competing interests and projects and concerns. People realized that there was a greater good than their own individual needs or research or grants. They saw a chance to be in on a project that will change the ways we understand the creation of the Universe.

I’ve listened to countless press conversations about, and descriptions of JWST. One of the points they all make is that the JWST essentially offers us the experience of time travel. By using the infrared light band, we will be able to detect light that traverses billions of years from insanely far points in Space. This will let us see the earliest moments in the life of the cosmos. We will look back in time. Who knows all that we may see?

How lucky we humans are right now, despite Covid and divisiveness and a million other horrors, to be alive for this moment. Despite our frailty and flaws, humans have figured out how to not just imagine what’s out there, but to go find it. This is a triumphal moment for all humanity.

I wish we possessed some extraordinary technology that would allow us to see back into our past. Of course, I’d love to see who created the first cave paintings. I’d love to know what it looked like when the rabbis chose to embrace a new Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple. We all have our lists of such events. But I wish I could look through a devise to see my great grandparents, learn about who they were, how they lived their lives. I wish I could discern the life path of my father’s father, who he was and why he acted as he did. My personal list of things I wish I could see from the past is a long one.

It seems to be the case by all the laws of physics and time that we cannot travel into the past. The very fiber of the Universe seems to make visiting the past impossible. We may get a solid glimpse into the earliest origins of the Universe, but there is no instrument to look deeply back into ourselves. We don’t have access to our history. All we have is imagination, love, and stories. Which are, after all, the prime ingredients of Judaism.

I will be up early on December 25th watching the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. You can join me. I’ll be cheering on the huge launch vehicle that is thrusting the JWST into Space, a million miles away. I am hoping, with all my heart, that it will get to where it must go. I am praying that, due to the genius and hard work of so many people from so many places, the JWST will successfully pass through all 344 points of failure unscathed, open those mirrors, and reveal the glory of how it all began: how we all began. Yes, it will be a true shehechiyanu moment, a time of blessing to be a living witness to this selfless human endeavor.

More Than Meets the Eye

My son, Jonah, was a big Transformers fan. Liza and I bought him his first Optimus Prime. I think his friend, Adam, already had one (Adam always got the cool toys first). With his Transformer in hand, Jonah battled against Megatron and the Decepticons for control of the Creation Matrix.

Ok. Some of you are absolutely on board with me here. These names are familiar. You watched the cartoon. You saw the movie(s). You played with – or purchased – a variety of Transformers. This mega-franchise, valued at over $35 billion, is an example nonpareil, of the sweet intersection of gaming, movies, love of Japanese anime, comic books, and toys.

Undoubtedly there are some of you who are feeling left out of the story. Briefly, Transformers features the battles of sentient, living autonomous robots, often the Autobots and the Decepticons, who can transform into other forms, such as vehicles and animals. The toys could be broken down from a big robot into a car or a truck or a jet or… well, you get the drift.

These Transformer robots had personalities and weak spots. They could be cruel and destructive. They could also be kind and self-sacrificing. It was all about good guys and bad guys and the various humans who intersected with these battling robots.

High entertainment, it wasn’t. The animation was classic Japanese tv cartooning: big splashes of color and not much artistry. The first movie starred Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox. Not exactly art house cinema. But the money poured in and hasn’t stopped.

Despite their mass pop culture appeal (I am a snob and so eschew anything in said category), something about Transformers appealed to me. So much so, that 20 years ago or more, I did a sermon about them. I loved the notion that a simple thing: an old jalopy, could turn into a giant, lethal robot with a sense of humor. Hidden in the form of one thing, it could transform into another.

What was the true identity of Optimus Prime? Was he a robot or was he a fire truck? Of course, he was both, becoming what he needed to be in each particular moment. This notion was so human and so wise.

We are never just one thing. We are comprised of several parts that merge to help us cope with the particular moment in which we find ourselves. It’s a kind of flexibility, an acknowledgment that rigidity and tunnel vision cannot be the way to survive. It’s all about transformation. Or as the theme song of the Transformers cartoon show went: “Transformers: more than meets the eye.” Which is a truth of all humanity.

The creator of Transformers was a Jewish guy named Henry Orenstein. Borne in Hrubieszów, Poland in 1923, he was imprisoned at Budzyn, a German labor camp in Poland in 1944. One day, the Nazis running the camp ordered all scientists and mathematicians to register with the camp administration. Despite not knowing if the scientists and mathematicians would be given better conditions or killed immediately, and even though Orenstein himself was neither a scientist nor mathematician, he signed himself up along with his brothers who were interned there with him. He transformed from a guy with an average knowledge of math into an expert.

The Nazis were organizing a special unit of prisoners to develop a weapon to help the Nazis win the war and the prisoners assigned to the unit were spared execution. Luckily for Orenstein, who was only 16 when the war broke out, the math problems he was required to solve were simple and he, along with two of the three brothers with him, survived the war. His parents, a sister and one brother were killed.

Orenstein ended up creating a toy company after the war. After some good moves – and some really bad ones… he sold his idea of a transforming robot to the CEO of Hasbro. And the rest is history. Orenstein next transformed into a famous and successful poker player… and then into an inventor, creating a poker table with cameras that each player would use to show viewers what cards they were holding without revealing them to the other players. This invention transformed poker into a viewer sport – and made Orenstein even richer. He shared his fortune with many Jewish philanthropies.

Henry Orenstein died this week. His life is a testimony to good luck and a willingness to gamble. He had a deep appreciation for quick thinking and the wisdom to know when to change. He lived a long life as a Transformer. If anyone were to ask me, I’d suggest his epitaph to read: Hinryk Orenstein: More than meets the eye.

Be Careful

Whenever I hear antisemitism mentioned in the news, I immediately perk up. I want to know the details and who’s done what. Where did it happen? Is it violent? It is classical Jew-hatred – you know, with the swastikas and the obsessional charges of Jewish domination of the media or banking or whatever else is popular to blame Jews for…? Is it about conspiracies: Q-Anon nonsense, George Soros, or plain old white supremacist obscene ignorance? Or is it classical anti-Israel, anti-Zionist rhetoric? Is it the far left’s classical dismissal of Jews as having a unique voice rather than just another group of white people who have ‘made it’ in capitalist America?

I want to know what they’re saying. I want to get into the dynamic process of antisemitism and where it’s originating. The more knowledge I gather, the better I feel about how to respond. And this is, parenthetically, why I’ve come away so unsatisfied after a few antisemitic incidents in the Newton public school system. We never really hear about the investigation or what the schools are doing to avoid future acts of antisemitic vandalism.

A recent incident has me confused. Many are calling it antisemitism, but… is it? The city (town?) of Medford sponsored a Holiday Extravaganza last Wednesday and posted pictures from the event. Along with photos with Santa, a wreath sale, and the lighting of the town Christmas tree, the holiday event featured a table inside City Hall with framed descriptions of holiday symbols.
One set of pictures showcased the history of Christmas trees. Another featured the kinara, the candelabra used during the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa. And a third showcased the menorah used by Jews during the holiday of Hanukkah.
Although the table held an electric menorah with nine candles, the menorah in a photo placed on the table wasn’t the one used by Jews during Hanukkah. Instead, it was a picture of a seven-branched menorah labeled with Christian terms. For example, one branch was labeled “cross,” while another was labeled “resurrection.”
The image is widely available online as an illustration of how Jews for Jesus misappropriate the symbolism of the menorah and redirect it to Christian images.

Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn responded with a highly apologetic message from City (Town?) Hall. It was, she said, utterly unintentional. Furthermore, she promised to do better. A leader in the Medford Jewish community told the press, “We were incredibly disappointed to see an antisemitic display at a city celebration, though heartened to learn it was not intentional.”


I don’t think so. It was a well-meaning Medford staffer being diligent in fair representation and utterly ignorant of the difference between Judaism and Jews for Jesus. It’s not unusual for people of other faiths to be clueless about our religion and culture. After all, how much do we know about Sikhism? In fact, can you explain the difference between Lutheranism and Catholicism? Is it conceivable that if called upon to decorate a world’s holiday table that you might unintentionally stumble on the wrong symbols?

I intensely dislike the Jews for Jesus organization and how they make a mockery of Judaism and Jewish history. I still remember thirty-five years ago, trying to explain to a Lutheran minister in Arlington, Texas, why it was offensive that his church was hosting a Jews for Jesus “Texas Tour.” It took him about half an hour before he realized that you could be a Jew who admired Jesus or respected Jesus, but not a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. There aren’t many boundaries in the practice of post-modern Judaism. But that’s a boundary that not everyone knows in Medford – or anywhere else in the world.

We need to be prudent concerning what we label ‘antisemitic’ or ‘racist.’ The tendency to self-righteously smear people with a bristly brush of condemnation is an increasingly common act on the left and the right. In a rush to judgment, people are taken down. Sometimes they utterly deserve it. And other times, innocent people are destroyed. The use of pejorative labels says more about the intolerance of the brush wielder than the ignorant actions of an otherwise well-meaning human being.

About placing that Jews for Jesus photocopy on the Medford Holiday Extravaganza table. Antisemitic? No. Ignorant? Definitely. Forgivable? Without a doubt.