Author Archives: rabbeinu

Jussie’s Lies and the Search for Truth

The truth is, I hadn’t planned to write a Before Shabbat essay today. It’s the last weekend of vacation, people are away, maybe I’m feeling lazy… whatever. But then, the Jussie Smollett case broke wide open. If you’ve been out of the loop or refusing to watch the news (something I wish I could manage…), Jussie Smollett is a gay African American actor who claimed that he was attacked on the streets of Chicago. The alleged perpetrators, wearing MAGA hats, called him disparaging names, smacked him around, put a noose around his neck (a racist trope), and then poured bleach on him as a metaphor for their hatred of Smollett’s black skin.

What a harsh, tragic story. What a tale of invidious racism and a sign of just how low people have sunk. Almost every trope of hatred was mixed into this travesty of an assault. Three weeks ago, I responded, in part, by writing, “I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or terrified like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace.”

I honestly felt a deep sadness about Jussie Smollett, about the USA, about the future, about the world as it is and will be. Today, three weeks later, I feel sick. I wonder: what was it that motivated Smollett to do something so stupid? How blinded was he to the ramifications of his despicable actions?

Smollett initially claimed that the story of his attack, a true archetypal hate crime, happened. As Chicago police began to investigate the crime, they found that some pieces were not fitting together. He began to equivocate just a bit and then, realizing he had been backed into a corner by the truth and by surveillance cameras, he fessed up.

False reports of hate crimes are exceedingly rare. Between 2016 and 2018, there were approximately two dozen false reports, either confirmed or suspected, according to figures compiled by the Center on Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. That’s a fraction of the several thousand hate crimes documented by the federal government over the same period.

It was all a ruse, a publicity stunt, to get him sympathy, attention, a better salary, and name recognition. On the latter, be careful what you ask for. His stupidity, his utter lack of dignity for himself and empathy for the people he falsely implicated as well as callousness for the people who, like him, are actual targets of hatred, are evident.  He’ll never work again. Good.

Why did so many people, including myself, accept Smollett at his word? Because it was a story of outrage, another sign of how the current zeitgeist of America is a horrible, vindictive nightmare. It proved that haters are emboldened, that hate crimes are increasing, and that innocent people of color are victims of persistent racism that continues to grow. Smollett’s lie worked as well as it did because those general statements are true. By lying, Smollett gravely damages the credibility of those victims of hate who are telling the truth.

We are, all of us, so ready to jump on the stories we hear that support our view of reality. Instead of waiting to listen to the considered truth, instead of giving the media precious time to get it right, we want the answer according to our political preferences. It’s true of the Left. It’s true of the Right. It’s true of well-meaning people who are fired up, loyal to their cause. It’s also true of ideologues on the Left and the Right, cynics who make ignorant pronouncements and outright lie for their own advantage.

The whole situation is so sad. In the end, there is little to do other than this: we can, each one of us, try breathing a bit more deeply first. We can try to evaluate information rather than immediately use it as ammunition or as a means to make our soapbox higher. We need to listen more carefully. We must be unrelenting when lies are told as if they were facts. The truth: so fragile, so vulnerable, is so often a victim of hatred and corruption. I pray that we might find a way to uphold the truth again.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

Waiting

The chorus of the Door’s hit, Waiting for the Sun, is essentially one word: waiting. I sing that chorus quietly, in my head, whenever I find myself in a line for longer than 5 minutes: at Starbucks, on the phone, at the supermarket. It’s a good mantra, and I highly recommend you learn it.

 I’m sure there’s a statistic somewhere that provides what percentage of time we spend waiting: for people, places, and things alike. It’s probably a shockingly large number: at least, it feels that way. Even with my trusty iPhone in hand, waiting around can get irksome. I have so many other things I could be doing! Why am I stuck waiting?

The recent news flash that Boston has the worst rush-hour traffic in America was not a surprise for anyone who has ever found themselves on I-95 between 7-10am or 330-700pm, literally inching along. It can be utterly maddening, hence radios, illegal texting, and the Doors…

Why do I get so anxious and bothered about waiting? Someone once remarked to me when I began to lose it in some line I was standing in at the time, “What else have you got to do?” I suppose sometimes I have an excellent comeback, like, “Are you kidding? I have several appointments!”, or, “I have to make dinner!”, or something like that.

But the truth is that I am not a neurosurgeon, nor am I an EMT or an ER doctor. Life and death does not depend on my presence or absence. I always have stuff to do, but is it worth jacking up my blood pressure? I don’t think so. I will try, in good faith to get to where I need to be, but without killing myself in the process. The older I get, the earlier I leave to make sure I arrive on time to where I need to be, though this causes problems, chief among them being: I have to wait… Hence, the Doors. And earphones and podcasts and music.

Jews know a lot about waiting. We’ve been waiting for the Messiah for two thousand years or so. Sometimes this staying on hold gets to be too much, and there’s an explosion of impatience that provides an opening for someone to claim that they are the Messiah. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews – maybe millions – became tired of waiting. Impatient for a change in their lives that would lead them from poverty and persecution to eternal life and salvation, they embraced a messiah.

 But it never panned out. From the first century, when Jesus as the messiah failed to ignite more than a small following of Jews, to the 17th century, when Shabbetai Tzvi convinced so many Jews for a short while that he was the Anointed Savior, to current times when there are those who say that the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, was the messiah and will rise from the dead – we’ve waited.

Most non-Orthodox Jews have let go of the ultimate Messianic dream. A personal messiah, chosen by God to lead the Jewish people to salvation, especially after the Holocaust, seems hopelessly anachronistic. No one is coming to save us. There are no shortcuts or sacred deeds that will lead to a perfect world. There is no end run around mortality. This is life: hard, unknown, dark, scary. We are the doers. We are the ones who create light to banish the darkness. We’re waiting.

It’s not sad or frightening to acknowledge that every self-aware human is waiting for the end. So as we move through space, let’s not hide. Let’s dance and sing and celebrate and love. As Leonard Cohen sang it,

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove

Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the end of love

Or as Jim Morrison sang it, “Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting…”

Beating Up the Future

A couple of months ago, I saw an extraordinary headline in the New York Times. It read, Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars. I initially thought I’d misread it. It sounded like an Onion story. However, the story was legit.

Police reports obtained by local media suggest that the Chrysler Pacifica cars run by Google sister company Waymo have become a target for some disgruntled locals, with 21 incidents recorded in the past two years.

One car had its tires slashed while parked and Waymos have had rocks thrown at them on five occasions, the Arizona Republic reported.

One man aimed a gun at the backup driver of another Waymo car as it passed his driveway. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct. His wife told police that he suffered from dementia.

A dark Jeep appears to have targeted the cars on six occasions, swerving abruptly towards them or braking sharply in front of them.

On another occasion, a “heavily intoxicated” man deliberately blocked the path of one of the cars by standing in front of it.

“He stated he was sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles driving in his neighborhood, and apparently thought the best idea to resolve this was to stand in front of one of these vehicles,” an officer wrote in a police report.

This phenomenon conjured an image I’d once seen many years ago. It shows people taking sledgehammers and iron bars to textile machinery. They’re angry, and they’re afraid. They believe that there is something evil afoot, and it’s to be found in the mechanisms of a new machine.

These were the Luddites, British workers in the late 1700s and early 1800s who, in a futile attempt to turn back the tide of mechanization, set about destroying machines — and in some cases killing the people who owned them. It led Britain to pass a law making machine-wrecking punishable by death.

The Luddites had many concerns about machines and how they would ruin their lives by taking away their jobs. But they also worried, as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”  “It’s about being afraid of machines and an abstract force called technology, rather than economic and political oppression,” says Steve Jones, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago. “People … have the sense that there is a disembodied, non-human force called ‘Technology’ that’s a threat.”

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology,” said Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman College. “You can no longer make it in society without using technology you don’t understand to buy things at a store, to talk to other people, to conduct business. People are increasingly dependent, but they don’t have any idea how these things actually work.”

I try to empathize with this fear of technology, this sense that we are not in control of our world. It can be frightening to imagine how so much is happening around us all of the time that we cannot see or hear. We may wonder about our vulnerability to malevolent forces, how freely people can snoop around our lives, and so on.

The thing is, we can’t destroy technology. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, nor can we uninvent the iPod or the desktop computer. Change can be extraordinarily disruptive – it usually is. As much as we may complain about our kids and screen time, there is no question that technology is enabling our kids and grandkids to access so much more knowledge than ever before.

Technology is not always good nor always bad; it is simply a reflection of the best and the worst of the human imagination. But we need to be on the edge of the change, and not trying to beat it up with a rake. Running a driverless car off the road may stop that car at that moment, but the future will not be deterred.

We Are All Strangers


This past week, Jussie Smollett, a gay Black man (who is Jewish, by the way…) who is one of the stars of the TV show Empire, was brutally attacked in what Chicago police are investigating as a possible hate crime. The actor took himself to the hospital directly after what police called a “possible racially-charged assault and battery”; authorities say he is in good condition. Police received a report that Smollett was walking in the downtown Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville around 2 a.m. local time “when two unknown offenders approached him and gained his attention by yelling out racial and homophobic slurs towards him,” the city’s police department told NPR. Smollett told police that the two men beat him up, “poured an unknown chemical substance,” believed to be bleach, on him, and wrapped a rope around his neck.

As I read this awful story, I first thought about Jussie Smollett. He must’ve been so terrified, convinced he would be murdered right there on the streets of Chicago. It’s traumatic just to read about such a blatant attack. It’s hard to know how Mr. Smollett will go on after having actually experienced it.

I’ve never hated anyone so much that I felt moved to violence. I despise the alt-right people who spread calumnies against Blacks and Jews. I loathe those people who propagate antisemitism, hatred of Moslems, racism in any form, and all neo-Nazis. But I don’t dream about beating them or killing them.

How did the alleged perpetrators justify their wanton and unprovoked violence against this Black gay man? Who are these people? What motivates such unforgivable violence against another human being?

Bernard Golden writes that “Acts of hate are attempts to distract oneself from feelings such as helplessness, powerlessness, injustice, inadequacy, and shame. Hate is grounded in some sense of perceived threat. It is an attitude that can give rise to hostility and aggression toward individuals or groups. Like much of anger, it is a reaction to and distraction from some form of inner pain. The individual consumed by hate may believe that the only way to regain some sense of power over his or her pain is to strike out at others preemptively. In this context, each moment of hate is a temporary reprieve from inner suffering.”

Historically the victims of this phenomenon are those who are perceived as less powerful, on a lower rung of the social order. We Jews know this syndrome all too well. Regarded as outsiders and strangers, we often felt this misdirected rage and hatred over two thousand years.

We know the heart of the stranger because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. If we are human, so are they. If they are less than human, so are we. We must fight the hatred in our hearts.

And how do we do this? There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

How do we spread this message? How does a culture morph from projection to a more sophisticated sense of inclusiveness? How do we live with the other when the other reminds us of our own shortcomings?

I don’t pretend to know any answers here. I can only continue to embrace my credo of unity. I can only continue to teach about oneness, about honesty, about reaching for a greater good. I can only keep trying to see that when I react negatively to another, that it may have less to do with that person, and much more to do with me.

I want to say to Jussie Smollett that while I was never beaten or brutalized like he was, I feel his pain and I applaud his bravery. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and in Poland, and Russia, and Latvia, and, and, and… We stand with you, Jussie. We pray for justice. We pray for wisdom. We pray for peace. And we promise to continue to work for change by supporting leaders with a shared vision of inclusion, who, through their otherness, know the hearts of others as their own. There is no us and them. We are all strangers looking for peace.

Context and Subtext


 There are days when, after reading an article or listening to the radio or watching TV, I stop and wonder: where am I? It’s like I’m living the lyrics from the Talking Heads’ fabulous song, “Same as it Ever Was”:

And you may ask yourself
what is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

When the video of the high school boys from a Covington, KY Catholic school went viral last week, I admit to being utterly horrified. Here was a group of mostly white high school boys standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, who were sent — on a school field trip! – to join in protesting a woman’s right to choose the destiny and the sanctity of her own body. As they waited for the buses to pick them up, decked out in freshly purchased MAGA hats, they began to harass an older Native American man, named Nathan Phillips, who was chanting a traditional song and playing a Native hand drum.

The video focuses on a boy named Nick Sandmann, who stands very close to the tribal elder, smirking the classic smirk known to all who work with or live with adolescents. It is a look of condescension and derision. His classmates, who are mocking the tribal elder by jeering and crassly imitating Native American dances, back him up. 

Watching that video was a profoundly disturbing experience. It reminded me of an infamous photo from Nazi-occupied Poland. A group of young SS officers have surrounded a religious Jew and are cutting his beard off. They are laughing, having a great time exercising their unbridled cruelty and animus at the expense of this poor man. The one who is closest, inches away from his face is smirking; it’s the same smirk. It’s the same message: “You are nothing. I am superior. You will not replace us.” 

I was filled with revulsion and disgust watching this display of hatred. Is this my country? Is this what passes for appropriate conduct? I know deep in my heart that our Midrasha high school students would never engage in this kind of debasing behavior. And I pray that they are never on the receiving end of it. 

As a few days went by, the story got much more complicated. Nick Sandmann’s parents hired a pr firm that specializes in crisis management. They produced a longer video that shows these same kids being harassed previous to the encounter with Phillips, by a group of Hebrew Israelites (who are neither…), who are essentially like Westboro Church, committed to extreme provocation to make a point of their chosenness. 

Some people have suggested that the full context of the day is crucial in order to gain a true understanding of events. They say that these boys are being singled out and vilified for behavior that they did not even engage in. If you had been there, some say, you would have seen that the boys were being actively heckled by the Hebrew Israelites and that their seemingly over the top, hyped up behavior was a response to that. Some also say that Mr. Phillips moved towards the boys and that some of them may have felt intimidated. Of course, context is essential, and so many stories that we see and read on social media are shaped to provoke us, and not inform us.

I watched the hour-long video to gain a sense of context, and I can say that the general scene at the Lincoln Memorial was utter bedlam. Adolescents and chaos are not a good combination, and so I think my initial disgust and my association with the Covington boys and Hitler Youth may have been a bit of an over-reaction. 

But if we acknowledge the importance of context, how can we not see a Native American man being disrespected? How can we not acknowledge that the tomahawk gestures, along with the mocking of the Indian chant, were ignorant and crude behavior? We can empathize with Nathan Phillips and the fear he experienced that day. Looking at Nick Sandmann’s face as well as the faces of some of his classmates watching Sandmann smirking and blocking Phillip’s attempt to pass, gives me valuable context. Like many, I have attenuated my initial outrage; however, it is still a sad display of just how far we are from MLK’s dream. 

Where am I? Waiting for justice. Working for justice. Teaching about justice. God, give us all the courage to stand with those who are disenfranchised, to remember that the message of Passover is an everyday, year-round obligation: none of us are free when someone is still treated with scorn and derision.

 Shabbat Shalom 

rebhayim

A Close Shave

As a man with a beard for the past 45 years, I don’t have much cause to shop strategically for the best razor or the best razor blades. I use it a couple times a week – that’s it. But I can tell you now, with absolute conviction, that I will only buy Gillette products from now on. Why? Because their new ad campaign, “Gillette: The best men can be,” acknowledges that Western cultural norms for men need to be changed – by men. As they say on their website, “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man. … we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”

Not your average message.

The central vehicle for this message is a video now playing on network tv. https://gillette.com/en-us/the-best-men-can-be It portrays, in various tableaus, some of the worst of classic male behavior, at least half of it involving boys. It starkly depicts acts of malevolence, brutality, violence, sexism, and objectification of women. All of these behaviors are excused: “it’s just a joke,” or “don’t be oversensitive,” or “I didn’t really mean anything by it,” or the especially destructive, “boys will be boys.”

As I watched it, I thought about things I had experienced as a boy. I remembered what it felt like to be a target of bullying – not that I’ve ever forgotten. I remember watching how cruel boys can be to each other while adults watched on, shaking their heads, laughing.

I also thought about my sons, my boys. I wondered about their sense of the world, whether they had experienced similar moments of fear or shame or anguish when they were kids. We’ve never discussed it, but we will… I also think about my grandson. I hope the world has shifted enough so that he may never experience some of the things I went through already at his tender age of five.

Inevitably, there has been a backlash. Some men, threatened by the implication that the world has changed, afraid that their power and masculinity are under attack, convinced that the status quo for the past few thousand years is under attack, are on the cutting edge – of the last century. As one social conservative wrote on Twitter, “Just sell some damn razors and keep your social justice stupidity out of it.” Yeah, that’s great. What’s missing from this statement is a caveman grunt and a beer belch.

We are in a time of critical transformation. I spoke of this extensively on the High Holy Days, but I want to reiterate how significant this period is for the Jewish people. Our shift towards a more openhearted, egalitarian Judaism happens in the shadow of an ancient system that classified the world through the dual lenses of patriarchy and a male image of God. What it means to be a good Jewish man, a mensch, has changed. And we must teach our children – particularly our boys – that what our tradition wants is inclusivity and compassion. We must explain that to be created in God’s image is not about gender, but instead about attitude and intent.

We need to rededicate ourselves as a temple to the Jewish values that raise up social justice and lovingkindness – both of which seem to be in critically short supply just now. We need to support institutions and companies that further the struggle to separate us from a disturbing, toxic past and thus lead us toward a better future, a better world.

So if you need some razor blades, remember Gillette. And note that they’re giving $1 million per year for the next three years to non-profit organizations executing programs in the United States designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal “best” and become role models for the next generation. Let’s celebrate the possibilities of making mensches.

Things Seen and Unseen


I have downloaded loads of apps onto my iPhone. Most of them I use once in a while, and some of them not at all. Amongst my favorite apps is one called “Plane Finder 3D.” The opening screen is a 3D photo of the Earth, on the North/South American continents. Very quickly the screen fills with airplanes of various sizes that obliterate any view of the planet. Every little object is a plane currently in the sky. Touch any plane, and you instantly discover the airline, the flight number, the model number and manufacturer, the altitude, how long it’s been in the air, and when and where it’s landing.

No, I am not a travel agent. I’m not even an avid traveler. In fact, I think of myself, after the title of a novel by Anne Tyler, as the reluctant tourist. I love “Plane Finder 3D” because it blows my mind, every time, to look up in the air, see only clouds, and yet realize there’s something more going on high above me. There are literally thousands of airplanes in the sky at all times, 24/7. I can’t hear or see it, but it’s real. And with a little help from some extraordinary tech tools, I can get a handle on what is going on.

When we traveled last week in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, we saw beautiful gates and doors of so many shapes and sizes and colors. From the outside, they were intriguing. But what was behind those gates? One never knows. There could be a magnificent hacienda or a lush garden, a comfortable hammock and a grill, or a pile of garbage and a shack. We imagined what might be there and occasionally peaked and saw all the things I’ve described – and even more.

What’s behind the door? What’s flying 6 miles directly overhead? Who knows? It is the intrinsic mystery of existence to embrace the power of the things that are seen and those that are unseen. Each and every one of us has some doors behind which we hide things from others, and sometimes, even from ourselves.

There are times when we believe that the only thing people want to see is the superficial, the colorful door that faces the street. To show others who we really are takes the risk of vulnerability. We wonder, “Who would ever want to know who I actually am? Who would ever trust me or like me if they knew the things that scare me? Who would respect me if they knew how I struggle with addiction or anxiety, or whatever your panic button connects to…?”

The problem with the closed doors of San Miguel is all the beauty, and the pain and the “realness” of life are lost to we who stand on the outside. I’m not asking for the key to their homes or permission to enter their space – just the chance to bask in the beauty of life, piles of dirt and stone along with citrus trees and orchids. Life is so short, and we use so much energy holding the door shut. 

What would happen if we, somehow, dared to open the door? As Brené Brown teaches, If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly. When you click on a little airplane in “Plane Finder3D”, there are few secrets. The plane is essentially stating: “Here I am, this is where I’ve been, and this is where I’m going, and I’m even going to tell you how I’m getting there.” I know. It’s simplistic. But the thing is, every one of us has an origin story. And each one of us has a thought or two about where we want to go before the story is over.

Open the door. Tell your story. Share your heart and soul. Dare to be seen.

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,

rebhayim

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,
rebhayim