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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
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Gathering All Together

Liza and I received an invitation in the mail late last week to a Hanukkah party in Dallas, Texas. Even though we moved to Newton 21 years ago, we remain on the list of invitees. Every year, from 1986-1996, my children, my wife, and I would attend. It was a big, and always expanding group of adults and kids from Temple Emanuel in Dallas, the temple where my wife had her first pulpit position. The food was consistently great. There was always music and general fun. And the piece de resistance was always a Hanukkah piñata for the kids – this is Texas, after all. I have nothing but warm memories of those parties and the hosts who were always so genuinely gracious and kind.

This year’s invitation was a picture of a Hanukkah candle lighting from a recent party. Nina, the hostess, is in the foreground. Around her are a number of young children and a few adults. I recognize no one else.

So much time has passed since I attended their Hanukkah party: 22 years, in fact. In that time, so much has changed for all of us who are still on the party mailing list. Some of our kids are married. Some of our parents are dead. Some of us have grandkids. Some of us have been successful in our chosen professions. Some of us have been through tragedy and anguish.

I don’t think I’ve spoken a word to Nina and Bob, the hosts of the party, since 1996-7. Are they retired? I can’t imagine, but maybe they are. Are their daughters all married or single? Do they have grandkids? Are they healthy?

It’s obvious that we are no longer friends. At least, we’re not friends as the term is commonly understood. Whatever connection we had – and it was a really good and strong connection – has faded to a blur, as happens for so many of us who have moved around a bit.

So why, if that is the case, did I feel this wave of nostalgia wash over me like a warm bath of love when I opened the invitation? Why didn’t it go right to recycling with a comment like, “That’s nice”? Why is the invitation still sitting on the kitchen counter? Because time collapses when face to face with experiences of love and God and community. Even though we do not talk, the love from those years still exists.

I so appreciate this invitation, because it shows thoughtfulness and kindness. It means at some point when Nina printed out the address labels, she looked at our name and thought of us, if only for as long as it takes to stuff an envelope. I certainly think of Nina and Bob and their daughters as I look at the picture on the invite. I am transported back to the years we attended. I remember my son, Jonah, wildly swinging the piñata bat. I remember my daughter, Sara, swinging on the swing in the backyard. And I remember the sense of community we shared. The camaraderie of voices joined in Hanukkah prayers and then a rousing Rock of Ages, and the warm, fuzzy feeling of connection and love and family ties.

Such moments, such memories, do not ever disappear. They reinforce our shared feelings of connectedness. They give our lives a kind of direction, a sense of meaning and agency. Sure, it’s fine to be with one’s own family for any given celebration. But the sense of unity, of sharing something sacred and timeless with others can bring us peace of mind that we can only obtain when in relationship with others. That’s why gathering just for the sake of gathering is so important in our tradition. That’s why in Hebrew, the word for synagogue is beyt Knesset, house of gathering. This is what Jews do, all over the world. And we love to share it with anyone who wants to absorb the glow of the candles and the beauty of being in community, in connection.

Our years of Dallas Hanukkah celebrations remain not only as good memories fraught with nostalgia for yesteryear, but also as cherished experiences of Jewish life lived fully and in concert with others. Perhaps that’s our most important task at TBA: to build positive memories of Jewish meaning within community. The ritual or the activity is, in a way, secondary to the profound feeling we derive from gathering with purpose. In such a context we can learn what it actually means to be-here-now. And that is a priceless Hanukkah gift for which I will be thankful for the rest of my life. Come build some memories.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Thanks on Thanksgiving

The world is too much with us, according to William Wordsworth. I couldn’t agree more. There is such a swirl of frenetic activity all around us, much of it dark and foreboding. It creates a kind of low-level anxiety that is always playing in the background. Dripping like a faucet, we can’t seem to get it out of our heads, even for a little bit.

But… tonight is the first snowfall of the season. It is a quiet snow, and everything looks beautiful in the glow of streetlights. As it covers the street and the sidewalks I begin to recalibrate a bit. I breathe.

Despite a creeping sense of vulnerability following Pittsburgh, the murders in Thousand Oaks followed by unparalleled fire damage and fatalities, missiles, and mortars in Israel, Ebola reappearing, and so many more disquieting facts and situations… the snow looks beautiful. What does this prove? That even in a dark, ugly time, there is still exquisite beauty in the world, still things that bring us a feeling of gratitude and even, dare I suggest it? – a sense of hope.

Elie Wiesel once wrote, “I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face. Above all, we must not give in to cynicism. To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.”

Wiesel was always my touchstone of hope. His ongoing testimony to the capacity of men and women to commit abominable acts of cruelty, and his affirmation of life and living was a tightrope walk I have long appreciated and learned from. It’s never just one or the other. Even in Hell, there is a not-Hell. Even amid sadness and loss, there is not-sadness and not-loss. Life and the blossoming of new ideas and the embrace of friends and family and community members are waiting.

This all comes as I watch the snow falling, remembering the fantastic joy the first snowfall brought me as a child. As lost as I may have felt, as vulnerable as I truly was, getting out there to the snow was an urge that pulled me from my sadness and worries with profound magnetic force. The sounds of nylon and zippers and buckled boots, the feel of the hat and the gloves, the edge of being overheated before getting outside, this is a transcendent mélange of memories.

Along with the snow is another fact, another memory set: Thanksgiving is coming. In less than a week, Liza and I will host a yearly convocation of the kids, the grandkids, and dear old family friends. We will sing and laugh and laugh some more. We will eat a fabulous meal that I will cook, and we’ll think about where we’ve all gone since our first meal together for Thanksgiving decades ago. And we will sing from our songbook and laugh some more. And all this: despite the slow spread of neo-fascism, the dreaded effect of climate change, the fire fatalities, the new normal that no longer chokes on mass murder and guns, and… well, fill in the blank…

All we’ve got is this world and this life. And all we can do in it and with it is to make decisions that affirm life, justice, dignity, and equality. It is, sometimes, next to impossible to know what to do. But leaning into righteousness is never wrong.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving. And for God’s sake, before you dig in and celebrate, take a moment to give thanks: for love, laughter, community, resilience, and each other.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Eighty Years

On the night of November 9, 1938, violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Nazi officials depicted the riots as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.

Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion Reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.

On November 9, 1938, my father, Hans Stern, was an eleven-year-old living in the Baruch Auerbach Jewish orphanage. His parents had committed suicide a month or so before he was placed there. I have often wondered what it must have been like to be so vulnerable to uncontrolled, uncontained violence. To hear the noise of the mob, the antisemitic chanting, the smell of smoke in the air.

As I have previously shared with you, my father never spoke of his life. His day to day existence is essentially a light blur across a screen. The more I have learned about trauma and PTSD, the clearer it becomes to me just how tortured a soul my father had. He was angry, unpredictably violent, and lost in a terrifying world. When I try to put myself into his eleven-year-old mindset, I can only do so for a moment or two before I shut down.

Kristallnacht was a pogrom, a state-sponsored act of terrorism enacted throughout Germany. In her book, Between Dignity and Despair, Marion Kaplan writes that during the pogrom, Germans displayed “… a mixture of rampant viciousness, studied ignorance, and occasional kindness… What were the reactions of Germans not immediately involved either in the destruction or in helping the Jews? While most approved of, or went along with ‘moderate’ antisemitism, many disapproved of the open barbarism of the November Pogrom… Still, there are almost no cases of public opposition to it.”

After Pittsburgh, I thought a lot about our current vulnerability as Jews in America. I thought about our connections to the American zeitgeist and our contributions to the heart and soul of America. And I am ineluctably drawn to confidently assert that we are blessed to be citizens of the United States.

The number of people who are not Jewish, who, after Pittsburgh, declared themselves allies, is legion. The outpouring of sympathy has been heartfelt and authentic. In no way, shape, or form, is it open season on Jews in America.

I am much more worried right now about simply being an American, vulnerable to people like the Pittsburgh shooter, or the Thousand Oaks shooter, or the Las Vegas shooter, or… the list is endless. These are disturbed male loners, mentally ill and able to legally purchase deadly weapons and special ammo magazines that maximize the kill per bullet ratio. Their psychopathology leads them to feed on hatred, which is in no short supply. Their paranoid delusions about mobs of unknown evil people out to get them are stoked every day by a president who uses fear as a potent get-out-the-vote message. They get inspiration from neo-Nazis, fascists and rabble-rousing haters to go out and destroy the enemy: Blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, Sikhs, Hispanics – in short, to destroy the Other.

I wish to God I knew some wise response to these random acts of hatred. I wish the Parkland aftermath and the youth crusade had made a dent in gun violence. But the NRA and its allies knew that if they just kept quiet and refused to acknowledge these young people, the gun control push would slowly ebb and fade away. They knew they could count on Congress to do absolutely nothing.

Antisemitism is one manifestation of growing intolerance and violence in this nation. So is racism. So is the move to rescind rights for transgender people. There are not enough security guards in the world to protect America from the creep of fascism and hatred. We, along with our allies, must say no to extremism. We must say no to singling out those who are different. We must say no to those who spew hatred for profit. We must say yes to rational gun laws, yes to better mental health intervention, yes to educating our children in the strength of American diversity.

Eighty years ago tonight, was the official notice that Jewish life in Germany was going to end in tragedy and violence. Pittsburgh is not a message of an ending. It is not a signal to hide, to make our Jewish institutions castles with moats and gun turrets. Pittsburgh is a challenge to the Jews of America to remember the past and never succumb to fear.

 

Trying to Breathe

The Holocaust has been a part of my consciousness as a Jew since I was 13 years old. Not a day goes by without some image or song or phrase evoking a Holocaust reference. I know – it sounds excessive, perhaps OCD. It is a wound, a scar that never goes away. This Holocaust-centric consciousness is a burden that darkens many private moments in my life. But it also daily inspires me to be an upstander, and not a bystander to world events.

As hyperconscious as I am about the Holocaust, I have always been among those who find any attempt to use the past as an indicator of the future to be facile and ultimately uninformed. History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. It is true that given similar situations, similar outcomes often occur. But History is like a river. Always flowing and never the same.

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory, about whom the movie, Defiance was written, was just interviewed in the German weekly, Der Spiegel. She said, “What we fight today is not fascism — or maybe, not yet fascism. It is populism, from the right and from the left. I am wary of Nazi comparisons, but what I see is a kind of ugly populism whose hateful rhetoric reminds me of how the National Socialists in Germany came to power. It’s an ethnocentric populism, it feeds a dangerous mood, a sort of tyranny of the mob. Many Americans think Hitler came to power by a revolution, but he won elections. We should not forget that.”

And as Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti Defamation League, said recently, “We used to say, you want to find out the level of democracy in a country? Ask the Jews. The Jews are the canary in the coal mine of democracy. But the reverse is also true. If you want to know how Jews are faring, take a look at the level of democracy.”

Antisemitism is certainly on the rise in Europe as well as in the United States. We know from our own experiences in Newton that even in our bubble there are people who hate Jews, drawing swastikas in public schools and writing offensive antisemitic graffiti. This is real.

But – this is not the beginning of the end. It is exactly the right time to reject apocalyptic thinking. instead, we must actively work in ways that will strengthen our local Jewish community, as well as the entire American Jewish community. Wringing our hands will not do us any good. Indulging in anxious fantasies about the bad guys and seeking to transform synagogues into armed high-security enclaves is self-defeating.

So you want to know what’s next…? Me, too. I want to know what’s going to happen out there. How will the American conscience respond to this antisemitic attack? How will the Jews of America respond? Will we be able to band together? Or will we be hopelessly out of synch and out of time like we usually are?

Yes, this is a time where cynicism can easily become the predominant way of seeing the world. It’s tempting to assume the worst. So, when we get spooked by a disaster such as Pittsburgh, it’s not just a function of our present fear, but a recognition of our cherished past. We’re shocked because something about Pittsburgh felt so un-American, so foreign.

It’s easy to forget all this while our ears are ringing with cries of a rise in anti-Semitism; … Anti-Semitism may still be alive and well and growing in dark corners, but let’s not overlook the enormous outpouring of love and concern for the Jews from across the country. This should serve as a reminder of how fully integrated we have become in American society.

I was heartened to read a powerful sermon by Rabbi Julia Appel, Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto. She is a Beth Avodah alum. Her parents, Neal and Barbara Appel, are members. She writes: “I refuse to walk through this world afraid. I refuse to walk through this world responding to the violence done to my people with a closed tent or a closed fist. 4 Because that is how they win. I will live my one Jewish life to walking through this world with the values given me by our people, our traditions, our families: Love the stranger. Remember where you come from. Do what is right…”

Her words remind me of the prophet Micah, who taught us that God requires from us just 3 things: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) When we combine Micah’s words with Rabbi Appel’s words, we have a roadmap into the unknown. The heading on the map is pointing towards dignity and courage and justice. It points to voting. We will move forward together.

This Shabbat evening service is being called #Show up for Shabbat. We will use our evening to pray and contemplate quietly as will synagogues all over the USA. This will be an important service to attend.

Fear

“… [L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” FDR spoke these words at his inauguration in January of 1933. The nation was in a dark place, struggling to gets its equilibrium in the midst of a terrible depression.

FDR understood the power of fear and how it subverts attempts to change and do things in a new way. His mandate was to move beyond the binary good guys vs. bad guys motif to a clarity of purpose.  At least for some overarching ideals, he saw that to be an American is to be on the same side, to be united in common cause.

These days there are few messages of common cause. Instead, we see a world increasingly divided and divisive. You’re in or you’re out. Black or white. Republican or Democrat. Have or have-not. Conservative or progressive. Battle lines are being drawn.

All around us are social media and specialized news sources that cater to specific ideologies. We tend to stick with the news sources that most closely support our worldview. We hunker down and circle the wagons.

We embrace a cultural worldview that provides us with order, meaning, importance and, ultimately, self-esteem. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on the agreement of others who share our beliefs. Meanwhile, the existence of other people with beliefs and values that differ from our own can subtly undermine the protection this worldview provides. So, according to the theory, when these beliefs are threatened, we will go to great lengths to preserve and defend them.

Pointing out and accusing the Other – the one who disagrees with us – is a powerful tool. It provides us with an immediate enemy upon whom we can hang our mistrust. This fear that our way of life is threatened by people with whom we disagree or who look different than we do is growing, here and all over the world.

In Israel, this phenomenon is growing at a geometric rate. Religious Jews vs. secular Jews. Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic vs. Russian vs. Ethiopian Jews. Jews vs. Arabs. Two-state vs. one state. Democracy vs. nascent autocracy.

I should not be surprised by all of this, but it hurts nonetheless. I am so disappointed to be living in a time where fear has become a tool to maneuver public opinion. Anxious people respond to conspiracies and mobs and the Other with a predictable hardening of boundaries.

That’s why this past Tuesday night I was so proud that we sponsored an evening of conversation with J Street between two men of differing outlooks on Israel. Dr. Mike Makovsky, the president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, is a mainline political conservative regarding Israeli and American politics. Jeremy Ben Ami, the president and CEO of J Street, is a mainline political progressive regarding Israeli and American politics. They disagree on a lot of issues. But they don’t objectify each other. They are keenly aware of the need for dialogue and a fair exchange of ideas.

Ben Ami and Makovsky proved a few things. They showed that civil discourse is possible, that two men from different sides of the struggle could enter into conversation. They showed that it was possible to listen to the Other without becoming defensive or apoplectic.

The most important takeaway for me and I hope for the entire audience was that when people are willing to speak with open hearts, we are able to discover a middle ground. There were things they both agreed on. That doesn’t minimize the differences, but it does underscore the danger of battle lines and how they obfuscate our common humanity and, in this case, a common love of Israel. If we can agree on even a few issues, then we have a common ground. This is the beginning of true communication and the end of manipulative fear-mongering.

“Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” remains a clear and present danger in this country – and in Israel. And it’s only getting worse. The only way to mitigate against this pernicious toxic cloud is to allow the light of truth and common cause to shine through it.

I know it’s far-fetched and perhaps only a dream that there could be civil discourse between 2 people with profound political differences. But I saw it happen in our sanctuary. I hope to see more of it. “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one”.

Shabbat Shalom

The Blessing of Debate 

When reading Talmud or various Jewish commentaries, one thing is clear, over and over again: Jews love to argue. The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue and disagreement. Jews often study in havruta-in pairs with each member of the havruta challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional house of study is struck immediately by the noise level-havrutot (plural of havruta) read the text aloud and often argue at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.

One of the rules of this argumentative style of learning is to always respect your study partner. One is not locked in debate with a fellow learner in order to prove who’s smarter. The experience of havruta is embraced for the sake of heaven. To put it another way, arguing different positions with respect and honor is considered a sacred act performed with God’s urging and God’s blessing.

It used to be that within the Jewish community this foundational belief that there is a multiplicity of opinions on virtually anything was paramount and entirely accepted. The resilience of the Jewish tradition has been in its ability both to foster dissent of thought and encourage consensus of action. That does not mean that every community acts in the same way, but that communities while acknowledging disagreements, can still mobilize to do important work together.

Of course, Jews have been known to vituperatively go at it with their fellow Jews. History books include many examples of loud and painful schisms. Medieval rabbinic Jews vs. Karaites. Followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, the false messiah vs. Jews who did not accept him. The Hasidic movement beginning in the 18th century and the mitnagdim who bitterly opposed them. The Orthodox community and the first Reform Jews of the 19th century. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who called for an armed uprising, and the Jews who were vehemently opposed.
These internal struggles throughout our history have been deeply scarring. It can take a very long time for the wounds of opposition to heal.   Whenever we can hear perspectives that are not ours, and strenuously disagree, while still valuing the notion that we share a deeply personal bond, this is success. And whenever we disagree and disrespect each other, belittling the thoughts and the essence of the person with whom we disagree, then this is failure.

The sacred roots of havruta are being lost. There seem to be ever-wider rifts between us. There are few conversations and debates now, and more finger pointing and anger. I specifically don’t remember the subject of Israel ever being so dominantly divisive amongst American Jews.

Part of this is surely the “new normal” of political rallies. We see and hear people being insulted and booed at, accused of being liars and cheats, pointed out as being un-American because they believe differently than the party in power. We also see the use of the “us” vs. “them” paradigm, who’s on the right side and who is on the wrong side. In such an atmosphere there can be no constructive dialogue, just endless and tedious name-calling.

We have to listen more carefully to each other within our family circle. We have to support a true diversity of opinions and also unite when we collectively agree that something is harmful or dangerous. We have to work hard at bringing down the temperature of our differences and acknowledge what we can do together and what we cannot do. This is tremendously difficult, but not impossible.

On October 23rd at 7pm at TBA, we will be hosting a havruta: Mike Makovsky, President and CEO of the Jewish Institute of National Security of America, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street. Jeremy and Mike are on a speaking tour, modeling civil discourse and respect for each other’s commitment to the same goal – a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the State of Israel – while discussing their different approaches.

This discussion is a true model of what we can accomplish – respectfully. We can loudly disagree without calling each other names or accusing the other of being an antisemite or unpatriotic, or anti-Israel, or a fascist, and so forth.

This is how peace comes. This is how understanding comes. One conversation at a time, spoken in words of dedication to the truth and not to the sharpest arrow. Come be a part of this effort to listen and to understand, to agree and disagree, as the case might be, for the sake of heaven. For the sake of our children.

The Seasons

 

The primary indicator of Autumn’s arrival is all about the tree outside the Administrative entrance to our temple. It starts to turn colors – glorious colors! – at least 10 days before all the other trees. This is at least partly due to the halogen light that shines through the leafy boughs, speeding the transition.

As I walk towards the entrance, I see it, as if for the first time. And it’s always such a shock and surprise. It resonates with almost the same intensity as the first day of school, or when I sound the shofar. We’re here, for the first time – again.

For all the encounters of a lifetime and the new experiences that are often so exciting, there is something about the cycle of the year that I love. The cycles of life are reassuring: so definite, so clearly demarcated. To know something about what’s coming – the next holiday, the solstice, an anniversary – is solace for living in a world where we can know practically nothing else about the next day or even the next hour.

The regular rhythms of life keep us rooted. It’s one of the themes in Marc Chagall’s work. If we don’t have an anchor, we might float away!

The cycles of life are not just anchors. They actually provide opportunities to engage in the sacredness of life itself. Not just the big moments, like b’nai mitzvah or weddings, but moments like seeing the Fall foliage for the first time. Or the first time you pull out a sweater to wear. Or after your annual physical. Or carving your pumpkin.

The point is, we return to these moments again and again. As much as we may have changed over the past x years of our lives, these things stay the same; comfortable, familiar, blessed. By acknowledging them, paying attention to them, we give thanks for still being around to appreciate them.

In the Jewish tradition, there is the custom of reciting 100 blessings a day. For Jews who daven every day, this really isn’t so hard. In fact, the Aish.com website breaks it down mathematically. But for post-modern Jews, it’s a lot more challenging. The fact is that looking at the common things that cycle through our lives gives us opportunities to reflect, show gratitude, and then give thanks:  for the miracle of our senses, the capacity to love, to age in health, to be cared for, for life itself.

The leaves are falling, and soon the trees will be bare. The winds will howl and winter will come: cold, snowy, slippery. And just as you begin to despair you will see a crocus, daring to show it’s tiny, fragile bud. And you will say, thank you; thank you for reminding me that the world continues to turn, the seasons change, and that I am blessed to be a witness.

Kavanaugh

I know good old Brett. I never met him, but I recognize him from a mile away. He is the quintessence of the frat boy, one of the guys. Brett’s a poster child for the clean-cut white American, borne to privilege, borne to the assumption that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. Why shouldn’t he? He has money, brains, class, culture, and power. You know why he was such a petulant, tantrum-throwing brat at the hearing? No one says no to Brett. Not a lawyer. Not a coach. Not a terrified young woman. Not Senator Klobuchar — especially not a woman! How dare anyone call him on his behavior? He can do anything he wants! He was coached well by Trump and associates.

Brett is an insecure guy, a manchild who hides behind his race and his religion. He was bred for success. And succeed he has. Brett has convinced enough Americans and their elected officials that he deserves a seat on the Supreme Court. And, by God, he’s going to get it. The status quo stills breathes, still destroys anyone who might disagree or offer another interpretation of the truth.

I know Kavanaugh, the one who mocked the guys who weren’t athletes, who didn’t go to prep schools, who weren’t white and Christian. He was the one who rated the girls, who drank the beer, who puked and screamed. He was the one we always knew would be a hotshot at the country club, making coin, acting like the self-righteous snob that he is.

Shame on the people who would look at him — with awe, envy, admiration — and see a Supreme Court judge. See him for what he is: a man capable of lying about his life, under oath, without hesitation or compunction. But lying — bold-faced lying — is now the sine qua non of our president; why not his latest nominee?

Brett — you’ve won again. Have a beer.

Trump — what have you done to my country?

 

Hic Sunt Dracones

At the New York Public Library, amongst the various exhibits and artifacts in their collection is a little, 5-inch globe: the earliest surviving engraved copper sphere from the period immediately following the discovery of the New World. The Hunt-Lennox globe (about five inches in diameter), is among the first cartographic representations of the Americas known to geographers. Of the two continents in the Western hemisphere, only South America is represented, appearing as a large island with the regional names Mundus Novus (the New World), Terra Sanctae Crucis (the Land of the Holy Cross), and Terra de Brazil (the Land of Brazil). Cuba appears as “Isabel,” and the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Hispaniola) appears as “Spagnolla.” North America is represented as a group of scattered islands.
On the globe the creator engraved the following words: Hic sunt dracones; Here be dragons. Apparently it’s the only known place those words are written down on a map or globe. Which is very surprising. We just assume it says “Here be dragons,” on every old map.
Maybe we assume it mentions the imminent danger of dragons everywhere because we’ve seen maps decorated with etchings of sea monsters filling the vast empty spaces around the real and imagined land masses. Just seeing the words, even in Latin, brings a true sense of peril and fear.
Our ancestors looked out there at the endless oceans and felt so puny and insignificant. Who and what’s on the other side and what we might bump into was more than just free-floating anxiety. The unknown loomed with true malevolence.
Today one can go online and look at the pictures of earth taken by astronauts and the Hubble telescope. One can watch Yves Cousteau specials and see lots of things, including great white sharks and killer whales and narwhals… But there aren’t any dragons; or are there?
Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. Maybe not animals that breathe fire or swallow ships. There are, however, frightening phenomena lurking in our line of sight. Take your pick: global climate change, the spread of terrorism, the growing possibility of deadly pandemics, antibiotic resistance… and I haven’t even gotten started. We could go with a new virulent antisemitism, the rise of the alt-right, the slow crumbling of democracy here and in Israel, and more – so much more.
There is no antidote to the fear, to the imminence of scary things. There is no relief from not knowing what may happen next. All we’ve got is each other. In solidarity with our community, there is a greater sense of safety and comfort. Once we know that we don’t have to face the dragons on our own, we can be a little less anxious.
That’s why having a group, an affinity group, is such an important act. Being a temple member is not just about sending our kids to Hebrew School. It’s rather about connecting to and with others, about facing the vicissitudes of life knowing that one is supported and understood by others. It’s emerging from crises with the helping hand of a friend. It’s about social justice in a broken world.
The doors are always open, and the lights are always on. There’s plenty of room on this ship. So jump on board. We will fight the dragons together.