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This Little Light of Mine

This week’s Before Shabbat is the last installment of the season. It goes on hiatus for the summer, and back again in September. As for me, I go on hiatus for July in the town of Orleans.

I had a friend who, as a badge of honor, never took a break from his work. Oh, maybe an afternoon here or there. But for the most part he never strayed far from the office.

I admired that dedication, that “duty first” mentality. It looked like the right thing to do. Somehow, the self-sacrifice seemed sanctified.

Only: he wasn’t happy. The world maligned him. His wife didn’t understand him. His kids didn’t respect him. The people at work were idiots. The administration was short-sighted. Yes. He was miserable. And no wonder…

We need time to think, time to replenish our souls with rest and love. Time to be with friends and time to be on our own a bit – a walk, a drive, a swim. All this time I’d admired my buddy and his dogged self-abnegation, until it dawned on me that he was poisoning his soul, choking his neshama to death.

Taking some time doesn’t have to be an elaborate 3-month trip around the world. It can be a weekend, even a day spent in pursuit of something that nourishes your soul. After all, even God takes a day off!

A growing body of scientific evidence explains what many of us have learned from unpleasant experience: Push yourself through too many hours or days of work and your brain starts to push back. Ideas that once flowed easily dry up, and tasks that you should be able to perform quickly become excruciatingly difficult–you need to give your brain, and yourself, some rest.

It would be easy to evaluate current events and then conclude that as long as there is such indiscriminate inequality in the world, no one deserves to take time off. There’s too much work to do. But we do no one much good if our souls are starved for spiritual oxygen. There are no awards for unhappiness, no extra credit for being dour.

“Life is too short” is a common axiom. And it is true. Take some time off this summer. Take time to appreciate your life. Burnish your soul to let the pure, divine spark within you shine brightly.

This world is so in need of light. That’s our task: to light up the world and lead the way.

What are your plans for getting away? For the summer? For a weekend? Let me know. Be healthy and purposeful in your recharging. I hope we all reconvene with strength and fullness of heart and spirit.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Thoughts for Our Annual Meeting

It’s hard to know where to begin as I contemplate the end of our year-long 20th-anniversary celebration. It has been, so soul-satisfying to reflect on all of the things we have done together. And we have done so much! A new Torah! The magnificent Dor l’Dor campaign. Collecting a truckful of supplies after Hurricane Katrina and sending two intrepid temple members to drive it down to Mississippi. The Peter Daniel Clark seders. MLK interfaith services. Derech Eretz. 5k and 10k certified races. Jazz Shabbat. So many special concerts, including Debbie Friedman and Julie Silver. The Newton Lane Scholar in Residence series. Elie Weisel. Dedicating our social justice energy to domestic violence work… Mitzvah days.

I could generate several pages of nothing but fantastic, well-received projects and lectures and classes and initiatives. I am so thankful for all the people who worked so hard to make these things happen: staff, lay leaders, temple members, community resource people, and many more. The amount of time and energy spent on these events is prodigious.

Not everything was successful. I sometimes tried to do too much without sufficiently consulting my staff partners. Sometimes I had an idea for a program or activity, put it on the calendar, and then promptly forgot about it. Sometimes I assumed people would be interested in a certain topic or speaker or class, without first checking in with you, for whom I was planning the particular program or event. There have been times when I was juggling so many professional and personal torches, that I came close to burning myself – and sometimes, burning you. I regret those times and any pain I inflicted on you, on my family, and on my staff.

In times of duress, when some sought to accentuate my failures, so many more of you lifted me back up and pointed me in the right direction. You have been patient and loving over these 20 years. You give me lots of room to do better, to reboot, to reconsider. I know not every congregation is so kind to their rabbi.

John Gottman, the preeminent Marriage therapist, says that his work has led him to claim that there are two things that every relationship needs to survive intact: kindness and generosity. Without these two qualities, there is strife and dissolution. Your kindness and generosity have been prolific and unstinting.

Liza and a fellow rabbi friend of ours make fun of me, calling me, “The happiest rabbi in America.” The thing is, I don’t get defensive about that – anymore, that is. I wear that label with honor and joy. Yes. Sometimes being your rabbi is exhausting, but since when did anyone do good work without, sometimes, feeling exhausted? It is a true blessing for me to know from the bottom of my heart that I am doing what God wants me to do. I know this because of the feeling I get every time I walk from my car to the doors of the temple. There is a great sense of at-homeness, a true sense of nachat ruach.

Nachat ruach is a desirable and pleasant emotional and spiritual state, connoting inner fulfillment and gratification of the spirit. And I get to feel that way when I come here. Yes, there are moments when I was sad or overwhelmed or angry or disappointed; but I never doubted whether I belonged here, because I do. This is where my spirit leads me.

Some years ago, when I got to perform Tevye in our temple’s performance of Fiddler on a Roof, I sat next to Beth Shuster, who played my wife. I said to her, “It’s a new world, Golda.” Tevye was right. The world he knew, the world he assumed would still be like his father’s world and his father’s father was utterly changing, morphing faster than he could even begin to understand it. One response to the revolutionary change was to try to avoid it, closing the windows, locking the doors, and pretending everything was just fine. But of course, it was not all fine, and would never return to the way it was.

Make no mistake. We are living in times even more revolutionary than Tevye’s experience. Thank God we are not confronted by violence and persecution. The changes are, in many cases, coming from within.

Statistic #1. A study, published by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, found that only 50 percent of American Jews aged 25-54 (not including the ultra-Orthodox) are currently married. Among those, close to 60 percent married non-Jews.

Statistic #2. We estimate at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage.

Statistic #3. In the Greater Boston Jewish community, 37% of households (44,200) belong to a synagogue or another Jewish worship community of some type. The rate of synagogue membership in the Greater Boston area is comparable to that of the rest of the country (39%) but has declined since 2005 (42%). The number of synagogue-member households in the Greater Boston area, however, is unchanged since 2005, when it was just over 44,000.

Statistic #4.  The proportion of Boston Jews who identify as Reform or Conservative has declined since 2005. Ten years ago, these two groups accounted for nearly three quarters (74%) of Boston Jews. Today, they are only 44%. By contrast, those who claim no denomination—that is, those who are secular, culturally Jewish, or “just Jewish”—have increased from 17% to 45% of the population.

Statistic #5. Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards – such as in-marriage and support of Israel – as optional, tentative, and, at best, a means to express higher Jewish purpose.

Statistic #6 In 2010, 50%of our Sunday School students came from Spaulding School. This year the number is less than 30%.

Statistic #7 This past year, seven families in which neither parent was Jewish, enrolled their children in our Early Learning Center.

To quote another line from another temple play, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” All of these statistics are simply a look at who we are now. What are we going to do about it? How will we respond to these findings, some welcome, some scary, all challenging us to change our assumptions and open our hearts to who we are becoming.

Our Beth Avodah story began on this land over 55 years ago in a Quonset hut purchased from the Salvation Army Home for Wayward Girls.  We were the temple in the woods, a place invisible from the road on a dirt driveway that was almost unpassable in the winter. The mortgage was guaranteed by the founders who put up their own homes as collateral. People heated the room before services by turning on the stove and setting a window fan to blow the heat into the room. The cleaning and planting and painting and upkeep was all sweat equity from temple members.

We are not about corporate Judaism. We are the boutique temple, the alternative to the big box temples around us. We strive to make TBA a place where everybody wants to know your name, a place where our culture is to be generous and kind. We are a place where the doors are open, and the light is on, light that pierces the darkness of spiritual loneliness and leads others to find here community and empathy and hope. We are committed to becoming increasingly relational and not transactional.

We are writing the next chapter right now. How will we engage our community? How will we respond to the statistics I’ve shared? What do we do with this rapidly changing demographic information?

Some things are very clear. We must leave Puddingstone Lane and bring word of our community to a larger population as the number of Jews moving to Newton continues to decline. We must engage the micro-communities within our temple. We must provide the physical space that will be conducive to attracting our temple community as well as those in the greater community. The architecture of our temple must express open arms and generosity. Kindness and comfort need to predominate.

I invite you – I implore you to join in writing this new chapter. It must be written by all of us, not by the staff or me or lay leadership alone. If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that transparency and collaboration and inclusiveness must be the new norm for all people.

It’s a new world, Golda. We don’t have to do the cleanup or the painting or pave the driveway. But: we are the ones who must build the bridges to our larger community and open our hearts to our fellow congregants. We are the ones who write the next chapter, empowered to step up and make the difference. We believe in this temple in the woods, no longer hidden away but dynamically present in making a difference. We are the ones who must recognize how much we have changed and what we need to do with that information.

Our tremendously talented advisor, Nanette Fridman, once said that right now Beth Avodah has a long runway, with plenty of active, committed people ready to fly. I agree. We have the power and the vision for take-off.  I’m ready. Let’s go!

 

They Are Falling…

Preserving human life is among the highest duties in Judaism, and suicide is seen as counter to this fundamental value. Human beings are barred even from harming themselves — let alone ending their own lives. Moreover, in traditional Jewish thought, the body belongs to God. As such, ending one’s life is not considered within the scope of a person’s authority.

In traditional Jewish law, suicide is anathema. “No mourning rites are observed for a person who commits suicide, no mourning for him, no eulogizing him, no rending of garments, no removing of shoes, but people should line up to comfort the mourners and recite the mourners blessing and do everything out of respect for the living.” The rule seems to be that the suicide is denied certain honors that are due to the dead. This was later understood to include denying burial in the regular cemetery and burying the suicide in a special section of the cemetery reserved for suicides. It was made clear, however, that the public should participate in everything that is done out of respect for the living. The mourners were not to be denied the comforting that was due the bereaved.

This Jewish understanding of suicide surely seems harsh. How could anyone so callously turn their backs on those who commit suicide in the name of Judaism?

The answer is that, in practice, Jews did not and do not turn away from dealing with the issue of suicide and the families that must live on afterward. Despite Jewish law officially denying a shred of empathy for victims of suicide, Jewish practice is compassionate. Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, in his classic work the Arukh HaShulchan (Yoreh De’ah 345:5), written in the mid 1890s, states, “This is the general principle in connection with suicide: we find any excuse we can and say the victim acted thus because they were in terror or great pain, or their mind was unbalanced, or they imagined it was right to do what they did for fear that they would commit a crime…It is extremely unlikely that a person would commit such an act unless they were disturbed.”

 Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “The most common element in suicide is psychopathology, or mental illness; of the disparate mental illnesses, a relative few are particularly and powerfully bound to self-inflicted death: the mood disorders (depression and manic-depression) schizophrenia, borderline and antisocial personality disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Study after study in Europe, the United States, Australia, and Asia have shown the unequivocal presence of severe psychopathology in those who die by their own hand; indeed, in all of the major investigations to date, 90 to 95 percent of people who committed suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric illness.”

Of course, I am moved to write about suicide today after losing Anthony Bourdain just a few days after Kate Spade’s taking her life. I didn’t know either of them, but I knew their work. Bourdain, a foodie’s favorite guy, was a fabulous raconteur who took viewers and readers everywhere imaginable to experience the world’s cuisines and the cooks who created it. He was handsome and profane and experienced and fun.

Kate Spade created handbags as bright and as bold and as fun as any ever created. Her name signified fun and flair and life. Her style bespoke a true eye for beauty and elan.

Frank Bruni, in the Times, discusses how powerfully their suicides speak “to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside; between their public faces and their private realities; between their visible swagger and invisible pain. Parts unknown: That was true of Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.

Bourdain’s and Spade’s deaths happened in a week when newly released government statistics revealed a staggering increase in suicides by Americans of more than 25 percent from 1999 to 2016, when nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives. Experts worry that this trajectory reflects a breakdown in social bonds, in community. It’s unclear how or if Bourdain and Spade fit into that picture.”

In fact, it is unclear how and why people take the most drastic step possible when confronting pain or madness or loss: to end it all. For those of us who have been in the terrifying valley of the shadow of death, we know what it’s like to dread the next day. We bemoan the darkness. We languish in the pain. And eventually, with lots of help and love and patience and sometimes medication, we slowly reemerge into the light. But sometimes people end up caught in such stultifying depression that they cannot move. And they fall.

Bourdain was one of those people about whom others said, “I had no idea he was suffering!” And it’s true. As a great therapist once taught me: “There are 2 things you will never know: what someone else is thinking or feeling.” That invisible existential wall that separates us can sometimes be 100 feet tall.

I wish I knew what pushes people to end their lives, people who seem so together, so with it… It is such a mystery and I have no good answer. After doing lots of research, no one else seems to either. There are symptoms and precipitating events. But what leads one person to go and one to stay is shrouded in the fog of the uniqueness of the human soul.

I mourn the loss of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. I mourn the loss of Karen Douglas, Katie Stack, and Roee Grutman. I mourn the loss of thousands of people I did not know who, soul sick, took their own lives. We must keep our hearts open and our arms outstretched to provide shelter from the storm. A warm and loving community is not the answer, not the sole antidote; but it’s a beginning.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day, every day.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Creating Balance

While living in Los Angeles, I experienced my first earthquake in a big food court across the street from HUC. I was sitting by myself at a small Formica table, eating a sandwich and reading a book while slurping a cup of coffee. There was a loud noise followed by the sensation of movement. Then it wasn’t just a sensation. Everything started moving. Everything. The ground, the suspended light fixtures, the floor, the walls: everything. I didn’t know what the next step was supposed to be, other than searching out the nearest exit. I waited and watched how the native Angelenos were going to handle it.
Nobody kept eating. People made their way to the exit, so I made mine. I staggered a bit, seeking some steadiness, something to hold onto. But there was nothing to hold on to that wasn’t already moving. There was no stability to be found.
It feels like I’m living in an earthquake zone. I keep trying to find firm footing, only to be struck with a sense of vertigo. The institutions I have always looked up to for direction and authority, whether I agreed or disagreed with them, are mired in controversy and scandal. The national institutions of justice are criticized as partisan and crooked. The press, the guardian of democracy, is accused of being ‘fake news.’
Collaborative government, consensus building, compromise, are all dead on a national level. We are left with a vital question: where is there stability? What’s happening?
When a mentally unbalanced tv actress tweets that a black woman is the spawn of the Muslim Brotherhood and an ape, and there’s anything other than a mad rush to condemn her awful racism, something is wrong. That her tweet could be compared to Samantha Bee’s odious comment about Ivanka Trump, or to Bill Mahrer’s statement that the president is an orangutan, is willful ignorance. Bee’s statement was crude; Mahrer’s was foolish. But Roseanne’s comment was straight up racism, and she deserved to be canned.
Then, of course, there’s the embarrassing fact that she’s Jewish. I don’t care who she votes for, and I don’t care who she makes fun of for a laugh. That’s her job. But when she – or anyone else – spouts racist or antisemitic sentiments, as she has in the past, by the way,  that’s where we part company. That’s where we, as a community, draw a line. It’s not a bold thing to say, I know. But it is a necessary statement to reiterate.
To call oneself a Jew is to acknowledge a special obligation to the world. It’s not an exclusivist phenomenon. It’s a response to being a light to the nations. And being a light is not passive. Of necessity, it puts us in front, on the ramparts. That’s where Jews belong, seeking to be a light, rather than adding to the darkness.
That’s why we’re here: to do our best to be a rudder, a correcting force in the face of a full assault on diversity. It’s a big job, and someone’s got to do it.

The Professor of Desire is No More

My father was hospitalized in 1969. As I recall, it was for kidney stones, though I don’t remember for certain. As he convalesced at Middlesex Memorial Hospital, my father received some visitors. Some brought the requisite gifts: flowers, a box of chocolate, and so forth. But a couple of people brought books. One of the books was a newly published novel. The book cover was bright yellow: impossible to miss. I saw it briefly on the one day I was allowed to enter my father’s hospital room (in those days, people under 18 were personae non grata at hospitals).

 The next day the book was in our house. I asked my mom, “Why isn’t Dad reading this?” She got this perplexed look on her face and said, “ Marion Prinz (a Holocaust survivor with a thick accent and nothing but opinions on everything) told me in the waiting room that the book was filled with antisemitism and bad words and that it was so dirty that people would come in and be shocked that your dad would ever have such a book in his room. So I brought it home.”

 I was fourteen years old and I’d just been told that this shocking book with lots of dirty parts, was sitting in my house. With my father in the hospital, my mother was so distracted she didn’t consider hiding it. My luck.

 So I read Portnoy’s Complaint at 14 years of age.

 As Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?” I was shocked, horrified, delighted, scandalized, titillated, joyful… I loved it. I learned more from that book than any other book I’d ever read. Roth answered questions I didn’t even know how to ask: about men and women, sex, angst, relationships, and Jewish consciousness. It was a life-changing experience.

 I became aware of the terrible press Roth was getting, particularly from the established Jewish community. He was accused of hating women, hating his parents, hating Gentiles and, of course, hating Jews. Rabbis the world over sermonized about just how poisonous the tome would be for the Jews of America. Portnoy’s Complaint was roundly condemned as blasphemous and profane, with Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem going so far as to call it “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying”.

 The critic, Irving Howe wrote in Commentary, that Philip Roth is not a “natural” novelist at all, the kind who loves to tell stories… He is an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny. The reviewers of his novels, many of them sympathetic, noticed his need to rub our noses in the muck of squalid daily existence, his mania for annotating at punitive length the bickerings of his characters. Good clean hatred that might burn through, naturalistic determinism with a grandeur of design if not detail, the fury of social rebellion—any of these would be more interesting than the vindictive bleakness of Roth’s novels.

 Such strong criticism made me all the more interested in Roth. Why were so many people so upset with this man, this writer? Was it just the sex? Was it the take on Jewish guilt and Jewish stereotypes? So while I’d begun to read Roth looking for the ‘good parts’, I came away with a true sense of awe regarding the power of words. I started to see, through the manic words of this author, this rebel, just how confused grownups really were. I began to see how desire drove people crazy. I began to learn that sex and death – Eros and Thanatos – were two sides of the same coin. To paraphrase the narrator after Adam and Eve eat the fruit: “And his eyes were opened.”

 I went to the only bookstore in Middletown, Huntington Books, and bought Philip Roth. First, Goodbye Columbus, then When She was Good. I loved Goodbye Columbus, the crispness of each short story and the audacity of many of the characters, challenging authority and authoritativeness.

 I was hooked on Philip Roth, a man with a relentless need to shout the truth – or the truths – with words so refined, so surgically specific and perfectly chosen. Sometimes I’d have to stop and reread a sentence or a paragraph, not due to its denseness or opacity. To the contrary, I read it over because I couldn’t believe how clearly he was able to express the human condition. Love. Hatred. Lust. Fear. Foolishness.

 Over 30 years ago I professed my appreciation for Roth to an antiquarian books store owner. He said, “If you like his work so much, collect him.” Which I’ve done. I am proud that I own a first edition of every work of fiction and nonfiction Philip Roth ever wrote. There’s something special about having a complete set: it’s a form of homage. But it’s not enough.

 Philip Roth is gone. The great women and men of the generation before me are dying. The authors and musicians and artists and actors who so illumined my world are dying.  I am not so foolish or such a cultural chauvinist to say that there will never be great artists and writers again who match the brilliance of the Depression-WWII-Korea generations. But I know that, as my heroes die, I feel slightly bereft and a bit less… supported, as I make my stand in this increasingly malevolent world.

 Philip Roth is gone, my icon of liberation, my narrator on the ramparts, my professor of desire. I plan to reread my favorite Roth: Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy, Patrimony, American Pastoral, Professor of Desire, The War Against America… I don’t know when or where to stop. Strange how the death of a man I’ve never met feels like a personal tragedy. What a writer. What a teacher. May he rest in peace.

Hold On!

Sometimes I experience existential woe. It’s usually after I’ve read the news. I find myself utterly disconcerted, so I seek a stable surface to regain my sense of balance. Only this week it’s felt like an ongoing earthquake with no stable surface in sight. And thus, a heart filled with angst.

For instance, in Gaza. Watching Palestinians rushing the security fence. I know that 50+ of the fatalities were Hamas operatives. Some of them had weapons, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and so forth. But the rest of the dead – and the over 2000 injured by Israeli live ammunition – were Palestinians living in Gaza who have nothing to lose.

Yes, of course, Hamas is responsible for immiserating the lives of the Gazans. Yes, Hamas is a terrorist regime. Yes, Hamas has encouraged their people to become martyrs.

And yes, Israel has blockaded Gaza for years. As a result, the unemployment rate is 44%, the highest in the world, according to the World Bank. In Gaza, economic activity has all but ground to a halt. Gazans depend on aid money not just for their basic needs but for whatever employment there is. The level of despair and discontent in Gaza is off the charts. Long before Israeli soldiers decided whether to shoot at protesters, Israeli leaders decided to bar farmers in Gaza from exporting spinach, potatoes and beans. They decided to bar fisherman in Gaza from fishing beyond six nautical miles. They decided to bar students in Gaza from leaving the Strip to study, to bar spouses from leaving to legally join their husbands or wives in the West Bank, to bar grandchildren from leaving to attend their grandparents’ funerals. They decided to bar people in Gaza from importing the spare parts necessary to rebuild the Strip’s electricity grid.

I watch desperate people filled with rage and bitterness and utter hopelessness rushing the fences. I watch Israeli soldiers shoot them down after repeated warnings about their intentions. I wonder if this degree of response is truly necessary. Israel is creating a commission to ask that very question. Could we have avoided such use of lethal force?

The whole situation is soul crushing. It’s like watching two people beat each other up, never pausing to address the possibility that there are other ways to solve whatever issue is causing them to fight in the first place. It’s frustrating. It’s tragic.

I’m not a military planner, so I don’t know what the options are for Israel. But I do know that as long as Israel continues to drag its feet on actively creating a two-state solution, violence like this will continue. And as long as Hamas continues to use martyrdom and poverty as potent weapons against the Jewish State, there will be no peace.

There is a tradition of offering a nechemta, a teaching of comfort and hope, at the conclusion of a Jewish text discussion. I wish I had such a teaching this Shabbat. All I know is that the world is pretty shaky, and all we have is each other. We need each other in the midst of this craziness and this radical disillusionment. We need to keep each other alive and aware, safe and sound. So hold on to me: I’m holding on to you.

Shabbat Shalom.

rebhayim

Peace

I did something strange today. When someone stopped to let me a make a left turn, which is, in Boston driving a criterion for a miracle, I acknowledged her kindness with a gesture. I always do a thank you when people are nice to me. It’s a jungle out there, in case you haven’t noticed.

Every other day for at least 30 years, I have waved; out the window, out the sunroof, in front of my rearview mirror. Because I want to reinforce their kindness. I want to let them know that I know I am not entitled to make a left turn in traffic, and that, despite that existential truth, I appreciate their thoughtfulness.

But I didn’t wave; I gave the peace sign. And as soon as I did, I felt slightly foolish. After all, who did I think I was, anyway? An aging hippie in a VW microvan?  What does that gesture even mean in 2018?

I remember what it meant in the 70s. The peace sign was a way of signaling good intentions and good vibes. The two-fingered V peace sign signaled a kind of hopefulness, a deep desire that we all ‘give peace a chance.’

We believed in that promise of peace. We thought that the world would eventually see what we saw so clearly; that the Vietnam war was a disastrous misadventure, a guaranteed horror show. Watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary, that point was made, over and over and over again.

We of the peace sign generation were right. But were our demonstrations, protests, and general activism instrumental in ending the war? Apparently, the jury is still out.

We peace sign people are now between 50-70. And I think it’s fair to say that the hope we experienced in our youth has been replaced by cynicism. All the big dreams we dreamed about peace and racial equality and feminism have been replaced by nightmares of #metoo and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and saber rattling in Washington.

Maybe David Hogg and Emma Gonzales, survivors of Parkland and true student leaders, will be able to take their outrage and their moral imperative and get right what we failed to do. Maybe they will budge the forces of the status quo that want what they want despite the damage and disaster they cause.

I’m not giving up. That’s not going to happen. It’s just that it gets so tiresome trying to push that boulder up the mountainside.   As Sheryl Crow sang, “No one said it would be easy/But no one said it’d be this hard.” Am I expecting too much? Am I naïve and unrealistic? Probably.

Elie Wiesel once said that you have to do something in the face of evil, even if it is something insignificant. Writing a letter, signing a petition, calling a politician, and yes, participating in a demonstration may not change much. But at the very least, when someone asks, “What did you do?”, you can answer that you tried to do something.

Perhaps flashing the peace sign was my way of reaching into the nostalgic past, telegraphing my deepest intentions to a bewildered motorist. Maybe I was reminding myself that there is still so much work ahead, that this new generation can’t do it alone – and neither can we.

Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

So Long, Fat Albert

I need to preface this week’s Before Shabbat with the following disclaimer: I have loved listening to and watching Bill Cosby for 50 years. From his I Spy days to all of his comedy albums to the Cosby Show: I couldn’t get enough. I learned the “Snowball” segment of Revenge by heart. I do a perfect impression of Fat Albert.
Cosby’s revolutionary humor was to veer away from one-liners and shtick, to long, rambling monologues about his life. And even if you weren’t a black, inner-city raised kid, you could relate to him and his escapades. His storytelling was thoughtful, intimate, and so well crafted. His timing was impeccable.
He would often sit in a chair in the middle of a big stage when doing his monologues. The way Cosby used his face; his smirks and eye rolls and the looks of shock, disbelief, mischief, and so forth, was truly brilliant. Every one of his gestures was enough to make the crowds howl. And we did howl.
I incessantly listened to Cosby’s early albums: I Started Out as a Child; Why Is There Air?; Revenge; To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and more. You’d think with a comedy album, once listened to was useless. But no. I must have listened a 100 times and laughed at the same fabulous dénouements. I would be so pleased when a friend came over who never heard Cosby’s albums. I was proud to introduce them to a man I considered one of the funniest humans around.
Cosby’s allure was not simply that he was a fabulous storyteller comedian. It was not only that he was a black man redefining an entire genre of comedy. It was not just that his appearance with Robert Culp on I Spy declared a new beginning in the lily-white world of television drama. Cosby was a funny, successful, brilliant mensch. His stories were never vituperative or cruel. He made a point of describing real life with honesty and insight. He was not afraid to reveal his flaws and shortcomings as a father and as a husband.
NBC passed on the Fat Albert Show because Cosby insisted on making every episode educational. They just wanted entertainment. But Cosby would not edit the pilot and sold it to CBS.
Fat Albert always had a theme of honesty or loyalty or fairness. In the middle of the cartoon, Cosby would break in and talk for a minute or two or so, reiterating the lesson of the show. Fat Albert aired in 1972. I was 17 years old, and I religiously watched with my younger siblings and then, years later, my children. I distinctly remember singing with them, days later, weeks later, the refrain of a song that played on an episode we watched (there was always a musical interlude at the end of each episode repeating the lesson of the day): “There’s no fool like a fool/That’s playing hooky (hey hey hey)”…
When the allegations about Cosby began to surface, I couldn’t believe it. Someone with such a highly successful career! A teacher’s teacher! How could this man of moral rectitude, this giant of philanthropy, Doctor Cliff Huxtable, for God’s sake! How could Bill Cosby possibly be a sick sexual predator? There had to be a mistake, some explanation.
But of course, there is no explanation. Bill Cosby, over many years, abused the trust of women – many, many women. He lured them into his hotel suite, or at times, into his own home. He would coo and compliment and then offer a drink that he laced with a heavy sedative. Then Cosby would sexually assault them.
Could Cosby’s behavior be signs of profound mental illness?  Could this need to express sexual dominance be a sickness? Or is it another post #Me Too realization of the depths to which a man can sink as he exercises a need for dominance and control? Is it another example in an infinitely long line of men who believe they are above the law, that sexually abusing women is somehow their prerogative?
A jury found Mr. Cosby guilty on three counts of assaulting Andrea Constand: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant. These are felonies, each punishable by up to 10 years in state prison, though the sentences could be served concurrently.
I am disgusted, truly disgusted by Cosby’s crimes. I hope he spends the rest of his life in jail. After hurting, physically and mentally, so many women – perhaps as many as 50 or even more, Cosby deserves nothing less.
Now I have an existential dilemma. And I don’t know the answer to this conundrum. Can we separate the art from the artist? Is it politically incorrect to want to listen to an old Cosby monologue for entertainment’s sake? Can I still appreciate Modigliani? Or Picasso? Or Chuck Close? Knowing they sexually harassed models? Can I watch American Beauty, one of my favorite American movies? Or another one of my all-time favorites, The Usual Suspects, ever again? Or does Kevin Spacey’s predatory behavior make it taboo, or what we call in Yiddish, pahst nisht? What about Woody Allen? Should these men now be in herem (culturally excommunicated)?
I honestly do not know how to answer these questions. There are gradations of offenses, from harassment to actual physical violation. Do the gradations make a difference in how we should respond? Is it that the longer ago it is, the more we might find it acceptable to view or read the offenders’ art, while still condemning the behavior of the artist? Or is there no statute of limitations for any work by any man who has sought to use and abuse women as sexual objects?
I would appreciate your feedback on this vexing issue. How have you made peace from your perspective? Upon what principles do you base a decision you have made about this dilemma? Because I don’t know how to parse it. Not yet.
I applaud the strength and the fortitude of Andrea Constand, and the many other women who were hurt and damaged and raped by Bill Cosby. I am so deeply offended by Cosby’s behavior and his slick dodging of the truth. The number of lives he compromised and destroyed, hiding behind a well-built wall of deception and authority, is too high. It blots out the possibility of enjoying whatever old performances I might watch. And it may be that way for the rest of my life.
So long, Fat Albert.

Thinking About Israel: Year 70

I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel. How could I not? Yesterday was Yom Ha-atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. It’s a time to acknowledge Jewish pride, strength and resolve.  It’s a time to praise the men and women, many not much older than 25 years old, who went to Eretz Yisrael in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They faced a herculean, Sisyphean task: to transform a land wracked by drought, swamps, and poverty – not to mention marauders and malaria – into a homeland.

Many of these pioneers had parents who disowned them because they went to Eretz Yisrael to create a true autonomous Jewish entity, rather than waiting for a divine decree from God. For the pious Jewish families of Eastern Europe, from which so many of the early Zionist pioneers came, it was an article of faith to pray to the Holy One to reestablish the land of Israel. They did not envision Israel as a political entity with a president and a DMV and a bus company and police, but rather as the Messianic fulfillment of God’s promise to gather all the Jews together at the end of time and to create a place of perfection and truth and God.

Look what they did. David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee recently wrote, “Step back from the twists and turns of the daily information overload and consider the sweep of the last seven decades. Look at the light-years traveled since the darkness of the Holocaust, and marvel at the miracle of a decimated people returning to a tiny sliver of land — the land of our ancestors — and successfully building a modern, vibrant state against all the odds.

In the final analysis, the story of Israel is the wondrous realization of a 3,500-year link among a land, a faith, a language, a people, and a vision. It is an unparalleled story of tenacity and determination, courage and renewal. And it is ultimately a metaphor for the triumph of enduring hope over the temptation of despair.”

Yes! But… it turned out that Eretz Yisrael was not just the land of our ancestors. It was also the land of the Palestinian people. And while we did build a modern, vibrant state, it was after banishing Palestinians from their rightful ancestral homes and creating a series of facts on the ground that turned Palestinians into second-class citizens – in their own land. And yes! It is “a story of tenacity and determination, courage and renewal,” it is also a story of mendacity and betrayal, of theft and violence.

 When my generation of babyboomers studied American history, no one suggested the savagery of the colonizers. The European explorers like Columbus and Cortez and Magellan were all exciting guys doing brave things. But over these last 25 years, as revisionist history has exposed some of the sordid pieces of the American myth, we have had to honestly reassess what we did to arrive at this great nation. How were Native Americans treated? How deep are the scars of slavery? How does racism continue to disease the soul of America? What went into the decision to intern Japanese Americans during WWII?

To ask these questions and many more, to explore their depth, does not make one a bad American. Rather it makes one a loyal American, willing to expose the whole truth and nothing but the truth to arrive at the true heart and soul of America. Criticism and honesty are key to a free, open society.

One doesn’t need to accept all historical judgments; there are lots of interpretations on the what and why of history. But to turn away from acknowledging tragic flaws or racist ideology is willful ignorance, which is good for no one.

With all my heart, I believe this teaching holds true for Israel, too. How can we not speak out when we see injustice in Israel? How can we remain as bystanders? What kind of example do we share with our children and grandchildren if we do not stand with the millions of Israelis who are appalled by the steady assault on democracy in Israel? As Millennials back away from Israel, regardless of their Birthright experience, how do we move them back inside when they see the tragedy of Gaza? How can we maintain the Occupation? How will we initiate a true dialogue to enable a two-state solution to come to fruition? When will the settlement movement, at last, be stopped?

Some of you may find this harsh language for a birthday card…. But it is only written out of my love for Israel and my enormous concern about the road they are traveling. Of course, I am not saying I agree with any and all protests against Israeli policies. I am very opposed to Jewish Voices for Peace and any other group that uses BDS as a tool to hurt Israel. I am and have been gravely concerned about the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist trope found in lots of the rhetoric on the Left. They are neither friends nor allies.

I am aware of how difficult it is to connect with Palestinian leaders who are able and willing to enter into a true dialogue with Israelis about a two-state solution. But we are the strong ones. Israel has the upper hand – and arm and leg, too. We are the ones who must make the opening moves. We are the ones who must make the connections and the risks, all from a place of strength and security – and humanity and Jewish ethics.

My prayer on this 70th year of Israel is that we work together, Jews of America and Jews of Israel, to exalt all that is extraordinary and sacred about the state of Israel. But not just the easy work of pointing out the good and the holy. We must also work to lift the state of Israel to a place of peace and comity. Israel can be a true light to the nations.

As it says in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

To this, I say, Amen. Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will. And ours.

Happy birthday Israel.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

rebhayim

Remembering

On April 12, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, entered Ohrdruf concentration camp with Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. What he saw utterly overwhelmed him.
I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British public in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Eisenhower understood that the moral fabric of the Universe had frayed and torn, revealing the absolute ugliest manifestation of human evil. He took responsibility as commanding general to insist that the ethical imperative was to direct the United States to look full on at the horrors of the Holocaust. He differentiated between WWII and the Holocaust. He saw that they were two different wars: one was a war of territorial conquest. The other war was a war against the Jews.
The US Army has maintained a commitment to Holocaust education that began with Eisenhower. For the Army, liberating the camps was a deed of courage. It also reinforced, for every officer and foot soldier who participated in the liberation, the necessity of the war. It provided a context for the sacrifices of the military. It was a matter of life and mass death.
Lieutenant General Thomas Vandal wrote the following to every soldier in the Army:
“Each year, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum leads the nation in the Days of Remembrance, a week-long observance established in 1978 to pay respect to the millions of victims subjected to Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s…
Out of the chaos of war emerged the will of individuals whose collective actions across the world joined to eliminate tyranny. This year marks the 73d anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by Allied forces. The U.S. Army played a pivotal role and proudly upheld our Army Values as part of this international effort to end the injustice of the Holocaust.
All of us must do our part as members of our Army and global society to stand up for injustice. It is our duty to be members of exceptional character and live the Army Values at all times. As we take time to remember, we encourage each of you to attend your local observance for the Days of Remembrance events… Remain vigilant at all times against acts of hatred and intolerance wherever they occur. Learn from the Holocaust: Choose to Act!”
This is how I found myself at the Natick United States Army Soldier Systems Center this past Wednesday. I was invited to give the invocation and the benediction for a Holocaust memorial presentation. There were three survivors in attendance, including the guest speaker. All three were part of the German orphanage into which my father was placed in 1938. Together with 37 other kids, they made their way into France to escape the Nazi terror. Additionally, there were local Jewish community attendees, veterans, and active duty soldiers and officers from the base.
It was deeply moving to see the soldiers, particularly the young ones, in attendance. Men and women in their 20s, who probably had a modicum of education about the Holocaust, they sat with rapt attention, clearly moved by Holocaust survivor, Stephan Loewy’s testimony.
These ceremonies occur now on Army bases in all 50 states. How reassuring that there are base commanders all over the United States who understand the larger context of moral education.  They realize that the Army must train soldiers to develop a sensitivity to the evil that is inherent in world and regional conflicts. We have got to be on the moral side of war. When we are not, it wounds the soul of our nation.
I watched the three survivors with whom my father wandered in France. They are not young men. But they still move with purpose and conviction. They continue to see their lives as a gift. They continue to go to memorials and services and events that commemorate the Holocaust.
I don’t know if it’s easy for them. It’s not for me. But as I watched them leave the auditorium, I clearly saw that I am obligated to push through my sadness, the pain, the dark memories, and to keep testifying as they have. My father died so young. He never spoke of his experiences, even as they haunted him.
He did not speak, and I must. This is the legacy of the Holocaust, passed down to the second and third generations: choose to act!