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Sukkot Prayer

Every year around this time, the lulav and etrog arrive, just in time for Sukkot, which begins this Sunday evening. Opening the boxes is like taking a trip in time. Look at them! A palm frond stuck into a woven straw holder and two plastic bags, one containing two sprigs from a willow tree and the other, three sprigs from a myrtle. And then, the piece de resistance, the etrog, which appears to be a big lemon, but is not. On Sukkot, we will hold them all together in a prescribed fashion, and shake them as a means of saying thank you to God: for long life, for sustenance, and for the harvest which feeds us all.
As you shake the lulav, perhaps you can imagine how our ancestors held on tight, praying that the capricious ways of Nature would be mild in this new year. This year, as I shake the lulav, I will be channeling those who came before me, who shook their lulav for dear life. I will think about where this tradition began, before even our earliest Jewish past.
I am convinced that this practice of lulav shaking begins in our earliest prehistoric past. I imagine men and women preparing for a harvest 23,000 years ago on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. They have so much fear and hope. Will these seeds grow? Will the godssmile on them? The lulav and etrog were shamanic tools to conjure the benevolence of the gods. Because if the harvest failed, it would not mean higher prices at a store. Rather, it meant the difference between life and death, full bellies or starvation.
I guess that even the most observant farmers of todaywhen they shake their lulav, will be thanking God. But they will know about the acidity of the soil, the meteorological trends on their land, the proper use of irrigation and fertilizer and so forth. They will know that, while God’s blessing for a good harvest is always welcome, and yes, the capriciousness of Nature can still be devastating, that it is not a matter of life and death.
Given that we have so much more science behind us as we plant and harvest, it is mystifying how people can ignore the reality of climate change. I would be willing to bet that most farmers believe in climate change, are seeing it in their crop yields and water use.
Our children’s children will face a world of rising seas and rising temperatures. They will experience bigger storms that are more devastating and fires that are more destructive. A hundred years from now there will be water wars in Africa and the Middle East. There will be unprecedented destruction unless and until we begin to act with urgency.
So when I shake the lulav this year, I will be thinking not just about the earliest humans who realized that they could plant seeds and harvest the results. I will be asking for God’s blessing on the generations to come. I will be praying that they will live in an enlightened world that comes to grips with the folly of past generations who used the earth’s resources as if they were inextinguishable.
I pray for God’s blessing. I pray for our leaders to finally unite to save the world. I pray that we become wiser with how we all use our limited resources. That’s my Sukkot prayer.

The Other Side of the Shelf

One day my father gave me an assignment. I was 13 or so and like many budding adolescents, not excited to snap to it when directed by a parent to do anything. But my father was dangerous and unpredictably cruel to me. Therefore, I never, ever even hinted at not obeying his requests immediately, lest punishment were to ensue. He had just cut some wood at his workbench to build a few shelves for the closet, and he wanted me to paint them. My father handed me a can of paint and a paintbrush and told me to get to work.
It didn’t sound difficult nor did I worry too much about it. Just paint a few shelves… About an hour later he walked into the garage to check up on me. I was already done and probably in front of the tv. He called my name in a register that I recognized immediately as communicating his displeasure. Oh oh.
My father had a look on his face as if he’d just stepped in dog excrement. “Look at these shelves,” he said. “What’s wrong with them?” I had already begun to panic at the sound of his voice, so I was pretty shaky. I didn’t know what to say. I had not consciously planned to do a poor job. The only answer I had was a trigger for him. It was an answer guaranteed to get him angry – or in this case, angrier. “Ahh, umm, I don’t know.”
This answer set a whole scenario in motion, in this case, scenario #124.5. That’s the one that goes like this: “You don’t know? What the hell do you mean, ‘You don’t know’? Are you the one who [fill in the blank]?” Me: “Ahh, umm, yes [do not say, ‘I guess so’, because that wasn’t a trigger – it was a lit match next to a stick of dynamite].” My father: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do anything right?” To which my only real answer was: you guessed it – ‘I don’t know.’ But at this juncture, I knew that saying so would almost guarantee getting punched, so I remained silent.
The thing is, I didn’t know what was wrong with my work, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do anything right, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me that caused me to be such a disappointment to my father. It was surely a primary assumption in our relationship. I was never enough for him: not smart enough, athletic enough, clever enough, good enough. And as a youngster, how could I fix it, how could I change? I DIDN’T KNOW.
He picked up one of the painted boards and held it in his hands more like a baseball bat and less like a shelf for shoes. I wasn’t sure what would happen next; was he going to hit me with it? I held my breath as he flipped the board over. “Look at this! You didn’t paint the bottom of the board! Why not?” I knew that this was not a rhetorical question. “Um, I figured since it would be in the closet and no one would see the bottom of the shelf, I didn’t need to paint it.”
My father made a face, a look of aggravation and disbelief that I could have been so stupid, so derelict in my duty. “The job is not done. Now finish it!”, and he tossed the board at me. It missed my head and clattered to the ground.
That scenario has never disappeared from my memory. It is, of course, hurtful and shaming. Interestingly, it leads me to a question, the same one over and over for fifty years or more. Did I mess up? Should I have painted the underside of the shelf, too? Was the job not done?
Who knows? Who writes the rules for such things? And, besides my father, who cares? The fact is that the job was secondary to the relationship. What my father asked me to do was less important than how he asked me and how he conveyed disapproval with his words as well as his body language.
Every human soul is a delicate vessel, filled with joy and sorrow, hurt and pain, joy, and ecstasy. We all have sore spots and traumas. We all know weaknesses and strengths. We are imperfect; so imperfect. There are so many things we get wrong with striking consistency. What’s a human to do?
Forgive.
Forgive the imperfect people around you. Forgive the dead with whom you are still angry. Forgive the young who are still learning how to be a mensch.
And, for your sake, for God’s sake: forgive yourself. Embrace your unfinished, imperfect self. Do it all with kindness and compassion. Believe you deserve this love, because you truly do. We are, all of us, the unpainted bottom of a shelf. I can tell you only this: the job isn’t done.
Shanah Tova and on this first Shabbat of 5779,
Shabbat Shalom,

Beginning — Again

The white trousers are packed away, the pools are closed, and school has started – which means that the new year is around the corner. I am happy to be back, ensconced in pre-HHD planning and rehearsals and sermons. I’m happy to be back with my peeps… And I am happy to back to my Before Shabbat blog.

 

As we enter 5779, I am deeply troubled and worried. There is enormous turbulence in the atmosphere. I get nervous as I watch the flight crew buckle up, which always confirms my worst anxieties about what’s going to happen next. I wonder if I should fret more or rather reach for the good stuff that is also present, if, at times, obscured by all of the clouds in our lives.

It’s rarely bump-free on the eve of a new year. Because life is not bump-free. This is a significant lesson older folk get to share with younger ones: that is, worrying about the future is a pointless waste of energy. Worse than pointless. Actually, it can lead to feeling paralyzed and helpless.

There’s a small saying about this: “Push it this way, it’s muck. Push it that way, it’s muck. And while you’re bemoaning your fate, you could be stringing pearls for the Holy One.” There’s so much garbage to complain about, so much regret and envy over not having what we deserve. What if we spent the same energy on gratitude?

Experiencing true gratitude is like unclogging spiritual arteries. It forces aside petty arguments and childish grudges. Gratitude reminds us that appreciating what is puts us in a mindset to appreciate what can be. I’m not suggesting that we ignore turbulence. Anyone who’s flown at all can attest to this truth. I’m suggesting that there’s so much more to life than the bumps and bruises. To stay mired in resentment is unhealthy and spiritually deadening. Resentment can become a part of your identity, a part of who you are as a person. You move from showing resentful behavior to being a resentful person.

Gratitude can lead us to consider changing how we do things and who we are. Even though I know that Charles Dickens was an antisemite and that A Christmas Carol was not written for a Jewish audience, I believe that Scrooge’s transformation was all about leaving behind resentment and embracing change, which makes it a perfect High Holy Day story!

A zebra can’t change its stripes, and a leopard can’t change its spots. But we are not doomed. We are constantly changing – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Medical research reveals that the cells in your body change about every seven years. Brain studies reveal extraordinary neuroplasticity enabling you to change neuropathways and, thus, habits and behaviors. Mindfulness research poses exciting possibilities for developing empathy, making better decisions and enhancing emotional regulation. Motivation science points to how fulfilling psychological needs affects almost everything we do and feel.

Gather your thoughts over the next couple of days. What are some changes you choose to commit to for the new year? Who is someone you need to apologize to? With whom do you have some unfinished business? What path do you choose to take – the path of resentment or the path of gratitude? The choice is stark. There is no middle road. And it’s not easy, not by a long shot. This is what the High Holy Days are for: to remind us that we can change AND that we must choose to change – no one can reach into our souls and make that happen.

I don’t take any of this for granted. It’s hard to move after being stuck in one place, identifying with the hurt we endure. That’s why we pray together. Our voices joined in unison remind us that we are not alone, that every one of us, in our way, is confronting scary issues and changes that may rock the status quo. We will get through this. Together. We will rise.

I am so honored, truly blessed! To be joining you for our 21st celebration of the New Year together. Our year-long 20th-anniversary celebration was something I will treasure forever. Liza and I and the Stern Gang wish you love and peace in the coming year.

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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