We are blessed with extraordinary brains that store a remarkable number of memories. Two or three notes of a song and we remember where we were when we heard it and who was there, 50-60 years later. A particular aroma, from perfume to chicken soup, and we are drawn back to when we smelled it the first time.

I have a picture that sets off a flood of memories. It’s my father at age 14, posing with a group of boys. I don’t know who took the photo; I obviously wasn’t there. None of the kids are smiling. They all look so weary. They’re wearing frayed shirts and their pants are held up with rope. My father’s jacket is 3 sizes too small; the sleeves ride way up on his arms.

These boys are all residents of the Auerbach Jewish Orphanage in Berlin, Germany. The year is 1940. They have fled Germany and they are on the run in the French countryside. France has just surrendered to the Nazis. The boys know that time is not on their side.

I look into my father’s deep-set eyes. They are dark with fatigue and fear. I know he’s seen people shot and killed. He’s ducked for cover during bombing attacks. He’s gone to bed hungry. He has experienced radical powerlessness. His parents are dead, and his older sister is hiding out somewhere back in Berlin. He is fleeing, but to where?

The Holocaust was a time of deep, unrelenting despair. So much suffering; an infinity of loss. Millions lived through it – who knows how. Many survivors were deeply traumatized, losing a part of themselves in the camps, in the forests, on the road, in hiding, and never fully regaining who they had been. Some of them were able to live a life of meaning, a life of substance and joy. Others were broken, stunted, unable to extricate themselves from experiences that marked them like the tattoos.

Yesterday, January 27th, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established by the UN in 2005 in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Drawing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, member states are called upon to condemn all forms of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief” throughout the world. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not to be confused with Yom HaShoah, which was established as a day of mourning by the state of Israel in 1949.

For survivors and children of survivors, remembrance days are superfluous.

A survivor once said to me right before a Yom HaShoah Shabbat service, “Rabbi, every day is a remembrance day. Every day, for as long as I live, every day! I recite kaddish. And if I live to be a hundred and twenty, it will not even begin to be sufficient.” Or as Yitzhak Zuckerman put it, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, who survived Treblinka and saw untold numbers of friends and comrades die: “If you could lick my heart, you would die from the poison.”

So if International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not for survivors, who and what is it for? Perhaps it’s a means by which the stories of the Holocaust are preserved. Perhaps it’s a way to remind the world that there was a time and place of infamy and evil. Will the rest of the world dare to listen?

After Colleyville

We get up every morning, God willing, and follow a general plan for the day. We think about our obligations at work. We figure out the needs of our family members. We have to pick up dinner, or bring someone to the doctor’s office or wait for the appliance guy, or whatever. It’s how life rolls, with the assumption that an errant asteroid won’t slam into Earth. Or that a volcano somewhere in the middle of nowhere that no one has ever heard of won’t erupt and cause a tsunami a thousand miles away.

If we were to consider any number of potential calamities befalling us every time we left our homes, we would end up crushed by enormous fear. This is why we live from minute to minute believing that every little thing will be alright. We have to make assumptions along the way.

So when something does happen, something so outrageous and frightening and seemingly impossible, it shakes us up, rattles us to the very core of our being. It forces us to consider the randomness of evil and its malignant power. Those “there but for the grace of God go I” experiences are sobering.

Neither the folks gathered at the Beth Israel Congregation yesterday for Shabbat services nor those who were tuned in via Facebook or Zoom had any reason to imagine a violent, deranged man would take hostages at their shul to make a political statement about a jailed terrorist named Aafia Siddiqui. But the unthinkable did indeed occur.

A small community of American Jews living between Dallas and Ft. Worth, who never even heard of Aafia Siddiqui, ended up connected to her incarceration in the twisted logic of the hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram. It seems preposterous that this man would target Jews in Colleyville, Texas because Beth Israel was the closest synagogue to DFW Airport. But that’s how he found them.

I had just come home from a wedding last night when I got texts from two people. My sister, Marta, who lives in Austin, Texas, and who, for years, sang at Beth Israel for High Holy Days, wanted to let me know. And I heard from my dear friend, Anna Eisen, a founder of Beth Israel who along with her husband, David, helped build the synagogue. They were not among the hostages. But Anna could’ve been there. And, I suppose, any one of us could’ve been there.

I considered the number of people – people I knew – who had once belonged to the synagogue where I served in Arlington, TX, and were now members of Beth Israel. I might know the hostages. I knew the rabbi, a kind and compassionate leader who courageously upheld progressive Jewish values in the buckle of the Bible Belt. As I watched CNN’s coverage, I suddenly realized that the tsunami from this terrorist act had arrived at my front door.

This event is another reminder of the prevalence of antisemitism and the hate and brutality it inspires. It forces us to consider the bleakness of our world. We are, of course, rattled by this incident. We don’t know nearly enough to begin analyzing what happened and how. But we will learn from this incident and incorporate whatever facts that emerge into our already vigilant security procedures. Living in a free country, where the doors of our temples are open to all, is a risk. But barring the doors, requiring reservations, searching anyone who enters is an even greater risk.

We are all deeply thankful and so relieved that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the other hostages emerged unharmed. We are beholden to the folks who set them free. On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, it’s worth imagining what he would have us say about Beth Israel in Colleyville: It is dangerous to proclaim freedom throughout the land. It is true that there are those who despise us simply because we are Jewish. But no act of terror will cause us to back down and hide. We will not diminish our commitment to our tradition and our history and our culture – and our future. We shall overcome.

The Maze of Memory

There have been times over the course of my life, when someone shares a memory with me. They describe a certain incident or experience and say, without hesitation, that I was there. They will be very certain of my presence. I smile and nod my head. And all the while, I am wracking my brain, desperately trying to get some foothold of recall. Because I don’t remember.

In those moments – in fact, in any situation where I’m accessing memories – I can and do get very impatient with myself. Certainly, it should be simple, like looking up a file on my computer, clicking it, and instantly obtaining the info. When I can’t do it, it feels like a failure of brainpower. And as anyone over age 65 will tell you, every memory lapse, every blank page where some history is supposed to be but isn’t, creates a little ripple of anxiety.
But neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable. We could also say it is adaptive, reshaping itself to accommodate the new situations we find ourselves facing. And the older we get, the more traces we must choose from.
There are other times when I am so sure of a memory, only to get incontrovertible facts that utterly belie what I always assumed was a true and accurate recollection. I could’ve sworn that I was watching Bobby Kennedy celebrate his big primary win live from the Ambassador Hotel in LA. I was so certain that I had watched him thank the crowd, turn, and walk back to his headquarters through the hotel kitchen. The scene when he was attacked: so chaotic and so horrifying, people screaming as he lay on the floor, shot in the head and yet vaguely conscious. I watched it in real-time.
Or so I thought. But then I began researching for this essay. Kennedy spoke to the crowd at the hotel just after midnight, Pacific Standard Time. It was June 6th, 1968, a Thursday, and a school night. There’s no way I watched it as it happened. It would have been 3am for me.
Yet it is lodged in my memory as a fact. I was there in front of our tv. Which is, I suppose, a reflection of the impact of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Two months before, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. The wounds were deep, the loss a true national trauma. I felt robbed and betrayed, as did so many other baby boomers. We were bereft. It was the end of innocence, at least it was for this 14-year-old.
I don’t think California Governor Gavin Newsome purposely announced his decision to deny parole to Sirhan Sirhan a couple of days before we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King. But there is a synchronicity to it. Newsome’s statement made it clear that history is significant, and that justice must stand. The nonviolence Dr. King taught did not and does not mean a lack of accountability for our actions. I support Governor Newsome’s decision

Over 50 years later, the family of Bobby Kennedy wrote words regarding Sirhan Sirhan that MLK would endorse, “Our family and our country suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man,” the family wrote in a statement. “We believe in the gentleness that spared his life, but in taming his act of violence, he should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”
Time has eroded so many teachings that held the promise of a new day. Is the world more cynical now? In my memory, I seem to recall that once it felt like brighter days were ahead. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Blessing Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Meets the Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Careful

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Rethinking The Stories

The death of George Floyd cracked something open in our perception of America and Americans. Derek Chauvin, a police Officer sworn to uphold the law in Minneapolis, MN, calmly and deliberately choked Floyd to death. I’ll never get over the image of officer Chauvin calmly pressing his knee down on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, with his hands in his pockets. Floyd begged to be released, over and over again crying, “I can’t breathe.”  As Floyd pleaded, Officer Chauvin continued to kill him.

The image awakened many Americans. A white man in a blue uniform believed he could get away with killing a Black man in public. Bystanders screamed while Chauvin’s fellow officers did nothing other than keeping the crowd at bay.

This is a time of reckoning. We are beginning to acknowledge the deeper scars of American history and the dimensions of racism. We are daring to pull back the thick curtain of denial to truly look at how we got here. It’s time to learn about so many things we don’t want to know about slavery and racism and implicit bias and redlining and white supremacy.

This is tough stuff. It has so many implications for American society. We are trying to pull down the lies and the injustice and the self-serving hypocrisy that created a false front, an image of America that sought to exclude people of color and alternative religious faiths and gender identification. We are pulling down the false idols.

We are duty-bound to serve up the truth. We are compelled to explore our new American center of gravity, to find meanings in the new dimensions of American life that are being uncovered and shared. This is the only way to move forward in a progressive, multi-ethnic, multi-racial country. If we don’t acknowledge the fuller truth of the past, as painful as it may be, we are doomed to implode. Without telling the full truth, we run the risk of becoming a neo-fascist nation. The stakes are that high.

There are people who fear disturbing the status quo. I understand that. I’ve seen that response to Jews who sought to matriculate at American universities that had quotas to keep us out. I saw the first Jewish hospitals in America constructed because so many hospitals would not hire Jewish doctors, and they had to practice somewhere. They feared us, scared of our perceived foreignness. They hated us with the two-thousand-year-old canard that we were “Christ-killers.” White Anglo-Saxons were not interested in sharing the pie.

I listen to White people railing against enlightenment at school boards all over the country. I wonder how it’s possible to claim that advancing a more nuanced understanding of race in America is a Marxist idea… And I can assure you that 99% of people who use the term Marxist as a xenophobic sledgehammer have no idea what Marxism is. Opposition to historical facts, like opposition to science, is all about a desperate need to uphold an ideology of the past even as the arrow of time points in the opposite direction.

We can – we must – be able to accept the cruel nuances of our history, that the Founders of America were noble – and that some of them were slaveowners and deeply flawed humans. Knowing the fuller truth chastens us; it lights the way to a deeper wisdom. The story of our nation includes unspeakable violence and racism and slavery and atrocities against Native Americans and people of color and Jews. But those are not the only stories.

We are weaving a complex tapestry that is still coming together. I hope that this Thanksgiving we can braid various narratives together rather than rip them apart. It saddens me to learn the extent to which the quintessential Thanksgiving mythos does not bear much resemblance to the facts. The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity, and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

Do we have to get rid of the Pilgrim hats and the head feathers? Is it racist? Or is it aspirational? Is it an image that we have clung to all these years to propose the possibilities inherent in sharing our bounties together? Or is it a cynical dodge for colonialism? I don’t know, but it’s worth talking about.

Hard conversations are necessary for us to move forward. Stonewalling the truth in favor of preserving an idyllic – and imaginary – past will not work. Thanksgiving can take on new meaning. It can underscore the best of our nation: a sincere desire to give all our citizens the opportunity to succeed with grace and dignity and equality. We will create new images. We will tell new stories.

Reform Jews know this so well. We have this ancient history and ancient rituals that we continue to reframe and alter. We abandon that which no longer works, and we adopt a new way of understanding our destiny. It’s hard. And it’s why we are here in 2021, daring to raise up new meanings.

Whatever you do on Thanksgiving, while you feast, give some time to exploring the old stories as you consider what the new chapters will tell us. This must be a time that we recognize just how important it is to braid together the stories that work to unite us, the stories that dare to be truthful.

The Envelope

I’m not what they call an adventurous traveler. I don’t have a particular hankering to hang from a cliff in a harness secured by rope. There is nothing thrilling about a pup tent or a sleeping bag. Sailing on a tramp steamer to Bora Bora does not tickle my fancy.

You might say that I’m overly enamored of my creature comforts, that I prefer a resort to any form of roughing it. Why wouldn’t I? Look up rough in the dictionary. There is not one pleasant or breezy definition. “Something in a crude, unfinished, or preliminary state. Difficult to travel through or penetrate.” Nope. Not for me.

There are many people who delight in facing the harshest challenges imaginable. Cable television offers up a huge smorgasbord of shows that feature such humans. Whether it’s couples walking around in the wilderness naked, looking for water or shelter, or tuna boat crews at sea, getting pounded by huge waves and nasty winds, or people in Alaska doing Alaska stuff (there are so many Alaskans outside in the cold in front of video cameras!), there is clearly a surfeit of folks who love to rough it.

But just because I may not have a taste for the challenge of the outdoors does not mean that I don’t appreciate the call of the wild. I am an explorer. “For all the different forms it takes in different historical periods, for all the worthy and unworthy motives that lie behind it, exploration—travel for the sake of discovery and adventure—is it seems a human compulsion, a human obsession even (as the paleontologist Maeve Leakey says); it is a defining element of a distinctly human identity, and it will never rest at any frontier, whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial.”

This fact of exploration is in our bones, maybe in our DNA. It drives us not only to enter the woods or get in a space vehicle, but also compels us to delve into the human mind. The exploration of consciousness is a wild ride with so many twists and turns along the way, replete with tremendous implications.

Questions about being and nothingness and infinity and finitude are not imponderable. In fact, they demand we ponder. It’s not a cliché to ask about the meaning of life: it’s mandatory.

I watched a bit of Life Below Zero a few months ago. I don’t know why I did. It’s a hazard when you’re couch surfing. You find something so bizarre, so out of your normal range of interest that you’re drawn to it in all its weirdness. The segment I watched was about a guy who, on his own, was getting ready for winter and building an igloo. And if I tell you that he was in the middle of nowhere, it couldn’t convey just how remote a location he was settling in.

In a million years I would say no. For a million dollars I would say no way. But this man was extending himself way outside his defined box. He was pushing the envelope awfully hard, “for the sake of discovery and adventure”.

Does the show, Life Before Zero change the world? Probably not. But it certainly expanded the consciousness of the igloo builder. And it reminded me that an eagerness to explore is not represented by where you stay: exploration is about where you go. Look at Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norga, the first people to climb Mt Everest. Look at Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the modern age. There’s so much spacetime to cover between Hillary and Hawking. I hope we never stop exploring.


Who knows how certain artifacts, buried in the ground or a closet, emerge after years or even centuries? Most things are stumbled upon by accident. Someone is moving out of a family home, lived in for generations. A new highway is being built when excavators find relics and sometimes ancient settlements. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 when a young Beduin shepherd, throwing stones into a cave on the outskirts of Qumran, heard the sound of something shattering. He went to look and found large clay pots containing scrolls. He had no idea what they were. Eventually, he traded them to someone in the grey market antiquities business who sold them. It’s a fabulous story, filled with intrigue and hijinks.

Until recently, valuable objects, found by accident, or searched for by archeologists or treasure hunters, belonged to whoever found them – or paid for them. The notion that indigenous peoples were robbed of their sacred objects, family heirlooms, and cultural artifacts, was collateral damage. “To the victor goes the spoils.”

We have recently begun to reimagine to whom these items found in so many museums and private collections genuinely belong. It’s a tough, ongoing conversation, deeply emotional, and filled with issues related to race and culture and the very meaning of ownership.

Right now, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is hearing a case brought against Harvard. For over a decade, Tamara Lanier of Connecticut claimed that the university has photos of her distant relatives photographed while slaves, against their will. The pictures were being taken for a Harvard professor looking to “prove” the inferiority of Black folk. Lanier says the university has no right to keep these images, that they should go to her as a living descendant.

Harvard disagrees and claims that the images, despicable as they may be, will form part of the collection to illuminate how the university, like many in America in the 1850s, was racist and cruel. The lower court agreed with Harvard, saying, “the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be.”

The MSJC ( MA Supreme Judicial Court) pulled the appeal to this case to the front of the line. They see it as a timely and vital conversation around history, property ownership, and justice. Some justices highlighted cases in which historical crimes have resulted in the eventual repatriation of remains or artifacts left in indigenous reservations, internment, and concentration camps.

This, of course, brings up all kinds of questions about the many Holocaust images taken by Nazi soldiers that we see in textbooks and museums. To whom do those photos belong? In Israel, there is an extensive conversation going on right now around Holocaust artifacts of significant historical meaning. Through an Israeli auctioneer, an anonymous person is attempting to sell eight fingernail-sized steel dies, each lined with pins to form numerals, that were pressed into prisoners’ flesh with ink to brand their serial numbers. Holocaust survivors sought an injunction against the sale, and the regional court in Tel Aviv subsequently put the transaction on hold.

Israel has no law to prevent the sale of Holocaust relics in private hands. But Yad Vashem says it’s utterly preposterous and shameful to allow such auctions. As Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and research center, officials say that such artifacts belong to them.

A spokesman from the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland said photographs of the dies appeared similar to those in its collection. “If they would be authentic, then the very fact that such unique historical items are put up for auction – and not given to an institution that commemorates the victims and educates about the tragedy of Auschwitz – deserves the words of protest and condemnation.”

History is generally not good to the victims and the vanquished. The arrow of time continues to slice through spacetime. The relics of the past, things so dear, symbols so potent, end up eroding under sand or burnt by an ignorant mob or displayed like trophies.  

What about the souls of those African slaves? What about the Jews who died at Auschwitz? Where is the compassion and the dignity they deserve? What is to be done with the pieces of history that are left behind long after the innocent are gone?

I Predict… Absolutely Nothing  

There are professional prognosticators who do their level best to read the future before it happens. They look at trends and past performance and a thousand other indicators to justify guessing what’s next. They encourage certain investments or military build-ups or shifting stock from a warehouse or how many kilowatts of power a particular region will need over 48 hours.

  I’d love to meet a professional prognosticator who focuses on the Jewish people because I have so many questions. What is the trajectory of Jewish life? More involvement or less? More interest in social justice or spirituality? Does the Reform movement’s attitude of inclusiveness and radical hospitality strengthen the Jewish people? How does identity politics change the arc of Jewish involvement in civic life?  

With all due respect to prognosticators, there’s not much logic in trying to predict what’s next. Making predictions is possible. Making accurate predictions isn’t.   But that’s no excuse to dismiss thoughts about the future. It behooves us to ask big questions and to wonder out loud what we may become. We aren’t passive passengers aboard an express train. We have a say in how we get to the destination stage by stage. It becomes too easy to throw up our hands and tumble into victimhood.   This is why to survive as a community, we need to opt-in. We must embrace our commitment to Jewish life, not with respect to what may be in 10 years, but rather what we are and what we want right now.   

Living in the moment has become a cri de coeur during this long, mind-numbing pandemic. It signifies a new commitment to the here-and-now. What’s next? I have no clue. But I know that, right now, there’s a deep need to make meaning by defining what we stand for and what we want to learn. We want to reinforce the traditions of 2000 years, and we want to create new and surprising alternatives to Jewish living.  

There is no going back to the way it was. We are trailblazing, not returning. This is a little scary; it is a significant spin on how Jewish life works, how synagogues have maneuvered over the centuries. It’s a wild time to be alive.  

I’m not predicting anything. That’s a trap, a cul de sac. I have a list of hopes and dreams and how I think they may pan out in the present. As the song goes, “don’t stop believing.” We make it happen.  

Shabbat Shalom, rebhayim