“We’ll Be Okay”

This current moment is filled with particular dread and anxiety. There’s a war going on right now. Innocent people are being killed. Theaters, subway stations, maternity hospitals, schools have all been hit by artillery shells and, missiles and tanks. Putin and his henchmen cruelly calculate the murder of civilians. They want to terrify the population, wear them down with cold-hearted brutality.

We watch it on tv. We see it on social media. The suffering is jagged and so unrelenting. Why? We wonder. We seek some logic, some twisted reasoning that may expose what Putin wants. Alas, I doubt there is a reason. It’s all about hatred, all about a pathological need to destroy. There is nothing rational in Moscow.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, “Authoritarians stand out from other kinds of politicians by appealing to negative experiences and emotions. They don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers as they proclaim themselves their nation’s saviors. Picking up on powerful resentments, hopes, and fears, they present themselves as the vehicle for obtaining that which is most wanted, whether it is territory, safety from racial others, securing male authority, or payback for exploitation by internal or external enemies.”

This was not written as a description of Putin, but it certainly fits. If one rereads it a few times, other names come to mind, men who have taken this well-worn path of wanton destruction in the name of “the people .”And how does it end?

Sometimes the authoritarian is taken down by the people he’s tried to bend to his will. Sometimes the people rise and vote the self-defined savior out of office and often send him to jail. And sometimes, there is war, and other nations must destroy the offensive conflict creator.

What happens in Ukraine, what happens in Russia, is anybody’s guess. As it turns out, no one knows. For most of us, who number in the hundreds of millions, there’s not much we can do about Putin. We cannot do much for Ukraine or their fabulous president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We send money, stay informed, support our leaders who vote for aid to Ukraine, and eschew the handful of Congressional Putin supporters and their ragtag media sycophants.

We are primarily powerless at this moment. Some want to acknowledge the suffering of Ukraine by being circumspect. Innocent Ukrainian deaths signal that we must somehow alter our lives, that our safety is a kind of shondeh [Yiddish for something shameful], that we shouldn’t be having too good a time.

I understand this deep desire to empathize. But it misses a larger truth. If we are to mourn Ukrainians actively, what about outrage at the loss of life in the civil war in Yemen? What about American losses to Oxycontin and Fentanyl? I am not saying compassion is wrong. I am saying that to focus on one nation, one war, one authoritarian, and then use it as a reason to sit shiva misses the point.

The point? There is so much suffering in the world. There are so many innocent people whose lives are broken every day. In my worldview, God weeps 24/7/365. God cannot prevent cruelty or subversion. God cannot blot out the deeds of psychopaths or narcissistic, strutting fools, which means that it is up to us to keep on keeping on.

In the beautiful movie, Drive My Car [please see it on HBO Max], the protagonist, Yusuke, who has suffered a terrible loss, says to the equally broken Misaki, “We must keep on living. We’ll be OK.” We realize that the only solution is through the pain and the loss. That life itself is a gift, an ever-unfolding mystery that may take us to a moment of calm wholeness. Suffering is a given. Joy must be created every day.

Dessert

My mom was not a gourmet. She hated onions and garlic and never used them in any dish she prepared. We had a mid-20th century dinner served up at the kitchen table. Spaghetti, meatloaf, lamb chops, roast chicken, breaded fish, canned vegetables… baby boomers will probably recognize this menu. As the years went by my mom extended her repertoire to include lasagna, green salads with bacobits and croutons from a can, and that was about it.
  I’m not complaining. She cooked with love in her heart and enjoyed feeding us. My mom grew up in the Depression and saw hungry, frightened people. She understood the blessing of abundance. My father experienced hunger and privation. He knew food insecurity. So there was no fooling around or whining about what we didn’t want to eat. There was no empathy for different tastes. There was no such thing as a picky eater.  
My mom did not bake; there were no fancy desserts. But one day at the end of meal she served up a coffee crumble cake from a white and blue box. It was my first experience of Entenmann’s baked goods. And it was good – I mean, really delicious!   Entenmann’s became a standard go-to in my home. Chocolate covered donuts, powdered sugar donuts (I always aspirated the sugar…), chocolate chip cookies, butter pound cake, cheese twist danish; these were a few of my favorite things.  
Entenmann’s went kosher sometime in the 80s and became a staple at Shabbat oneg tables from Brooklyn to San Jose. The boxes of goodies became a symbol of comfort and simple pleasure. Like my mom’s cooking, it wasn’t fussy or fancy. But it hit the spot.  
I always assumed that Entenmann’s was a Jewish family business that grew from a shop in New York City in the late 1800s to an industrial kitchen on Long Island. It seemed like such a Jewish story: immigrants work hard and make a fortune feeding people. Even the name sounded Jewish.
  Charles Edward Entenmann, the family patriarch who helped make the company a national brand, died a few weeks ago at the age of 92. He was the grandson of the man who launched the bakery in Brooklyn in 1898. I was shocked to learn from the obituary that, in fact, the Entenmann family was not Jewish – ever!   I was actually more than shocked: I was sad that the Entenmann family wasn’t Jewish. More than the family name or the blue and white box or the OU kosher symbol, it was the specific brand of comfort an Entenmann’s cake or cookie would evoke. I don’t know why.  
We loved Sara Lee cakes in my family, but it just wasn’t the same. It may have been a bit more expensive and so it felt like a ‘special occasion’ dessert. But the blue and white box was home.   Entenmann’s is owned by a multinational corporation now. It’s far from Brooklyn. Yet the nostalgia remains: for a seemingly less complicated world. These days I’d do anything to nestle up to a quiet news day with a piece of crumble coffee cake. 
Shabbat Shalom,
rebhayim

Learning Lessons

I really like Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. What an amazing man. How did a Jewish comedian who won the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars, and who performed the Ukrainian voiceover for the animated feature, Paddington, become a renowned leader? No one really knows. Was it simply being in the right place at the right time? Was it providential?

People all over the world are praising Zelensky. More importantly, the people of Ukraine are praising their president, a man who, just a few months ago, they were calling a lackluster, ineffective leader. What accounts for this metamorphosis? At the very least, one can say that he has risen to the occasion.

I didn’t know much about Zelensky prior to Putin loosing the dogs of war on Ukraine. I knew a lot more about Putin, always seen on camera alone in a dark suit, looking grey and grim. Putin, making solitary summary decisions to destroy a sovereign nation. Putin, using the doublespeak of lies and misinformation to obfuscate his obsession with wreaking havoc on those who would dare to choose democracy over his fascistic version of control.

Zelensky is a hero now and may one day be considered a great man. Because he decided to step up and lead. He did not form a government in exile. He is not issuing condemnations from Paris. Zelensky is couch surfing all over Ukraine to avoid capture. He is with various members of his cabinet, making decisions about how to respond to a monster without conscience or empathy.

It may be that Zelensky and his people are arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fighting against the Russian army, preventing the brutal crushing of Ukraine may all be futile. But Zelensky does not flee.

Zelensky delivers simple messages to his people and to all of us. He says, over and over, that democracy is precious. He inspires us with his unequivocal reading of the equation, that it is preferable to fight for freedom than to capitulate.

I’ve been around, so I know that today’s hero can quickly become tomorrow’s discredited bum. The press is always eager to take down an iconic leader. Zelensky may become a scapegoat for whatever emerges as this terrible war rages. So, for now anyway, I think of Zelensky as a mensch, a man who looks into the maw of destruction and does not blink. He knows he may be murdered or tortured, but he will not back down.

We observe this brave man and his extraordinary ability to inspire. Many Americans find Zelensky’s passionate advocacy for freedom and democracy to be thrilling. It’s a reminder that some Americans have lost a passion for freedom and democracy as others have arisen to fill that anxious void with fascism and hate. Zelensky is teaching a lesson right now to all of us. We would be wise to learn from him.

Shabbat Shalom

Exhausted

There have been far too many moments this week when it’s all been too much. I’ve had to look away from my various news sources in disgust and disbelief. I’ve even needed to tune out from my public radio station – in the middle of a broadcast! – and jump into my music to preserve my mental health.

My sense of the ethical well-being of the world has really taken a hit. Throughout the Olympics, Beijing held up a façade of welcome and serenity. Yet they simultaneously warned that anyone, athlete or commentator, who criticized China and its brutal oppression of the Uyghurs, among other human rights crimes, could be detained by the authorities. And China got away with it.

Texas governor, Greg Abbott, directed state agencies this week to conduct “prompt and thorough” investigations into the use of gender-affirming care for transgender children, a move that follows an opinion from the state attorney general that such treatments are a form of “child abuse.” And from Florida, not surprisingly, in the same week comes the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The bill, as it exists now, stipulates that schools “may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

How is it even vaguely conceivable that such hateful and ignorant attitudes exist? And how is it possible that such drivel becomes law? What kind of nation is this, where children can be legally bullied, targeted, and marginalized?

The Reform movement is reeling after this week’s release of the Debevoise and Plimpton LLD investigation of sexual misconduct at URJ summer camps over the past several years. It was a tremendously disturbing and disheartening report to read. What a sad commentary on how men could get away with so much, even while people knew they were up to no good.

Finally, in this week’s catalog of revulsion and disbelief is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reading news accounts about Putin and his motivation to smash Ukraine is so profoundly disturbing. It’s the impunity of it all, the way Putin lies with a straight face, does what he wants, and then lies again. And all the while, the world looks on, impotent in the face of such determined aggression.

It would certainly not take much time to come up with more ethical outrage. In the face of it all, how are we to go on? What do we do or say in the face of evil and tyranny, in Ukraine and our own nation? In the world of philosophy, there’s a whole unique field of study that ponders those questions. Theodicy seeks to somehow reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil in the same Universe. Not too surprisingly, there are no good answers.

My sense of all this is that the battle between the forces of good and evil, the impulse to build bridges vs. the impulse to build walls, is ongoing. There is no satisfying answer to why people resort to malevolence vs. altruism. All we can do is examine our own hearts and do what we can to build a shelter of peace in our own home and community.

At the very least, we have to continue to speak out, to fight the numbing lapse of indifference that attacks when we’re flooded by headlines and stories that blow our minds. It’s all about being an upstander – whatever that means. And this, I think, is a profoundly important reason to be a part of our community. It helps to know that we are not individuals, alone, feeling overwhelmed by the course of events. We together stand for the freedom of others, for the protection of vulnerable souls against evil and hateful people. We are upstanders from a community of conscience and hope.

Will our outrage matter to Vladimir Putin? Does the governor of Texas care about how we stand in opposition to his twisted directives? Nope. But we’re not permitted to remain silent. We must speak from our place of conscience and Jewish tradition. Showing solidarity is not a political act; it’s a mitzvah, a religious obligation.

So I do look away from time to time. But exhausted though my soul may be, I reenter the fray. It’s that damned Hillel quote every time. If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? It’s hard to be a Jew.

Dear Whoopi

Dear Whoopi,

I’m reaching out to you today wearing several hats.

1. I am a big fan of your work. Whether it’s Ghost or The Color Purple or Sister Act, you are incredibly entertaining and talented. The full range of your repertoire is noteworthy. You’ve made me laugh and cry – sometimes in the same movie! And as far as I know, you are the only Black woman to have an EGOT (Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar, Tony).

Speaking of laughter, your stand-up act has always been on the money. Sharp, profane, daring, but not aggressive. You have a spark and a style that are as unique as your look.

To be candid, I have never seen The View. I am not a fan of Crossfire-style tv that relies on sniping and backbiting. But over the years, I’ve read about the various fights and feuds. You seem to be on the progressive side of the fence, which I appreciate, since I, too, dwell there.

2. I am in awe of your commitment to social justice. Of course, your work with Comic Relief comes to mind first. But you’ve done so much more. You are a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations. You support various causes on behalf of children, the homeless, human rights, education, substance abuse, the battle against AIDS, and many more. No one can doubt your sincere desire to make the world a safer place.

3. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor, a proud Jew, and a rabbi. When I read your recent comments on the Holocaust, I thought immediately, “Oh oh.” According to The New York Times, you said that the Holocaust was about “man’s inhumanity to man” and “not about race.” When one of [your] co-hosts challenged that assertion, saying the Holocaust was driven by white supremacy, you said, “But these are two white groups of people. This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.” Oy.

You have been through the gauntlet for saying these words, which you now deeply regret. Not only did you apologize, but you also specifically acknowledged what you said was wrong then sought to share the correct information. You tweeted, “I said the Holocaust ‘is not about race, but about man’s inhumanity to man.’ I should have said it is about both. As Jonathan Greenblatt from the Anti-Defamation League shared, ‘The Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people — who they deemed to be an inferior race.’ I stand corrected.”

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer wrote: The Nazi Holocaust in Europe and slavery and Jim Crow in the United States are outgrowths of the same ideology—the belief that human beings can be delineated into categories that share immutable biological traits distinguishing them from one another and determining their potential and behavior. In Europe, with its history of anti-Jewish persecution and violent religious divisions, the conception of Jews as a biological “race” with particular characteristics was used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust. In the United States, the invention of race was used to justify the institution of chattel slavery because Black people were biologically suited to permanent servitude and unfit for the rights the nation’s Founders had proclaimed as universal. Therefore, the American color line was much more forgiving to European Jews than the divisions of the old country. But they are branches of the same tree, the biological fiction of race.

What comes out of your misspoken statement ends up being a very significant way – a new way – of understanding the role of antisemitism during the Holocaust and understanding it now.

5. I wear the hat of one who accepts your apology. I truly do. Yes, there was a controversy after your statement. People, including me, were upset and angered. Had you doubled down on your statement, I would’ve called for your termination. But you’ve certainly been contrite and forthcoming. This two-week suspension from your job at The View feels very foolish. It reflects a rush to judgment rather than careful listening.

The head of the ADL, Jonathan Rosenblatt, told Don Lemon at CNN, “In the Jewish faith, we have a concept called ‘teshuva,’ and ‘teshuva’ means redemption. It means all of us have the power to admit when we do wrong and to commit to doing better. I heard Whoopi say that she’s committed to doing better. I accept that apology with the sincerity with which she delivered it. I’m committed, ADL is committed, to work with her and to work with others who really want to use this as a teachable moment”.

I’m with him, Whoopi. I hope that the network executive who did this might soften his hardened heart. The right message would be that people say things, never intending malice. And when they realize that their words were wrong and ill-considered, people ask forgiveness and clarify the truth. You did that. If it’s good enough for the ADL, it should be good enough for ABC.

I won’t be watching The View anytime soon, but I hope you’re back on the job next week.

Remembering

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.