The Professor of Desire is No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom.

rebhayim

Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

So Long, Fat Albert

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

Thinking About Israel: Year 70

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday Israel.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

rebhayim

Remembering

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

Remarks from the 20th Anniversary Celebration

It is rare when I am tongue-tied. It’s usually due to being emotionally overwhelmed In such situations words are simply inadequate. They fail to measure up to the task of truly expressing the depths of my soul.
But I won’t hide behind the inadequacy of words. I want to share this attempt, from March 10th, to somehow verbalize my deepest gratitude.
There’s not a good Hebrew word for “anniversary”. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Maybe the Jewish calendar is already filled up with so many holidays and special fasting days, not to mention every Shabbat… maybe adding anything too personal was considered pahst nisht — something that’s not done. Well, I’m glad I speak English because I think anniversaries are precious. It’s a reason to stop and reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and then imagine the next anniversary.
Twenty years. A time of innocence. A time of confidences. I came in like gangbusters, filled with ideas for change and transition. I was a ready, fire, aim kind of guy. We were in a new building, and the runway looked wide open. I was raring to go.
In all of my exuberance, I did not stop and empathize that Rabbi Miller and Ann Cherenson, the mom and dad of Beth Avodah, were no longer in the house. I didn’t fully appreciate the experience of loss that people felt, and just how traumatic the new rabbi’s arrival would be. That anybody stayed is a blessing. That you didn’t send me back to Texas is a testimony to your patience and forbearance.
Bev Holzman has always been my fiercely loyal critic. The length of my sermons and my beard, my kittel, Hasidic niggunim, all of these and more were topics she brought to my attention. Once she said to me, “I don’t like a lot of this stuff you’re doing, but where else am I gonna go?” I love Bev, her honesty, her loyalty, her ever clicking knitting needles.
We managed to make it work. I tried to listen better, to slow down and let things take their course. You agreed to think about liturgy and sermons and rabbis in a new way. You gave me a chance. Some of you came to me to help me refocus my energy, a gesture I will never forget. You were honest and forthright.
From time to time someone will ask me, “How many Bar Mitzvahs have you officiated at?” I think it would be cool to know the answer. I started officiating at B’nai mitzvah as a student rabbi in 1979. The first funeral service I officiated at was in 1978. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was scary and awesome in the religious sense of the word. It was for Joel Davis’ grandmother. That’s how traumatic it was for me – I remember his name 40 years later.
My first congregation was in Tulsa, OK. I was an assistant rabbi to a very top-down senior. Charles had a book for lifecycle events. He wrote down every wedding, funeral bar/bat mitzvah, confirmation class, bris and baby naming he performed. I think maybe he’s like Achashveros. When he can’t sleep he leafs through those books.
To keep records like that you need to be organized. I know this is big news for you but – I’m not so organized. But it’s more than this. I think the answer to the question, “How many b’nai mitzvah services have you performed,” is a lot. The number simply doesn’t matter.
For me it’s not the number, it’s the relationship that endures. It is what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber described as an I-Thou experience, a moment when defenses fall away, and all that’s left is an authentic encounter. It’s a moment of mutual respect and celebration. To be sure, this is what I strive for, not what happens all or even some of the time. But I strive to be a human, to be a mensch.
I was not raised in a home where there was a north star example of how to be a mensch. In fact, when Born in the USA came out in 1982, whenever Bruce sang the lyrics, “You end up like a dog who’s been beat too much/Til you spend half your life just covering up” I would get teary. Every time. I knew what that meant. When you spend time covering up, it’s hard to see, hard to feel anything.
Tonight I want to acknowledge my friend David Wrubel, my oldest friend from 9th grade, who showed me a kind of friendship that enabled me, after my father’s death, to unclench and stand up. He showed me a pathway to normalcy. I credit David as the person who taught me how to be a leader, to find my voice, how to stand in front of a roomful of people and feel confident and at home.
I want to acknowledge my dear friends Kerry Stackpole and Hesh Shorey. We three called ourselves the Rowdy Brothers, inspired by Zap Comix or Cheech and Chong. We were all three in homes with utterly overwhelmed mothers and no fathers. We were feral wolves who banded together. We recognized each other from afar. It is not an exaggeration to say that these two men saved my life, gave me a sense of home and safety. I knew that, with them, I would be ok. I still feel that way about them.
Over these past 20 years, you have allowed me into your homes and into your lives. Annie Dillard, a great American writer and thinker, once described clergy as boatmen. Our duty is to board our passengers onto the boat, and then we ferry them across the river to the other side. The waters are sometimes rough and dark, frightening beyond words. On the maps to the far shore is often written the warning, “There be dragons here!” And there are monsters, monsters of loss and pain and sickness and death.
But sometimes the waters are calm, dappled in warm sunlight, and there is no need to fear because the journey is all joy and ecstasy. And every trip is unique, and every passenger carries their own special baggage with them.
I have done my best to keep the boat steady, to navigate the whirlpools and the sandbars. I have always tried to hold the center, to keep the rudder steady but not to hold it too tightly, to follow the current and not fight against it – that is, unless we were drifting too close to a waterfall or other turbulence.
We get in that boat and go, and your trust in me is such a gift. You know that the voyage will be a safe one. I have dedicated my life to you to make sure that the passage will be a good one.
My gratitude for you is infinite and undying. I look forward to the next years together. It’s true what they say in the song: “the best is yet to come.”

Shalom, Haver

What a full-tilt couple of weeks it’s been for me and so many of my temple family. There was the March 10 20th anniversary celebration, including great food, a beautiful video presentation, speeches, jazz, and so many members of the TBA flock, not to mention old friends from many years ago. And a week later we were saying goodbye to our rabbi emeritus, Bob Miller.
I was so sad when Rabbi Miller told me he wasn’t feeling up to attending the party on Saturday night. First, I know he loved a good party. Second, his loving support of my rabbinate has been a true gift.We had a bond of friendship and common cause. We both loved Beth Avodah, and we loved and appreciated each other.
Rabbi Miller’s dedication to Beth Avodah was and will remain deeply inspiring. It’s in that spirit that I share the eulogy I delivered on Sunday, March 18th.
.נולד אדם – הכל שמחין, מת – הכל בוכין. ואינו כן
When a person is born, we all celebrate, and when a person dies, everyone cries. But it shouldn’t be this way. Rather, when a person is born, it’s not appropriate to celebrate for him because no one knows what his portion will be and on what deeds he shall stand, whether he will be righteous or wicked, good or evil. But when he dies, we should indeed rejoice, for he has passed away with a good name and left the world in peace.
It is like a parable of two ships near a harbor. One was going out to sea, and the other was coming in from its voyages. Everyone around the harbor was celebrating for the one setting out, while no one celebrated the ship coming in. Someone came up and said, “These actions are backward! We shouldn’t celebrate the ship that’s first starting out on its journey because none of us knows what it shall encounter out there: how long will it last, and what storms will it face? Likewise, we should celebrate for the one that’s returning home because it enters in peace.”
From Kohelet Rabba 7:4
Rabbi Miller always loved a good text. No matter what the occasion: a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a Shabbat service, a funeral: he found just the right citation. He did it without Google or a software package. Rabbi Miller had a great memory for Torah and Torah commentaries. That had something to do with his Yeshiva background, as well as his training at HUC for the Reform rabbinate. He absorbed it all – it was in him. No, it WAS him.
With all his heart, he believed that his rabbinate was a sacred calling. Rabbi Miller’s generation of Reform rabbis saw themselves as teachers of the tradition, as living transmitters of the ancient teachings of Judaism. But they also carried a heavy responsibility as creators of an all-new, post-war, post-Holocaust, postmodern Judaism that now included a state of Israel.
Rabbi Miller also loved rabbis. He went out of his way to gather with them, shmooze, study, learn with them. His colleagues, still active or retired have written to me praising his memory, his kindness, his menschlichkeit, his humanity, and his laughter.
Rabbi Miller took that mantle of the rabbinate seriously and wore it with pride all of his days. He was a gifted teacher and a skilled homilist. He spoke with insight and passion, and always with a good text. He knew his way around the liturgy and never felt as if he had to look over his shoulder at his more traditional contemporaries. His background gave him the vocabulary to daven with the Orthodox and the traditional Conservative communities. In fact, this knowledge base gave him a valuable carte blanche enabling him to enter different circles of the Jewish community. He strongly supported the establishment of the JCC in Newton and the Rashi School.
Rabbi Miller’s erudition was unassailable. But he didn’t lead with that aspect of his rabbinate. Yes, he loved Judaism. But more than that: he loved Jews. It was why God put him on this earth: to serve the Jewish people. He loved our mores, our culture, our unique ways of living our lives. Nobody could shmooze like Bob Miller. Nobody could interrogate a complete stranger with such innocent wonder.
Rabbi Miller cared about his flock. He held them close and loved them. He treated them with compassion and understanding. He listened with warmth and concern. When people had difficult issues in their lives and came to him with their tzuris, Rabbi Miller listened and did not hold back when he believed they were headed in the wrong direction. He was an authentic, unpretentious man who loved his life and the people in it.
Having said all this, I don’t want to leave the impression that Rabbi Miller cared only about Jews. He did deeply believe that all men and women were created in God’s image. Which is to say that he was an equal opportunity schmoozer. I can recall so many times when we were together, and if a Hispanic person were working near him, he’d look at their name tag and begin a conversation in a terribly butchered Spanish. But it worked every time.
As much as he loved being a rabbi, he approached retirement without much ambivalence. He had literally given himself to his congregation for so many years and realized, to his chagrin, that he had missed so many important moments with his kids and grandkids as well as with his partner, Margaret.
Margaret was an essential part of Bob’s life. She was his companion, ever present and ever vigilant. She was his fierce defender. Margaret brought Bob the soft edges he lacked. She introduced him to the broader world of art and music. She adored Bob. And he thought himself to be a lucky man to have such a classy, beautiful, erudite wife.
They had big plans for his retirement, which included being designated clergy on a cruise ship around the world. It was during that cruise that Margaret began to show symptoms of what would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s. They had to leave the ship and come home.
I know how this terrible confluence of events broke his heart. He told me that he had waited too long, that he had done a disservice to Margaret and the kids. But most of all, his heart broke for his Margaret. She was supposed to be the stronger one. She was supposed to take care of him. Whenever we spoke of Margaret and the terrible ravages of Parkinson’s, he would shake his head in disbelief, as if this could not be happening to her. He shlepped her to doctors’ appointments, picked up medications, spoke with her physicians, got her to PT. He devoted his life to her. And he never ever once complained, never once bemoaned his fate. He said his heart wept for Margaret every day.
When he had the accident, landing face first at the bottom of the steps in their home, we all feared that he would die. Then we feared he would have brain damage and perhaps paralysis. When I saw him at the hospital the day after the accident, he looked terrifying. That he fully recovered is truly miraculous. It was a combination of stubbornness and his reluctance to leave Margaret that kept him going.
Margaret’s death devastated him. I watched it wash over him like a tsunami. The waters of grief receded to the horizon and then rose and overwhelmed him. He had to reconfigure his life from the center of a large congregational family to becoming a widower with grown children. The steadfastness of his children was his lifeline, his reason to keep going. Your love, your empathy helped your dad survive. He missed so many events in your lives, but he never doubted your love for him, nor did you ever doubt his love for you.
Bob’s move to Newbridge was a brilliant decision. It was a new chapter in his life, one he adapted to with vigor and joy. Rabbi Judi Ehrlich of Newbridge is here this morning and will speak of his life there. Suffice to say that those of us who loved Bob found such solace in his new life there. Walking with Bob down the hall, in the cafeteria, anywhere on the grounds of his new home, was like being with the mayor of Newbridge.
Twenty-one years ago, as Bob prepared to retire from the temple he loved so much, he said to his people, and often repeated the words, “You can love two rabbis.” It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a subtle request. What a gift that was to me, a gift I will never forget.
This past year at Rosh Hashanah, Bob blessed me on my 20th anniversary. He came up to the bimah and said how great it was to celebrate two big events: the 20thanniversary of my tenure at Beth Avodah, and the 20th anniversary of his retirement. Then he laughed that laugh, that right from the belly, unexpurgated laugh: so loud, so unrestrained, so him! His kindness and his loving approbation were in his words, in his laughter, in his embrace.
Bob and I spoke last on Wednesday. He was foggy and exhausted, yet he wanted to know how the 20th-anniversary celebration had gone. I described the event, and he kvelled. I told him that I had acknowledged how I had come into what had been his world for almost three decades and proceeded to change things: a lot, and that I didn’t get it right all the time. He shook his head. “Every rabbi has to be true to himself. I brought new ideas with me when I got to Beth Avodah. You did the same; it’s the only way it can be.”
Even at the end of his life, he was full of affirmation and kindness.
Bob Miller was a loving son and brother, a passionate husband and father and grandfather. He was a learned, great and kind rabbi. He loved Temple Beth Avodah with a deep and abiding strength.
Bob Miller was my dear friend. He was my rav muvhak – a teacher of rabbis. He was a delight. And I will miss him with all of my heart.
הכל צריכין
לשמוח ולשבח שנפטר בשם טוב בשלום מן העולם הוא
So it is when a person dies. Better to rejoice and celebrate, for he has left this world in peace and with a good name.

Life is What Happens

John Lennon sang these words in his sweet song, Beautiful Boy, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” I had planned to share with you today some thoughts about my 20th-anniversary celebration last Saturday night and all the joy and naches that washed over me. I was filled with such gratitude for all that has come to me through the love of my congregation and by God’s grace. I also had planned to share my 20th-anniversary remarks with you.
While I was busy making plans, our beloved rabbi emeritus, Bob Miller, died today. I don’t know quite what to say. It did not come as a shock – I knew he would be dying soon. It’s the actual finality of it all, the reality of this loss, which hurts so much.
We assume that some people in our lives will always be there for us, that they will never leave. Rabbi Miller filled up so much space. His fabulous laughter. His warmth and desire to really know people. His voice, which got louder as his hearing diminished. How could such a vibrant soul not be there always, like a beacon, a warm source of goodness?
But, of course, this feeling that someone will never leave is selfish – and wrong. There are no guarantees. In fact, the only guarantee is that we are finite; we will all die.
Rabbi Miller and I spoke last on Wednesday. He was foggy and exhausted, yet he wanted to know how the 20th-anniversary celebration had gone. I described the event, and he kvelled. I told him that I had acknowledged how I had come into what had been his world for almost three decades and proceeded to change things: a lot. He shook his head. “Every rabbi has to be true to himself. I brought new ideas with me when I got to Beth Avodah. You did the same; it’s the only way it can be.” Such a gracious soul…
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” I didn’t realize that today I’d be dealing with the death of my mentor, my emeritus, my friend. I am so sad. And I am so grateful that our lives intersected. I will never forget his kindness, his wisdom, and his teachings. I pray that his memory shall always be a blessing.

Who Knows One

This is the run-up to Passover, which is, hold onto your seats, three weeks away. I can hear the strains of Dayenu wafting through the air right now.  Of all the Jewish holidays on the calendar, Passover holds the most memories. Sitting around the table, year after year, the cast of characters shifting, growing, contracting, growing again.

The seder has morphed for lots of us. In the old days, many of us had some old guy at the end of the table interminably mumbling in Hebrew as the guests around the table surreptitiously noshed or listlessly rolled their eyes,  overwhelmed by ennui. At the kid’s tables, there was a slow squirming right before the silverware percussion began. It was a dangerous scene, parents warning the kids to cease and desist, or else no afikomen prize…

Now the seder is a much hipper scene. This is reflected in the sheer number of hagadot on the market today. Everything from  A Passover Haggadah, prepared by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to The Passover Haggadah: The Feast Of Freedom, prepared by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, to A Night Of Questions, for The Reconstructionist Movement. There’s A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah , published by the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and about 200 others, from hardcore ultra-Orthodox no mixing matzo with water, to Like An Orange on a Seder Plate: Our Lesbian Haggadah by Ruth Simpkins, to Ma Nishtana: A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah, to the Global Diversity Haggadah. I’m sure there are still old guys mumbling at the table, but more and more, there are seders that include Martin Luther King and Eli Weisel, seders where the music of Bob Marley and The Redemption Song, resonate beside Adir Hu and Who Knows One.

The Sixties was a turning point for seder tables around America. Somehow Jews began to realize that the words in the Haggadah, the true meaning and substance of the text, was about change and liberation and the end of subjugation.  We are a strange nation that moves to the beat of a different drummer. Maybe it has something to do with the Passover story; maybe it didn’t even happen. But I think most Jews believe something may have happened. Surely this has something to do with the fact that Jews the world over, frequently of imperfect faith, have gathered sometimes awkwardly and even resentfully around Seder tables annually and retold their ancient narrative. They have sung and talked about an almost broken people who were remembered and redeemed … for a unique role and an existential mission. They all told a similar story of hope, obligation, and gratitude, expounding upon (but not changing) the universal format of Pesach, Matzo, and Marror, no matter how wonderful or horrible things were, regardless of their legitimate doubts.

The scary thing about change is that you can never know what the next stage is in the metamorphic process. We know about caterpillars and butterflies, about tadpoles and frogs. But we humans are an utterly unpredictable species. Once we acknowledge that we need to change with the times, where, as Tevye once asked, does it stop?

This is a continuation of the Judaism 2.0 trope. What was once the answer no longer works. We are challenged to make our Judaism a relevant part of our lives, not culinary nostalgia for a bowl of matzah ball soup, then business as usual. The seder must be a place where good food is accompanied by good conversation and relevant controversies. Otherwise, the ride is over, and Judaism becomes an atavistic footnote, as quaint and “odd” as Amish in buggies. Make it real!

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

PS This Saturday night is my 20th anniversary with Temple Beth Avodah. Twenty years?? It has been a ride of a lifetime, and the good news is there is still more to come! I am so grateful for this moment in time. I will put my remarks up online. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom – and thank you.