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.

The Jewish Heart and Soul

The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevy, is most known for his treatise called, The Kuzari, and for this poem:

My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west–

How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet

Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in foreign chains?

A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —

Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

Halevy here describes a deep longing, a yearning for the land of Israel that is palpable. Like a young man who is far away from his love, just thinking about his object of affection causes a loss of appetite. He just cannot think of anything else – he’s useless. As good as the best things in life are in Spain, he would abandon them all to just to see the dust of the remnants from the 2nd Temple. That’s some obsessive yearning. He would simply say that it’s true love.

I’ve been home from Israel for five days. And I’ve made enough round trips to and from Israel to keep my yearning at a tolerable temperature. When I went to Israel for rabbinical school in 1978, I fell in love with Israel. Hard. I even know when it was.

I went food shopping one afternoon at the Supersol in Jerusalem. I was going to prepare a beautiful, fancy meal and wanted to make saffron rice. Real saffron is very expensive. It’s made from the threads that grow in a crocus. It supposedly takes 20,000 crocuses to make an ounce of saffron. The woman at the cash register was tallying up my purchases, commenting as she did so. “This is good bread – better than the bakery across the street. This avocado… did you squeeze it first? Eat it soon or else”, and so forth. When she picked up the saffron and eyed the price, she stopped. She looked at me – very seriously. “You’re a student, right?” “Yes”, I answered as the shoppers in the vicinity leaned in, without shame, to hear her castigate me for my costly little vial of herb. “You can’t buy this. It’s too expensive. Use turmeric instead.”

I was in love. “This is where I want to live!”, I thought, “I want to be in a nation where everybody has an opinion about what I spend on spices. I want this kind of intimacy and connectedness.”  Later I would learn the adage that the thing that you love most about your partner, in the beginning, is the very thing you come to hate 20 years after…

The real issue that ended up preventing me from making Aliyah was my chosen profession. There wasn’t a lot going on for American borne Reform rabbis in Israel in the late Seventies. I didn’t want to be an English teacher for Israeli high school students. The dream of being a rabbi was too deeply planted by then to replace my love for this country that so touched me to the core.

The wild love I had for Israel slowly attenuated to something a bit more manageable. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what if I had taken that other path and followed that other passion. In the end, though, I know I made the right decision. Because of my wife and family. Because the work of the rabbinate is my calling. Because in my heart I am an American Jew.

I don’t feel myself a stranger in a strange land as Halevy did. There are no chains on me. Living in Israel is simply not the only authentic choice for a Jew in the 21st century.  So I live that split level Jewish life, my heart and soul in the east … and in the west.

Bringing Home So Much More

We’ve reached that point in traveling when the ratio between clean clothes and dirty clothes has most definitely fallen into the latter category. It’s a sign that the trip is almost over. And what a joyful trip it’s been.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel for the past 10 days with an extraordinary group of TBA adolescents – thirteen of them. Sometimes they remind me of those old WWII movies. There’s always the tough guy with a heart of gold; the quiet one who is just waiting for someone to reach out; the funny one who must crack wise; the loud one who never learned to whisper; the curious one who must know what’s next; the one who hates the food – or the bed – or the bus; the one who quietly shares a hard story they’ve never shared before, and so on.
Now before you try to guess who is who, let me stress here that all of the travelers, including me and my fantastic TBA team of Becky Oliver and Francie Weinberg, were never just one of these. In fact, like the Four Children of the Passover Seder, we were all a little bit of all of those caricatures.
The fact is, this is a complicated world to grow up in and our kids are trying desperately to keep up. If I were a teen, I would bury my face in my smartphone, too. It’s a scary world out there. And precisely because it is so scary, we have to expose them to it, like treatment for allergy desensitization. Hiding the facts of love and war, of greed and altruism, is no good for them or for the world they will inherit.
That’s ultimately what this Israel trip is about. Opening doors to vistas our kids have never seen before. Showing them difficult political and social problems with the added complication of it being based here, in the Jewish State. Challenging them to begin going deep instead of floating on the surface of an issue of relevance. We are daring to move beyond the old stories and create new ones. We honor the tales of the past, the tremendous sacrifices of the early Zionists, the unthinkable reality of surviving the Holocaust with no place to go, the fortitude and courage of the Israeli people and their determination to become an open, Jewish democratic state.
With these stories we are proudly moving for, ard to be a people with integrity. We can’t cloak ourselves in history and coast along. We have to be present in the here and now. We must work for an Israel of social justice, living up to the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
I sincerely hope our kids bring home not only a strong desire to be part of Israel’s future. I hope they take this inspiration and apply it to our nation, too. I hope they see that as Jews we are commanded to take a stand, even if we are ridiculed and threatened. As we see the kids from Parkland, FL demanding justice, it’s all about choosing to speak up.
This fact was emphasized so many times by so many adults we met, adults whose lives are dedicated to peace and understanding – in a real way, not in a superficial lip service way. But today, when one of the Israeli kids from Haifa quoted President John F. Kennedy, saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”, I thought, “We might make it.”
Tonight is our second Shabbat in Israel. Our kids are tired and ready to come home. Tomorrow we will pack up the dirty clothes and the gifts and the shoes and so forth. But believe me: we will be bringing home so much more.

The Shame of it All

This past Wednesday morning I had the great pleasure of walking into the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. It’s always enormously exciting to enter the Old City. The sights are immediately breathtaking. For me, it’s the mix of humanity. I see African tourists, Asian pilgrims, a Japanese group that comes to Israel every year to ask forgiveness for a terrorist attack perpetrated at Lod Airport by the Japanese Red Army in 1972, Hasids, delusional seekers, Swedish hippies ― and this is within the first 500 feet of the entrance… The cacophony of languages mixed in with Arab storekeepers hawking their tchotchkes, little kids yelling, and so forth ― it’s a bracing moment, like walking headlong into a strong, warm wind.
As we navigated our way down the steps, we arrived at the Sinjlawi family store. I love this place and the copious jewelry they sell. I’ve been several times, and the owner, Eddie, always gives me a big hug. We spoke briefly and then he said, “Do you know what happened in Florida?” I sadly informed him that I had heard the awful news. And then Eddie looked at me with such sadness, and said, “I am so sorry for all those families. It must be so hard to live in such a violent country.”
Eddie said these words without a trace of irony, words of consolation for a foreigner from a country with a big problem. Odd, isn’t it? All these years I’ve looked at the Middle East and the high stakes of life here. This, the land of Israel, is the place of tsuris, the place of violence and terrorism. This is the place with a government sold on divisiveness as a legitimate form of statecraft. Israel is the place where the leader is leading under a cloud of doubt about his illegal behavior, where law enforcement officials are characterized as a tool of the opposition.
Eddie’s genuine empathy broke my heart and thoroughly confused me. As I listened to various broadcasts later that day from leaders who want to talk about mental health and not the public health risks of copious easily obtainable AK 47s, I realized the extent to which we have lost enormous moral standing in the free world, and amongst ourselves as Americans.
How long can a country endure when its public school space, the pride of our nation, the melting pot of American society, is contaminated by violence? When children develop school phobia after a murder spree, how can we blame them for their anxiety? How do we explain to them why nothing has changed since Newtown?
I’ve written about children being murdered before. I have expressed outrage. I have bemoaned the terrible lasting damage done to families that have lost their babies to bullets. I have angrily called out elected officials on the dole from the NRA, demanding justice transcend campaign gifts.
It is cathartic to have a place to express my personal pain and my moral outrage as your rabbi. But I already feel deep in my soul that, like before, nothing will change. I’m beyond anger ― it has been extinguished by too much disappointment. I fear that cynicism, borne in the crucible of inaction and indifference, has tarnished my soul. “It must be so hard to live in such a violent country.” It is hard. It is manifestly obscene.
What happens now? Nothing. Children will be taught new duck and cover strategies. There will be more drills. Experts will sell school systems Kevlar vests and blankets. And mark my words; in three weeks we will have another school shooting. Parents will weep. Children will stay awake at night in anguish and fear. And we will comfort the afflicted with love and sympathy, while those who might make a difference will play on, protecting their self-interests, mocking the dead with their inaction. Every time a child is murdered in a school, our nation sinks lower than a flag at half-mast. It’s all so clear from the City of Peace.

A Birthday Greeting

When I traveled to Israel for the first time, in 1972, I worried about how much my mother would worry about me. I was just 17; you know what I mean… Freshly graduated from high school, I was about to embark on what they now call a gap year. I was the first-born child, leaving behind a single mother with my three younger siblings, all of whom were in their own unique and, shall we say, erratic orbits. What would she do without me? I said to her, “Mom, I don’t know how many days it might be before I have any access to a telephone. What should I do? Do you want a telegram?”

I will never forget my mother’s response. This little, 4 foot 11 inch, prematurely grey-haired woman said, “Don’t worry about it. If your plane crashes, I’ll hear about it.” She said it gently, but her intent was clear: you’re a big boy now, and you’re in good hands.

It was a major hassle to make an international call home from Israel in 1972. The most direct way was to go to the central Jerusalem post office where there were some little booths with telephones inside. You’d walk to the window of a certain clerk. She’d stare at you as if you were creating a serious inconvenience for her. You’d write down the number you wanted to call, tell the exasperated clerk how many minutes you wanted to talk, and then pay. She would then assign you a booth number. Such a lot of red tape and complexity!

My mother appreciated that she didn’t need me to check in with her much when I was away. She had enough to worry about. Her philosophy was: “Don’t look for trouble. If it wants you, it will find you.”

I called home twice over nine months. Once for Mother’s Day, and once for my mom’s birthday. Yesterday would’ve been her 88th birthday. She was born on February 8th, 1929 and died on October 26, 2009. Her birthday was the first date I ever remembered besides my own birthday.

Nine years after her death I can see more clearly than ever how she influenced me and my life. I won’t dwell on the negative stuff, though that’s there, too. Her love of music and standing up and belting it out in front of a crowd, large or small; that is most definitely in my DNA.

It’s nine years since my mother died. I still miss her – not every day, of course. When I sing a particular song (she would’ve loved Mi Chamocha Blues), I imagine her beautiful smile. When I hear certain melodies, especially some jazz standards, I can hear her crooning. Whenever I see some good looking strawberries, or cook her famous brisket, or cry at the slightest provocation: I think of her. It makes me wistful: simultaneously happy and sad. That’s the way it is as we lose loved ones and friends. They don’t disappear. Instead, they take the shape of music or aroma or a rainstorm or a tear.

I will always miss my mother. That’s a fact that just seems to go with the territory of living. There is literally nothing I can do about her loss or any other loss. I can only be thankful for every gift she ever gave me. I will always be indebted to her trust and her love of music that changed my life forever.

In nine months I only called my mother twice from Israel. No guilt, no recrimination, no disappointment. No trouble. Just joy. That was my mother.

 

Happy birthday, Mom.

The Obligation to Remember

 

The Holocaust is never far from mind. It churns on the horizon of Jewish consciousness like some malevolent poisonous cloud. It takes only one throwaway picture of smokestacks. The mention of the word ‘camp,’ or ‘gas,’ not to mention ‘German.’ It’s not like that all the time – but the atmosphere is always charged. The Jewish psyche has a hair trigger when it comes to anything even vaguely Holocaust-related.

In these last few weeks, the Jewish sensitivity to Holocaust conversation has been blasted from the subliminal and ambiguous to the explicit by a very controversial law that’s set to pass in Poland.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party vowed to push through the “Death Camps Law,” soon after coming to power in 2015, depicting it as a way of protecting Poland’s good name. A key paragraph of the bill states: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.”

After an initial uproar, the issue seemed to have been dropped, only to reappear last week, when the lower house of parliament approved it on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Polish government officials argue the law is needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the camps Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II.

Poles were among those imprisoned, tortured and killed in the camps, and many today feel Poles are unfairly depicted as perpetrators of the Holocaust. While “Polish” is almost always used as a geographic designator, Poles still object because they feel it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews. Germany occupied Poland in 1939, annexing part of it to Germany and directly governing the rest. Unlike other countries occupied by Germany at the time, there was no collaborationist government in Poland. The pre-war Polish government and military fled into exile, except for an underground resistance army that fought the Nazis inside the country. The Polish Senate approved the bill Thursday despite mounting international opposition. The final step will be approval by President Andrzej Duda, who strongly supports it.

The Polish government is not the first to try to shape the history to its advantage. The Soviet Union long preferred to refer broadly to “victims of fascism,” avoiding any specific reference to Jews, and Austria for years painted itself as the “Nazis’ first victim,” denying all responsibility for its crimes.

Yet it is… undeniable that Poles were directly or indirectly complicit in the crimes committed on their land and that Poles were guilty of anti-Jewish pogroms during and after the war. These are the facts of that terrible history, and the Poles, like all other nations conquered by Germany that became embroiled in the Nazi atrocities, have an obligation to the victims and to the future to seek the full truth, however painful.

The response has been swift. Historians have vehemently protested, suggesting that this law allows the state to determine what is permitted or forbidden to say or write. State-sanctioned history is not history at all, but rather a form of propaganda. The Holocaust Memorial Museum stated its “deep concerns” about the law that would “chill a free and open dialogue addressing Poland’s history during the Holocaust” which takes place in “Polish schools and universities as well as in the media.”

Holocaust survivors are livid, contending that this bill defames the victims of the Holocaust who were murdered in Poland. It is, for many of them, a horrible betrayal of their suffering. For some Israelis, including the prime minister, it is an attempt to rewrite history and deny any complicity of Poles with Nazis working together to round up and execute Jews.

This Death Camps Law is an odious endeavor. It comes from an emergent nationalistic right-wing party in Poland seeking to rebrand Poland’s reputation. The new Polish law is fundamentally wrong. We should not be deterred from telling the historical truth that there were many cases in which Poles killed their Jewish neighbors before the Germans got to them and that in some places after the war, pogroms broke out as the Jews tried to return to what had once been home. But Polish suffering must have its space in the collective Holocaust memory as well. And Jewish life, not only death, should be celebrated in the thousand-year historical memory of what was one of the largest and most successful Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Poland was so much more for the Jews than just a massive graveyard.

This is one of the central conundrums of Jews in the 21st century. As we move further away from the Holocaust, it begins to look different and feel different. As the example par excellence of genocide, it is referred to by many cultures. It cannot be – must not be – our historical touchstone only. We can say Poles suffered during WWII without diminishing our own historical truths.

The last survivors of Auschwitz are in their 80s and 90s. It will be up to us to understand the Holocaust and the complexities of our history to explain them to the next generations. This Polish law is way off the mark, but it won’t deter us from speaking our deepest truths.

Old Jawbone

jawboneAt first glance, to the untrained eye, this find from a cave outside of Haifa looks a little suspect. Is it trash? A rind of an ancient fruit? But once you see that those are teeth, it becomes clear. Israeli archaeologists found the remains of a nearly 200,000-year-old human jawbone in a cave on Mount Carmel, a discovery they predict will change what we know about the evolution and spread of our species.

It’s been a commonly held belief that homo sapiens first appeared some 200,000 years ago in East Africa. These ancestral humans emerged from Africa around 70,000 to 60,000 years ago, occasionally interbreeding with Neanderthals and other hominids as they dispersed throughout the world.

The origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) and the fate of the Neandertals have been fundamental questions in human evolutionary studies for over a century. A major obstacle to the resolution of these questions has been the lack of substantial and accurately dated hominid fossils from between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago.

Only now it seems that we have to completely revise our timeline. Physical anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz, the lucky man whose dig made the discovery, says the find suggests our ancestors arose far earlier than thought. “[If] our species was in Israel 200,000 years ago, it suggests our species is very old—not just 300,000 years old, but older.”

I am fascinated by paleoanthropology, the field of study that seeks to trace the origins of humanity. They look at bone fragments, textiles, fossils, tools, burned out, ancient campfires, whatever they can find, to figure out how we got here. It is a science that just keeps morphing as new finds continue to turn up.

I used to think that humanity arose along a very linear plane: from the ocean to the shore, from the shore to the jungle, from the jungle to Newton Center. However, the latest science indicates that there were all kinds of hominids walking around Africa before homo sapiens made the eventual migration northward and into the rest of the world.

The important point is that, as the timeline keeps changing, we do too. In other words, 300,000 years ago our ancestors were emerging into the world. They are ALL of our ancestors. All those hominids who look like apes, the Neanderthals with large middle part of the face; the Australopithecus who climbed in the trees; or the Sahelanthropus with the sloping face, very prominent brow ridges, and elongated skull.

We have the choice to keep evolving and thus make the world livable for the next generation. I assume most of us who are homo sapiens have a similar impulse to protect our young, to see to it that they will be safe and happy. So why is it that we seem to fail so miserably? Why do nations commit atrocities against their people? Why do people of one race think that they are somehow better when it is clear that we are all descended from the same hominids? I mean, I hate to let the alt-right know this, but 300, 000 years ago, there were no white people…

And here I am, once again at a theme close to my heart. We are charged with building bridges, not walls. We are challenged to be inclusive, to see the other as a relative, not an alien.

That jawbone discovery is a celebration of the complexity and mystery of human existence. We’ve come a long way to finally get here. It would be nice if we could work harder to keep the world in one piece rather than break it into a million pieces of lost potential.