Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Rabin Arafat Handshake.jpeg

25 years ago today. My G-d.

I was alone in my apartment in Jersey City, just days before Rosh Hashanah, watching the ceremony with tears streaming down my face. What killed me was when Rabin said, "Enough," and then went on to recite Oseh Shalom Bimeromav...

Even looking at this photo today, with Arafat's devilish grin, I can see Rabin's obvious reluctance. The old warrior had every reason to be reticent, and not to trust Arafat, the founder of suicide bombing and terrorism as a political tactic. But he did it. He did it because he knew the status quo was not acceptable, not tenable. The children of Israelis and the children of Palestinians had the right to a better future than the present.

There is so much water under the bridge since then. There have been many failures, but I reject outright that the whole endeavor that reached a high point here was a failure. History is a flow, a dynamic movement of streams and eddies. This moment in time shows what is possible, what can happen, what can be striven for. I still find inspiration in it, and Rabin - the lifelong warrior who understood better than anyone Israel's security needs - remains my hero, precisely because his vision of peace wasn't a hands-across-the-water, pie-in-the-sky dream, but one born of painful reality. Rabin’s reluctance made him real. He know the blood toll that Israel had paid in its history; he knew what Arafat was. But he recognized that a moment had arrived that would not be available forever.

It was a recognition that pragmatic peace rooted in reality is the best promise of security for everyone. With every well-rehearsed caveat - I know them well - I still believe that to be true.

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

Why Do Parents Cry When Their Children Leave for College?

The Talmud (Shabbat 151b-152a) recognizes that people cry different types of tears. There are tears of sorrow and pain, of relief and catharsis. According to the Talmud, some kinds of weeping are beneficial and some are not.

Today, as Heidi and I bring our oldest child to his first year of college, the Rabbis’ observation seems especially insightful. Of course we are tearful. But we are well aware that there are many reasons why parents may cry when their children leave for college.

Some parents may cry because of the realization that their family structure will now be different. Sure, their son or daughter will return home in the future, even many times, but with less and less frequency as the years pass. And inevitably the day will come when their parents’ house is no longer what their children mean when they say the word “home.”

Some parents may be drawn back to the hopes and dreams and promises they made when their child arrived eighteen-or-so years ago, when life was nothing but potential waiting to be realized. And we may think about how wildly divergent life’s path actually turned out to be.

Some may weep because of the realization that time passes so quickly, and that the sweet toddler who reached for your hand is now, all too suddenly, an adult. 

Some may cry because of undifferentiated longing for their child. That is to say, their tears are not for their child’s new beginnings, but because of the loss of the parent’s own youth.

And some tears come from a new vulnerability, a realization that we can’t be there to shield and process and interpret every challenge, failure, and risk that our children are about to discover. When we discover how vulnerable we really are, the tone of our prayers changes, as Dylan identified so perfectly:

My only prayer
is if I can’t be there
Lord protect my child.

And then there is the sensation of wanting just a little bit more time. There’s a great joke from The Simpsons about the last day of school: As the last bell rings, the children leap for the door and the freedom of the summer. Then a teacher exclaims, “WAIT! You didn’t learn about how World War II ended!” The students freeze. The teacher peers into a book. “We won!” The students shout “Hooray!” and now, fully satiated with the teacher’s wisdom, can enjoy their vacation. 

I know the teacher’s feeling. As we drive away from the university, the car one seat emptier, I want to hit the brakes and say, “WAIT! There’s still something I haven’t taught you!”

But that moment is gone. What we hope for, of course, is that our children leave home with the spiritual and emotional confidence to navigate life’s inevitable disappointments and challenges. We hope that they have pride in their Jewish identity, and the knowledge that the prerequisite of functioning in a multicultural society is an assurance of yourself and where you come from.

But we also hope for something more than pride: We hope that we have given them literacy in Jewish wisdom and competence in Jewish practice to allow Judaism to inform and deepen their lives every single day. We hope that we have encouraged them to develop unquenchably thirsty minds built upon a solid bedrock of faith.

The Talmud understood that tears are complex, and the mixture of many conflicting emotions at the same time is what all of life’s most poignant moments are about. As a strange city recedes in the car’s rearview mirror and we return home, we appreciate the complexity of those feelings. We’re full of confidence, pride, and excitement for new beginnings. And we utter a short prayer, perhaps the most honest and basic prayer that there is: “God, protect our child.”

Borrowed Dresses: A Thought about Tu B'Av, the Festival of Love

Tu B’Av is a return to normalcy: Just six days after the Tisha B’Av fast that marks the destruction that senseless hate can wreak, Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of the month of Av) is a day devoted to love.

According to the Mishnah, Israel in antiquity had a minor summer festival when young women would dance in the fields, inviting young men to court them:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:

There were no festivals more joyful for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on [Tu B’Av] the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments – borrowed, so not to shame anyone who didn’t have a garment of her own. Each of the garments required previous ritual immersion. And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.

 This is what they would say: “Young man! Pay close attention and see whom you are about to choose. Don’t be seduced by beauty, but pay heed to a virtuous family.” After all, “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory, but a woman who fears God is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30)…  
                         Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. כָּל הַכֵּלִים טְעוּנִין טְבִילָה. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַמִּשְׁפָּחָה. שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה' הִיא תִתְהַלָּל

There’s so much here in this passage—it seems so against-the-grain of what we might imagine ancient Israel was like, including the young women, in this case, controlling their own romantic destinies. I’ve written about Tu B’Av and love in Judaism, and Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky has posted this excellent essay about the festival’s possible biblical roots.

It’s easy to skip over that passage about the “borrowed white garments.” What an astonishing custom that is: on a day of frivolity and frolicking, the young women of Jerusalem were determined that none of their peers would be hurt or humiliated while the celebrations were happening. So none would wear her own dress; instead, they would share with each other, including those from poor families who couldn’t afford a dress at all. This was how Jews celebrated.

I wonder how this principle might apply today. Our celebrations have become disasters of consumption. The more money you have, the more elaborate the celebration seems to have become. Somehow, brisses turned into bar/bat mitzvahs, bar/bat mitzvahs turned into weddings, and weddings turned into… what? Papal ordinations?

Each May in Boston, it seems that every Jewish organization has its “Annual Dinner,” where much-needed funds are raised to finance the crucial work that these non-profits, day schools, and synagogues perform year-round. And yet… I know many Jewish professionals dread that time of the year, when night after night they have to experience this season of conspicuous consumption, when many of the values of modesty, equality, and integrity go out the window in pursuit of the big donors’ money. One (important) organization, for instance, is known for charging substantial dollars for a seat at its annual dinner—and for those who pay less, but are committed to the cause, there are tables in an entirely different room from the rest of the donors and speakers! They get to watch the event videostreamed to them in their "annex."

But enough grumpiness. I’m thinking about the daughters of Jerusalem, and what we might learn from them. They teach us, for instance, why Tzedakah organizations that feed hungry people need to serve dinner on china, and use real utensils, even though plastic utensils are so much easier to clean up. It’s why food programs need fresh baked pies and chocolate chip cookies, not just soup and a green vegetable.

It’s why it’s not enough to donate your old clothes—by definition, clothes that you wouldn’t wear any more—or your old furniture, or old video games, or anything else. Laudable as those gifts may be (they certainly shouldn't be thrown out), we're supposed to reach for a higher standard. Maimonides had this nailed 900 years ago. He said that the definition of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was this: “What I want for myself, I want for other people. And what I don’t want for myself, I don’t want [to happen to] them.” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #206)

Can you imagine a high school prom—where all the students, boys and girls alike, wear “borrowed clothes” from one another, so that no one is trying to outdo their neighbor? No one would show up in a fancier car than anyone else—not only because it’s in extremely bad taste, but also because they wouldn’t want to humiliate anyone whose family couldn’t afford otherwise.

Can you imagine how different synagogue life would be—especially in the notorious “Bar Mitzvah Year”? Rich families would no longer say, “If I’ve got it, why shouldn’t I flaunt it?” Because they would understand that exorbitant spending puts pressure on all the other families in a community, making others think, “I suppose that’s the community standard that is expected of us.”

Of course, every child in the class would be invited to everyone else’s birthday party—because no one would ever want to have someone else be hurt on the occasion of their celebration.

I'd be curious to know other ways in which readers would apply this principle. Can you imagine how different, how sensitive, how empathetic our communities could be?

I can imagine it. Call it a hippie-socialist-Bernie-kibbutz fantasy if you want, but I'll take the Sages and the young women of Jerusalem from long ago, and their definition of what a "Festival of Love" really should be. 

The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

...an entire world...

Great visual midrash from @thelucidreams:

Lucid Dreams - Sanhedrin.jpg

On Sanhedrin 4:5:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא

...to teach you that whoever destroys a single life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered by the Torah to have saved an entire world... 
 

Elegy for… a Character: A Tzedakah Story

Even a poor person—one who is sustained by Tzedakah funds—
is required to give Tzedakah to another person.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
Laws of Giving to Poor People 10:5
 

My friend Renee was a character. She was well known in our town; you couldn’t miss her. Her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair was often bound in a pigtail like a schoolgirl’s. She drove an SUV that was constantly breaking down, packed to the roof with the telltale possessions of an inveterate hoarder. She had weary eyes that conveyed years of adventures.

She lived on the precipice of homelessness. For a while she stayed in emergency shelters—scary places that she would recount with stark tales. In recent years, she found more stable housing, finding cheap rooms to rent in residential homes around Natick. And she knew how to work the system, making her rounds to get the food, gas money, and, especially, the money for medications that she needed.

I suppose that’s where I came in. She started dropping in on me years ago at the synagogue where I worked. At first she came for Tzedakah money, knowing that people gave me funds to distribute in emergency situations. But she would linger, telling me stories, asking about my family, and, I think, looking for some human contact that can be the harshest thing people who are very poor lack.

Like many such characters, she tested the nerves of those who didn’t “get” her. When she began to show up at the synagogue—ensconced in one of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—some people whispered behind her back. Being Jewish herself, she accepted my invitation to come to Friday night services. Sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah families with out-of-town guests would murmur about the woman who looked funny and took too much of the food that was offered before the service began. The staff grumbled when she would sit on the couch outside my office, waiting without an appointment to grab a few minutes of my time. Hebrew school parents and kids kept their distance.

She was funky. She looked funky, she talked funky, and sometimes she smelled funky. Initially our relationship was based on shnorring—she needed money, and she knew that I was usually reliable to help her pay her heating bill during the cold winter, or fill a prescription for her urgently-needed heart medicine.

Sometimes she exasperated me. I know, of course, about the social service agencies in our area that are there to provide a safety net. I begged her—I insisted—that she connect with them. She would reply that her nonconformist hippie soul wouldn’t be part of their “system.” That made me crazy; I threatened to cut her off if she didn’t take their assistance. But she would inevitably show up with a bill for heart medication, and of course I would help pay for it.

After a while, the dynamic of our relationship changed. She knew I was going through some rough times personally, so one day she invited me to lunch. I demurred—where in the world would she get the money from?—but she insisted. So a few days later, she took me out to a local diner. I’m sure we got a few stares. But the gesture meant so much to me: she considered me a friend; she knew I was down, and she treated. She didn’t even let me cover the tip.       

Yes, she was a character. She wasn’t invisible, but she became one of those offbeat folk who populate a suburban town who are tolerated as long as they don’t become too much of a nuisance.

But because she was my friend, I knew things that others didn’t.

I knew that she had a Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin. I knew about her daughter at American University, of whom she was very proud. I knew that she had spent time in Israel, and spoke a limited but comprehensible Hebrew. And I knew she still saw herself as a “Sixties Person”—committed to volunteerism and social activism. She once told me stories about working on the Clearwater Project on the Hudson River with Pete and Toshi Seeger.

But now I’ll share something with you that very few people knew (including her daughter, until I told her). She couldn’t stand just being on the receiving end of the cycle of caring. “This isn’t me,” she’d say, insisting that her younger self was alive and well inside her rather emaciated and graying body.

So one day she handed me a large folder. “I know you see a lot of hurting folks throughout the course of the day,” she said. “So when you feel it’s appropriate, please give people one of these.”

Inside the folder were ten envelopes labeled “For You.” In each one was a handwritten personalized note. Each was a gentle message of compassion and tenderness. For instance:

To remind you
How unique and

Wonderful You
Are—
every day,
every hour

—And to wish you
extra energy for the things you’re
currently tackling…

Renees Gift.jpg

Or:

Please accept this
as a symbol

of some
great things
comin’ your way—
for example
Brightness
Fairness
HAPPINESS…
Enjoy your
wonderful
future.

And enclosed in each card was a $2 bill. (A $2 bill!) The instructions were not to keep this money for yourself, but to take it and use it to brighten someone else’s day.

Look at what an extraordinary Mitzvah that is. She did it completely anonymously; she left it to me to identify the adults, teens, or kids who needed cheering-up. I was not to tell the recipients where it came from; it was just from “a friend, someone who cares.” And the cards were designed to trigger a chain reaction of compassion and human kindness. This is Tzedakah—but Tzedakah with the personal touch, rooted in compassion and a desire to make a connection with people who may be desperately lonely.

Renee died last week; her heart finally gave out, surely not helped by the on-the-edge lifestyle she was living. There weren’t obituaries in the paper or online; few people noticed. Many who encountered her over the years may have forgotten her, or figured that she just skipped town. But she deserves a better memorial.

I know many more juicy stories that she shared with me, but I won’t tell them here. Suffice to say that she was a character, and she lived out the Rambam’s principle that everyone’s (everyone’s) task is to bring kindness and caring into the world, not indifference and lies. I just wanted to say that she was my friend, I’ll miss her, and she made a difference.

Philip Roth: An Appreciation of the Wicked Child

I am one of the Exiles of Newark, New Jersey.

My father was raised on Goldsmith Avenue, became a Bar Mitzvah at Young Israel, and went to Weequahic High School, class of ’59. His mother was born in Newark; both she and my grandfather spent their careers teaching in the Newark public school system. My great-grandparents’ graves are in Newark, in the McClellan Street cemeteries.

No doubt I would have been there too. Except that, to bastardize the words of Agnon, through a historical accident—the upward mobility of postwar Jews, the riots of 1967—I was born in one of the villages of the Diaspora.

 The Old B'nai Jeshurun building in Newark, now Hopewell Baptist Church.

The Old B'nai Jeshurun building in Newark, now Hopewell Baptist Church.

It always struck me that Newark must have been one of the most extraordinary communities of the American Exile. All the currents of Jewish life in early 20th century America—socialism, Zionism, Reform, Orthodoxy, Yiddish culture, labor—flourished in its environs. In 1948, nearly 60,000 Jews lived in Newark[1], served by scores of synagogues. The caliber of rabbis, cultural figures, political leaders, labor and social justice advocates, business leaders, and philanthropists that emerged from that place is astounding. And it disappeared so incredibly quickly.

But Newark endured in the stories of Philip Roth, and for that reason I always took Roth’s writings personally. As he dissected the psyche of the city and its expatriates, I told myself I was discovering my origins. (That’s ridiculously romantic, of course. Like many Jews of Eastern European descent, my family lived in Newark for barely two and a half generations. But we’ve got very little to go on about the Old Country—the shtetlach and hamlets that were annihilated by the Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, et al—so Newark is all I’ve got.)

Roth left Newark, but wouldn’t leave it behind. Newark—with its concentration of Jews anxious to become optometrists and entertainment lawyers and accountants; its polio terror and stickball in the streets; its racial tensions and Nazi paranoia—was a prism through which he wrote about America.

Now that Roth is dead, the American Jewish community, by virtue of that adjective “American,” can start doing what it always does: remaking him in our image. Which is rather a shame.

Because Roth at his core was the wicked child of the Seder. He dared to fling our pieties in our faces and say, “Yes—but what does all this mean to you?” Starting with Goodbye, Columbus and running like a crimson thread throughout his work, he satirized and criticized the Jewish community as only an insider could.

Consider his devastating short story, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959). Ozzie Freedman is a bored Hebrew school kid of the sort that the Coen Brothers captured so perfectly in the movie A Serious Man. He is punished by the rabbi and other authorities for asking “dangerous” questions, the kind that the wicked child asks. Ultimately Ozzie ends up on the roof, threatening to jump unless the Rabbi and the adults answer the question that got him rebuked in the first place: “Do you think that an almighty God could make a child without intercourse?”

It’s so perfect, because Ozzie found the exact question to prick everyone’s sensibilities: the rabbi’s platitudes, the newly-emancipated liberal Jews’ boundaries with their Christian neighbors, and of course the sexual obsessions which Roth would explode in Portnoy’s Complaint.

Or consider his 1993 novel Operation Shylock. The narrative itself is outrageous. A famous Jewish writer named Philip Roth discovers that some nutjob has taken the alter ego “Philip Roth” and is spreading the gospel of “Diasporism,” leading Jews out of Israel and back to Europe—an antisemitic fantasy!

But here’s the rub: like any great critic, Roth knew intimately the subject he criticized, which ultimately rebounded back on himself. If he mocked Israel as a modern Jewish shibboleth, Operation Shylock also shows a deep intimacy with its people, its cultural, and its totems. For instance, his true (not fictional) dialogues with Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld in the book (Appelfeld died just this past January) reveal sensitive insights about what, exactly, Jewish identity means at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Ultimately Roth’s subject wasn’t Judaism, it was America. He asked: Why shouldn’t the Jewish lens be as valid as any other lens through which we can understand America? After all, Faulkner wrote about America, but through the perspective of the American South. So did Steinbeck, via the western frontier. So did Ellison, and Kerouac, and so on. America is big and complex and refracted into a thousand hues. Who’s to say that America’s freedoms and dysfunctions aren’t perfectly represented through the eyes of Bucky Cantor, a Newark playground director terrorized by polio (Nemesis, 2010)? Or Coleman Silk, the classics professor who gets caught in the wheels of the political correctness machine (The Human Stain, 2000)?

Or, for that matter, Roth’s masterful creation Swede Levov, the protagonist of American Pastoral (1997)? His name is the perfect encapsulation of Roth’s work: a Newark Jew who marries a (shiksa) beauty queen, flees to the Jersey suburbs, and expects that his Nordic looks and nickname will help him shed his history. But the shtetl, and the past, is as present as his surname.

America does fascinating things to the identities of its immigrants and their descendants. Those complexities are more than enough to stake a career on. We were blessed to be of a generation that had such an articulate master to challenge our assumptions and satirize our self-righteousness. If we grapple with Roth seriously, we will understand ourselves better—because it will be much harder to hide.

 

[1] William B. Helmreich, The Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and Metrowest, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999, p.30.

Broken Clocks (on the U.S. Embassy Opening in Jerusalem)

 Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

I was wrong.

I was wrong in December when I wrote ambivalently about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At that time, I wrote that while of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “sometimes it is better to be smart than to be right.”  It’s hard to admit being wrong, but I was.

And it’s even harder when the messenger is someone like President Donald Trump, who it seems is determined to wrap even the moments when he’s right with so much narcissism, abuse, and seventh-grade-bully smarminess that you just want to say, “what he’s for, I’m against.”

But you know the saying about broken clocks, and it is foolish to conclude that, just because another’s motives are suspect, they are actually wrong.

I was ambivalent about moving the embassy because I thought it was bad for Israel’s security, because I thought it would launch tirades of anti-Israel violence, and because I thought it would isolate American foreign policy as a broker in the Middle East.

I realize now that each of these premises was faulty. American isolation is following apace due to the Administration’s other “America First” policies and obnoxious diplomacy, not because of the embassy. But regarding Israel, in fact, a trickle of countries are tentatively indicating that they will follow the American lead and move their embassies as well (Guatemala, and possibly Honduras and Romania, although the Czechs seem to have changed their minds). This is a very good thing, and I hope we quickly reach a tipping-point of other countries following suit.

Further, the expected waves of violence in Arab countries did not follow. (The Hamas-inspired violence on Gaza’s border is not because of the embassy move. If anything, it is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Independence/Nakba, and the delusions that terrorism will reset the world’s clocks to a time when there was no Israel.) 

And I argued that moving the embassy was symbolic; no one’s life (except for the ambassador's) would be enhanced by moving it, so the risk of disaster outweighed the benefits of symbolism.

But symbols are important. Our religious and civic lives are full of symbolism. For instance, at the Brandeis graduation yesterday, I was struck again by how full of  “ancient” symbolism our academic exercises are (from caps and gowns—make sure your hood is the right color!—to the regalia that the university president wears, to the solemn intonation of an alma mater). Israelis understandably feel delegitimized by the refusal, even of allies, to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the authentic capital of the State—the place where, de facto, everyone knows the political and legal seats of government are.

The move really has nothing to do with Palestinians, and nothing to do with peace processes, or two states, or even preventing a future Palestinian state from having its capital in East Jerusalem.

So the administration was right—I daresay, even courageous in moving the embassy.

And I was wrong.  I just hope and pray that six months from now, I won’t be writing a blog that says, “I was wrong about being wrong.”

Because these people sure know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of approaching Jerusalem with modesty and humility, as when Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounted his horse and entered the City of Cities on foot in 1917, the embassy opened with triumphalism and backslapping. Instead of celebrating Jerusalem, they celebrate themselves.

“Modesty and humility” are incoherent to these people. (“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” said son-in-law Jared Kushner, the sort of sycophantic and self-serving comment we’ve come to expect in lieu of what could have been a moment of oratorical inspiration.) The presence of uber-racist pastors, the voices of the evangelical hard right, is obscene. So, too, was the presence of the pro-Israel but anti-Jewish millenialist reactionaries (hello, Michele Bachmann? Are these people really interested in reviving this lunatic’s career?).

Supporters of the Administration love quoting the Bible. Some of them even compare Donald Trump to a modern day Cyrus of Persia! (As if Zionist history never happened! As if we hadn’t already returned to the Land!)

They might consider other parts of the Bible, such as the words of Jeremiah. Over twenty-six hundred years ago, Jeremiah (7:1-15) warned about the hypocrisy of those who spend too much time mouthing praises of Jerusalem (“The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord are these!!”, v.4) while simultaneously promoting injustice, moral perversion, and arrogance. Jerusalem demands morality, both personal and social. To behave otherwise is to mock its religious premise.

Moving the embassy is a very good thing. It should be accompanied by a set of moral values that represent city’s ancient heritage: a place for God to dwell among human beings, a place of seeking moral repair, and a place of yearning for real peace.