Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I Do Not Know Who You Are, But Thank You for Reading This

We Are Lonelier Than Ever Before

            I heard somewhere that a rabbi’s rabbi, the go-to rabbi to whom other rabbis complain or confess—perhaps the closest thing we Jews have to a bishop (we Jews don't have bishops; no one would listen to them; we are notoriously independent-minded)—was asked, “What do all the rabbis tell you? What do Jews want? Do they want more spirituality? More ways to study Torah, to make it part of their lives? More ways to access holiness, to increase their knowledge, to grow closer to God?”
            The Rabbi’s Rabbi, the UberRabbi said, “No. People are lonely. People want other people.”
            The supreme irony of our age is the tragic loneliness of human beings. We all carry these remarkable little phones—they link us to the Internet, the greatest invention ever created to attach us to a body of knowledge, of news, literature, sports, culture, misinformation—whatsoever we desire, whensoever we desire it, whatever hour of day or night, wherever we live. We have computers, tablets, desktops, GPS, Mapquest, Bluetooth. We are LinkedIn, Turnitin’d, Turned On, Skyped, OoVoo’d, connected to the nth degree. We can sit in semi-darkness, faces lit by the otherworldly blue light emanating from our computer screens, and fool ourselves that we are part of a community—but we know, in our heart of hearts, that it is not true; we are fooling ourselves. Even as you read this, is there some essence of David Mark, some ghost of Mark within the machine reaching out to you?
            A dear young friend of mine, a rabbi geared to the future and its needs, has an online synagogue. People can tip-tap their way in via keyboard; they can cyber-daven. Their screens become the sanctuary. They can ask questions, search for God by combing through the Web-ether. Is this the wave of the future?
            I teach college English. A student sends me a paper about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” She does her research online; together, online, we discuss, back-and-forth, Poe’s fatal weakness for liquor, how it killed both his natural father, the failed actor David Poe, and Edgar's brother Henry. We can, together, from great distances, commiserate over the alcohol-related death of the fictitious cat, Pluto, and the actual writer, Edgar Poe. Does that make this a college class? Learning has taken place, but is there humanity, culture, meeting of minds over the pattering of computer keys?
            What sort of future will there be? My grandson sits and watches an “Angry Birds” cartoon on my wife’s iPad. He laughs where he ought to, knows what virtual buttons to press, and, when the program ends, he is careful to return the magical machine to my wife; one drop to the floor will reduce the genie’s lamp to a tangle of glass and plastic. Later, we two sit, and he uses the tablet to unscramble words, preparatory to his entering 2nd Grade in the fall. The machine applauds his triumphs by playing canned musical fanfares, and gently re-directs his errors with comical Bronx cheers. My grandson can foresee a bright future of computers, farther into the future than his grandsire’s jaundiced, cynical eye.
            Are you out there, Man, Woman? Are we connecting? Let me know if I am reaching you, if we are making contact. Send me an email—or, better: something real, something actual: a message in a bottle. It will take longer to reach me, but I will appreciate the gesture far, far more.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Y. L. Peretz's "Bontsha the Silent," and Other Jewish Tragedies

  I love my Shabbat post-Shachareet (Morning Service) classes—discussion groups, really. My senior congregants are unlike any other people I’ve ever known before—so much life experience, from so many countries (from Eastern Europe to Boston and the Bronx). I am honored to be able to interact with, teach, and mostly learn, from them.
            Today, we read and discussed Peretz’s masterwork, “Bontsha Schweig,” about a Jewish peasant so shat on by life (there is no other descriptor), by his parents, his stepmother, his wife, his son—that any summary I could offer would belittle the greatness of the artist’s achievement (Peretz’s, not Bontsha’s, poor fellow). Yet, he does get his reward in heaven (Bontsha, and, we hope, Peretz), and responds to it in a remarkable way. The story is a classic, which I would require every Jew from college age on up, to read. Read it yourself, if you don’t already know it.
            From there, I segued into a story from Sigmund Freud’s past. His father, Westernized, educated, eager to be accepted into Viennese fin-de-siecle society, had just bought a new silk hat. He was proud to wear it for a promenade along one of Vienna’s—cosmopolitan, urbane, cultured Vienna!—boulevards. The challenge, the problem really, was that, charging towards him at top speed on that same sidewalk was a Prussian nobleman, an army officer, in a great hurry.
            Seeing Herr Freud, the officer scowled, and grimaced, and shouted, “Jew! Get off the sidewalk!” Wielding his walking-stick like a truncheon, the giant knocked Freud pere’s hat off his head, into the street.
            “And what did you do, Papa?” gasped the young Siggie, upon hearing the story.
            “Do?” said the father, “Do? I went into the street, got my hat, brushed it off, put it on, and continued on my way.”
            My point in mentioning this sad little story is that Jews, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, were, with perhaps some few, notable exceptions—America? England?—in the same position as that of Sigmund’s father—a barely tolerated minority—and the veneer of civilization was, is, very thin. In reading the Peretz story, it is useful to recall a time when all Jews, everywhere, were, more or less, in the same position as poor Bontsha, silent or noisy, but all to be treated the same.
            “And what did you do in Bontsha’s position, back there in Poland, Reb Chaim?” I asked another participant, a Holocaust survivor, a self-made man in both Canada and America, whom I respect very much, a strapping, healthy man, nearly 90.
            “Rabbi,” he said to me, “in the Old Country we were told, ‘God will provide,’ ‘God will take care of [the anti-semites]. We should have learned to protect ourselves.”
            “And there were many who did, in the War,” I said.
            “Yes,” he answered, sadly, “but not enough, not nearly enough.”

            We do well to read about Bontsha, and learn.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Sermons, Headaches, Botox, and Spiders: A Story about God

I Sit Here, Grading Papers

            Out there in the Rabbi-and-Cantor-World, my colleagues are writing High Holyday sermons. I sit here, grading papers. We all do what we must; all the work is holy. They ponder God’s work in the world; I check for active verbs, passive sentence construction, and the proper usage of the colon and semicolon, my two favorite forms of punctuation, the Bentley and Mercedes, respectively, of the World of Punctuation. These remarkable dots connect two related sentences: they perform what I believe language should do; it should connect ideas, and people. The colon and semicolon do their small part to shorten distances, and bring peace to this stumbling, erring world.
            I excuse myself from grading from time to time, for forays into the world of the Web, a world of ideas. Some ideas are popular, some intellectual. Many are narishkeit, foolishness, but they relax my mind; some are political—by signing a petition here, decrying a politician there, bemoaning a war on the other side of the world—I beguile myself into believing that I am involved in this world, that I am actually doing, accomplishing something, when, truth to tell, I am simply here, tapping on a keyboard, sending strokes of light into the cyber-ether. I am no slug, O World; I cry silently, I am ideas personified.
            What can I do? This is my function: to learn, to teach, to pray, to serve God, through what I do. “There is no choice; you are embarked,” says the Midrash.
            I went to the neurologist yesterday: my headaches were increasing—too little sleep, no visits to the gym, teaching a double load, with classes both morning and evening, and doing administrative work in my cubicle in between. (Thankfully, I am not gaining weight; one of my headache meds has the happy side-effect of burning calories, as long as I don't pig out.) She listened as I spoke, and tweaked my meds somewhat. She was happy that I am able to control my headaches; so am I. There is a particular combination of meds which works for me, thank God and modern medicine, and a head-banger which used to put me in bed for a full day in years past can be beaten back by a nasal spray and a powder stirred into a glass. (I had awakened at 4 am one morning, lying on my back—I am usually a side-sleeper—with a stiff neck and shoulders, my head poised on the edge of the pillow, and a throbbing pain in the back of my head; usually, my migraines are usually behind either one eye or the other.) Does it matter that the pain is in the back of my head?
            No, says the doctor. You have had an MRI, and we found nothing in there.
            Nothing of importance, I say, and we both laugh.
            She recommends—suggests, really—the anodyne of the moment, Botox.
            I decline: I like, enjoy, really, raising my brow, knitting my forehead, looking ironical. Botox would paralyze my forehead: I had had ample time to study the poster trumpeting its wonderments while waiting for the doctor in the examination room. No Botox for me, I decided.
            The meeting is done. I pay the co-pay, descend to the parking lot in the Florida heat, well over 90 degrees. As I walk to the car, I pass an enormous web, occupied by a spider the size of my thumb, almost. I study him closely, and am reminded, not of the evil, godless spider in Robert Frost’s “Design,” but, rather, Walt Whitman’s far more genial arachnid in “A Noiseless Patient Spider”—God, perhaps a pantheistic, Transcendental God, has sent this wee beastie into my ken, so that I may observe it doing its job, waiting patiently, and learn therefrom how better to do my own:

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mugged for a Pair of Roller Skates

            As a young child, I had no idea that my neighborhood was dangerous. I lived on the seventh floor of a high rise apartment building, where everything was brand new. My parents, sister Pearl, and I had moved in in the fall of 1955. The postwar apartment situation in NYC was not good: people were flocking to Manhattan, and there was a definite shortage of places to live. When I was born, in Beth Israel Hospital on 14th St., my family was living on the beautifully-named Shakespeare Avenue, in the Bronx. They heard that the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) had built a series of cooperative apartment buildings on Grand St. in the old Lower East Side, but that the union rank-and-file had downright refused to move into the complex which their union had built with such care and concern for their wellbeing.
            “We spent years of our lives working hard and saving money so we could leave the Old Neighborhood,” said the union members, “and we’re not about to move back down there!”
            And so ILGWU, to recoup their investment, made the apartments available for the general public. My parents leapt at the chance to leave their tiny apartment in the Bronx, especially since my father had grown up on Hester St., and my mother came from the distinctly tonier section of town, Gramercy Park.
            At first glance, the buildings were, indeed, majestic, modern, and well-planned. We took a five-and-a-half-room apartment, meaning that my parents had their own bathroom off their bedroom, and Pearl and I shared the other. The buildings had a lovely courtyard between them, with benches for sitting, and there was also a playground near the parking lot. Hardly anyone kept a car in the city, and my parents didn’t drive, so the parking lot held just a few cars.
            I was a dreamy luftmensch of a child, more fascinated by books than real life. Once I mastered my first book—an original edition of The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, there was no stopping me. Athletics did not interest me in the slightest, and this concerned my parents. They bought me a bright-red Rollfast bike with footbrakes, and I was fine toodling around on my training wheels. Only when my father secretly loosened them, and they told me they were broken and had to be removed, was I forced to learn to ride a two-wheeler.
            But then, there was the business of the skates. My sister Pearl had a beat-up old pair, but she was well-able to scoot around the courtyard, while I jealously watched from a nearby bench. It was therefore a wonderful surprise when my parents gifted me with a pair of beautiful junior skates, shiny and new, complete with skate key, which I wore on a string around my neck, in the proper New York manner. The skates had bright-yellow-painted hubs, and were clearly superior to Pearl’s beat-up old ones. It was good to be the son, as well as the baby of the family.
            The main problem was that there was no one to teach me how to skate: I was on my own. And so, determined to teach myself, I took my skates in hand and rode the elevator—by myself!—down to the courtyard. I plunked myself down on a bench; a few determined turns of the skate key, and my skates were on my feet. I was ready to begin.
            Alas, my sense of balance went completely awry—when I would be concentrating on my left foot, my right foot would slide off on its own, and it was only by determinedly holding onto a bench, that I could avoid falling. This happened several times.
            Finally, I sat down, and removed the troublesome skates. The yellow hubs winked in the bright sunlight, as if they were mocking me. I leaned back on the bench, and flexed my tired ankles. Things were not going well, but I was dead set on resuming my skating lessons, only after waiting a few minutes to rest and re-group.
            Suddenly, they stood there before me—three Hispanic boys, about my age. They looked at me, and they looked at my skates. I was startled, and froze: whatever adrenaline flowed through my veins was inciting me to neither fight nor flight: I couldn’t fight them—my chubby little fists wouldn’t make much of an impression. And they had me boxed in on the bench, so I couldn’t flee, either. I sat, and held my skates in my lap, limply grasping the leather straps.
            One of the boys grabbed at one skate, and I let him have it. It was as though my hands were numb, and I couldn’t resist. Instead, I watched him dart off, running through the gate of the courtyard which bore the twin pinetree logo of the Co-Op Corporation, founded to encourage peace, love, and fellowship among human beings. Within its humanistic embrace, I was being mugged by my fellow men.
            One of the remaining boys smiled at me—his teeth gleamed in the morning sun: “Give me the other skate,” he said, “And I’ll get the first one back for you.”
            My mind could not respond, not even to point out the illogic of this statement. Instead, I held out the remaining skate, like a peace offering: Here, take my skate, Mysterious Other; only don’t hurt me. He snatched it from my hands, and he and the remaining boy raced off,  laughing, their mocking shouts echoing off the buildings surrounding the courtyard.
            My skates were gone; they had been stolen; I, seven years old, white, urban, Jewish, had been mugged. I sat sadly on the bench for a split-second, while the tears welled up in my eyes, and then I took the elevator upstairs to my apartment to tell my parents.
            They were shocked. My father, angry at how his progeny was unable to defend either himself or his property, grabbed my hand, and we pounded down the stairs. Without hesitating, he and I plunged into the Heart of Darkness, the depths of the Vladeck Houses, the city housing project next door—that is, across the parking lot, which functioned as a sort of demilitarized zone for the neighborhood, separating us fancy Jews and Italians from the blacks and Hispanics who made their homes there.
            I remember being frightened, but also amazed and impressed at how my father ran us both through the playgrounds, courtyards, and warrens of the project buildings. At one point, Dad grabbed a skinny little Hispanic kid by the arm, and demanded from me, “Are these the skates? Did this kid steal your skates?” No; that was not the boy. His skates were battered and scraped from long use against the pavement; my disappeared pair had been shiny and new, with yellow hubs. They were, of course, nowhere to be found.
            My father was still angry, but we were forced to give up the search. I admired how he had single-mindedly penetrated into the most dangerous place in the neighborhood, but his fury could not but abate. The skates were gone, vanished.
            This was my introduction to the race question in my neighborhood, and in New York City. No longer could I believe my neighborhood to be safe; no, not in the slightest. It was a harsh greeting to the conditions which would mold my street smarts in the years to come, as I learned to walk the streets, and, later, ride the buses and subways of my much-loved city. Black people were called by a harsh Yiddish epithet, the “s-word,” and Hispanics were all lumped together as “Porto Ricans (sic).” Thankfully, I was never mugged; once, I was shaken down for a quarter, but I got off easy, compared to stories we heard from our neighbors. And I did carry a small can of pepper spray in my pocket when I rode the subway to high school and, later, college.

            It has taken me many years to try to take people as individuals, not as members of a racial or ethnic group. I am still working on myself in this way, and will never fully complete the job. I am grateful to all of my students; I have learned far more from them than I can ever hope to repay. And it all began with a pair of skates.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

On Prayer and God-Moments

            For most of my rabbinate, 33 years now, God save the mark! I, as rabbi, was the one who led services, so often, that I often felt totally unmoved throughout, but had become a mere “davening machine,” mouthing words whose meaning I did not feel, to which my soul did not resonate. My only saving grace, from earliest days, was giving interpretations of the poetry and holding impromptu discussions in the midst of the service. If I had an unmoved heart, I could stimulate my mind, and stimulate those of others. This was, for the most part, successful.
 In my current congregation, we are blessed with laypeople who can daven, plus a fulltime cantor, and so I am relegated to being “page announcer,” and even that, not too often. There is no pleasing me, however, and that is why, with the cantor on vacation, I was happy to lead services today, as well as chant Torah (I always chant Torah).
            Growing up in an Orthodox synagogue, many years ago, I sat for hours listening to elders lead services: some were gifted singers, but some had voices that would have made a bullfrog blush. When, from the age of thirteen, I entered Yeshiva University High School for Boys-Manhattan, I was fortunate to enter their Cantorial Training Institute, taking a special class taught by an energetic, dedicated young cantor (he is now dean of the school), Bernard Beer. He painstakingly taught us to sing the Shachareet shel Shabbat, the Shabbat Morning Service. Over the years, I have shared his knowledge with innumerable young b’nai mitzvah students.
            Growing up as a budding shliach tsibur (lit., “messenger of the congregation,” or prayer leader), the problem I discovered was the old Orthodox minhag (custom) that those who are observing yahrzeit (the yearly anniversary of the death of a close relative) get first dibs on leading services. Attending Shabbos services was a crushing bore for me, a never-ending mumbling of Hebrew polysyllables, with sporadic cries to a mysterious, bearded, Eastern European God who cared little about the life or fortunes of a young American Jewish boy more interested in Mad Magazine, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Broadway musicals, poetry, and, eventually, Jewish girls.
The only saving grace would have been the rabbi’s allowing me to conduct services, but my further “misfortune” was, ironically, that my parents were (thank God, at the time) both alive. Instead of encouraging us youngsters to lead services, the rabbi, always with an eye on possible donors and donations, had an ongoing roster of yahrzeit-observers, sturdy daveners and true, but nary a decent singer among them. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I became a rabbi: to assure myself of always having a congregation for whom to lead services.
            In my current congregation, we customarily make a meeshehbayrach (blessing over the Torah) for the cholim, the ill of our congregation, as well as friends and family, Jewish and gentile both, following the sixth aliyah (Torah honor)—I don’t know why, even though the number six is not the luckiest in Judaism, it being one shy of the number of menorah-branches, or arm-windings of tefillin. We go around the sanctuary (it is crowded, since we daven in the chapel during summer, with all the snowbirds gone; it is comfy and haimish, homey), and invite folks to call out the names of those who need a blessing. After each name, Jewish or gentile, we say, “Refuah sh’laymah—[May there be a] complete and speedy recovery.” We sing the meeshehbayrach; there is a tune. Today, however, I felt differently about it.
            When making a meeshehbayrach, or any prayer involving the Torah, I grip the Torah handles. Whenever anyone comes up for an aliyah, I direct them to hold the handles, or at least one of them. This is in fulfillment of the verse, “And all of you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive this day” (Deut. 4:4). If a couple comes up to share the aliyah, I ask them to grip the handles, together; it is poignant, I believe, to watch older couples, who have held hands together through so much of their lives, cover one another’s hands, while gripping the old, smooth wooden handles of the Torah. This is the way it ought to be, for Jews: we hold on to the Torah; the Torah holds on to us.
            Today, as I said, it was different. I emphasize that I am not one of those who believes in the intrinsic holiness of an object; we are the ones who bring the holiness to it—if we daven before the curtain of the Holy Ark, if we kiss the Torah as it is carried ‘round, we are the holiness-bringers. In this instance, as I gripped the Torah-handles and chanted the ancient words of the Healing Prayer, asking God, as the Divine Physician, to send blessings and cure to those of His creatures in need, I felt a distinct power flowing into me from the Torah. It was not real, not actual, not a lightning-rod feeling, but it was there. It is very similar to what William Butler Yeats, that Irish mystic, describes in his poem:
                                    My fiftieth year had come and gone,
                                    I sat, a solitary man,
                                    In a crowded London shop,
                                    An open book and empty cup
                                    On the marble table-top.

                                    While on the shop and street I gazed
                                    My body of a sudden blazed;
                                    And twenty minutes more or less
                                    It seemed, so great my happiness,
                                    That I was blessed and could bless.
                                                               --“Vacillation,” Sec. 4

            What Yeats is attempting in this short excerpt is clear to me: the book represents the limits of our knowledge, both real and spiritual. The cup is sustenance, whether of ordinary drink or alcohol (neither is scorned in our tradition). The “marble table-top” reminds me of the sacred altar, and teaches us that any surface where learning has taken place is holy. The Blakean visitation of Holiness which follows in the second stanza teaches what we must be always ready and prepared for: we never know when it will arrive: one must have a heart like a wind-chime, always alert to such sacred moments.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to pray; better still, to be able to conduct services, to teach people, and to feel God in such spindrift, eyeblink occurrences. May we all merit such times of blessing. Amen!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Stand Up for Florida

            I’ve been reading a number of snide postings on Facebook that insult, belittle, and otherwise cast aspersions on my new home state, in light of the recent Zimmerman verdict, and a recent posting that some minor municipal official used “jew” as a synonym for “bargain.” I find this to be vexatious and disturbing to my feelings about my new home state, as if we were all ignorant yahoos and racists.
            I am a relatively new Floridian; we moved here in December of 2008, leaving New Hampshire in the teeth of a snowstorm. We have made new friends, and adjusted to our new home state’s mono-seasonal atmosphere of air-conditioning everywhere. We love the diversity, the street fairs, the relaxed atmosphere of being able to wear shorts and sandals all year long. I love my new jobs—being rabbi on weekends, and a college professor during the week.
            Florida represents America in miniature: we have folks who were born here, immigrants, transplants, veterans, and people from all over the world. The restaurants cater to all different sorts of tastes. We have world-class entertainment—it’s not all casinos. If you like the symphony, ballet, Broadway-style shows, new talent, or the singer you remember from the ‘60s or ‘70s, you will find it all here. And you will make as many new friends as you are able. We are very happy.
            When the Trayvon Martin trial concluded, we were as dismayed as the rest of the country: we believed that justice had not been served, and that America still had a long way to go before a young African-American man could walk safely anywhere he wished, wearing a hoodie. There are no simple answers to what could, or should, have happened. One of my students, a veteran, told me that both Zimmerman and Trayvon made mistakes, and, because a gun was involved, the result was irreparable. And now, a young man so full of promise is dead, and we as a nation are hurting.
            That does not, however, give America license to dump on Florida. Many Floridians own guns, but so do many New Yorkers, Californians, Kentuckians, and Ohioans. This is not the place for me to debate the position of guns in American society. I am only asking that people not use the Trayvon trial as an excuse to dump on my state, a place I love. We have problems here, beginning, I believe, with a governor who is out of touch with the people he is supposed to serve, but this is not unusual in America. And we are a democracy, meaning that we have the power of the vote.
            As for the second issue—my first pulpit was in North Carolina, another fine state, where I first encountered the use of the word “jew” to mean “bargain.” It is an old pejorative, and I learned not to let it bother me. Consider all the racist slurs that African-American people must suffer, or Hispanics, or Muslim-Americans. We are all part of the great American mosaic, and should be respectful of one another’s feelings.

            Come visit Florida. We have a great deal to offer. And we’re getting better all the time.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Thought About Tisha B'Av

            While thousands, millions of Jews worldwide dust off their copies of Kinote (dirges) and Eicha (the Book of Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah, but hardly written by him), preparing to observe the tragic Fast of the 9th of Av, I am teaching a university class on English Composition II. They lament the Churban, the Destruction of both Holy Temples; I teach proper citation styles, and how to write a direct statement.
            I see no incongruity in this: for decades—nearly three, to be exact—I led similar services, either the night before, or the day of—Tisha B’Av, bewailing the loss of our Sacred Houses, beating my breast, seated either on the edge of a hard wooden bench (summer camp), or on the steps of the bema (New Hampshire), as was right and proper.
            As a college professor of English, now, I can look more objectively on the practice; question it, even. To be frank: what have we got to lament? I recall reading that there was to be a point where the fast days would become days of rejoicing. True, Messiah has not yet come, but Israel is strong and proud, an economic miracle, even with spending the greater portion of its Gross National Product on Defense; it has gathered in a goodly portion of the exiles (I use the term advisedly), and made us all happy to be Jewish. We American Jews, despite caterwauling over our imminent disappearance, have an infrastructure fit for a community far larger than ours; it may be pricey, but Jews who wish to affiliate have a smorgasbord of choices, from Jewish Humanism on the left, to Chabad on the right—and I seriously question whether any Jew would be turned away, if they persisted at knocking on the door of a synagogue or community center.
            Again: what have we got to lament? Is it not time for us to find new meaning in this sad day of suffering—and, as my readers well know, we Jews are world-class when it comes to suffering. True, the Women of the Wall deserve equal rights; the situation on the West Bank is deplorable; the Netanyahu Government is hardly perfect, and the Iranians are still working hard on their Bomb. But Israel, and World Jewry, stand, persist, endure, and forge on, into the future, nonetheless.

            What have we got to mourn about?

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Puritan Influence in American Life

            This morning, my American Literature Survey class and I examined the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This Calvinistic masterpiece of God’s absolute control over a Puritan congregation of people who may have preferred to think that they were saved but were most likely damned (in Edwards’s estimation), displays the most horrific example of religion used as a weapon for mind control, ever known in the Western world. It also reminds me of the long, lingering shadow of Puritanism over America, from its beginnings in New England to the present day.
            From Edwards, we can trace a straight Puritanical line to the actions of the Texas Legislature in seeking to curtail the rights of women to control their own birth processes and choices; to the US House of Representatives, in grappling with the question of racism, as it impacts the issue of illegal immigration—how cynical and unfair to propose deporting the children of illegal immigrants who are born here! In our Puritan beginnings, with its Biblical literalism, we can find ample ammunition to use against gays, interracial marriage, and anyone who crosses the Biblical line which fundamentalists draw in the sand.
We Americans hypocritically insist that our political leaders be simon pure, at least, in public: all of this is the legacy of Puritanism. It displays itself in our insistence on public religion: prayers before sports events, before town meetings and school gatherings; meetings by the President with religious groups; even the office of the President as mourner-in-chief, or celebrant-in-chief of Jewish or Christian holidays, a sort of secular High Priest to usher in national celebrations, in the glare of TV cameras.

            I believe that religion has no place in public life at all. If a minister, imam, or rabbi makes a benediction in a public place or school, it means that a captive audience is held hostage to that prayer, even if they do not subscribe to the celebrant’s faith. Should the celebrant attempt to make an “all-inclusive” prayer, he runs the risk of being untrue to his particular faith; should he offer it in the name of his faith, he risks offending members of other faiths, or those whose consciences dictate no faith at all: a fundamental American right. It also means that I, as a rabbi, a Jewish minister, am not doing my job properly. People have the choice to attend a particular house of worship; they do not have that same choice in a town meeting, sports event, public school, or the White House. Our American schizophrenia regarding public worship has gone on for centuries now, and it is public hypocrisy of the worst kind. We should keep faith where it belongs: in church, synagogue, mosque, or shrine, and leave the public square for matters of public interest. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

About Me: Rabbi, Teacher, Human Being

            I am a teacher, from a family of teachers. My mother was a teacher and school administrator all of her life; she taught college English until she was almost into her eighties. My sister taught science and math on the high school level. My father was an industrial chemist and amateur accountant; he would have taught, but he lacked the patience; he was a very good man, and a fine role model.
            I myself was a fulltime pulpit rabbi for nearly thirty years, which is a long time. Having been educated largely by rabbis, I affirm the positive role models among them, and reject the negatives. Many of the bad rabbis I have met acted as God’s policemen; when I was a fulltime rabbi, I, too, had to be God’s policeman occasionally, but it was never a role I embraced or felt comfortable in. I am happy to be a teacher, now, and let people make their own choices. We Jews are not so much a chosen people as a choosy one, and, in America, we have a lot of choices. I remain, at this point in my life, a weekend rabbi, doing the best job I can, telling stories, advising people, and mostly listening to them.
            My great love has always been English Literature, feeling most comfortable in the 17th Century, an epoch I entered by accident—no, that’s not correct: I undertook its study because that was an era when people took their faith seriously enough to be willing to die for it. Coming as I do from a religion famous for its martyrs, I entered the 17th Century with my eyes open. And meeting such heroes as John Donne, John Skelton, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others who entered ministry wholeheartedly but with mixed feelings, I am most comfortable in their company. It is not that I ever doubted God: it is that I wondered whether God would have me for His champion.
            As a child and young boy, I grew up in a neighborhood where we Orthodox Jews kept our community psychologically, existentially, and spiritually walled off from others, as did the African-Americans and the Hispanics (the Vladeck House Projects), the Chinese (Chinatown), Italians (Little Italy), and the hippie-Bohemians (Greenwich Village). I learned early where it was safe for a young Jewish boy to walk; in those days, I wore my yarmulkeh-skullcap everywhere, and, during high school and college days on bus and subway, carried a can of Mace pepper spray, although I never once “fired a shot in anger”—and a good thing, too, because that stuff, once sprayed, would affect both sprayer and sprayee, equally; it was nasty stuff. Those were days of casual racist comments and barriers between people, long hot summers of urban rioting barely avoided (this will come out in my writing), and ugly faces; one never smiled at a stranger, or greeted them.

I have no time for hatred, now. Now, I teach in a university where my students are from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and we have much to learn from one another. For many years, I have believed in cross-pollination, in seeking and building bridges. The world is a small place, a narrow bridge, to paraphrase the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809), and the ikar zach, the essential thing, is to help one another travel safely across. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Baruch Izikoff Says Goodby to the Sabbath

            I did not grow up in a grandiose Jewish temple, filled with jewel-like stained glass, ornate wood-carvings, or deeply cushioned pews. No: our basement synagogue was packed with gnarly old men with brown teeth and bad breath, redolent of pickled-herring, whiskey smell, and unwashed Sabbath clothing. There was a rabbi—indeed, he wore a homburg hat--but he was superfluous, except as a fund-raiser and mediocre sermonizer. In an Orthodox Jewish setting, one needs neither cantor nor rabbi to conduct a service; any learned congregant who can “gib ah  kuk in ah sefer”—that is, “take a look in a Hebrew book,” meaning, one who can read Hebrew (practically everyone)—is qualified to lead services, no matter whether he be blessed with the voice of an angel or a donkey.
            Most of the old men—as a child, they appeared ancient to me, though they were only a few years older than my forty-something father—were from Eastern Europe: Poland, Russia, Rumania—but there was one among us who was an exception: Baruch Izikoff. My down-to-earth father, no diplomat in pointing out the differences among human beings, was quick to teach my young mind the distinction between Baruch and the rest of the congregation.
He would whisper, in a voice loud enough to be heard in the street, “David, you see Baruch over there? He’s not like the rest of us! He’s a Turk!”
After which I fully expected poor Baruch to show up to services puffing a hookah water pipe, wearing a turban and gold-brocade slippers with pointed-up toes, and sporting a baluchi-knife stuck in a scarlet cummerbund—some Jewish-Turkish amalgam, fused together from my reading of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Alas, this never happened.
            Still, true to his Middle Eastern origins, Baruch would, indeed, show up on Simchat Torah, a joyful autumn holiday marking the ending and resumption of the reading of the Torah scrolls, wearing a bright-red fez with a yellow tassel in place of his battered Borsalino hat. That was the time of year when he alone would be entrusted with conducting services, bellowing out the prayers before God to a tune known only to him and the Almighty, and dating, I assumed, back to his boyhood in Istanbul. All of us dull, Eastern European and American-born locals sat back in wonderment at this taste of Eastern exoticity in our little shul. Baruch’s deep basso profundo would ring out over the podium as he faced the Holy Ark:
            “You have learned that the Lord is God; there is none besides God! O’ Lord save us—O’ Lord, prosper us—O’ Lord, answer us, when we call!”
            I could not imagine God Himself not hearing that, along with the heavenly angels flocking around the Throne of Mercy, ready to deliver whatever Baruch asked for on our behalf, and showering down manifold blessings on our little congregation.
            When he was not conducting services, Baruch enjoyed playing up his foreign aspect in our midst. Beetle-browed and stubby-fingered, he customarily showed around his mother-of-pearl inlaid box of tabak, the Yiddish word for snuff, offering it to knowing aficionados among his congregational cronies. These worthies would take a pinch of the ghastly brown powder—chopped-up tobacco, with perfume mixed in--between thumb and forefinger, insert it up either nostril, and be rewarded with a healthy sneeze. “’Tseh gezint—Good health!” Baruch would chortle in Yiddish, thumping their backs heartily, while their noses ran and their eyes teared. I wondered at the reasoning behind snuff, figuring it to be some sort of Old World sophistication. My father would only mumble beneath his breath, “It’s a filthy habit! And who knows where their hands have been?”
            My strongest memory of Baruch is of his conducting the Havdalah ceremony on Saturday night, marking the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the workweek. This had an element of mystery. Jewish tradition held that we received an additional soul for the Sabbath, the better to enjoy the day of rest twice as much, and the Havdalah, or “Separation,” ceremony, served to mark the Sabbath’s conclusion, and the gradual transition from holy to secular time. As we had enjoyed the Sabbath with all of our senses, so did the ceremony involve wine for taste, cloves for smell, a torch-like, blue-and-white candle with many wicks for sight, and prayers for hearing. One of us children would hold the candle carefully over a plate, so that the hot wax would not drip on anyone. As the youngest members of the congregation, we had the special privilege of standing around Baruch as he held the winecup and began the service.
            The twilight shadows grew longer and the candle-flames danced over our upturned faces. Baruch slowly, mournfully intoned the prayers, bidding a sad farewell to the legendary Holy Sabbath Queen and a reluctant welcome to the secular week: “Behold, God is my deliverance; I will trust, and not be afraid, for God is my strength and my song….” The carved wooden lions atop the Holy Ark, yellow-painted eyes staring, white teeth gnashing, and rampant, red tongues lapping the air, formed patterns on the wall. The candlelight flickered eerie, yet comforting, patterns on his whiskery, dark, and jowly face. “Blessed is God--who divides the holy from the secular, Israel from the nations, and the Sabbath from the rest of the week,” he sang, in a voice sad, but sweet.
            Finally, he chanted the Twenty-ninth Psalm, in Hebrew, to a tune all his own—again, perhaps dating back to Turkey, one which I have never heard before or since. It was no mournful rendition of the common funeral dirge: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”—no: it was sad, but hopeful. As Baruch sang, I felt more the safe pastures into which God led us, rather than the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Then, we all shared some sweet wine from the enormous silver cup that he had blessed, and wished one another, Ah gut voch—Ah gut yohr!—“A good week, a good year!” before heading out into the dusk to our homes.
 Baruch’s song gave our congregation, that humble gathering of workers, shopkeepers, teachers, and tradespeople, the strength they needed to get through the challenges of the coming week. At least, until the Sabbath would come again, with its rest and its blessings. And that was Baruch Izikoff’s gift to all of us.