30 September 2016

L'shanah Tovah 5777

I have always thrilled at the celebration of the Jewish Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even more than the opening of school, these days marked for me the start of Fall. In the Hebrew calendar the holidays mark the beginning of a new year, but that is not what I experienced at the onset of these holy days. For me Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represented--still represents--a complete break from the world and an entrance into a communal and spiritual space that holds me in thrall despite my relative lack of exact understanding of the language and hence, meaning of the liturgy. I do know enough to be an active congregant, participant and spiritual quester.
     When I was eight years old my family moved in 1955 from Queens, New York to Jericho, Long Island. We were then part of the mass emigration of veterans making their way from Hell (New York City, in this case) through Queens (Purgatory) to suburbia (Paradise) via the GI Bill. Jericho was then yet potato farms, and in the beginning I would have to ride my bicycle to the post office to retrieve our mail. Home delivery was yet a few years in the distance. There was then, of course, no synagogue though there existed a large Jewish community. I recall a structure—a house of some sort--where during the year Shabbat services, morning and evening minyans, and some holiday celebrations were held. This was also where I attended Hebrew School several afternoons a week after school and on Sunday mornings. But this structure could not contain the multitude of Jews who attended shul on the High Holidays.
     During the holiday season, somewhere in the neighborhood area--I don’t quite recall the exact location--a huge almost-circus-tent was set up and services would take place inside that structure! A windy Fall day would shatter the peace and threaten the safety! (My father claimed that God would never let it rain on the High Holidays because the Jews had to walk to shul!) A temporary bimah would be built for the sacred ark that contained at least two Torahs and on which stood the Rabbi’s and cantor’s pulpit. Not a few years later a separate area was constructed alongside the bimah for a congregational choir that sang and chanted beautifully and very unprofessionally under the direction of the cantor. Hundreds of chairs were brought in and set up in rows extending the length of the tent with rows established to permit the ushers, gabbaim (though I do not think that at that time they were referred to by that term), and congregants to move about as necessary. Each metal seat had pasted on its back an adhesive number that announced the seating assignment which accorded to the number on the purchased ticket. High holiday purchases went a long way to meeting shul expenses; as the latter increased so too did the price of the former.
     Morning services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services usually began at 8:30am, but only the stalwart and truly observant (mostly) men would arrive for Preliminary prayers and p’sukei d’zimra. My father was one of them, but he ws also chair of the ritual committee and he held in his hand the long list of aliyot assigned to congregants for the days. Slowly, however, during the morning the tent would fill with the remainder of the Jewish community, until by the time for the Rabbi’s holiday sermon, usually close to 11:00am--all of the seats were occupied. (Every year my grandfather grumbled at the quality of the sermon. They were never good enough for him.) Most of us would be attired in new clothes¾the boys in shirts, ties and jackets; and the girls in new dresses and shoes. Our fathers wore newly pressed suits and our mothers all donned fresh millinery and furs taken out of storage for just this event. Shul involved in part a fashion display, and there was no shortage of admiration and critique. We boys all had our hair trimmed at the local barber shop, and I have just returned even now from my dear hair stylist.
     My father would not drive on the holidays, though on Rosh Hashanah he continued to smoke his beloved Chesterfields. (I recall that after the shofar blowing at the close of Yom Kippur the first thing my father (and some of his friends) would do is grab a cigarette, light it immediately as they stepped out of the doors, and inhale the smoke as if they were going to the lit stikc down tot heir toes). And because my father would not drive, our home was designated the family gathering spot for the High Holidays, The festive erev Rosh Hashanah meal was held at our house. To dinner from their residence in New York City was always invited my mother’s parents—Nana and Grandpa--and from their respective homes on Long Island, Woodmere and Great Neck, my mother’s sisters and their families. Our dinner marked the extent of their holiday observance and marked the beginning of ours. Though I am a vegetarian now, I am almost certain that brisket was always on the menu.
     On erev Rosh Hashanah my father arrived home early from work, showered and dressed, and before sundown, we would set out on the walk to the tent (and somewhat later to the actual permanent structure) not more than ½ mile away, though my brother insists that it was certainly more than one mile distant. But then he was younger and distance may have seemed longer, even in memory. To me the community—Birchwood Park—in these moments looked like a great funnel as all of the Jews left their respective homes from disparate areas and as one converged on the shul cum tent—some, of course, did choose to drive but very many walked. Slowly, we all headed into the structure, found our seats and sat quietly down awaiting directions from the Rabbi and the start of services.  I remember the awe I felt at the occasion, felt set apart from a daily world, settled and safe.
     For the child that I was services, even the evening minchah and ma’ariv for Rosh Hashanah, were always too long, and I am certain I grew impatient and began early enough to count the pages until services would be over. I resented the cantor whose practice (and remarkable skill) always seemed to draw every prayer out longer than need be¾but at the conclusion of prayer¾after the singing of Adon Olam¾the structure would empty—and we would begin the walk home. The holiday had begun. The once-filled tent emptied out onto the streets that were now guarded by the police who directed the traffic to protect we Jews from ongoing traffic as we crossed Jericho Turnpike—the busy thoroughfare in that then small town. Later, as the town grew larger and a strip mall opened across from the permanent shul structure, the mass of congregants increased in size and upon exiting services I felt part of some vast important event that even the Christian world (with which I associated with the assigned police officers) recognized. Hundreds of people crossed the road on which traffic had been in both directions stopped; the Red Sea had seemingly parted. (Today, the police still protect our worship—this time from those who would violate our sanctified space and time).
     And my father, brother and grandfather and I would walk back through the community with the other congregants who too, had forgone their automobiles just this once. As in scenes in movies, the crowd progressively thinned as people drifted off onto their side streets and avenues heading towards home and towards holiday meals with their families. We would arrive to a house filled with my relatives, a set table and a sense of newness, of fresh beginnings, and for a little while, of some peace. My father made Kiddush and we pulled at the round challah, dipped our apples into the honey, and launched into some discussion.
     The High Holidays have been for me what Heschel referred to regarding the Sabbath: a Cathedral in Time. For several years I rejected entrance to that structure: I rebelled. But over the past twenty-five years I have grown to anticipate the holidays with great joy and relief: we--personally and communally—have lived and thrived another year to celebrate another High Holiday season. For this year four challahs this year for full tables. 

L’shanah tovah. 5777    

09 September 2016

Emerson and Camus

In Ralph Waldo Emerson there is a fine mixture of idealism and pragmatism. Fate, Emerson says in his essay by that name, “is what must be overcome.” Fate is the name we give to whatever obstructs us. Fate is what humans cannot change: “The book of Nature is the book of Fate,” Emerson writes. Nature is the shape of things that must be: he uses the examples of the sheathed snake, the locomotive that works effectively on tracks but is of service nowhere else, or skates that slide along on ice but on dry ground “are but fetters.” Of course, modern science is busy at work trying to outdo Nature, but science, too, like the locomotive, has its limits that must be overcome. It seems that no sooner than one health crisis passes than another appears, and that with every technological advance that seem to improve our lot comes disadvantages that must be confronted and overcome. I think here of the uses of social media that change the opportunities and nature of personal communication and relationships.
     But Fate is also “the name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought; for causes which are unpenetrated.” And so, of course, Fate must be overcome. And this must be accomplished not by brute force because Nature cannot be defeated, but by thought: “Intellect annuls Fate.” Consistent with his Divinity School Address, Emerson says that a thinking man is always free and therefore, though subject to Fate, always able to overcome it. The world cannot be bent to suit the individual but the individual can meet the world and make it available. “Thought dissolves the material universe by carrying the mind up into a sphere where all is plastic. Of two men, each obeying his own thought, he whose thought is deepest will be the strongest character.” I have thought so for a time and prefer books and journals to standing weights always.
     And Emerson acknowledges that intellect alone is insufficient without will—the ability to act. Without will, Emerson accuses, we are cowards, and because we are helpless to act for our defense we search out saviors to help us. And here Emerson prefigures the idea in Camus’ The Plague. Tarrou says “What is natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.” The plague is Nature and it must be overcome. The plague might not be understood in fact, but it must be met by action. And for both Emerson and Camus that decision to act—the will—is a moral act. Emerson says that “All insight is useless without will,” the courage to act. The idealist in Emerson trusts that the act will transform evil into good, or at least, ease the suffering of others until facts are considered and causes understood. And Camus’ Father Paneloux demands, “My brothers, each one of us must be one who stays!” We cannot abandon our responsibility: we have obligations. It is interesting to me to see the similarity to the 19th century idealist to the 20th century existentialist.


06 September 2016

Against My Better Judgment

Well, yes, I’m still reading the newspapers—mostly The New York Times, but I’ll check any one of them looking for news of the decline of Donald Trump in the polls in the race for President. I am reminded of a story of an elderly German man in 1944 who nervously approached a news stand and lifted up every newspaper displayed, looked at only the first page, put it down and raised the next. Finally, the owner of the newsstand asked the man, “What are you looking for?” and the man answered he was looking for the obituaries. “Oh,” the kiosk owner said, “the obituaries are not on the first page.” And the man answered, “The obituary I’m looking for will be there!” I’m not wishing any one an early death, but I am seeking a political decline of dramatic proportions. I am frankly appalled and frightened at the prospect of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States. I wonder how someone with absolutely no political experience, with not even a basic understanding of geography or diplomacy, with a temper and vocabulary unacceptable in a third grade classroom, presume to assume the leadership of a country which rightly or wrongly nevertheless remains the most powerful nation in the world. Underlying Trumps’s candidacy there rests an absurdity and a stupidity. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Fate,’ offers some explanation. He says, “Most of our politics is physiological. Now and then a man of wealth in the heyday of youth adopts the tenet of broadest freedom. In England there is always some man of wealth and large connection, planting himself, during all his years of health, on the side of progress who, as soon as he begins to die, checks his forward play, calls in his troops and becomes conservative. All conservatives are such from personal defects. They have been effeminated by position or nature, born halt and blind, through luxury of their parents, and can only, like invalids, act on the defensive.” Trump derives from millions of dollars. John Stuart Mill has said “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” Not much in my lifetime has proven him wrong.
     I applaud Paul Krugman who refuses to defer to the news reports that question Clinton’s ethics. In his op-ed piece “Hillary Clinton Gets Gored” Krugman accuses the newspapers of reporting by innuendo rather than fact. This ‘gored’ refers I believe to the repulsive suggestion employed by the Bush campaign that John Kerry dishonestly reported his war experience in a story that became known as the ‘swift boat’ scandal. Krugman suggests that no evidence of a violation of ethics occurred during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State and that the Clinton Foundation has, in fact, done good work in and for the world.

     Hillary Clinton is no saint, but no President of the United States (or politician for that matter) ever was so. On the other hand, Hillary is no dope, which cannot be said for her rival for the office.

29 August 2016

What Remains Unknown


How should we conduct our lives? How should we live? Clichés, I am aware. Nonetheless, they are questions that beset us daily, I think. We each have our ideas on such matters, and we work to not only live out our ideas but to pass them on as well. In his essay “Fate,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “In our first steps to gain our wishes we come upon immovable limitations. We are fired with the hope to reform men. After many experiments we find that we must begin earlier,--at school. But the boys and girls are not docile; we can make nothing of them.” Nothing happens, nothing changes. Having spent almost half a century in the classroom, to me Emerson’s observation comes as no surprise. But there are two interpretations of his declaration that “we can make nothing of them.” The first possibility seems to be that in our efforts we cannot really have any effect on the future conduct of our children despite our educational efforts. Like the doctor who tells his patient he must stop smoking or the priest who cautions his congregant that she must stop her profligacy, despite the effort the teacher remains helpless to effect the future behavior of her students. We have but the vaguest idea what they will do or who they might become. (It interests me nonetheless that it is to the teachers that the press returns after a horrific criminal event. “What was (s)he like as a student?” they ask, as if something in the activity of solving geometric proofs or reading The Great Gatsby would have offered some hint to any future behaviors. I, of course, know how to conduct a life (ha!), but there is no way that I can make anyone follow my lead.
     But the second interpretation of Emerson’s remarks intrigues me equally. Because he might mean by “make nothing of them” that we cannot understand them. And I am more and more inclined to accept this ignorance and to establish my practice from it.
     I am neither a mathematician nor physicist. Nor am I a scientist. I would, however, like to think in a relatively technical way about the physical concept of turbulence because I think it has application to the issues of the classroom and our capacity to know our students. The OED offers a definition of turbulence in natural conditions as “stormy or tempestuous state or action,” and turbulent as [a situation] characterized by violent disturbance or commotion; disorderly, troubled.” Turbulence is the chaotic motion of air and water, the wild erratic dance of particles each affected by such factors as speed, viscosity, size, pressure and density. Turbulence characterizes hurricanes and tornadoes and ocean waves breaking onto shore; turbulence is the smoke that rises from a cigarette¾who knows how the smoke rises¾ or the movement of air during airplane flight that causes me to tightly grip the arm rests and to cramp my toes. Turbulence is a “wild erratic dance of fluids,” the novelist Stuart Rojstaczer writes, and turbulence results from the movement of particles comprising the particular substance¾air, earth and water. There would be great benefit to humans if we were able to predict the movement of such flow for such phenomena as hurricanes, tornadoes, and classrooms, etc., for then we could predict their occurrences, paths, and intensities. Such knowledge might have then been able to keep Dorothy from having to travel to Oz! These particles are all in continuous movement and interaction with other particles in motion. Their movements depend on density, velocity, speed, viscosity and air (or even internal) pressure. How to predict the movement of such particles may be approximated but never absolutely defined. Though it might be convenient, we cannot forecast with any high degree of certainty this movement that results in what we know as turbulence. In my experience the weather people are fairly consistently inaccurate: they predict a heavy snowfall and no snow falls; they warn that a hurricane should strike land at a certain hour and alas, with good fortune the storm heads out to sea. I carry my umbrella on the forecaster’s warning but it doesn’t rain; I become rain-drenched on days when the sun was supposed to shine.     
     We like to imagine that everything about our natural world will follow predictable patterns, and science has suggested that formulas can be written to enable accurate prediction. Systems of classroom management offer clear predictive definitions to maintain order and ensure proper functionings. The fictional mathematician Rachela Karnokovitch in Rojstaczer’s novel The Mathemetician’s Shiva to which all the renowned mathematicians in the world have come to visit, says “ . . . to make the physical world around us endurable, we like to emphasize that the gases and liquids that move our oceans, allow our planes to fly, and make our boats sail follow predictable, orderly paths. Often they don’t, and this difference between our wish for an orderly universe and the reality of the calamity of the natural world makes us deny reality.” The problem of turbulence has not yet been solved, and the world continues to suffer its consequences.  “Understanding a physical phenomenon like turbulence ultimately means predicting its behavior, or at the very least understanding just what can and what cannot be predicted over time. Prediction means quantification of the basic physical processes that drive turbulence. But this is something we cannot currently do with any reasonable degree of sophistication.” When asked what he would ask God, Heisenberg is said to have responded, “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” Heisenberg did not think that turbulence could be understood much less controlled. Turbulence, an occurrence when a particle becomes chaotic and behaves unstably, cannot be accurately predicted. The movement of such particles depends on so many factors: density, velocity, speed, viscosity, pressure. Rojstaczer writes, “From the standpoint of a mathematician . . . the problem of turbulence is fundamentally one of being certain, to prove, that there exists in the universe a set of descriptors, in this case partial differential equations, that can encompass the behavior of fluids as they move at velocities that cause chaos. . . .” But the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman has said that turbulence is the last unknown in physics: “. . .  given an arbitrary accuracy, no matter how precise, one can find a time long enough that we cannot make predictions valid for that long a time. Now the point is that this length of time is not very large . . . It turns out that in only a very, very tiny time we lose all our information . . . We can no longer predict what is going to happen.” Feynman says, “If water falls over a dam, it splashes. If we stand nearby, every now and then a drop will land on our nose. This appears to be completely random . . . The tiniest irregularities are magnified in falling, so that we get complete randomness.” Rojstaczer’s topologist protagonist and narrator  says that “Tornados start from small disturbances that don’t mean a thing and almost always dissipate. But somehow one particular random bad event attracts others and all of them grow and attract some nasty stuff.” Tornadoes, hurricanes, and air turbulence cause great tragedy and/or discomfort. If we would understand turbulence, then we could predict its behavior. “Prediction implies quantification of the basic physical processes that drive turbulence but we are as yet incapable of doing so with any reasonable degree of sophistication.” Our methods may discern trends and patterns but certainty eludes us certainly.
     Not that the attempt to predict turbulence (and thus control it) has not been made. The Navier-Stokes equations measure the motion of a fluid—turbulence¾and these formulas have the intention to predict turbulent flow. Navier-Stokes attempts to predict the movement of these substances that are, of course, comprised of ‘particles.’ But in fact, the Navier-Stokes formula, which seems to be based on Newton’s second law of motion, has not been solved: we don’t know that it works to describe the motion of fluids “when they flow as lazily as rivers as when they dance around an airplane wing.” Navier-Stokes occupies a central place in mathematical culture: a solution to the Navier-Stokes formula would earn its solver the Millennium Prize—a Nobel-like prize in mathematics worth one million dollars. The solution to the Navier-Stokes formula would show that the Navier-Stokes formula works in all cases, and that turbulence could be predicted. Thus far, Navier-Stokes remains unsolved.
     In the classroom exists the conditions for the appearance of turbulence. Our students (and ourselves as teachers) are particles in movement and interaction both within and between individuals. The movements in the classroom depend on density, velocity, speed, viscosity and pressure of the various particles. Who are they, I wonder? Emerson writes that “In different hour a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin, seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.” How to predict the movement of particles within the classroom may be approximated but never absolutely defined with any degree of certainty. Every day a teacher walks into her classroom with a diagram (a lesson plan) that (like the Navier-Stokes formula) should predict the direction and movement of the mass of particles, but in fact, like the Navier-Stokes these lessons plans have not as yet been proven to effect anything. Who are they, I wonder. And I don’t really know. Nor do I know how to solve this unknown. Charles Fefferman says of Navier-Stokes, “Since we don’t know whether these solutions exist, our understanding is at a very primitive level. Standard methods from PDE appear inadequate to settle the problem. Instead, we probably need some deep, new ideas.” We try to control our lives with rationality, with predictive formulas, but in fact, the Navier Stokes formulas have no solutions. Rojstaczer writes, “[And] this difference between our wish for an orderly universe and the reality of the calamity of the natural world makes us deny reality.” Our classrooms might not need prepare anyone for the real world, but the real world enters our classroom nevertheless, and we deny reality when we ignore the unsolvability of Navier-Stokes.
     And so I stand in the classroom and the weather is calm. I think. But there are particles in motion and I do not know—I cannot know—which particles will attract others and lead to some rather nasty stuff. My lesson plans deny reality because they offer some false picture of the appearance of order. It is, I recognize, a false picture.  But as it is supposed to be my purpose to impose order on disorder, I construct models of reality that assume simple cause and effect relationships, and believe that my work will make correction in lives as easily as changing a lightbulb. But in fact, I am not at all not able to predict the erratic wild dance of either interpersonal or intrapersonal particles. It is not possible to make a theoretical model to describe the behavior of a turbulent flow¾in particular, of its internal structures? At so at this time. I often find myself caught in the midst of turbulence and I tighten my grip on the armrests and curl my toes to grip the soles of my shoes. I stand in the classroom and look out on the horizon for the threat of tornado or the threat of the hurricane or the random drop of water on my nose with only my lesson plan as protection.