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.