Sunday, October 29, 2006

In "Freakoutonomics," in the current issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait writes:

"Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled."

This is serious, serious stuff and I recommend the entire article. Income inequality in this country has grown steadily in the past few years, and the rate of increase has skyrocketed recently. Chait points out that one of the ways we see this is in the economic dissatisfactions of the middle class: despite the fine performance of the economy on paper, those gains have gone to the most privileged in our country. Meanwhile, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class have gotten nowhere at all, and prices have done what prices do in a roaring economy -- they've gone up.

Another item I recommend: Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It's an interesting view of the woman and the time: the ferment in the streets of Paris is visible only on the margins, an occasional downbeat reference almost lost in the sybaritic consumption, opulence, and sheer silliness of Versailles. The opening scene says it all in shorthand: a servant tends to Marie's toes while she languorously drags a finger through the icing on a cake.

Marie knows that she is a woman whose primary function is as a symbol and a womb: she is there to cement a bit of realpolitik and to bear heirs for the Bourbons. In the meantime, she is free to enjoy herself within the rules of the Versailles court, which means that the only part of her that enjoys much freedom is her purse. Goodies insue, until the revolution comes and the party is over. The movie ends then, allowing the viewer to contemplate the situation without the distractions of the prison and the guillotine.

I've seen some interviews in which Coppola says that she was interested in the idea of the teen monarchs, able to do as they like. Maybe so, but the movie also stands for me as a warning to those of us who enjoy prosperity in days that are not prosperous for everyone.

Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake." The movie and several other accounts portray her as a nice party girl who did the charitable things expected of her, and who shopped and consumed for fun. She loved her family, was a good mother, and was not much sillier than anyone else around her. A generation earlier, we might not remember her at all. We remember her and her luckless family because they didn't realize that privileges can be revoked until it was too late.

In a country where "
the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled," we cannot afford to be so blinkered. Wake up, America: get your fingers out of the cake -- smell the republic burning.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I have put some new materials up on the website: this week's Torah study and Hebrew lesson, a guide to saying and writing blessings, and a poem connected with the Nachamu, Nachamu exhibit.
This Wednesday, Nov. 1, the exhibition "Nachamu, Nachamu: The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" will open at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. I had the privilege of being one of the rabbinical students in the midrash class that participated in the process with the artist, Victor Raphael, and the further privilege of introducing the artist and part of the work at the school's Opening Day, on August 20, 1996.

This is the speech that I gave that day, and the picture to the right is one small part of the installation in Room 105. If you are in or near Los Angeles, I strongly recommend you come to HUC and see Victor's work; it is transcendant.


What do you get when you combine one teacher of midrash, eleven rabbinical students, and a world-class multimedia artist?


How do you put windows into an HUC classroom without blowing holes in the wall?

The answers to those questions lie behind the copper-clad door of Room 105.

Last year eleven unsuspecting students signed up for a one term class on “Homeletical Midrashim” taught by Dr. Lewis Barth. We did not know that we were embarking on what would become a year-long project, indeed, that four members of the class would be ordained before the work was complete.

The class studied the 16th Pesikhta of the Pesikhta de Rav Kahana, a 5th c. collection of midrashim. Pesikta #16 is a homily on the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami” [Comfort, Comfort My people]. About two weeks into the course, Dr. Barth told us that this was not an ordinary midrash class. Donors Nancy Berman and Alan Bloch had offered HUC the commission of a work of art. Our task was to learn Pesikta #16, and then teach it to an artist named Victor Raphael. He would then create an interpretation of the midrash, a major work of art, for permanent installation at HUC Los Angeles.

In the process, we learned and taught midrash, but we also learned about the nuts and bolts of working with an artist on a commission from an institution. Victor came to our class to teach us about his work process, a fascinating multimedia journey involving digital photography, computer-based techniques and hand-painting in gold and metal leaf. We made a presentation at the Bloch and Berman home, to teach the midrash to them and to Victor, following with a discussion of the structure and imagery of the homily.

Some months after the class was officially over, we met again with Victor to see the work in progress and to help with some of the decisions about the artwork. Victor, Dr. Barth, and our class met with Dax Clark to look at the project from the point of view of building maintenance issues.

Over this time, the initial “work of art” became instead an installation that would, we hoped, transform one of our HUC classrooms into a space for sacred study. Another anonymous donor made it possible to upgrade the lighting and the wall-covering.

This midrash class was an education for all of us. It is our hope that the result of all this work is a worshipful study space, a room that offers comfort and inspiration for both teachers and students. The images are grounded in Jewish texts, and they emerged from a conversation among many different members of the Los Angeles Jewish community: Nancy Berman, Dean Barth, our class, Victor Raphael, Dax Clark, and others.

The title of the work is,

“Nachamu, Nachamu: The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl.”

Now, I would like to introduce the artist who has carried out this remarkable work, who worked with us so patiently and generously: the artist Victor Raphael:

Victor was born and raised in California, earning a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles. His artwork has been collected by numerous private and public institutions, including the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and exhibited internationally, from Denmark’s Museet for Fotokunst to Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Please welcome our artist, our friend, our companion, and teacher, Victor Raphael.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Today was the sort of day I hoped for when I applied to rabbinical school.

I rolled out of bed at 6, and by 7 was rolling out of the garage, on my way to pick up a friend I drive on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We chatted happily, arrived at HUC, and I spent the entire morning studying Ezra 9 and 10 with Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, the hot-button chapters on intermarriage. We "turned it and turned it" and while I am not yet willing to say I know what those chapters say, I do feel safe in saying that the ways I have understood them in the past are quite wrong.

I wished Pearl good luck with her senior sermon and hopped back into the car, driving north to the San Fernando Valley to my internship. On the way, I stopped for a bite of lunch and quickly scanned the Los Angeles Times. (One thing I love about Los Angeles: not since I lived in Chicago have I lived in a city with a truly great newspaper. Even with the recent cuts, the Times is bliss for this confirmed newspaper junkie.)

The Home was all abuzz with preparations for the dedication of a new building, and the residents I serve were a bit buzzy by association. It was a good day for the student rabbi to come and hold hands, and listen to stories, and sing a prayer or two. I stopped for a bit to chat with the activities director, to share concerns about a couple of residents and to see how she is doing.

Then, when my hours there were done, I hopped back into the car, and (the one blot on the day) I joined the crawl of traffic back down Hwy 405 southward. Normally I stay in the Valley and study until the traffic breaks up a bit, but today I had a shiur [lesson] at my Ethics teacher's home, so there was nothing to do but get in the car and try to arrive on time.

It was well worth the annoyance of the drive: Professor Arthur Gross-Schaeffer is a rabbi, an attorney, and a CPA as well as a distinguished ethicist. He outlined for us his methodology for dealing with ethical questions, an elegant system. Beyond the content, though, it was a pleasure to be in the room with a man of erudition, holiness, and humor. I sincerely hope this isn't the last time I study with him.

And now here I am, pecking away at my laptop in the Starbuck's on Venice Blvd (it stays open late, and it's on the way home) since I don't have a high speed connection at home. I'm very, very tired, but equally happy. I learned a lot today.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

This past Shabbat I led services at the Jewish Home for the Aged. My affection for this congregation grows every time I attend services with them.

During yesterday's service, one gentleman snagged me during hakafah [the parade of the Torah around the congregation] and reminded me, sotto voce, that I needed to announce Rosh Chodesh [the beginning of the Hebrew month.] Oops, right, Cheshvan starts Sunday. So, when I returned to the bimah, I thanked him for his reminder and stopped the service to backtrack briefly to announce the coming New Moon.

After the service, a woman in the congregation took my elbow at the oneg [snack after services, literally, "delight"]. "Rabbi," she said in heavily accented English, "We should have out the Torah when we bench Rosh Chodesh." Ahhhh! Right. I thanked her, and said that I would do it differently next time. Then she paused and looked sharply at me and said, "I haf not embarrassed you, I hope? I don't want embarrass you." I assured her that I am a student, I am still learning, and I am grateful for kind corrections like hers. And indeed, she made a point of speaking to me about it privately, quite a trick in that setting.

Now you may be thinking, oy, does this go on all the time? And the answer is, yes, it does. I am quite competent in leading a typical Reform Shabbat morning service, but this is something a bit different: at, JHA, we daven [pray] out of the old Conservative siddur [prayer book] and do a very traditional service. I worried terribly about it when I got ready to lead for the first time. I was going to make mistakes, I knew it. I hate making mistakes.

And I definitely make mistakes, and they let me know about it. The surprise has been the gracious, generous way that these old Jews give me their criticisms. They speak from the heart, in the spirit of teaching, and there is no meanness, no "gotcha" in it. They honor my dedication to the rabbinate, and I honor their years and deep knowledge.

The knowledge base in the congregation is diverse: at least one person (a woman, no less) studied for several years in yeshiva in Europe until the Germans invaded her country and the yeshiva was destroyed, with most of her classmates. The gentleman who reminded me about Rosh Chodesh seems to carry an internal Hebrew calendar with all the complex details. At the other extreme, some know the prayers only by rote. All have decades and decades of Jewish living under their belts, though, and I am absolutely sure that every soul there knows things I need to learn.

Mitzvot [commandments] are a relative matter, I find. I am there to visit the sick, to honor the generations older than myself, to help those who need a little help, to pray, and to assist in the performance of mitzvot. They, for their part, have found a mitzvah to perform too: they are teaching the next generation -- me.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I spent this past weekend up in Oakland, soaking up the good home vibes. Linda met me at the airport, and the boys and Cheryl met us for dinner. Saturday morning Linda and I went to services together.

Sukkot is over, but I am touched by the degree to which my home and family are a "sukkat shalom," a shelter of peace, for me.

Now I am back at school, trying to figure out whether I'd be better off doing a Talmud project using Word or Excel, no kidding. I may have become proficient in Hebrew, but I'm still fighting with my software!

Oh, and NEWS! Fridge Door Torah is now up and running on my website. It's a program for learning Torah and prayer book Hebrew at home, as a family. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, then having the two as close together as possible." -- George Burns

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

There is nothing in the world that makes me as angry as Jews trashing other Jews.

What set this off? Nothing much, really, mostly casual comments I heard in half a dozen different places over the High Holy Days. It seemed that everywhere I went, all of us were absorbed with two things: how much the world seems to hate Jews, and what a shanda those other Jews are. There's always a bit of chat about those orthodox Jews, those Reform Jews, those Conservative Jews, those uneducated Jews, those Israel-no-matter-what Jews, those Israel-hating Jews, those fake Jews, those bad Jews who aren't kosher enough, those other Jews.

News flash, landsmen: we can't afford this stupidity, this baseless hatred between Jews. You, with the catty little comment about those other Jews, and you, with the juicy bit of gossip about a particular bad Jew, you and you and you: shaddup already. We have enough enemies, we don't need to be our own enemies.

I know, I know, there are historical roots, a nice way of saying that we've been doing this mishegoss for a long, long time. Ezra was furious with the people he found in the land, many of them distant cousins (dare I say, Jews?) The Macabees weren't just fighting Greeks, you know, they were fighting with other Jews. The Sadducees and the Pharisees and the Zionists and the Essenes and goodness knows who else were squabbling about the right way to be Jews, and before you know it, the Temple's in flames and Jews are the new slave labor du jour for Roman public projects. Much as we hate to admit it, the history of the modern state of Israel has been scarred again and again by hatred among Jews. The rabbis of the Talmud believed that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and yet we do not seem to learn.

I'm not talking about disputes for the sake of heaven, those arguments recommended to us by the rabbis of the Mishnah. It is good to sit down and try to parse out just what we should be doing about kashrut, or what is the just and ethical and Toraitic way to act in a given situation. It is good to struggle with the texts and the Law, to dig and drash for understanding. And it is no surprise that sometimes, when five of us sit down to drash, seven or eight possible good opinions come from such a discussion.

But where is it written that once we notice that we do not agree, the next thing to do is to get out the knives? So many mitzvot, so many commandments, stand between us and the bad behavior: we are commanded not to gossip, not to embarrass, not to kill. We are not to tell lies, including half-truths, we are not to pick on strangers, including, I would argue, the Jews who are strange to us.

We are a mere 2.5% of the U.S. population. We are an even tinier 0.22% of the population of the world. We need one another.

I'll do better if you'll do better. Better yet, let's do better together.

End of rant.