Thursday, June 14, 2018

The rest is silence

So it has been over a week. My dad passed away a week and a half ago and I am processing it. That still isn't much time and maybe, I don't have the kind of chronological distance to allow be the right to hindsight and retrospection. In longer time, maybe I will be able to craft something witty and insightful informed by the wisdom of years and not days. But right now I am starting the healing process and trying to be as aware of every moment so that later I won't say that everything was such a blur. Because everything has been such a blur.

I still find myself choked up at odd moments, with blips of memory seeping through and connecting with random phrases, ideas and images. I do my best not to break down and maybe, as the days go by, that will become easier, whether or not I want it to. Right now, I'm just not sure. Do I want to hurt? Do I want to man up and accept and try to move on (for literature nerds, who was right, Hamlet or his mother and step-father as it relates to dealing with the loss of a father?) I just don't know what is expected, right, proper or normal. Strangely, no one has written the definitive book telling me how to feel and what to do. It is almost like the grieving process is unique to each individual. That's not very helpful.

Yesterday something struck me. While I "miss" so much, there are certain things that I miss more than others. I have pictures of my dad, so I don't have to worry about his appearance's disappearing from my mind. I can picture him but I don't have to -- the internet, the photo albums and the cameras we have are well stocked with his face from his younger years until recently. I can show people what he looked like. I can remind myself of his face with and without a beard (and even with hair). I can find pictures of him singing, sitting with his grandchildren (and great grandchildren), or praying. So that's taken care of.

I don't yet miss his ideas. Not only do I feel that his thought process impressed itself on me so I have adopted ways of approaching the world that mirror his, but he left behind concrete examples of how he thought through substantial amounts of writing. His cookbook, his book of short stories, his Judaica catalog and his letters and professional contributions are always there for me. He also has his blog which is full of bad puns, political musings and more personal reflections on himself as a Jew, an American and as someone with cancer. Side note -- I recommend his blog to people so that they can get a sense of who he was, but I warn them: he set up a delay on the publishing of his writing so you might still see new posts dated after his death. It is weird, but this is very comforting to me. There is more to come, and more for me to learn about him.

In a horrible way, I can't even say that I miss his being around. The fact is, and I'm being brutally honest here, while we were close in one sense, we didn't hang around together much. He had his life and I have mine so while there were weekly phone conversations (plus occasional others, as the calendar deemed appropriate) and emails, and we did see each other when it was mutually convenient, I, on a day-to-day basis, took his presence for granted and didn't go out of my way to refresh my connection with any responsible frequency. That wasn't because I was an especially bad son, or because of any tension or animosity -- it was a result of how I was brought up and who I am. That might be "not as good as I should have been" and that's a guilt that I have to wrestle with, and I do, but at the time, it made sense.

But here's what I realized that I really miss: his voice. I'm a voice guy so this hits me hard. We have recordings from 40 or more years ago but they don't sound like he sounded during most of my life -- the quality of the recordings, their age, and the changes in people make it clear that what I have isn't his voice -- I can compare what is recorded from 1967 with how my mother sounds now and they aren't even close. I can picture him and if I can't, I can look up images. I can quote him, and if I can't I can find his writings. But I can't hear him, the "him" I remember from my teen age years, my young adulthood and into my middle age. Sure, I can hear a choir he is in, but I don't hear HIM. I can imagine what he would say, or laugh with friends about how he answered questions (when asked, "How are you" he answered "Faaaan-tastic!" or something like that), but I will never hear his voice again. And that hurts me a lot. To call the home phone and here "Rosen, here" just one more time would be wonderful. To hear him yell my name at dinner time, and not to come down promptly just so that he would yell it again and I could savor it. To hear him sing the kiddush, or warble (intentionally off key) a bit of "Melancholy Baby" just once more. But it won't happen. I can imagine his voice saying "I don't know" or "ask your mother" but that memorial fiction, even if it does not fade, is unverifiable. I am no professional mimic so all I have is the way I remember it, and who knows how accurate that is. So I fear losing that one aspect which I cannot get back, ever. I tear up. I have a pit in my stomach when I realize that I can't ever remind myself of the exact pitch and timbre, the essence of who he was.

We can read speeches. We can look at pictures. But life is in the delivery and his was unmatched. I miss what made him into a person, his voice.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Dear the young people

An open letter to the young people.

Dear the young people,

I speak to you today on behalf of the old people, and unapologetically. Yes, we use your slang words, your websites and your subculture. We appropriate and make our own all the fringe terms and ideas that you use to distinguish yourselves from us. Stop whining. This is a thing and we will keep doing it.

Yes, we will say IKR. Yes, we will put words like lulz and realz in our emailz (HA!) and our Whatsapp groupchats. We will refer to your friends as shorties and ask you what the 4-1-1 is. We will sound ridiculous, but mostly because YOU SOUND RIDICULOUS. When you use a reference around us we will ask about it and then use it to death. If you find a new app or website on the interwebz, a new game or quiz or filter, we will jump on that bandwagon so fast it will make you wish you were a Luddite. We will binge watch all your shows and talk with our friends about 13 Reasons Why Season 2 (spoiler alert, who cares?). We will wear ripped clothes and Vineyard Vines as we listen to Halsey on our Beats. We will talk about the Snapchat, and the Finsta and the Fortnite and the Collide and the Sling Kong. You will want to say "don't say that" and "please don't ever say that again" but when you try we will just point out that we are cool AF and you will cringe. Then we'll dab. Poorly.

We don't just do this so that we can motivate you to innovate new words and push counter-culture forward. We don't do this just because we want to be viewed as cool. We do this as petty revenge and we will continue to do so with our BFF's and our homies and whatnot. We do this to mock you -- co-opting what you think of as yours and turning it into something completely the opposite of cool. We will make it so that you just can't. Possibly, can't even! Next time you are a baby, maybe you'll sleep through the night and not pull our hair.

If you want to get back at us, start quoting Shakespeare, dressing reasonably and using proper grammar. That'll teach us.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

We've GOT to pray

My last post touched on the change in attitude people undergo when the status of a behavior moves from privilege to responsibility, and in giving relevant examples, I mention the challenge of getting students to pray in school. That specific example calls forth a substantial number of other dimensions of thinking and is a difficult subject because student reluctance stems from much more than the simple nature of obligation.

Students at a young age want to please authority figures. They engage in prayer whether or not they understand because they don't generally question their teachers and parents. Some do recognize that prayer can be boring or tedious so (when they are still young enough) we inject song into the process hoping that they will enjoy the experience more.

But as they age, they get pulled aside by all those other societal influences. At any given moment, young people, especially those brought up to embrace the trappings of the modern, secular world, are enticed by sensory inputs, experiences and interactions that are important in that moment. That fear of missing out is intense and time allocated for prayer becomes an unwelcome interruption. Even those with nothing better to do might be reluctant for a variety of reasons:

1. Faith begins to be reconsidered and uncomfortable questions beg to be asked. Many have no answer and this makes certain aspects of prayer empty.
2. Students start to celebrate their own individuality and rebel against the conformity of any group activity.
3. There is less and less urge to please the adults.
4. A common tendency is to reject anything that is imposed regardless of its nature.
5. Especially in a school setting, prayer times show little in terms of return. Classes lead to grades. Prayer isn't always obviously answered and one cannot be graded on one's performance.
6. Prayer in a foreign language is difficult and even in translation the references and concepts are alien. The topics aren't relevant or current.
7. Institutionalized prayer is repetitive with the same text said every day. This leads to boredom.
8. Prayer requires sustained attention and focus, neither of which is especially valued by teenagers.
9. Teenagers sleep less and less so prayer services which rely on silent reading or individual worship become nap times.

So when we try to solve the issue of prayer we are fighting against a large number of challenges. This is what drives many (myself included) to rely on the "fear of negative consequences" angle I mentioned in the previous post. If this fear is of local response (within the school), in the short term it will have the most direct effect on controlling behavior, but it might also be incredibly corrosive in most cases. A larger fear such as an existential threat outside the school can work but once that threat is resolved, the status quo ante resumes, and one should never hope that there will be some calamitous situation just so that students can see the value of prayer. There are stop gaps, such as making personal connections with students so that they will feel a sense of personal responsibility to an authority figure. This works when the student has the moral core to care about what someone else thinks but sadly this is often not the case. Additionally, it is difficult to carry this technique forward for any larger number of students. In the school setting, the ratio of teacher to student makes this practice hard to work on with any meaningful percentage of a group. Smaller prayer groupings would also help though this is contraindicated if one purpose is to foster a unified community, or if one lacks the man power and/or physical space to make it work. Education regarding the words and ideas is useful but cannot overcome the problems of faith which cannot be taught.

So what's the bottom line? We can acknowledge how difficult it is and help the students by admitting our own struggles. We can banish outside influences (in the community, the school or the prayer room) and hope that with no other pressures, students will allow themselves to engage. We can see ourselves as spiritually warehousing them and hope that through a gap year program, time and maturation, they will start to choose for themselves to become more involved in the process of prayer. We could make prayer optional, or attenuate the content. We could provide appropriate positive reinforcement and consequences to reward engagement. Each of these (or any other) options has serious risk and potential benefit and any combination has to be implemented keeping in mind the possible damage.

I'm open to other ideas and discussion. Thanks for listening to me rant.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Some thoughts about Reluctance

One of the things we wrestle with is the resistance we encounter from people when they are tasked with the performance of a particular responsibility. And yes, I’m speaking in vague generalities. This thought was inspired by very specific realities but I’m trying to allow my argument to take root all over the place.

So what is it that breeds such reluctance and how can it be addressed and remediated? It dawned on me that one approach would be to isolate the source of refusal. Why do things stop being appealing? The fact is, the biggest drain on someone’s zeal is obligation. Tell a 15 year old that he “gets” to drive the car on errands and he’ll do whatever you ask. Tell a seventeen year old who has had his license that he “has” to drive those errands and the eyes will roll. Talk to an 8 year old about the privilege of voting and compare that to the conversation with the 38 year old – the sense you get will be different. In the world of Jewish education, we struggle with getting students to focus on prayer. When they are 10, they seem excited but by 14, many have started to drift away. What changed? The idea that they are getting to pray becomes the notion that they are obligated to pray. Yes, there are intervening pressures, influences and variables but that same 14 year old will still sparkle with anticipation if he is told that he “gets” to sit at the adult table. The unusual, the unexpected and the unique are enticing and attractive.

So how can we make those things that develop into obligation remain as interesting and worth the effort as they were when they were perks? One way, historically, has been when external pressures threatened to take the ability to perform the responsibility away. The possible loss of an earned right has inspired people to stop taking what they have for granted and return to the level of appreciation which they had. Existential threats work wonders against the specter of apathy or assimilation. Take a child’s access to a car away and when he is again allowed to drive (and knows that the potential for loss continues to exist) he will be more excited at the opportunities afforded. Refuse to grant tenure and no professor can rest on his laurels (I am not necessarily advocating an abandoning of the tenure system, just a recognition of one of the dimensions which might be negative) – the fear of loss will keep him sharp, theoretically.

Can we aim to live in a world inspired by fear? If we told people that they will lose the right to vote if they don’t exercise that right to a specific degree, would that make them better citizens? Would the threat of expulsion based on non-engagement with prayer make students more connected to prayer? Wouldn’t these fears fail to encourage an honest sense of investment? Maybe we should rely on the negative consequences as a catch-all and supplement with the other ideas to try and catch the fancy of those who are at least committed for other reasons. But none of these will necessarily bring about excitement along with the engagement. In fact, might they instead breed resentment and foment rebellion even in the face of dire consequences? Do we need to find a way to progressively add on those perks that continue to make the activity constantly the milieu of the select, thus making participants feel special at every stage? Would some sort of concurrent, required continuing education reinvigorate people or would it, too, be an imposition unappreciated by the masses? Maybe we just need the repeated reminder that what we can do is different from what others are allowed, and should be appreciated not as a given, but as an accomplishment, though I don’t know how this would be communicated. No answers right now, but I’m hoping that if we recontextualize the discussion and consider the real source of tension, we might be able to brainstorm alternatives which might lead to more positive results than any of the approaches which we are relying on now have thus far engendered.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


You may or may not know this but I live with a dog. He is a little ball of cuteness who is named Sparky. We rescued him from his life of solitary wandering on the mean streets of Newark and now he lives with us. We feed him, walk him and basically cater  to his every need.

There is nothing wrong with this set up. Pets are a responsibility and we have to take this seriously. We treat them like part of the family, talking to them and training them, the way we might engage with a baby. Their survival is our job; their growth is our goal.

But through all of our hard work and after all of our sacrifice I still find it disheartening that Sparky has never once said "thank you. " I just figured that by now he would have realized that simple rules of decency dictate that a small show of appreciation is called for: a nice word in return for all we have done. But to date, nothing. And I'm saddened by it. I give him a bowl of food and even some of my food. Nothing. I play with him. Nothing. We snuggle on the couch. Nothing.

It just seems wrong to me that he withholds this basic courtesy and refuses to acknowledge all I do with those two simple words.

Please dear reader, understand the importance of recognizing what people do for you and say something. I still hold out hope that Sparky will eventually get the memo.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

I'm seriously sickened by what I see in the Mid East

So yeah, I’m a little bit angry. I (and I have said this before) don’t like to wade into politics because it undermines the casual silliness of this blog. But there comes a time when one cannot just sit on one’s hands. I reached my limit so I’m taking a sitting stand on current events. I apologize if I offend, but not that much. If you wish to engage me on this topic, feel free to post a comment.

First, to clear the air, I am an ardent Zionist. That’s a very complex concept and term but it boils down to my belief that Israel has a right to exist and to determine its future and policies. This doesn’t mean that it is always right in its decisions, but it means it can exist like any other country and has to be held to similar standards.

These days, along with the stale trend of vilifying the state of Israel, there is a series of protests at the border of the Gaza strip. The Gaza strip – a piece of land repeatedly given away by Israel and then taken back when those who move in insist on attacking Israel. Now the attack isn’t by tunnels or rockets, but by simply overrunning the border. Let me just say this – Israel has a border with Gaza. For all those people holding fast to a multi-state solution, states have borders and part of being your own country is not walking into the other guy’s country. That’s how borders work.

The videos have been clear. This isn’t about some sort of protest, because what are they protesting? That the border is closed? Two things – one, it is closed because Israel is another country (and even with closed borders, Israel sends in truckloads of humanitarian aid…yes, references available…) and two, it is closed with Egypt also but no one is burning tires there. This is about not wanting a separate country in Gaza, but about “from the river to the sea” – taking all of what is Israel. And this isn’t some hidden agenda. It is overt and stated outright. Israel is supposed to sit by and let another country invade?

The fence has been attacked. People have made it into Israel. Guns have been fired into Israel, explosives thrown. Tires are being burned (forget the ecological nightmare for a second) creating a smokescreen under which who knows what kind of demolition is being attempted on the fences. So here’s what I see as the possible ways this plays out:

1. Israel does nothing and the fence is breached. People stream in. Some are just looking for a better way of life and are illegal immigrants. Some have more violent goals, but one cannot see that thing from a distance so they all just move in and violence ensues. The world excoriates Israel, saying it caused this by having a border and when Israelis die, the world (a it has historically done) counsels Israel’s forbearance, reminding them not only of the higher standard to which they are held, but also of their also being the author of their own suffering by “occupying” a land they have no right to.

2. Israel does something and it causes a loss of life. Israel is to blame. How dare it fire on what could very well be civilians? The right to protest is really important. And if a couple of bad apples use the guise of protest to starm the gates and throw Molotov cocktails, what right does Israel have to respond?

The Arab government of the area doesn’t caution anyone or recommend staying away, quite the opposite – it encourages participation; it seems to be seeking casualties! If people die, it earns the world’s sympathy. It cannot be expected to exert any control over its people because Israel is going to be to blame no matter what. So if people get in, the Arab government wins. If people are kept out, the Arab government wins. If people die, Israel looks bad. If people don’t die, Israel suffers.

Sorry about this rant, but this all just sickens me. It sickens me that Israel is being put into this ridiculous and impossible spot but it also sickens me that the world turns a blind eye here. I mean, it often does, but this is just so egregious.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

2 Rantz

1. On the eggshells of youth

I’m a mass, or mess of contradictions and I know this. Hypocrisy, it could be said, is my watchword, so I apologize if this comes off to some people as a “do as I say” kind of rant. The fact is, I do try to live the life and alk all the alks, so give me the benefit of some doubt on this one.

We try too hard not to offend. Judaism has a strong theme of avoiding embarrassing people and we take this concept to an extreme sometimes, and hope that with enough honey, and enough spared rods, we catch our fly-children and get them to be good. The thing is, I don’t see it happening. We work so hard not to call out the young people so that they won’t feel put upon or offended by our harsh words. We hope that by sparing them this humiliation, and asking nicely, or hinting, they will choose to fly right. We don’t want them to be pushed away by our choice to walk up to them and tell them things that they don’t want to hear.

But that’s what they need.

If I have a student who is talking in the middle of my class, I have to break things down in a particular fashion:

A. The student must know that there is a classroom code which forbids talking
a. The student, by being in the class, is acceding to the code.
b. The student, making the choice to talk (especially if silence has been formally requested) is acting in a way which violates the code.
B. My reaction can be to
a. ask again for silence – this has proven ineffective already.
b. ignore the talking – this might be useful because the talking student then misses content, but others do also because of the noise/distraction, and the misbehavior is not remediated but, in a sense, rewarded
c. speak to the student privately later – while this seems useful, it does not change the distraction, nor does it overtly address the issue which sends a message to other students that the behavior is acceptable.
d. isolate the talker publicly – this is what embarrasses students. But the fact is, they have already forced my hand

Should our police shy away from catching criminals because it will embarrass the criminals? Should our justice system simply ask for compliance repeatedly? We can’t always be about happy talk. Certain aspects of society are in the realm of law and rules, not mercy and emotional safety. The individual has made the choice to break the rule. The move to identify the rule-breaker is not embarrassing – it is necessary. And the choice to be embarrassed by someone else’s pointing out a broken rule is a selective and manipulative way of discouraging any authority figure from doing the job of keeping an entire society in line.

Yes, I break rules. Yes, I would be ashamed if I were called out for my behavior. But I would be a fool to ignore that my shame should be aimed at my own lack of self-control and not at someone else’s response to a choice I made. I am not advocating a purely “strict justice” mode of behavior. Suggestion, private conversation and other modes of response are great early lines of defense. But at a certain point, we have to abandon this notion that a soft answer turns away wrath and we have to teach people that respect for laws and people are highly interdependent and once they abandon one, they lose the moral high ground to demand the other.

2. Maybe later is now

Technology is wonderful but it has ripple effects and one of them is that it has stripped away the idea of a deadline.

I like deadlines. They give me ulcers but in a good way. Yes, a good way. They teach discipline and they regulate the rhythms of life. Some things just have to be done by a certain time and some things have to be done even earlier than that. Learning to respect deadlines is an essential part of growing up. But technology has stripped away any respect for deadlines or any sense of urgency. This is, of course, ironic, as technology has allowed us to live in that present moment all the time because of all the instant gratification it provides. Send a letter? No way – I want an answer NOW. So an email? Not even – a text, and expect a text back on the same schedule (even worse with Whatsapp because you can see that the recipient received and read the message, so any delay in response is an insult). We want to download and watch something in the moment. Back in the day we had to wait for a download to happen (and hope it was without error).

But with all this speed, we have destroyed any need to long term planning or accommodating a deadline. I remember having to submit material for a magazine I was working on. We had to have it done with enough time for material to be typeset, read, returned, proofed, sent, blue lined and copy checked. Pictures had to be taken in time for them to be developed, submitted, laid out etc. So things had to be planned on a calendar well in advance. We learned to use our time, stagger our responsibilities and chart our progress. Now, with instant communication, phones that take pictures and such, nothing has to be planned because we assume that we can take care of everything at the last minute and it will all work out. This bleeds over into other areas – I don’t need to have my paper done well in advance because I don’t need time to type it up, even work on printing it at a printing center, or proofread it. The spell checker will do the work. The grammar checker well. The online site will create my bibliography instantly. I don’t need to keep a shopping list because my technology will keep track of what I have and need. Therefore, I don’t plan before I shop and have no idea what I can make that will go beyond what I recently made. I can get the directions while I drive so I don’t have to plan my trip, so I won’t remember to make t reservations well in advance. We have destroyed process and once we show such a lack of concern for deadline in one area, we have trouble instituting it in other areas. Planning is a skill that, to be applied properly, has to be recalled across the disciplines. If students don’t have to remember to write assignments down because the teacher will post it to a homework site, then they won’t remember to write other notes down in contexts where there is no teacher or web-posting to fall back on.

Do we subcontract our memories to the cloud? Sure. Do we rely on computers to be responsible for lower order thinking skills (thus destroying the foundation for our performance of the higher ones)? Absolutely. And are we, by letting technology dictate the pace of our lives, forgetting how to stretch things out and let them mature and develop over time? Yup, and that’s a really bad thing.