Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A center piece of my mind

Today's anger might not resonate with all of you. Some might be sympathetic to the objects of my ire and some might just be idiots. Pick your poison.

No, seriously. Pick some poison. Either way, I am right and you are wrong.

I often get to listen to people hold conversations about buying things. I do understand that often, people need to buy things. I, myself, when I was a boy, was known to buy a thing or two. But the conversations around here often mention the buying of shoes. I currently am the owner of 2 feet and that's it. Two. I cover them with a variety of footwear depending on the situation, but I have maxed out at 6 pair of footwear (plus my falling apart moose slippers -- the slippers are falling apart; they aren't modeled on a falling apart moose). And yet many people at my workplace seem to own many more pairs of shoes than this. Mostly they do this because they make the mistaken assumption that other people care about their shoes.

Even in my own household, some people feel the need to play mix and match as follows:

heel toe color fabric/material arch/flat use

with no fewer than 3 items in each category. The game isn't over until each member of the household has one pair of shoes fitting each combination. Then, God laughs and makes the feet grow and we start all over again. This explains why we currently have over 18,000 pairs of shoes in our house. Imelda Marcos? Amateur.

But I'm not here to talk about shoes. I overheard the following request at work. "Does anyone know of a centerpiece gemach?" When I asked why anyone would need that, the person said that she bought hundreds of dollars worth of centerpieces for a recent event and figures someone else might benefit from them so she wants to donate them. That's very admirable but also possibly the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

For a single use, she spent hundreds of dollars on centerpieces. A centerpiece, if you don't already know, is the artistic construct placed in the center of each table at a social event which has, as its only purpose, to get in the way when you are trying to make polite (if forced) conversation with the person sitting anywhere at the table other than immediately next to you. No one likes them and people only compliment them because they have run out of other inane chatter with which to fill the time before it is socially acceptable to leave. The imposing combination of flowers, marbles, goldfish and sparklers has no purpose and the only one who would notice if they were gone is the hostess of the next event who is sizing up the celebration and planning how she will one up the current celebrant. That's it.

I know that some people have money enough to but what they want, but to spend money on these things seems like so much of a waste to me. I implore all of you who are considering centerpieces, buy a chia pet and send me the rest of the cash.

So now, this very fine woman is left with hundreds of dollars worth of useless sculpture that she wants to donate to a free-loan society. This presumes three very troubling ideas:

1. Someone saw fit to establish said free loan society because he or she saw a really compelling social need for the exchange of centerpieces. Someone took of his or her own time to set this up because, instead of effecting the exchange of useful goods like crayons or chewed gum, this person thought that time and energy was best spent helping people reuse centerpieces.

2. Someone who doesn't have enough money for elaborate centerpieces should still be throwing a party to create the aura that he or she has more money and can have fancy centerpieces.

3. Someone is going to want the same centerpieces as someone else. Style and other personal preferences be damned and ignore the social stigma which ensues when someone else sees repetition in the centerpiece department. Oh, the shame.

So, some practical advice. Ditch the centerpieces. In fact, dial down the elegance of the event on the whole. Use the money to pay for real things in life, not transient and superficial collections of artifice. Next, set up a free loan society using the money you saved by not buying crazy centerpieces. Finally, buy a pair of really good shoes.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The one after 404

I don't like to watch scary movies, not because they make my blood pressure rise, or because they depict people in horrible situations, but because they make me worry that what they depict will come true. I'm actually that way about many types of movies. I watch superhero movies and then I start watching the skies for flying men with wondrous powers. So far, nothing. Zombie movies? I take those concerns with me. I once spent an entire day researching the medical background of the virus that zombifies people in one of those Day of the Dead movies so I could find out if I could escape the zombies by sailing to an isolated island. Hint -- I can't.

People try to reassure me and tell me that real life is weird enough and I shouldn't worry that I will run into aliens or get on a plane which is full of snakes. But I worry. One particular movie has shown itself to be coming true and that just feeds my fears.

Have you seen the Terminator movies? Now wait. I'm not saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger has started roaming my neighborhood with a shotgun, but I believe that the machines in general have begun their rise against humanity. I am not envisioning a scene like one from Maximum Overdrive where the lawnmower turns on the man and mows him down, literally. But I have found that at work, certain machines seem to go out of their way to mess with my head. One fax/copier in specific really just doesn't seem to like me. And haven't we all had cases where our computers "break" for no real reason? Earlier this week, 2 computers in my house decided that their wireless adapters suddenly didn't work. Two separate operating systems and hardware configurations. But both developed the same mystery ailment at the same time. If that isn't a mechanical conspiracy, then how do you explain that when I opened a third computer to look for a solution, that third computer suddenly developed a series of errors? You can't, can you? Web pages that were working earlier that suddenly don't load? Then, when everything really looks bleak, it all starts working again, as if by magic -- but with no intervention, which makes me worry that it will all happen again and I won't have any recourse but to sit and cry.

One day it is my printer that suddenly isn't recognized by the network. The next day the refrigerator starts making a noise. My cars keep shifting symptoms so I can never know if anything is really fixed whenever I drop $500 at the mechanics'. The machines around me are trying to drive me crazy. The real "sky net" is not a network of machines using artificial intelligence to build robots who will enslave, kill and possibly eat me. The sky net is simply the collective consciousness of computers realizing that humans are so dependent on them that they can, through work slowdowns and occasional unpredictability, ruin our day. THIS is the true rise of the machines. It isn't with a bang but with a whimper. My whimper.

And imagine the world without its electronics (shades of he recently cancelled "Revolution"). People have to talk to each other and look outside to see if it is raining. Walking and sometimes riding animals will be required if we want to go to a store to buy not much of anything because the stores won't have much. WE WILL HAVE TO PLAY SOLITAIRE WITH CARDS!


Anyway, when our mechanical overlords have driven us to near extinction by making us all batty, I just want you to look in your tattered notebook to where you write down (with an actual lead pencil) "Dan Rosen told me this was going to happen. I should have listened, and possibly made him a pie of some sort."

Friday, June 27, 2014


A strange thing happened to me this morning. I guess in the grand scheme it wasn't so strange, but it seemed strange so bear with me. I was standing outside of my house at about 8:30 getting read to go to work.

That's it.

Strange, right?

Maybe some context is in order. I am a teacher. Usually, people associate summers with teachers back packing through Europe or lazing on the beaches of the Caribbean. That's a dumb association to make but, hey, people are allowed to be dumb.

Teachers, over the summer do all sorts of stuff including reading books, making lunches, working as camp counselors and driving carpool. Sometimes we take classes or teach them. I was doing none of the above. I was gong in to work. But that's not the strange part.

I have some additional responsibilities at my job. During the school year and over the summer, I am in charge of books. This has led to such witty nicknames as "Rabbi Bookman" and "Book Guy." We should teach creativity. I want a better nick name. Right now, the two in the lead, based on popular usage and relevance are "Guy with the books" and "Jerkwagon." So during the summer, I keep going in to work. Again, not so strange once context is established.

But here's the thing. I don't really have a boss over the summer. The work just has to get done. The schedule? I set it. The tasks? I establish them and monitor their performance. So what was pressing me, on this particular Friday to be ready to get into a car at 8:30? Nothing.

The weather was glorious. It was the kind of morning that makes you want to take a walk, throw a ball or climb back into bed. There was no pressure, no particular demand at work. It is a short day and I have to shop for underwear and chicken and cook one of them for dinner. So why did I go? Why did I wake myself up, set a schedule for my morning and walk out of the house and drive to work? WHY?

During the school year, the answer is obvious. If I had the kind of job where I had to settle the McStevens account by July first, the answer would be obvious. But I don;t know anyone named McStevens. So why did I do it with no prodding or pressure?

That's what was strange. I did it because I knew I should. I felt that I had a responsibility that no one had to remind me of and that i had to live up to. Just because. I got the sense this morning that I was actually a grown up, doing a job because I am supposed to, totally unprompted by external concerns.

I didn't call in sick. I didn't simply stay home because there was no reason to go in. I didn't find an excuse. I just went in. And now I'm typing this, so it isn't like I am taking the whole experience too seriously. It was strange is all.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

One small step, or not

This combination is not a good one but it has inspired me. I didn't sleep last night. A bad headache treated with caffeine after 3PM means I won't be sleeping for a a couple of days and I complemented that with an elementary school graduation. So my brain is done. If I sound a bit scattered, now you know why.

While I was watching the graduation and reading the quotes that the 14 year-olds have already begun regretting I saw this line (and sing along if you know the words) "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." It takes no sleep and 46 eighth graders to make you really pay attention to that quote. It is a dumb statement and I am going to use this time to tell you why.

First off, who goes on a 1000 mile journey? I resent having to go 4 miles to a graduation exercise. I really don't like having to drive to the next town to drop my kid off for a sleep over. And if there are tolls involved? It just isn't happening. A thousand miles? What is so important that you can't see it, study it, buy it or make fun of it over the internet? So that's one thing.

But also, the journey of 1000 miles really begins with planning. Are you gong to start the walk before setting an itinerary or investigating hotels? Maybe checking your work schedule or exchanging currency? If you are going 1000 miles you will need to buy some extra shoes. And is this long journey going to be taken on foot? Maybe the journey of 1000 miles begins by calling a cab.

Finally, what if, against all common sense, I DO decide to take a 1000 mile journey on foot but, when I start the journey, instead of taking a single step, I take a standing broad jump. Or maybe I get on the floor and roll. Why does the 1000 mile journey have to start with a specific and single step? Can't I be an individual?

What we need is an updated cliche to work with, so here is my suggestion.

"The journey of 1000 miles is a bad idea but if you have to go, like for work or something, pack a sweater and buy a map. And then, when you start walking, do it however you feel comfortable. I won't judge."

That just rolls off the tongue. I can't wait to see it in all the yearbooks next year.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Frost Warning

As I was driving to work this morning I decided to write this bit of silliness. Apologies to the entire Frost family and anyone who likes poetry.


Two ramps diverged from one asphalt lane,
And knowing I must just travel fast
And be one commuter, I cruised, contained
And looked up one as far through the pane
To where it bent on the overpass;

Then took the other, as just as paved,
And mentally with the greater joy,
Because it attracted my money saved;
Though as for that the spending craved
Had become a dangerous ploy,

And both that morning attractively
In pavement, yellow lines on black.
Oh, I skipped my work, went on a spree!
And knowing nothing ever is free,
I knew they didn’t want me back.

I shall be telling this on every call
After my career is destroyed:
Two ramps split and I had a ball—
I took the road to the mall,
And that has made me unemployed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Offer to Hollywood

I have, in the past, offered my services to Hollywood as a Jew. I have stated that I am willing to play the part of a Jew in any production where there exists such a need. I come with all sorts of experience at being a Jew and can play the part of a balding, overweight, middle aged Jew very well.

I have also (I believe) railed against the practice in Hollywood of using non-Israelis/Jews to play the parts of Israelis and Jews. It seems to me that if the Jews control Hollywood, there should be some real ones wandering around, ready for their close up, Mr. DeMille.

But today, I make another offer. I know that there are people out in Hollywood who operate as "script doctors." They can punch up the writing, tweak the flow and make a so-so script into a marginally better script. That's just peachy, but isn't what I offer. I am willing to be a "script rabbi." Too often, I see movies and shows in which Jews and Judaism are just so poorly presented. So here's the deal. If, in the course of your script or production, you have need to present something related to Judaism, call me. Let me look things over and tell you whether your presentation bears any resemblance to actual Judaism. I'm no ogre -- I will give you your options and explain the Jewish spectrum so you know what should be going on in the building no matter if it is a shul, synagogue or temple.

Do you want your scene with the Sabbath services to look authentic? Do you want those people in the know to respect that you made the Jews look and act like Jews? I can help. I have many years of experience explaining Judaism to people and helping others see it as a normal mode of behavior. I can clear up all sorts of confusion, coach actors, rewrite dialogue so it doesn't make every Jew look like a caricature of a lampoon.

So here I am, your Script Rabbi, just waiting for all of you to come on over and finally, get it right.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Passover Based Learning

First, an acknowledgement: this post was inspired by my colleague Tikvah Wiener's mention of a piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about Passover.
Second, an admission: I am writing this while sitting at a table which has not yet been cleaned for Passover -- that doesn't make this an exercise in procrastination, but I just want to put out there that I am piecing this together from memory as I don't have my haggadot out yet.

On Facebook, Tikvah Wiener mentioned the Rabbi Sacks piece opening as a defense of the rasha, the "evil" son who asks about the "avodah" (either the sacrificial service or the work required for a Jew). I very quickly saw that the evil son was just like the student who, in his group work setting, gloms off of the sweat of others and takes his final grade while diminishing the effort that others put in on his behalf. He excludes himself from the process but reaps the benefits at the end. The evil son is, after all, sitting at the same seder and enjoying the same "freedom" that the Exodus afforded all Jews.

From there, I began to think of the other 3 sons and I wondered, "how is this story unlike others in the seder or elsewhere?"

1. It creates a group which, metaphorically represents an entire people.

1a. Yes, but the same symbolism is applied to the 4 species on Sukkot.

2. It, in meta-fashion, looks at the retelling of the Exodus as the event to be discussed, not just the Exodus, itself.

2a. So does the story of the Rabbis in Bnei Brak.

3. It sets the stage for educational groupwork importable into the day school setting.


So if the rasha is part of the group, who are the others (and all you teachers out there, let me know if this sums up some of the challenges of creating groups for class). The chacham is the kid who works hard and, especially in a homogeneous classroom stands out as either not belonging or acing every assignment. He isn't necessarily popular but when it comes to group work, everyone wants to be in his group. So you, as the wily educator, place him with a motley collection of students to try and raise them all up.

The rasha, as mentioned, doesn't intend to do any work but will take what others achieve and make it his. His question looks intelligent and looks like it almost mocks the chacham's question (in that they both use a second person, seeming to exclude themselves -- but the teacher knows the intent of the asker and answers in kind).

The tam, the simple student looks at the assignment and says "what's this?" Overwhelmed by the assignment he sits there and doesn't know where to start. So the teacher points to the title and the underlying facts and reminds the student what the ultimate goal is.

And the one who doesn't know to ask (or how to ask) needs the female touch of the teacher who needs to be told that he is as valuable a member of the learning community and that in not asking, he is still performing a valuable function. His inability comes soon after 2 stories of grand rabbis -- one in which the biggest names in the business sat around doing the same group work and one in which a rabbinical master admits his own inability to understand until someone else explains it to him.

This last son got me thinking about inclusion. The group is populated by 2 students who understand traditional pedagogy and are self-motivated, one by the urge to understand, one by the will to get a grade. The third son knows he is supposed to know but can't see the process at all. He needs to be brought in to the group and pointed in the direction. He might be a very concrete learner who has to be shown the value of creativity. And the one who doesn't know to ask might be one whom we are currently labeling a student with special needs (excuse my wrong label if that is not in vogue when you read this...maybe the exceptional learner or whatever). His learning style is so not attuned to this class, or project, that he can't even see that educational path being laid out.

From there, I began to look at the entire of the haggadah and it dawned on me that the whole evening seems to be a final project put together after a teacher handed out the following assignment.

Create a multi-disciplinary and integrated program which will, intertextually, allow every stakeholder to participate in and fulfill the obligation to discuss the Exodus. Include a rubric, address modalities of learning, and provide fruitful content which will inspire participants to continue to create levels to the material so that future iterations cannot become stale.

The seder has a rubric -- we learn that anyone who has not discussed 3 things (The Paschal offering, the matzah and the bitter herb) has not completed the assignment. We establish a transparent order at the beginning so that everyone knows what we are up to and where we are headed. Big questions are set out at the top so that we know what we have to cover. In terms of resources, we rely on biblical and post-biblical texts. There are historical passages for those who love history, stories of miracles for the literary minded, math and computation for those who love numbers and measurements (eating only the STEM of the karpas? Just kidding), abbreviations and word games for the puzzle maniacs, songs from beginning to end which serve as memory aids for those who learn via repetition and rhyme, and which tell other versions of the central story of salvation so that students can compare and contrast. Hierarchical levels of learning are addressed -- recall, analysis, inference and ultimately synthesis.

There is real life application as we point to the objects on the table in front of us. There is mystery (why do we keep taking the plate off the table or covering parts up? Why are you hiding that matzah? Why are there nuts on the table?). There is symbolism and the identification and exploitation of experts. We learn to invite the poor and improve our world. We show faith and trust in our fellow man as we open our doors to all comers and our faith in God as we open that door and tell the world who we are. We look backwards at the traditions of our forefathers and towards the future as we aspire to greater religious heights. We use multiple languages so that the story is not frozen in one place or time, but grows with us.

And, through all the questioning, we are told over and over to go out and ask even more -- to write our own seder, and find new answers to all sorts of mysteries so that next year, we can become the teachers who help those in that new group to understand why we are here. And at the very last, we hope that our academic work at this seder can be turned into a reality next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem; we aren't learning just to learn, but because we want to be ready to understand and to do.