Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Everything Changed

I know that I'm both early for this year's commemoration and late for the rest of them but I felt the need to discuss something about 9/11. I won't be making any jokes about it and I won't be meta-analyzing it. I just had a revelation and I needed to put it somewhere. Red if you want, don't if you don't, but I have to say this.

One of the overused sentiments regarding 9/11 is that "9/11 changed everything." We hear that and we half laugh, half cringe. Life has gone on and, though we are sad, angry or some other emotion because of the events of September eleventh, ultimately, it seems that not a lot has changed. But today, I realized something that has changed.

Me. Yup. I do feel that for me, everything did change on 9/11 and it has taken 12 years for that to sink in. I guess I stated realizing a change shortly after the event. I found myself choked up by something...who knows what. But something I was watching on television gave me that lump in my throat and feeling of tears welling up in my eyes. No doubt it was something mundane, and I was never one to cry so much (at least after I finished elementary school) so it came as a shock to me that I felt this feeling. My lovely bride was often wont to cry at commercials for pregnancy tests. I didn't quite go that far, but I felt that upsurge of raw emotion significantly more often after 9/11. [full disclosure -- I got choked up at the end of Soul Surfer this afternoon]

Since then, I often find myself feeling that same feeling. But what was it about 9/11 which changed my entire emotional outlook so markedly? What was it that made me feel the world in an entirely different way? So here's what I figured out -- it wasn't the sadness of the event, or the tragedy of lives lost. It was the realization of a simple truth about people.

Sometimes, people, even when no one is demanding it, can be nice.

What will stay with me is the revelation that people can choose not to be horrible to each other. People can rise above challenges and be heroic, even in mundane terms. I'm a sucker now for stories in which people are simply nicer than they have to be. Regular people. It isn't that I didn't appreciate heroism in the past, but now I see heroism as a reaffirmation of the potential for goodness in all people. In a strange way, 9/11 helped rekindle in me a respect for humanity and an ability to see the best in all people.

And if that isn't changing everything then I don't know what is.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Maybe we can't be both

For a long time, Judaism survived because it was comfortable defining itself by its differences -- by its distinction from dominant culture. The myriad laws constraining interaction with the outside world, whom we may eat with and drink with, when we are allowed to do what kind of business with whom and how we must behave, how we must dress in a distinct fashion and not follow societal trends. All these rules helped keep us separate, as we were separate in Egypt and throughout history. We weren't always put in ghettoes; we often put ourselves in them because they insured the insular community which we craved by law. The eiruvs that we established reminded us that our religious identity and community have borders and we shouldn't stray too far. The rules for travel in general, limiting when we go, where we go and why we go. The fact that Jewish identity is so deeply interfused into every aspect of our being was a way of our keeping tabs on ourselves as Jews constantly. We are and always have been a distinct nation -- visible and different.

Today's watchword, though, is integration. We are modern Orthodox Jews who claim to be able to live in both worlds (that of our tradition and heritage and that of the modern Western culture) simultaneously. We can compartmentalize our beliefs so we can learn about and reconcile with what might otherwise be troubling and challenging secular ideas. We can be fully up-to-date on mass culture and yet somehow, be living lives completely in concert with the practices of our ancestors. And then we wonder about assimilation and intermarriage.

How, we wonder, can we get our children to love their religion and hold tight to its principles and practices? We ask this as we drive them to a party pumping the latest secular music. How, we fret, can we help our children stay in touch with their traditions and abide by religious law? We ponder this as we drop them off at the mall with a skimpy outfit and a credit card and say "see you in a few hours. Be good."

As I grow older I realize that, as admirable as the goal of having integrated, modern Orthodox children is, it might be unattainable. Maybe, the exact nature of what we are trying to do flies in the face of what has kept us "us" for so long. We didn't Hellenize in ancient Maccabean times and we didn't try to find a way to be sort of like the Greeks and yet still expect to be like the Jews. In Shushan, we were punished for fraternizing (in fact, most of our holidays are celebrations of different-ness, marked by rituals which separate us and pointing out in our prayers that we are not like anyone else and should be happy with that).

The tension which we create by trying to be two things at once may be what ultimately tears us apart. Instead of celebrating this friction and saying that it represents the best of the Jewish experience, being of the world but not losing ourselves in the world, maybe we should be saying that we appreciate the world and will enter into it when it is necessary but we are NOT of the world. We are a light to the nations exactly because we don't feel the need to be of the world.

I know. I'm a dinosaur. I sound like I am yearning for a new ghetto and a lifestyle much like shtetl living. But haven't many of us already proven that? I chose to live in a city with a large Jewish population. I chose to live within walking distance of 4 or 5 synagogues. I like having my kosher restaurants within reach. I send my kids to Jewish schools so that they can be surrounded by their religious identity all the time. I am in a ghetto and I like it and even within this relatively insulated bubble, our children are so inundated with modern ideas that they stray and we lose them. Maybe we should stop apologizing for wanting to live in little gated communities, and stop laughing at the groups who separate themselves and sneer at us for our openness and permissiveness. Maybe they aren't all wrong. Maybe there is a happy medium in which we can watch some TV, and walk the streets wearing t-shirts with smarmy sayings but not feel like we have to watch all the TV or compromise any element of what we believe and who we are. That we don't have to change our laws (under the guise of "adapting them to new realities") but we don't have to look and act like we are stuck in the 18th century.

We are an ancient religion and pay homage to our history in so many ways; we talk about how our old practices aren't outmoded and our time honored theology is still vital and relevant. But we say that out of one side of our mouth while out of the other we talk about how much we are integrated into the world around us. And then we can't figure out why things seem so unsatisfying. One could even say (and if I am not in trouble for all these opinions already, this should put me over the top) that the modern state of Israel is the epitome of this problem. The state wants to be both a Jewish bastion and a modern integrated non-religious state at the same time. Maybe it just can't be. Yes, that is depressing and not the message anyone wants to hear, but it is a bit more honest than the self-delusion we are perpetrating and perpetuating when we try to hold on to the past while using both hands to embrace the future.

Maybe, the more we allow the outside world in, the more we have to compensate by having even stronger visible links to our religion. Maybe if we know we will eventually work in the secular world, instead of "preparing" our children but showing them the outside world at a young age, we should be tightening up our religious expectations and schooling for our children until they get to the point where they have to integrate. Maybe for every experience where we are so well mixed with the world, we should work at an equally extreme act of separation to remind ourselves that we aren't like anyone else.

I don't have all the answers but we have, for too long, been unwilling to ask the question. We have shied away from demanding honesty from ourselves regarding what we expect and what is a fair expectation of this experiment we are conducting on our families and religion. So do I want to live behind a wall, surrounded only by people like me? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But I can't expect the same efficient continuity of transmission or consistency of lineage when I say no.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Oz Festivals

Certain times evoke particular memories or associations but I never really realized how local those associations are. When I started to question this, I had a major revelation. I don't understand Australia at all.

Some of you might be Australianese and might be able to help me understand (I haven't checked my statistics to see if I get any readership from wherever it is that Australia is), and some of you might know some stuff about Australia, so feel free to chime in. I'll start this from the Judaic perspective but will move into a larger context afterwards.

We just marked the 9th of Av, a 25 hour fast day commemorating the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. I always think of it as a long day which is usually hot and uncomfortable. The fast starts late in the evening and ends later then next night. As we were not even a month after the solstice, we were in the range of the longest day and latest sunset. But in Australia, it is apparently now winter, with the sun setting early. That means that their 9th of Av finishes in the 5:30 range! Their association with the 9th will be of cold weather and, I would guess, a day off from school. Our winter fast (the dawn to evening 10th of Tevet) has to be the long one for them and interrupt their summer vacation whereas here, it ends by 5:30 and is often accompanied by a wintry mix and gray, bleak skies.

Then I continued pondering the Jewish calendar. Passover, the quintessential Spring festival would be, on the other side of the world, at the beginning of the fall. All the Spring references would not make sense! And Sukkot (the Feast of Booths -- John Wilkes and Edwin) which we dread because it has us sit outside when the weather is either the too hot of late summer or too cold of the fall, would be at the beginning of Spring down under there. Don't they know they are doing it wrong? Do they shift everything to accommodate their agricultural cycle or do they live in a state of cognitive dissonance? Is that what it takes to live upside down? Channukah, the festival of lights, designed to inject some candley goodness into the darkness of the winter is a summer holiday there? No way.

From Channukah, I got to thinking -- Christmas. Now, I don't celebrate Christmas, but I can recognize it as a cultural marker with its own set of associations -- a White Christmas for example. What if Irving Berlin had lived in Sydney or Alice Springs? Would the song be "Green or Brownish Christmas"? Why would Santa be wearing that ridiculous red coat in the middle of the summer? And Rudolph's services wouldn't be so necessary because the chance of white-out conditions would be severely reduced. Next is New Year's day -- if it isn't cold, then when the millions of people jam pack their equivalent of Times Square, how do they rationalize their alcohol consumption? And Groundhog's Day must make no sense at all. That rodent comes up, tush first probably, and if he sees his shadow, they get 6 more weeks of what exactly? Why would they need a holiday to help them look forward to Autumn? How do they stay outside for the July 4th fireworks if it is winter time?

Like I said -- the place makes no sense at all.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The other shoe

On our way to shul yesterday, my second daughter and I fleshed out a concept for a business. I will float it here and let someone else do the work of actually creating it and sending me checks not so much out of any legal need but because you know it is the right thing to do.

The aforesaid daughter had a problem during our walk. As she pointed out repeatedly, one of her feet is slightly larger than the other. In order to accommodate that foot, she had to buy shoes which were a half size larger than the smaller foot required. So now, the larger foot is all comfy but the smaller one slips around as she walks. We discussed a variety of inserts or other solutions but she pointed out that this discrepancy and the consequent lack of comfort will plague her through every pair of shoes she buys unless one of her feet magically catches up to the other. I pointed out that I have the same issue and you get used to it. In fact, I have heard that many people have slightly mismatched feet. So she suggested opening a store which allows customers to buy single shoes and not just pairs, or to create mismatched pairs. Imagine going in to a shoe store and saying "I like these -- do you have a right foot in a 5 and a left in a 5 and a half?" Sure, inventory would be a bear and there would be the element of the uncertain because the store might not have the size/foot/style combination you seek, but isn't that just an extension of what happens in shoe stores now? You go in and they say "oh, we don't have that pair in your size. Try these instead."

A quick look online shows that amputees and others who desire only a single shoe have set up odd shoe markets to sell what they don't need or exchange shoes, but that seems rather haphazard and forces one person to take someone else's castoffs. Our store (the name possibilities are endless and groan inducing but I'm sticking with "Un in paired") would have the most recent styles and would have a stockroom brimming with shoes (and a computerized inventory system so we could know which foot of which shoe we have). We will also sell single shoe laces. Why are we being forced to buy a pair of laces when only one is broken? What are they hiding?

What makes this store even more remarkable is that we will also sell single socks. If you lose one in the dryer, bring in the remaining one and we can try to match it. If one rips and you need to replace it, we can do that. If you want to make a sock puppet, but he isn't married or seeing another sock puppet, you can come in a buy just one sock. Or if you want to make a diverse sock puppet community and need a variety of socks, you can pick and choose here. And yes, some of our costs will be defrayed by taking donations of unmatched socks.

This is a brilliant idea, admit it. Start sending those checks, please.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Call me Polonius

In case you don't already know, I like Hamlet (the play, not the guy or the concept of small town). It includes a lot of stuff that I really admire in terms of the story telling and the language. In fact, one character whom I really enjoy thinking about it Polonius. If you haven't read the play (well, first off, you should -- read my earlier blog post about why one should study Shakespeare, then read the play. I'll wait. Don't watch a movie, even the Branagh version. Just read the play 20 or 30 times. I'm in no rush) I'll fill you in. Polonius has 2 kids, Laertes and Ophelia. He is a doting father who sometimes, maybe, has ulterior motives, but does seem to want to help his kids avoid the mistakes he has made in life. I appreciate that.

In one memorable scene (aren't they all?) Polonius gives Laertes some advice before the young man embarks for France. In the tradition of the Ethics of the Fathers, he lists ways to be and interact with the world. Many of the classic pieces of advice which we bandy about come from this one speech, a set of suggestions which, it could be said, his own kids didn't appreciate. Well, I do. And, as my elder is preparing for her own trip to Israel next week, I feel it meet to set down these few precepts which I would want her to keep: [that being said, she probably won't read this unless someone tells her to, so please, someone, tell her to]

1. Don't assume everything is kosher. Yes, it is Israel, but that is no guarantee.
2. Don't assume everything is yours, or destined to be yours. That goes for land, people and things.
3. Don't assume everything and everyone are safe. Take care in where you go, what you do and whom you spend time with.
4. Don't hand over trust as a free gift, and cherish it when it is given to you as if it were a precious jewel.
5. Let yesterday inform but not limit today. Be in touch with heritage and tradition but realize that they serve to foster growth, not stunt it.
6. Spend money when you must, spend time when you can, spend energy when should.
7. Experience past, present and future with each step. Any rock in Israel has more stories than any library elsewhere.
8. Eyes up. Stop looking down at your phone. The world happens in the real world.
9. Stay with the group for safety and follow the instructions of the advisors. There will be years ahead for exploration.
10. Ask questions because you want to investigate ideas and maybe, find answers, not because you want to question. Any question you have, 5 others have also but they may not be strong enough to ask. Ask for them and lend them your strength.
11. Judge people by what they say and do not by what others tell you they said or did.
12. Don't let taking pictures constantly get in the way of actually seeing things.
13. Keep a daily journal of what you said or did and with whom EVERY DAY. Use it to record and reflect. Trust me -- you will cherish it in the future. [and when you get home, when we ask "how was it?" you can hand us the journal, expurgated if necessary, and say "here. I'm going to sleep for 2 days."]
14. Plant seeds -- seeds of curiosity, friendship and maybe, wheat.
15. Keep a siddur with you (if possible, a tanach also). Take every chance to connect.
16. Know that we are proud of you and miss you so much and look forward to your return, so you can turn back around and go to L.A!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Remotely entertaining - a true story

We had a real problem in the house recently. We couldn't find the remote. Now, sure, this was a great opportunity for an object lesson about convenience and luxury and being spoiled. I tried to point out to the kids that in the olden days, whenever we wanted to change channels we had to have a sibling get up and do it for us. This was true suffering. For the most part, the children did not want to hear this lesson. Maddie dealt with the crisis by retreating to her room -- not to engage in some hermitage and mourning over the loss, but to watch TV on her computer. Talia simply downloaded an app to her phone which simulated a remote so she didn't have to share in our technological backwater. No lesson learned.

We looked everywhere. And then looked again. We retraced our steps, then we stepped more and bought more tracing paper and traced again. We looked in the cushions. We bought new cushions and looked in them. Nothing. Then today, it hit me -- look in the garbage. It wasn't there and that was gross. But I did look in the recyclables pile and found the remote there. So yay.

Now, that might be the end of the story but I won't let this go. I made a big deal out of doing this -- in front of my children I started rooting through the fireplace. I explained that people always say "I found it -- it was in the last place that I looked!" Well, we all know how dumb that sounds because, once you find the thing, you stop looking so any place you found the object was, by definition the last place you looked. So I made sure to look in one more place after finding the remote so that the next time someone says in the presence of my children "It's always in the last place you look" my kids can say, "no it isn't -- once my dad found it in the second to last place he looked." I told them to file this piece of information away, and then I said "I wish I spent more time at the office" so that if someone says "no one ever said 'I wish I spent more time at the office' " my kids can say "my dad did say that."

On an unrelated note...we wonder why our kids don't have any friends.