Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Category: Jewish (page 1 of 8)

Rosh Hashanah 5775

rainy

It was a rainy Rosh Hashanah in New York City. It was the second year I was attending a progressive service in Manhattan, one in which God’s name was rarely spoken and there was discussion about getting a vegan shofar made of plastic for next year, instead of the one used by Jews for thousands of years, made from a ram’s horn.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a time of reflection. Jews look back on the past year, and prepare themselves for being “inscribed into the book of life” on  Yom Kippur, when the “book is closed.”  Jews — they are into metaphors involving books.

Halfway into the service, the rabbi turned her attention to the congregation.

“How have we all used our time over the past year?” she asked.  “Have we done good deeds? Have we been of service to society?”

One congregant immediately rose her hand.    Clearly she was once the teacher’s pet in third grade.

“I volunteer at a homeless shelter twice a week and joined the Central Park Conservancy executive committee.”

The rabbi nodded in approval.  The rest of us clapped, honoring her service.

A younger man stood next; he wore a yarmulke colored like the LGBT flag.

“I directed a film for marginized teenagers.  It was shown in the public schools throughout New York City schools, and I believe it has helped many overcome their personal shame.”

More applause.

The next two sharers helped run a successful fundraiser for a cancer clinic at a hospital and organize last week’s People’s Climate Change March on Wall Street.

The mood in the room took a surprising silent dive after these four congregants shared their good deeds.   There was a tangible feeling of embarrassment about our own accomplishments over the last year.  The moment reminded me of that feeling you get on on Facebook when you read about someone’s exotic vacation in Costa Rica, and you don’t want to tell anyone about your low-key Thanksgiving at your Aunt Mildred’s home in New Jersey.  How can you compete?

“How have we all used our time over the past year? Have we done good deeds? Have we been of service to society?”

These were the questions of the rabbi.  Good questions.   Questions aimed at making us think about how we treat our fellow man.   But the first four responses sounded more like references you would add to your college application.

It took an older woman to break the ice. She stood up to face the rabbi.  She was wearing a green wool dress that added color to her short gray hair.

“Well, just last night, a friend called up and said she was having an anxiety attack about her granddaughter in California, so I got dressed, took the cross-town bus over and talked with her until she calmed down.”

Some of us giggled, because it was a rather absurd example in comparison to the others, but then we all applauded, sensing her wisdom. She had expanded upon our definition of a good deed, so it included the small and personal as much as those larger actions that are part of the public record.

And suddenly others stood up, energized by the older woman.  One by one, congregants  mentioned minor actions, decisions, and choices that would never make the newspapers or news, but made their past year one of good deeds, their existence worth living.

Last week, I watched the PBS documentary on the Roosevelts.   Their accomplishments were fascinating.  FDR was Governor of New York and President of the United States. He created the New Deal and Social Security. He led us out of the Depression AND World War 2.  But would FDR have taken the cross-town bus to calm down a friend having an anxiety attack?  I don’t think so.

Lyrics from Seasons of Love from the musical, Rent.

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?
How about love?

Two Rosh Hashanah Services

tallis

Over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I attended two services at two very different synagogues, each with a completely different orientation towards Judaism.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I went to a “secular” Jewish service in lower Manhattan with a congregation that focuses on the social justice tradition of Judaism rather than the religious aspect.  The Torah wasn’t read during the service and the term “God” was used sparingly, and only with quotes around His name.   The prayer book was self-published, and included a mixture of traditional prayers, songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and passages by Nelson Mandela and President Obama.

In the middle of the service, the spiritual leader, an attractive woman with fiery red hair, asked the members of the congregation to share their successes from the past year.  How did they made the world a better place?

One by one, the congregants stood up, telling stories of their commitment to the outside world.  One young man, dressed casually, and sporting a tattoo on his neck, spoke of volunteering at a homeless shelter.  A well-heeled couple said they quit their corporate jobs to start a charity to help sick children in Africa.   An older woman mentioned her work at the Central Park Conservancy, planting trees.  At the end of the service, the congregation left the temple with a concrete message — there are good people out there, role models, who inspire us to do better things with our lives.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I attended a Modern Orthodox temple in the Upper West Side.  The members all seemed to be professionals — doctors, lawyers, and students at Columbia University — individuals comfortable in the modern world, but still attracted to the traditions of the Orthodox world.   A cloth barrier in the middle of the room separated the men and the women, right and left.   Since this was a forward-looking group, there were attempts to modernize the ways of the Orthodox movement.  While the rabbi read from the Torah on the men’s side of the barrier, it was a female spiritual leader who made the traditional Rosh Hashanah sermon from the woman’s side.

The main difference between the secular service and the Modern Orthodox service was that here — God was everywhere.   His name was repeated over and over, his power lauded and praised.  The Jewish New Year was a serious business of repenting and asking for forgiveness for our sins, in preparation for the holiest of the Jewish holidays – Yom Kippur.

One of the central High Holy Day prayers is a recitation of all of the possible sins that happened during the year, from small to large, spoken out loud, simultaneously, as a group. Everyone asks for forgiveness for all the sins, some as serious as murder, even if the individual is not directly responsible, as if the entire community is held accountable for the break in the fabric of society.

Day one, at the secular service:  There is no God.  Each individual aims to become a role model to inspire the others.

Day two, at the Orthodox service:  There is a God.  Until the world is perfect, we are all responsible for the sins of man.  We look within to see our our failings, and share it with the larger community.

Which of these is a better way of viewing the world?  In many ways, it is a question I ask myself every day when I write on my blog.  Do I want to appeal to your aspirations, positioning myself as a teacher or authority figure out to inspire you with my thoughts and good actions (I donated to the Red Cross; you should too!), or do I want to share with you my failings, letting you feel comfortable with your own imperfections (I am fearful; are you?)

Yom Kippur, the NY Mets, and the Rally Towel

I have a rotator cuff injury on my right shoulder, and the discomfort has made me grouchy and depressed. Earlier this week, on Yom Kippur eve, I didn’t feel like going to temple, so I did the next best thing —

Yes, I went to a NY Mets game on Yom Kippur eve.

Is this sacrilegious? Of course. Even Sandy Koufax didn’t PLAY on Yom Kippur.

But in many ways, coming to CitiField and watching a terrible team eliminated from the playoffs three months ago, get routed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a potentially more painful experience to atone for your sins than attending a religious service in a modern, comfortable, air-conditioned synagogue.

During the endless game, the evening air caressed my skin, and my mind drifted off into deep thoughts. I thought about the Holiest day in the Jewish year.

“What is the meaning of life,” I asked myself.

I also had other, more secular questions. Like —

1) What ever happened to the Wave? Why did everyone stop doing it at sporting events? Did it run its course, like the Macarena?

2) What do outfielders think about during the game? I played in the outfield during Little League; it was boring. I frequently prayed to God that the ball didn’t come towards me, fearful I would drop the ball. I always dropped the ball. I was also scared of the ball hitting me in the head and splitting my skull open like a watermelon. Perhaps professional outfielders, standing alone, isolated from the others, also think about God. In their freshly-laundered white uniforms, they appeared as much a sign of purity as the white cloth that covered the Torah.

3) During the fifth inning, the “kissing cam” appeared on the giant screen. Couples were picked out and urged to kiss. But how do the Mets cameramen know who is a couple and who isn’t? If I went to a Mets game with my female boss, would I be obligated to give her a French kiss? Do gays and lesbians get pissed off that they are never chosen for the kissing cam at the Mets game? I hope there is a lawsuit. There should be no kissing in baseball.

Throughout the evening, the Mets Organization used all sorts of gimmicks to keep us amused during a boring game. Imagine how many more Jews would go to High Holiday services if there were trivial contests, a Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Cup mascot shlepping through the aisles, and sexy girls shooting “free” t-shirts out of scary bazooka air-guns.

During the seventh inning, a cute girl in a Mets jacket roamed into our section, trying to rev us up, even though the Mets were getting their ass kicked by the Pittsburgh Pirates. She was carrying a large pile of — what seemed to me — dish rags for the kitchen.

But they weren’t dish rags. They were “rally towels.”

“Rally towels! Rally towels!” she screamed. I’m giving away free rally towels!”

Some kids in our section screamed in excitement.

“Over here! Over here!” yelled a little boy behind me.

“How naive is youth,” I thought, as she threw a towel at the boy. AS IF the rally towels would ever help the Mets win this game.

Just then, the Rally Towel girl turned her penetrating eyes towards me. It was like she could “feel” my sarcasm in the air.

“Hey, you with the glasses?” she yelled. “Why aren’t you cheering for the Mets tonight? C’mon, let’s HEAR IT?! Let’s go Mets! Let’s go Mets! Do you want a rally towel?”

“No, thanks,” I said, suddenly wishing I had gone to temple for Yom Kippur. I was also hungry, the only one in CitiField fasting.

“Sure you want a rally towel!” she said. “You gotta have a rally towel!”

She grabbed a towel from the top of her pile and tossed it at me. Her aim was as accurate as any ace pitcher. Out of instinct, I raised by right arm to catch the towel. Memories of Little League came alive, and I was back in the outfield. It was my big chance to redeem myself for missing the ball during that big game, causing our team to lose the Playoffs.

My arm shot back. The t-shirt flew into my hand. I caught it! I was redeemed! I also threw back my shoulder, and the pain was so intense in my rotator cuff that my cry reached the infield, my vision went black, and this became the first Yom Kippur where I felt as if I met God.

Identity

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal yesteday about Csanad Szegedi, a Hungarian politican with the extreme far-right Jobbik party, and known for his hate speech, who was forced to resign from his party position when it was discovered that his grandmother was Jewish.

Mr. Szegedi said his grandparents, who both survived Nazi terror in World War II, had chosen to remain silent about their Jewish heritage and he had only found out about his family’s religious background in December 2011.

Szegedi came to prominence as a founding member of the anti-Semitic Hungarian Guard, an organization that wore black uniforms similar to the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party which governed Hungary at the end of World War II and killed thousands of Jews.

Now, Szegedi is apologetic about his former anti-Semitism.

“Had I made any comments in the past years that offended the Jewish community, I ask for forgiveness,” Mr. Szegedi told Rabbi Slomo Koves, according to Nepszabadsag. “Now that I have been faced with my Jewish roots, that I do not regret at all, keeping in touch with the leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community has become especially important for me,” he said.

A few commenters viewed this news story as a postitive story of a man’s redemption and change. I find the story depressing.

Does understanding and compassion only come into play when our own identity is directly involved? Wouldn’t Szegedi have remained an anti-Semite if the information about his grandmother didn’t go public?  This incident begs the question, does our identity come from someplace within, or is it forced on us from the outside, by our heritage and birth?

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(note:  the following section has 0% truth quotient)  —

A few months ago, I had lunch with my mother.

“I have something serious to discuss with you,” she said. “Do you remember your Grandma Ida?”

“Of course I do,” I said, even though she passed away when I was young.  I have fond memories of this gentle woman’s  love for “prune compote” and the way her apartment always smelled like home-made Gefilte fish.”

“Well, Grandma Ida wasn’t Jewish. She was a Navajo Indian.”

“A Navajo Indian? That’s crazy. She had a completely Eastern European accent!”

“Oh, she was just faking it to fit in with the rest of her friends in the Bronx. She was born on a reservation in New Mexico.”

I was shocked, and intrigued by this news. If my grandmother was Navajo, that made me part Navajo. And I knew absolutely nothing about my heritage.

I went to the New York Public Library to begin my journey into my new heritage. I read about my history, my food, my storytelling. I took a trip to Colorado in order to experience my land. I learned to fish and hunt, and to make beautiful traditional jewelry and clay pottery.

Yesterday, I was having breakfast. I was wearing a breechcloths made of woven yucca fiber, moccassins, and a cloak of rabbit fur, my latest attempt to embrace my identity.

“I have something serious to discuss with you,” said my mother.

“What now?” I asked.

“I wasn’t wearing my glasses on that day I read Grandma Ida’s birth certificate. She wasn’t a Navajo Indian. She was a Nairobian Tribeswoman.”

I was shocked, and intrigued. I alway wanted to be black.

“Screw the Navajos,” I yelled, as tossed my itchy rabbit fur cloak onto the floor. After breakfast, I went to the New York Public Library to research my new heritage.

++++

Who are we? Do our identities come from within or without? And do we get trapped in our identities, receiving our cues on behavior from the groups we join, or from those in which we are excluded?

I am a straight man.  How much of my behavior is part of my DNA and how much is it cultural?

I am an American. Yay, America. Why was I rooting for America during the Olympics? Do I really care that we received more medals than China?

I am Jewish. What does that mean? I know plenty of Hindus who like bagels.

I feel it necessary to be part of something. To associate with others.   A community.   The city I live in.   Other writers.   People who like coffee.   It helps me create my own identity.

We talk about fluidity in identity, within gender.  We want each generation to have less restriction than the one before, less trapped in their gender roles.

But how far do we want to go?  We applaud little girls who throw away their Barbies and playing with trucks, but how many parents are overjoyed when their young son expresses an interest in wearing mommy’s dress?

At the London Olympics opening ceremony, viewers cried when a youth choir sang a touching rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

But in reality, do we honestly wish for this type of faceless society where there are no countries or religions?  I think we prefer many of the restrictions and rules that separation and division creates.   We want differences in men and women.   We want differences in  countries and cultures.   How would we know who we are without these differences? Twitter rankings, perhaps? Blogging niches?

I’m actually surprised that the blogging world has become so niche-oriented.   If anything, the internet could have been the world that John Lennon visualized.   The potential was there — a world where your religion and country didn’t matter.   Friendships were based on one thing alone — the quality of your cat photos!  The internet was created to be the great equalizer.  But I think we like to retreat to those who are most like ourselves.

It’s taken me several years to feel comfortable with my identity online, simply because I am not a parent, and 98% of my online friends are parentbloggers.   Every time I read a post on a parenting blog, I feel a bit as if I am an outsider, like a Jew taking at a Catholic Mass. I might find the sermon fascinating, but I’m never quite sure if the others want me to stay for coffee and cake.

Of course, parentbloggers have the opposite problem.  Their identity online is defined by their parenting.   What do they do when their kids grow up?  What do they write about?  Do they have an identity — a brand online — outside of the parenting fold?

It is all about Identity.

Are we defined by our jobs?  Our POV?  Our marital status?  Our parenting status?  What we say?   What we do? And what if our perception of self are different than how others see us?  Should we always reveal our true identity, or is it better to create a branded version of it?  And what if we start to believe our own false identity?

Identity is also political.  The outing of the Hungarian politician was based on politics.  The Republican effort to name President Obama as a Muslim during the last campaign was purely political.

In America, sexual orientation is frequently a political statement. When someone “comes out,” the person is announcing that he is not fearful of his true “identity.”   But do we have the right to force people to be authentic in their identity?  Would you go on Twitter and write “Sally Jones said in her last post she lives in Dayton, but I know she really lives in Cleveland!”  Would you confront someone who has “fake Twitter followers?”

Recently, the actress Rashida Jones had to go on Twitter to apologize for an interview in which she discussed John Travolta.

She said: “Like John Travolta? Come out! Come on. How many masseurs have to come forward? Let’s do this.”

She later said it was John Travolta’s personal life was none of her business.

We will always struggle with our concept of identity.  Yes, it is personal, but it is also public.  Think about how much data about ourselves we put out into the world.   Why does the government need to know our marital status or age?    And do these pieces of data define us?  I know they define us according to marketers.  I was completely invisible when I walked through the Expo at BlogHer, because I was not part of the demographic that the advertisers were looking for at a woman’s conference.   But should we allow marketers — or pundits — determine how we view ourselves or live our lives?  Who says a “real mom” has to breastfeed has a child, or a mature woman can’t wear a mini-skirt, or a man can’t take up knitting?  Can we create our own identities?

We will join groups and leave groups, looking to find ourselves.  John Lennon’s world will never exits.   We like our differences too much.  The best we can do is create a world where no one is afraid of differences, or their expression of them.  We should hope for a world where the differences are inclusive, not exclusive; where our identities can be fluid, without pressure from those outside or inside our community.

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Yesterday, I changed my Facebook relationship status to “single.” I was slightly embarrassed by this, berating myself for my obsessive need to over share. But t occurred to me that my motivation was not simply oversharing, or need for attention.  It’s not like I haven’t written about my marriage, separation, and divorce.  No, I felt the compulsion to press the button and see words “single” written in print. Not “divorced,” but “single,” as if it was time to embrace the reality, and see myself — identify with — my new status.   My identity.

Steve Jobs, My Father, and Yom Kippur

Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder of Apple passed away this week, and the internet exploded with admirers reflecting on how his vision impacted their lives.

Some talked about their first Mac, iPod, or iPhone, and how it transformed the way they communicated or listened to music.

Others sought meaning in Jobs’ passing, musing on death, accomplishment, originality, and vision. I poked a little fun at this hero worship on Twitter, writing:

“There is something odd seeing so many quotes about “being original” and “not living the life of others” being re-tweeted 1000x on Twitter.”

One short post about Jobs struck a nerve with me, written by a blogging friend, “Stay at Home Babe,” and titled “Why I Would Want to Die Young.”

I’ve already heard so much talk about how sad it is that Steve Jobs died at such a young age. I won’t argue with the sentiment, but it certainly got me thinking.

I don’t necessarily want to live until I’m as old as humanly possible. I don’t think I have to hang on until my hips are both replaced and I’m on a hundred medications and my brain has turned to mush.

I want to live a life worth admiring. In whatever capacity that is, for however long that is. I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to find myself unexpectedly on my death bed, knowing that I didn’t do what I wanted or did less than the best I could with the time I had.

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It is customary during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews to visit family members at the cemetery. My mother and I took the Long Island Railroad to visit the final resting place of my father at a Jewish cemetery in Nassau County.

It was two days before the death of Steve Jobs in California.

It was nice visiting my father on a crisp fall day. I was wearing a red sweatshirt. When I first saw my father’s tombstone I laughed, because as long-time readers of this blog might remember, I “crowdsourced” the epitaph on his stone after he passed away in 2005, until we collectively convinced my mother to include his favorite saying, “Be of Good Cheer” on the stone. My father might go down in history as the first person to have the saying on his tombstone voted upon by the Internet.

Another Jewish custom is to place a stone on the top of the tombstone; it signifies that “you were there.” I picked out two shapely and clean gray stones from the gravel road, and my mother and I placed them on top of the marble slat that marked my father’s final resting place.

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I think about my father. I wonder about the dreams and goals that he had as a younger man. Did he do what he wanted? Did he do less than the best he did with the time he had on Earth?

I have no idea.

He worked as a physical therapist at a New York City hospital. He liked his job, but he complained about it during dinner time, especially about the internal politics of a city-run hospital. I think he might have preferred a cushier job at a private hospital, although he probably had more of an impact on the lives of the less-privileged by working at Queens General Hospital.

I assume that “Stay at Home Babe” was being honest in her views about dying young, but I suspect that she is in her late twenties, so she feels that she has plenty of time to accomplish everything in her iPhone scheduler. I think once you reach 35, you are pretty happy if you reached 1/3 of the goals you had in college.

Should we just kill ourselves if we don’t become multi-milionaires by 40?

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It is easy to read the obituary of Steve Jobs and see it as a referendum on individuality, focus, and a life-well lived, but I think it is a mistake to think that success in life involves having a specific goal in mind and reaching it. Under that criteria, most of us end up miserable failures. The reality is that our real impact on others is not always easily noticed, or even appreciated. Not every worthwhile life is built upon achieving personal goals. We are all interrelated in so many different ways, that you can never be sure how your actions are affecting others.

On paper, my father will never match the accomplishments of Steve Jobs. Perhaps he didn’t achieve exactly what he wanted in life. But he had an impact on me. And his family. On his patients. In the way that he treated his friends and neighbors.

In social media, we speak a lot about influence. We consider someone with many followers as “influential.” But I have heard stories of strangers talking down someone on Twitter from committing suicide that night. No one remembers the names of those people. But that is real influence!

On Yom Kippur, in temple, a special prayer is added to the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah), in which the community confesses their sins. All the sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sinning. So even if you haven’t murdered anyone this year, you still say “We have murdered.”

When I was younger, I used to think this Yom Kippur tradition was bizarre and unfair, but now I appreciate the sentiment. The point is not to diminish personal responsibility, but to remind ourselves that human sins are frequently a by-product of the social bond gone sour. We are all at fault.

But this communal responsibility also has a positive side. We can all take pride when things turn out well.

Did you read Steve Jobs’ obituary? Did you come away thinking only about Steve Jobs? Read the obituary again, this time focusing on the community who helped mold him.

Steve Jobs was adopted:

Steven Paul Jobs was born in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 1955, and surrendered for adoption by his biological parents, Joanne Carole Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali, a graduate student from Syria who became a political science professor. He was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs.

Steve Jobs was mentored by a nameless neighbor:

Mr. Jobs developed an early interest in electronics. He was mentored by a neighbor, an electronics hobbyist, who built Heathkit do-it-yourself electronics projects.

Steve Wozniak’s mother brings her son and Steve Jobs together as business partners.

The spark that ignited their partnership was provided by Mr. Wozniak’s mother. Mr. Wozniak had graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, when she sent him an article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum, detailed an underground hobbyist culture of young men known as phone phreaks who were illicitly exploring the nation’s phone system.

A mysterious hacker teaches Steve Jobs his tricks.

Captain Crunch was John Draper, a former Air Force electronic technician, and finding him took several weeks. Learning that the two young hobbyists were searching for him, Mr. Draper had arranged to come to Mr. Wozniak’s Berkeley dormitory room.

An Intel executive backs Apple with $250,000.

In early 1976, he and Mr. Wozniak, using their own money, began Apple with an initial investment of $1,300; they later gained the backing of a former Intel executive, A. C. Markkula, who lent them $250,000.

Did any of these individuals achieve their own personal goals? We don’t know. But there is reason to believe that without these people crossing the paths of Steve Jobs, that he wouldn’t have achieved HIS goals. Again, we don’t know for sure, but would you now want to tell that dorky hobbyist neighbor who mentored Steve Jobs that he would have been better off dead since he didn’t achieve his goal of building a spaceship for NASA? You never know when your action can have an earth-shattering effect on another. It is quite possible that a friendly hello in a supermarket can change the life of the other person. You just don’t know.

Not everything is about YOUR goals.

My father was a loved man. He didn’t make that much money. I’m sure he wished he did better financially. He didn’t get any obituaries written about him in the newspaper. But I know he helped many people with disabilities to walk, and perhaps they went on to do great things spurred on by the care that they received from my father.

I am super-impressed by the vision of Steve Jobs and what he achieved in his short life. But I am just as impressed with someone who lives life, perhaps NOT achieving every single one of their dreams, but loves life itself, and sees it as special. Being kind to others may not get you a mention in the New York Times, but it is a quality that is as essential to the well-being of the community as an iPad. And that it something I try to remember as I live my own life. Thanks, Dad, for teaching me that lesson.

The Silver Rule

I’m sure Martin Luther King Day is going to inspire many posts today, and each one will be different, and reflect the writer’s own interests, whether it be race relations, politics, or religion.

Martin Luther King makes me think of morality.  The civil rights movement of the 1960s was  all about morality, a clear case of right vs. wrong.

Unfortunately, not issue in life is as clear-cut.  Morality is a complicated subject.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about religious issues such as morality.  When I write about Jewish subjects, I tend to go for the cultural items — the bagels, the Yiddish words, the mother jokes — but I’m actually quite interested in Jewish religious thought.  I mean I like to mock it, too, because I figure God wouldn’t have given us a sense of humor if he didn’t want us to make fun of Him.

The Golden Rule is considered the basis for most moral thought.

“Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.”

The Golden Rule is as ancient as it is cross-cultural.  The ethic of reciprocity was present in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia, India, Greece, Judea, and China.

The Golden Rule is certainly a major part of the Torah.

However, there are two competing version of the Golden Rule, or more accurately, there is a Golden Rule and a Silver Rule.

The Golden Rule is frequently attributed to Jesus, even though it was around for centuries before his birth.

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).

Christianity adopted the Golden Rule from two passages in Leviticus in the Old Testament.

Leviticus 19:18 —

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself”

and Leviticus 19:34

“But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Of course, the Golden Rule is older than both the New Testament AND the Hebrew Bible.  It first appears in Ancient Egypt (c. 2040-1650 BCE) and is even spoken about by Confucius (551-479 B.C.)

Early Christianity was eager to distinguish itself from the Judaism of Jesus, so much of the traditional commandments were seen as unnecessary, including the kosher and circumcision laws.  This was partly to attract new converts.   In order to separate the new religion from the old one, Judaism gets a pretty bad rap in the New Testament, where they are portrayed as a priestly people obsessed with outdated laws and corruption (like a Washington D.C. of the time!), preparing the way for centuries of anti-Semitism.

Since Christianity was presented as a religion of good deeds, it is no surprise that “Do unto others…” became so central to Western culture.

Unfortunately, early Christian leaders, focusing on positive stories like “the Good Samaritan” gave little emphasis to the flip side of the Golden Rule — “The Silver Rule.”

The Silver Rule was already an established part of the teachings of the great rabbis at the time of Jesus.  Hillel, an elder contemporary of Jesus, is have said to have written this famous line in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, when asked to sum up the entire Torah concisely, as if it were a Twitter update:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
—Talmud, Shabbat 31a

In effect, don’t do unto others that you wouldn’t want them to do to you.

This Silver Rule was not unique to the rabbis.  It was central to the teachings of Confucius.

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” (己所不欲,勿施于人)
—Confucius, Analects XV.24

I think I personally follow the Silver Rule more than the Golden Rule.  I’m not sure if this has anything to do with years of Hebrew school or just my personal makeup.  The Golden Rule doesn’t energize my brain.

For example:

If I am walking out of my apartment building, and I see an old woman shuffling behind me, I would hold the door for her.  Why?  Out of instinct.  I don’t need to ponder the Golden Rule.

But let me change the situation:

I am rushing to catch the bus.  I open the door to head out when I see the old woman shuffling behind me.

“Hurry up,” I say to myself as she walks, as slow as molasses.

If I keep holding the door for her, I might miss my bus.

NOW is when I need a internal barometer, a belief statement to help me make this split second decision.

“Do Unto Others…” doesn’t help me.  I’m not being asked to do something positive.  I am wondering if the situation allows me to do something negative.   I need to think about the Silver Rule.

“Don’t Do Unto Others…”

Should I slam the door in this old woman’s face because I want to get to the bus?  Is it worth it?  Would I want this to happen to me, if the situation was reversed?  Won’t she think I’m an asshole?  What if I tell her that I am in a rush, so then she will understand?  Or should I just wait for the next bus?”

A little neurotic?  Maybe?  But if I were living in the South during the 1960’s, many moral questions would be presented to me every day, almost none of them about “doing unto others.”  They would be about “don’t do unto others.”

Why shouldn’t my fellow citizens have the same rights as I do?

The “negative” Silver Rule appeals to me.  It seems to me to have a concreteness necessary to make moral  decisions in the real world where NOT DOING SOMETHING WRONG comes up as frequently as doing something right.   We need to give everyone adequate health care not because I believe you would be kind enough to help me, because knowing you, you’d probably be too busy on Farmville to care, but because I would be outraged if I was in your shoes and couldn’t care for MY family.

Dr. Martin Luther King, like Gandhi, was a big advocate of the Silver Rule.

Rosh Hashanah 5771

I cast my sins in the guise of bread, something so simple, so fundamental to life.

Bread.   I like that.

As it says in the Bible, “Within every bagel, there are too many carbs.  Within every good person there is sin.”

Let the birds fly away.  May 5777 be a year when the sun sparkles in the Pacific each and every day.

The Tashlich Prayer

Who is a G-d like You,
who pardons iniquity
and forgives transgression
for the remnant of His heritage?
He does not maintain His wrath forever,
for He desires [to do] kindness.
He will again show us mercy,
He will suppress our iniquities;
and You will cast all their sins
into the depths of the sea.
Show faithfulness to Jacob,
kindness to Abraham,
which You have sworn to our fathers
from the days of yore.

More about Rosh Hashanah (from 2007)

Unconditional Love

Here’s a corny old Jewish joke about the unconditional love of mothers for their daughters (told with a little sarcasm):

Two women who haven’t seen each other in years run into each other on the street.

“How’s your daughter,” the first woman asks, “the one who married that surgeon?”

“They were divorced,” the second woman answers.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“But she then got married to a lawyer.”

“Mazal tov!” the friend exclaimed.

“They were also divorced… But now everything is alright, she’s married to a very successful CPA.”

The first woman shakes her head from side to side.

“Mmmm, so much nachas (joy in Yiddish) from one daughter…”

++++

My mother is back in Queens after a winter as a snowbird in Florida.    My intention was to live it up in my pseudo-bachelor pad all winter.   Life got in the way.    When I left Queens to come to LA, it was for a short trip.  I expected to return to New York in ten days, not still be in LA three months later.

My mother called five minutes after she walked in the front door.

“I am so mad,” she said.

I had left behind six bundles of dirty laundry and a broken dishwasher.

“Oops,” I replied, suddenly remembering that I promised to take care of things before my mother’s return, and never did , much like the “shower curtain incident” last year.

I wasn’t worried about my mother’s anger.   After all, she’s my mother.    I have been lucky with my parents.   I know a few of you got stuck with shitty parents.   I am pretty confident that my mother is going to continue to love me even if I caused a fire and burnt the entire apartment to the ground.

Unconditional love by a mother.

++++

Of course, that same love can also ruin you.

++++

Sophia and I had a fight last week over… yeah, the dishes.    One day I need to write a post on that one issue.   When we argue, I can feel the love disappear.   There is hate in her eyes.   The next day, when tensions subside, the love returns, as if a dark cloud has lifted.   This disturbs me.   It makes me feel very insecure.   I know, I know, your girlfriend or wife isn’t your mother.   Only your mother will give you that unconditional love.

Perhaps that is why I am looking up codependent in wikipedia.

++++

I am very jealous of all the parents out there. You must feel this unconditional love for your children. It must be such a special feeling.   No one else can ever feel this special bond of unconditional love.

Maybe dog owners.   Remember Lassie?    That was unconditional love, right?

++++

If there is one piece of advice about blogging that I can give to newbies without any reservations, it is this:   Never look for unconditional love online.   You won’t find it.   Through trial and error, I now operate on the assumption that I could lose 75% of my readers or online friends in one week by simply writing the wrong type of post or tweet.   Thank God for V-grrrl.   She’s like Mikey in those old Life Cereal commercials.   She doesn’t like anything, but still likes my posts.   I write half of my posts with her in mind.

++++

It is Easter. The idea of unconditional love is an integral part of Christianity. It describes the belief in God’s love for humankind through the forgiveness of Christ.

Unconditional love is also central to Judaism, although the Jewish God sometimes confuses Passover with April Fool’s Day.

++++

In Exodus, there is a moment when Moses shows his unconditional love for his people. Moses has just lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and has given them the Ten Commandments.   What does he get in return?   He finds them partying with the Golden Calf, much like parents returning home early from their vacation to find their high school son having a wild party in the living room with more hookers than listed in Tiger Woods’ blackberry.

Does Moses show unconditional love?   Well, maybe not at first.   He curses them, throws the tablets at them, and several sinners die in a fiery blaze.   Let’s just say that anger management classes had not yet been developed.   But to give the dude credit, God later makes Moses an offer that most of us would jump on: “Let my anger burn against them and I shall annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation!”

Basically, God is offering to get rid of all these schmucks and start over again with Moses in the chariot driver’s seat.  But Moses, for some unknown reason — maybe love is blind — begs for mercy:   “These people have sinned a great sin by making for themselves a god of gold. And now, if You would bear their sin. But if not—erase me now from your book that You have written!”

Translation: “Sure, these Israelites are are a bunch of sinning, high-maintenance assholes — just wait until one day when they have their own country — but I’m one of them, and I love them — despite it all — so just kill me too while you’re at it.”

Unconditional love.   Neurotic, maybe, but isn’t all love?

++++

I know someone is going to comment here that the most important person to love is yourself.   Despite my kvetching, I do love myself.   I find myself very amusing and lovable.   But you just can’t hang around with yourself ALL the time.

I Went to Temple in Cincinnati

There was some discussion about Sophia coming to New York for Rosh Hashanah, but I said I wasn’t in the mood, because when she is here, it requires a big readjustment in my mind, so we ended up being separated during the holidays — again.  I was home with my mother during Rosh Hashanah, and was too unorganized to find a temple to go to for services.  Luckily, I follow a female rabbi on Twitter of all places, named @RabbiBaum, who is involved with an organization named ourJewishCommunity.org .  During the High Holidays this organization video streams Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services from Congregation Beth Adam in Greater Cincinnati .  So, for the first time in my life, I (and my mother) participated in Rosh Hashanah services via the Internet!  Talk about being geeky with God!

Conservative or certain religious Jews who won’t be thrilled with this concept of a streaming service.  It is not exactly “kosher” to be making a video of a live service on Rosh Hashanah or on Shabbat.   This temple’s brand of Judaism also wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of Manischevitz.   This is a temple serving “Judaism with a Humanistic Perspective,” and the first thing I noticed is that most of the men were without yarmulkes.  Over the Torah ark were stain-glass windows, which isn’t unusual in a synagogue, except when one is an image of the Big Bang, signifying the congregation’s adherence to science over Biblical thought.

I’ll let others get involved in the religious arguments.  I thought it was a cool and generous gesture on the part of this unorthodox temple, and it brought a bit of Rosh Hashanah into our home when otherwise we would have just ignored the holiday.  And that is a mitzvah in itself.

If you are Rabbi Baum and you are reading this post, you might want to skip the next paragraph.  No, I changed my mind.  You should read it.  You might as well know the true story of how we experienced your temples’ unique experiment.

As we all know, whether you go to synagogue or church, there is a social dimension to attending a religious service.  There is the connection to God or something bigger in ourselves, but there is also the human contact, which elicits the eternal questions about our fellow congregants, ranging from, “What type of shoes is HE wearing?” to “”She’s pregnant AGAIN?!”   Normally, you save all this gossiping until you get back home, or at least into your car.   When you are watching a service in a streaming video, the experience is more akin to watching the Oscars on TV, and you feel you have the right to talk about Nicole Kidman’s latest gown.

“No one is wearing yarmulkes in this temple.  They must be very reform.” said my mother.  “I don’t like it.”

“There’s a guy in the front row wearing a yarmulke.”

“Good for him!”

My mother is not religious at all, but she seems to be stuck in thinking that only those doing things the old-fashioned ways are the “real” ones.  The choir began to sing.   One of the women in the choir was wearing a sleeveless dress.

“She shouldn’t wear that dress to temple.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t show your arms like that on Rosh Hashanah.”

“She’s not wearing a bikini.”

“It’s just disrespectful.”

“She’s in temple singing in a choir, and we are sitting here eating breakfast, and SHE’S disrespectful?”

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, even though we had already finished our real breakfast, we were munching on toast and jam, and drinking coffee as we were at “services.”

“Did you know when I was in Rome…” continued my mother, “…before you go into the Vatican, if you are a woman who is sleeveless, they give you a shawl to cover your arms?”

“I thought you never made it into the Vatican?”

“I heard about it from some other couple on the ship.”

“This temple is not the Vatican in Rome.  It is in Cincinnati.”

Eventually, the woman in the choir put on a sweater.  Either she was cold or she felt the evil eye of my mother on her from the streaming internet.  Whatever it was, it made my mother happy.

The synagogue had two rabbis, Rabbi Barr and Rabbi Baum.  Rabbi Baum read from the Torah.  In the temple, this is a time when most of the congregation is quiet, listening intently.

“So, this Rabbi Baum…” asked my mother. “Is she single?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought she was your friend.”

“I follow her on Twitter.”

“So you don’t know if she’s single?”

“Do you know all the details of everyone you talk to on email?”

“Yes.  Isn’t that the normal way?”

There were about 330 people following the service.  We know that because there was a counter on the video feed.   Sometimes the counter went up, and sometimes the counter went down, especially during a lull in the service.   This made my mother chuckle.

“Uh-oh, the rabbi better tell a joke,” she said.  “We just lost two viewers.”

Thank you Rabbi Baum and Congregation Beth Adam for letting us participate.   There were other virtual congregants on Twitter during the service, which was somewhat odd, but added to a sense of a community.   I hope my talking about the experience in a true, and somewhat humorous manner, doesn’t take away from the feelings of gratitude.   The sermons about the Torah passage were inspiring, and the choir was excellent.   It was a innovative and refreshing high-tech religiously geeky experience, and actually made me WANT to attend your service in real life!

For a good year — here’s a repeat of my fake Hassidic tale from August.

Family History

ship

My great-grandparents travelled to New York from Russia on one of those unglamorous ships overcrowded with immigrants, hoping to leave the misery of Europe behind.  My great-grandparents had two daughters, Annette and Ruth.  Annette would become my grandmother on my father’s side.  Ruth would become my Aunt Ruthie, my favorite aunt, probably the greatest family influence on my life other than my parents, particularly in terms of creativity.

These immigrant ships were filthy and disease-ridden.  During the trip, my great-grandmother became ill and died on the ship.  My great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, greeted by the Statue of Liberty, with children to feed, but no job and no wife.

I’m not sure how long it was after his arrival in America, but my great-grandfather eventually remarried another Jewish woman he met in the Lower East Side of New York.  She had also lost her spouse.   This woman had a son, Benjamin.  The family blended, and the children – Anne, Ruth, and Benjamin became siblings.

I didn’t know much of this story as I was growing up.  My mother worked, so after school, I would walk over to my grandmother’s apartment, which was only a few blocks away, where they lived in some lower-income housing project building, built in the 1950’s.  My grandmother made the best tuna fish sandwiches because she added celery and dill to the tuna, and she sliced the bakery-fresh rye bread diagonally.  I spent most of my time at my grandmother’s house doing creative activities (or playing Scrabble) with my Aunt Ruthie, who never married and lived with my grandmother.    They were inseparable, so much so that when my aunt passed away while I was in college, my grandmother died a month later, as if an essential organ had been removed from her body.  My Aunt Ruthie was a five foot tall powerhouse of a woman, who worked in an advertising agency before women worked in the industry.  She read all sorts of intellectual books about socialism, psychology, sexuality, and feminism.  She loved to gamble on the horses.

My grandfather was a “character,” and was completely different in attitude than the rest of the family.  While most of the Kramer men were scrawny, brainy Jewish stereotypes, my grandfather was a union boxer of crates, rugged and well-built, with a full set of hair even in his eighties.  Unlike my grandmother, who was a homebody, and who I cannot recall leaving the house other than my high school graduation and my bar mitzvah, my grandfather had ADD before it was known to exist.   Back then, it was described as having  “ants in the pants” or “Shpilkes” in Yiddish.   He was an expert in which NY deli had the best pastrami sandwich.  He would travel at night from Queens to Manhattan to go “dancing at Roseland.”  To this day, I’m not sure what he was doing when he took the subway into the city.  Was he dancing during senior citizen night?  Did my grandmother care?  As a child, with a child’s point of view, I had no concept of the adult going-ons behind the scenes.   Aunt Ruthie and my grandfather always seemed to argue.  I figured it was because my aunt was smart and my grandfather was brawn, and this created that type of banter you would see  in old movies.    My grandmother always kept out of the arguing.

I found my grandfather to be a simple man, but memorable.  He loved Broadway musicals, but was too cheap to buy a ticket, so he would “sneak into” the theater lobby during the intermission when ticket-holders were outside smoking a cigarette.  On Sunday, he would come over to our apartment, carrying bagels and jelly donuts, and tell me the plot of the Second Act of each musical he saw, and I would try to come up with a scenario for the First Act to explain what he missed by sneaking in after the Intermission.

My father was the complete opposite of my grandfather, both in looks and temperment.  My father was a straight-arrow, always worrying about his responsibilty.  He never respected my grandfather’s devil-may-care attitude.

When I became older, I tried to piece together things that didn’t make sense.  Was my grandfather having affairs?  Where was he always going to and from?   He certainly seemed to flirt with every woman, and was popular with all the over sixty Jewish women of Flushing.

My father never talked about it.

My aunt and grandmother passed away while I was in college.  My grandfather passed away while I was in graduate school.  My father passed away during the first year of writing this blog.  My uncle, my father’s brother, passed away last year.  During my uncle’s  funeral, I spoke with my uncle’s wife.  Even though she married into our family, and wasn’t Jewish, she was fascinated by our geneology, even researching the whereabouts of the tiny shtetl where my great-grandparents were born.  She knew more about my family than anyone born into the family.   She talked to me like an adult member of the family, which was a new experience for me, and told me details that no one else had ever brought up before.

The most fascinating tidbit was about my grandfather.  His name was Benjamin.  My grandfather Benjamin was the same Benjamin who became part of the blended family when my great-grandfather remarried.

My grandfather and my grandmother were step-brother and step-sister.

My grandmother, my grandfather, and my Aunt Ruthie grew up together from childhood– all three of them — and then lived together as a family unit until their old age.

There is a story there, and I don’t know if I will ever know it.

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