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How to cope in the apocalypse


Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

On a recent cold, rainy day, I was in my car listening to “Bookworm” on KCRW, as the dulcet tones of host Michael Silverblatt interviewed author Michael Tolkin about his new L.A.-based dystopia, “NK3,” in which a virus has destroyed human society. The host posed the following question:

“Given that I feel, every morning when I wake up, I’m waking up into the Apocalypse, or at least into the pre-Apocalypse, do you feel this is an unusual sensibility?”

The author responded that Silverblatt’s experience is perfectly normal in the wake of the presidential election. We all feel that “there’s going to be some mass culling of the herd,” Tolkin said.

An exchange like this might have been shocking before Jan. 20. But now, we find ourselves in a time when it’s normative for even our literary elite, who usually are concerned with imaginary worlds far from our own, to describe the era in which we live as being tinged with the same horror that inhabits their fiction.

Yet somehow, I found their words comforting and memorized them. It reassured me that I am not alone in feeling this way, nor are the people I meet and counsel.

In fact, we are never alone, even in the darkest of times. As this week’s parsha might be understood to say, we always have one another, and we have civility, and we are had, by God.

The parsha is Mishpatim, or “laws,” a section of Exodus packed with rules about how to behave in a civilized society. God makes clear that we are required to respect one another, and take care of one another and one another’s property. Our feelings about one another have no say in the matter.

We are told to assist the fallen donkey of an enemy, and our own “degraded” countrymen — those who have lost their status, for one reason or another. We are told not to oppress foreigners, since we know what it feels like to be foreign. Injury, theft and property damage lead to financial restitution, even when the victim is a slave. Gouging interest shall not be levied.

Falsehood must be rejected, both in our personal interactions (by eschewing gossip) and in a court of law (by permitting only admissible evidence). We must reject the ways of the majority when what they want to do is evil — rather, we are to stand up for what is right and true, even when it’s not easy, even when we feel all alone. And we must demand a system of fair judges and obey their orders.

Moses reports all of these rules to the Israelite people. The people hear them, and they respond in unison: “Na’ase v’nishma” — We will do and we will understand. That is to say, we will accept these laws as fact, and go about the process of making sense of them to ourselves later on.

Where did these ex-slaves come up with the chutzpah to make such an assertion? According to the Talmud, only angels have the capacity to completely surrender their will before God. Yet the Israelites were not super-human. They weren’t even super-gifted, spiritually. They needed Moses to intervene and hear God’s words for them, or they would have died.

According to the 18th-century Chasidic master Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, what they did have was a certain awareness. This is something that everyone can tap into that will allow them to connect to God-ness, no matter how low their spirits, and how far off from God they come to feel.

“God is called the ‘Life of Life,’ ” they reminded themselves (as quoted by Rabbi Larry Tabick in his book “The Aura of Torah”). “All the life in the world, domestic or wild animals, birds, or the human eye — their life force is the Blessed One. Hence, God is the Life of Life, the life of all that lives. So, when you fall from your level, you should think: ‘Am I not alive? And who is this life force of mine? Is it not the Creator?’

“There they would find that God is also present, even though in a very contracted state.”

Life has its ups and downs; times when we feel infused with spirit, and fearful times when hope seems unattainable. Still, we must remember what the Israelites were able to do when they heard God’s laws. They let themselves feel connected — to one another, to God and to the world. And then they could trust again.

Trust in the system is essential to civilization, and this starts with a communal sense that civility is anchored in goodness, or Godness, and that all life is anchored in the Source of life.

Make time for connection, both human and spiritual. The anxiety of the day will still be there when you want to come back to it, but you will be stronger, and the world healthier, for your having been away for a while. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is a board-certified health care chaplain working in home hospice and institutional settings. She is a provider of creative Jewish after-death ritual (sacred-waters.com) and owns a referral agency for clergy in private practice (lacommunitychaplaincy.com).

Fear of the apocalypse and Edan Lepucki’s ‘California’


Fear of a publishing apocalypse, to be precise. Most of us never would have heard about Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, about a post-apocalyptic Golden State, except for a battle between Amazon and book publishers.  Here’s a short version of a long story: California’s publisher, Hachette, refused to go along with the giant retailer’s pricing demands, so Amazon retaliated by making it more difficult and expensive to buy Hachette books on its website. Then, in retaliation for retaliation, the comedian Stephen Colbert asked the whole world to protest Amazon’s behavior by buying an obscure new Hachette novel: California.

For all the attention and sales that have come to the book, precious little has been said about what’s in the novel. Which is too bad. Because California has a lot to say about California—and especially the state of our thinking about how the state might end.

The apocalypse, and what comes after it, is serious business here. Hollywood has minted billions by telling post-apocalyptic stories in TV and film. Silicon Valley spins happier, “creative” tales of destruction, reveling in the ability of its coders to create technologies that upend traditions and wipe out pre-existing industries. We twice elected a governor best known for his performances as a time-traveling robot from the post-apocalyptic future. In office, his biggest accomplishment was legislation that seeks to stop climate change (i.e., Armageddon).  

And those are just manmade world-enders. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently boasted that his city was susceptible to 13 of the 16 types of federally designated natural disasters. He also said he would create a new position, chief resilience officer, to prepare L.A. better for existential threats. It seems that Armageddon, like most human pursuits, requires bureaucratic oversight—and physical fitness. CrossFit, a company with California roots, offers a “Zombie Apocalypse” training program, featuring 5K runs and fence-scaling.

I’m all for apocalyptic readiness, but it requires imagination as much as disaster preparation. And Lepucki’s novel is just one of many cultural offerings that suggest that California is running behind in post-apocalyptic thinking.

Movies and TV, once reliable for bringing forth new end-of-the-world narratives, seem to be recycling the same tired apocalyptic scenarios: aliens, zombies, robots, nuclear war, evil scientists, oil shortages, climate change, asteroids, viruses, aliens with viruses, and so on (you can mix and match from the above). Earlier this year, even Godzilla was brought out of mothballs to destroy San Francisco, presumably before gentrifying Googlers could. This summer, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film sequel to a remake, offers a vision of a collapsing human race that has been overtaken by smart apes building a superior civilization in Marin County. Since folks in Marin already think they are a more advanced form of primate—just ask them—the premise feels derivative, at best.

Too many of the narratives that drive today’s apocalyptic stories owe a debt to California writer Philip K. Dick, who has been dead for more than three decades, and to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, published in 1985. The present is having a hard time keeping up with earlier visions of the California future. Today, we’re only five years short of 2019, the year when, according to the 1982 film Blade Runner (based on a novel by Dick), L.A. cops would be chasing down genetically engineered robots known as replicants.

In its vision of the future, Lepucki’s novel California, while beautifully written, also feels dated. Her post-apocalyptic world of tomorrow seems driven by fears that come from the California of the 1970s and 1980s: overpopulation (not much of a concern in a state where immigration has flatlined and the birthrate has fallen to below-replacement levels), food shortages (when cheap, obesity-boosting food is all too available), crime and violence (today at record lows), and the rise of gated exurbs for the rich (today it seems like the rich are the only people who can afford to live in the centers of our big cities).

Lepucki, while evasive on most details, also pins the apocalypse on today’s hot buttons: climate change, terrorism, and income inequality seem to have wiped out many cities and people. The film industry is even forced out of L.A. not by other states’ tax incentives, but by a series of earthquakes that destroy freeways, homes, and schools.  A suicide bomber hits the Hollywood and Highland development; another blows up a crowded restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district. Amidst total chaos, the main characters leave L.A., cross through the Central Valley, and then struggle to survive in what appears to be the forests of the North State.

This post-apocalyptic California has little reliable electricity, no Internet, and no public universities. Governance and politics remain messy (since Lepucki is silent on the question, I’m assuming that Prop 13 has survived the apocalypse), though the public does seem more engaged than it currently is. Someone cares enough about the post-apocalyptic governor’s race to kidnap a candidate, then release him after 16 days, naked except for a paper party hat.

While such details are fun, they also feel narrow and predictable, too closely tied to today’s political hobbyhorses, particularly those on the left.  The right has its own narrow apocalyptic tales about the end being nigh on account of high-speed rail, legalized marijuana, or Obamacare.  I could concoct some doomsday scenarios of my own, extrapolating from today’s worrisome trends: We could all soon reside in one giant Indian casino, or wake up to find ourselves living out a statewide reality TV show with producer Mark Burnett pulling the strings.  Or what if all this sharing economy stuff oozing out of Northern California returns us to the Middle Ages, rendering us all bartering villagers?  And what madness would ensue if, God forbid, the Oakland Raiders won a Super Bowl again?

You see, it’s challenging being imaginative in your apocalyptic musings when there is so much to be annoyed about today. But that’s one reason California feels so stuck—our visions of the future, dark or light, feel so unoriginal, so limited. It’s time to cast a wider net.

Why, for example, do so many apocalyptic stories of California take us into rugged terrain—the northern forests, or the forbidding Southern California deserts? I, for one, would prefer to battle back against the apocalypse in someplace exceedingly pleasant. Like La Jolla.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.

Best place to avoid a zombie apocalypse?


Max Brooks, son of the comedian behind “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers,” is convinced that Jews are uniquely positioned to face a zombie apocalypse. And he’s not joking.

“Gentiles don’t understand how truly dangerous the world is. Jews do. It’s part of our national culture,” he said. “We’re the only ones who actually have a national freaking holiday about running for our lives. We call it Passover.”

As the author of “World War Z,” the book upon which the new Brad Pitt movie of the same name is loosely based, Brooks, 41, has given zombies more thought than most. His 2006 book takes the form of an oral history looking back at humanity’s long fight against a pandemic of flesh-eating creatures.

While there are many differences between his book and film that opened June 21 — Brooks played no role in molding the latter, and Pitt’s character (a former U.N. field investigator traveling the world in search of zombie-fighting intel) does not even appear in the former — the Holy Land’s swift reaction to the outbreak of the undead is notable in both. As the threat spreads and other countries struggle to deal with it, Israel distinguishes itself from the rest of the world by walling itself off from its attackers, becoming an island in a sea of zombies.

Brooks said his overall treatment of Israel, which differs in other respects from the movie, was based on real research.

“I’ve studied a lot of Israeli military strategic tactics,” he said. “I’ve studied all their weapons systems, and they’re very practical. … The Israelis don’t have time to screw around. They don’t have the luxury. It made sense to me that if there was a global crisis coming they would be the first to jump on it, because they literally don’t have time to learn from their mistakes.”

To wit: In both versions of “World War Z,” a character says that Israel adopted a policy following the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973. It requires that if nine intelligence analysts come to the same conclusion about something, it is the duty of a 10th to disagree. No possible threat — not even the undead, apparently — is to be dismissed.

For Brooks, whose funnyman father, Mel, served in World War II, there’s even a parallel to be drawn between zombies and Nazis, who left Jews no hope for negotiation or common ground.

“The fact that I am part of a tribe that was almost exterminated for no other reason than that we existed leaves a pretty heavy mark,” Brooks said. “And that kind of terror is also how I feel when I think about zombies, because they are coming after me no matter what I’ve done, no matter what kind of person I am.”

On the silver screen — where “World War Z” took in $66 million during its first weekend — positive images of Israel abound. The nation’s flags wave proudly as it receives refugees of all faiths, and a soldier more than has a chance to prove her mettle. 

The undead may have their own place in traditional Jewish lore — the golem, for example — but Brooks said his interest in the genre comes from an intensely personal place.

“I was always scared of them,” he said. “They terrified me because they broke what I considered to be the one sort of golden rule of monsters, which is you have to go to find them. … They came to you.” 

A Los Angeles resident who is married and has one son, Brooks first turned his fascination with zombies into the New York Times best-seller “The Zombie Survival Guide” in 2003. It was an attempt, he said, to answer his own questions about them. He remembers seeing his first zombie film when he was about 12.

Brad Pitt in “World War Z.” Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

“For me, the most terrifying moment of it was not the flesh-eating, which was pretty fricking scary. There was a scene in the U.N. where we understood that it was a global problem. And I think that was the thing about zombies — that they’re global. There’s no safe place to go.”

That’s also part of what makes zombies — which are much, much faster in the movie — so popular these days (think “The Walking Dead”), Brooks believes. People are uncertain about the future and don’t want to face their fears directly. Addressing them under the guise of a zombie pandemic makes it more palatable.

“I think there’s a global anxiety that there hasn’t been in a very long time, not since the 1970s,” Brooks said.

Swine flu. Bird flu. Terrorism. Global financial meltdown. Global warming. 

“You name it, it’s coming.”

A historian by trade, Brooks said that “basically everything that happens in ‘World War Z’ has already happened. I didn’t make anything up. I just sort of zombified real historical events.”

Further, he said, “I didn’t really set out to write a message. I think if there is one it is that there are no more local problems. I think the last decade has shown that. Unfortunately, the good old days of American isolation really don’t work anymore.”

Uninitiated moviegoers may be surprised to learn that a zombie thriller was based on a book by the son of Mel Brooks. Still, Max Brooks — who wrote for two years at “Saturday Night Live” and won an Emmy — insists that he’s a zombie nerd at heart. 

The only problem with his last name, he discovered with the release of his first book? Having it land him in the humor section.

Watch the trailer for “World War Z” here: