The quantum theory of presidential politics
Future events decide what happens in the past.
That’s not science fiction. It’s science. Quantum physics, to be precise.
“Quantum physics is a weird world,” begins a Digital Journal “>Australian scientists confirming the weirdness of quantum theory. “[W]hat happens to particles in the past is only decided when they are observed in the future.” Reality isn’t real until you measure it.
This is pretty mind-blowing, but it doesn’t just occur in the subatomic world. Future events decide the past in presidential politics, too.
We experience politics as a narrative marketplace, where competing stories clamor for attention. Those stories are unstable. Each day’s news requires retroactive adjustments. When a candidate moves ahead or falls behind, when a president’s fortunes turn, hindsight requires us to revise the past – to reverse-engineer a new plot that leads inexorably to an event we didn’t see coming but that just happened.
Barack Obama entered the national political narrative with his red states/blue states/United States speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention. Best. Orator. Ever. His Philadelphia speech on race during the 2008 campaign was acclaimed as honest and inspirational. You would think those events would have cemented his reputation for eloquence, and for thoughtfulness on racial issues. But during his first term, a counter-narrative captured attention: the Republican talking point mocking him for being clueless without a “>paper published in Science last year reported on a study conducted from 1974 to 2014 that tracked how Americans have remembered and forgotten presidents. Most people could name nine: the Founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison); the Civil War era (Lincoln, Johnson, Grant); the World War II presidents (Roosevelt and Truman). But after Truman, as a New York Times
Bedouin life from a child’s eye view through a camera
A young Bedouin boy casually leans against a rough-hewn wooden table, his kaffiyeh blowing in the wind. Laid before him are some of the traditional tools of Bedouin coffee-making, essential to their culture of hospitality. A mortar and pestle for grinding the beans, a large cast-iron pan for roasting them, and a bacraj, or coffeepot.
Behind him is a section of a cinder-block wall, a sign of the permanent housing that is gradually replacing traditional Bedouin tents. English writing appears across the chest of the Western-style sweatshirt he wears beneath his jalabiyya jacket.
The photograph is part of an exhibition titled, “Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” which continues through Sept. 30 at the Venice Arts Gallery. According to Kim Frumin, the educator, artist and Fulbright Fellow who designed and implemented the project, this and other photos in the exhibition accurately show the fluidity between tradition and modernity at Abu Kaf. Frumin sees the boy’s relaxed pose, amid artifacts ancient and new, as epitomizing a “great harmony … between the past and the future” in the children’s lives.
The seeds of this project were sown in the summer of 2003, when Frumin visited Israel on a community service trip. Walking through the Bedouin village of Wadi El Na’am, Frumin felt like the “pied piper of 35 millimeter film.” Fascinated by the camera slung over her shoulder, the children followed her around, excitedly calling out in Hebrew: “Take my picture!”
Frumin was intrigued by the fact that “in a village without water or electricity … the children were so excited about the camera.” Concerned with escalating tensions between the Negev Bedouins and Israel over land disputes and access to basic services, she thought about ways she might help create bridges between the cultures.
“I realized that my experience and expertise lay in art education and in working with different cultures,” she said.
With the children’s excitement for photography fresh in her mind, Frumin decided to use art “as a tool for communication and expression.”
From December 2004 through April 2005, Frumin worked with 10 youths at a school in the recently recognized Bedouin village of Abu Kaf. The students practiced taking and developing pictures — none had ever used a camera before — and examined photographs taken by other children around the world.
Frumin and the children also “spent a lot of time with the idea … of how the camera gives you new eyes to see everyday things in new ways,” she said. “I hoped that spending time examining and reflecting on their community would foster a pride in their unique culture and a love for Israel.”
Though shy at first, the students quickly became eager to write and talk about their culture.
“The project tapped into a wellspring of thoughts [and] feelings about their community and their traditions,” Frumin said. They also “knew they had a unique perspective to share, the experience of being a Bedouin child,” a notion that was very “empowering” for the children.
In another photo, a young girl is counting on her fingers as she kneels for prayer. Frumin explained that “she is praising Allah the prescribed number of times and is showing how kids remember to count the correct number.”
The principal of the Bedouin school, Ali Abu Kaf, has been so impressed by the children’s “work, their ideas … and the power of their writing and photographs,” that he suggested Frumin undertake an expanded second round of the project. This time, however, he’d like the Bedouin children to partner with children from Jewish kibbutzim in the area.
As Frumin said, “the project would be a ‘living together’ — not just tolerating each other or existing together — project.” Frumin hopes to begin this second round in February or March and is “actively looking for sponsors.”
“Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” through Sept. 30. Venice Arts Gallery, 1809 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8533.
A Nod to Heroes of Past and Present
The holiday of Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, but the Haggadah doesn’t mention
Nachshon ben Aminadav.
Who was this man?
According to the biblical account of the Exodus, the people have no sooner left Egypt than they encounter a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — the Red Sea. As Pharaoh’s army pursues them from behind, God performs a miracle and divides the sea in order that the Israelites may walk through on dry land.
In the rabbinic retelling of this story, the crossing of the Red Sea becomes a test of the Jewish people’s faith. According to one midrash, as the people stood on the edge of the sea, each tribe said, “I’m not going in first.”
As each tribe waited for another group to take the plunge and as Moses stood praying to God, one man — Nachshon ben Aminadav — jumped into the water. This action prompted God to split the sea in order that the rest of the people could walk through safely.
Nachshon is a biblical profile in courage. Without his faith and determination, the Exodus story might have ended before it even had begun.
Even today, we are often still inspired by a contemporary Nachshon to take the first step, to lead us through uncharted waters. Within the last year, we lost two women who fulfilled that role profoundly: Rosa Parks and Betty Friedan.
Their stories are well known. Parks, who lived in Montgomery, Ala., was a civil rights activist with the NAACP in the 1940s and 1950s. Parks was an educated woman — she was among only 7 percent of blacks with a high school diploma at the time — who had been involved in desegregating the South.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks boarded a public bus and took an empty seat next to a black man. When told to vacate their row of seats for a white man, the man next to Parks complied. Parks did not and was arrested.
The next day, she agreed to be the plaintiff in a lawsuit by the NAACP challenging segregation on public buses. At the same time, leaders of the local Women’s Political Council took action, making 35,000 handbills calling for a bus boycott in Montgomery. It would last for more than a year and help the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. become the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader.
Friedan was a housewife earning money on the side by writing for women’s magazines, when, in 1963, she produced one of the most important books of the 20th century. “The Feminine Mystique” took aim at a central myth of postwar America: Women were happy to give up their career ambitions to be housewives. The book was based on and inspired by interviews Friedan conducted with — and surveys she distributed to — alumnae of prestigious women’s colleges.
Her surveys and interviews with women across the country made it clear that discontent with household drudgery — “the problem that has no name” — was pervasive. Yet 18 years after World War II, no one had been able to articulate this problem in a way that could galvanize an entire women’s rights movement.
In the years after “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Friedan helped to found several of the most important women’s organizations in the United States, including the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.
Parks was not the first black to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Friedan was not the first woman to recognize and stand up to the daily oppression suffered by women in their role as housewives. Like Parks and Friedan, it is unlikely that Nachshon was the only one willing to step into the unknown, to step into the Red Sea. But each of them was the first to inspire multitudes to follow them on what appeared to be a fool’s errand.
Nachshon looked at the sea, heard God’s command to cross and saw potential where others saw debilitating peril. He was driven by his determination to reach the Promised Land and his certainty that the Israelites were but one step behind him.
Contemporary Nachshons like Parks and Friedan inspire us because they saw potential where we remain transfixed by peril.
Our hopelessness often leads us to dismiss challenges like the ones confronted by Parks and Friedan as lost causes. Their faith, courage and hope compel us to improve conditions that are too often ignored.
In the biblical story, it would not have been enough for Nachshon alone to step into the Red Sea. The community needed someone to go first, but Nachshon needed a community behind him to walk with him toward the Promised Land. Similarly, it is not enough to celebrate the courage of leaders like Parks and Friedan. Their example should be a challenge for us to follow closely behind and to walk together into the Promised Land.
This Passover, I hope we accept their challenge to confront hopelessness with righteous action.
Simon Greer is President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, a national public foundation dedicated to mobilizing the resources of American Jews to combat the root causes of domestic social and economic injustice.
Why Are We Jews?
“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Joseph — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik
Oh to be a fly on the wall of that great and dramatic confrontation between Judah and Joseph. The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to become Egyptian viceroy. Joseph frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph “graciously” offers to exonerate all the brothers — barring Benjamin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Judah, the engineer of Joseph’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial viceroy and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Benjamin:
“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Benjamin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)
In the face of such courage, it is Joseph who crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity. How deliciously ironic that this man of control, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s temptations and strong enough to remain hidden for more than 22 years, capitulates to Judah.
Wherein lies the power of the Judah personality? Is this the same Judah who initiates the sale of his brother and whose conduct in the Tamar episode raises troubling questions? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Judah’s siblings. Why is it Judah alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Benjamin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Jacob?
Our sages portray the development of the Judah personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Judah begins to contemplate the enormity of his actions and their effect on Jacob. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his former daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.
Unlike his role in the Joseph saga, in this epic, Judah does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father (if this story seems puzzling — you might want to read it in its original). Tamar knows, but refuses to vocally pinpoint Judah as the father of her children. Instead she opts to merely present Judah with the evidence and ultimately forces him to make a momentous decision. In the presence of his father and grandfather, comments the Midrash, Judah is confronted with a massive internal crisis. Shall he remain passive or admit that he sired the children? Will Judah choose ephemeral ease over eternal excellence?
“Tzadkah mimeni” (“She is more righteous than I”), Judah declares. (38:26) Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth. Precisely here, our sages majestically declare, does Judah earn his messianic stripes. Judah has made mistakes in the past, but he is now willing to accept responsibility. The metamorphosis is almost done. For if Judah is able to admit responsibility it is only natural that when the crisis of Benjamin strikes that Judah plays the lead role and proclaims: “Anochi e’ervenu” (“I will be his guarantor.”) (43:9)
It is striking that Judah’s sense of responsibility now transcends his own self and creates a sense of obligation to the other. Ultimately, this proactive responsibility has a profound curative effect, as the brothers are reunited and the family healed.
Often parents in their role as mediators in great sibling struggles are privileged to hear various restatements of “it all started when he hit me back” — an argument of impeccable logic. It is not all right for our children to shirk blame. Sacred duty requires that we invest them with a sense of accountability, however unpleasant or frightening that might be. In our efforts to provide our children with everything, we may deprive them of the great gift of responsibility, engendering in its stead a sense of entitlement.
For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim — or Jews — a derivative of the word Judah. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Josephs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws. Even as we do not control our circumstances, we surely control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality. Once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and indeed for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.
This Torah Portion originally appeared on Jan. 2, 2004.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at YULA.
It’s Not Your Zayde’s Klezmer Anymore
Musician Eric Stein felt disillusioned with rock ‘n’ roll. He spent years slogging away in a band without “making it,” so he started looking for something else.
He considered being a history professor, but then, a new instrument and an old style of music changed his mind.
The instrument was a mandolin and the music klezmer.
“There was level of musical sophistication that goes with the kind of music you can play on the mandolin, and my intention was to start a new acoustic-fusion thing, with an emphasis on string and wind instruments,” said Stein, who went on to form Beyond the Pale, a klezmer-fusion band.
“I had been brought up as a secular Jew, and I didn’t know much about Jewish music except that it was dorky,” said Stein on the phone from Toronto, where his band is based. “But when klezmer got hot a few years ago, I found that the music really spoke to me on a cultural level. All the time, I was trying to play other people’s music, but this is the music of my family and my history.”
Stein’s approach to klezmer — seeing it as part of his heritage, but wanting to put an innovative, modern stamp on it, is typical of today’s klezmer revival. More and more musicians are attracted to the music, but want to move it beyond its European folk roots.
Hence, bands like Beyond the Pale fuse klezmer with reggae, jazz, ska and bluegrass music. As a result, klezmer keeps one foot in its shtetl past and another in the post-modern present.
“That’s why we called the band Beyond the Pale, because the expression means something that is unexpected and beyond the bounds,” Stein said. “[The name] refers to the Jewish roots of the band, but it also refers to the idea that we want to get outside of the rules — to pay homage to the traditions, but at the same time express ourselves.”
“Consensus” is the name of Beyond the Pale’s new CD, but while the title implies harmonic accord, even compromise, the tunes on the CD do not. Although not disharmonious, the tunes startle the listener with their complex boldness.
In “Whassat,” for instance, the 10th song on the CD, a clarinet melody starts off plaintive and wailing, only to be overlaid by a thumping base beat that builds into a rhythmic crescendo that is less “Tevye” and more jazz club.
In “Skalavaye,” Beyond the Pale gives a modern, ska-tinged rendition of a 1940s Yiddish classic, with contemporary nods to Yiddish humor. “Halevai (I only wish that) I was a keg of beer,” warbles vocalist Josh Dolgin. “So you could quench your thirst with me, my dear'”
For Stein, the CD, a live recording of a Toronto concert, epitomizes the new direction of klezmer.
“Historically, klezmer music was just about extinct by the mid-60s, for all sorts of different reasons, such as demographics and the Holocaust,” Stein said. “So for the first 15 to 20 years of the klezmer revival, [which started in the 1970s], the overriding influence was about ‘Let’s rescue what was forgotten and bring it back.’ But in the 1990s, we have the second generation of the klezmer revival, and that is when things really started to evolve. [The musicians] were marrying klezmer to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, funk and reggae.”
Klezmer was not only becoming musically assimilated, but moving beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Stein is the only member of his five-piece band who is Jewish, and the band’s audiences have also changed.
No longer do klezmer bands attract only the bubbes and zaydes who remember the music from the old days. Now, in many venues, klezmer audiences can be primarily non-Jewish.
“People from within the Jewish community are embracing it, and using it as a way to express their own cultural heritage, but it is also having a life outside of the Jewish community altogether,” said Martin Van de Ven, Beyond the Pale’s clarinetist. “It has become [a style of music] with its own direction and way of doing things. More and more musicians are getting involved with it….”
“It is really evolving beyond just a Jewish form of music,” he said.
A Fishy Miracle
The fish was the ugliest I had ever seen. I actually recoiled as my son proudly pointed him out in the aquarium. He loves fish.
Most boys want a dog or a cat. Fish, it seems, capture my son’s imagination.
“Fish,” he told me, “don’t bark or jump on guests.”
“You can’t pet them or teach them tricks,” I replied.
They look at me sometimes, he claimed, and that was enough.
He brought the ugly fish home on a cold, dark December day. Jet black, just like the winter night, the fish’s eyes were perched on the ends of hideous balls protruding from his unfortunate body. The rest of him looked like a regular black goldfish, but the awful eyes made me cringe. He was quite out of place in the aquarium.
After a few visits to the tank, I began to admire the fish’s moxie. We bonded and I started to call him Bugsy. He glided past the more elegant fish, ones with tiger stripes and brilliant dots of color, with his big baseball eyes held high. He found his way and found his place in the underwater world.
A few days before Chanukah began, my son came to me, expressing concern for Bugsy. It appeared that the black scales around the horribly shaped eyes were coming off. We looked at Bugsy and felt a terrible sadness. We turned away.
My son felt the fish was looking to him for help. He didn’t know what to do. Although I appreciated his concern, I knew that his beloved pet was a $2 fish and could be easily disposed of. He rejected that idea immediately and said he would call the fish supply store for advice.
He got busy with school and work and didn’t consult the store. When the other fish began to nip at Bugsy, he removed the fish from the tank and put in him in a big jar of water.
Bugsy was on deathwatch. We could not know for certain if he suffered, but, nonetheless, we felt his pain.
The next day, after his geography final, my son planned to release Bugsy into a fountain in a park to let him die with dignity, but first he promised he would stop at the fish store to see if anything could be done. I said goodbye to Bugsy as my son walked out to his truck, gently cradling the big glass jar in his arms with the fish swimming blissfully in tiny circles.
Less than 30 minutes later, my son returned, holding the big glass jar aloft. Bugsy, it seems, had contracted a virus.
All he had to do was put some pills in the fish tank for a period of time and Bugsy would recover quite nicely.
He showed me the pills, eight in all, in a tiny plastic packet. Eight pills, eight days.
Chanukah! Bugsy was our Chanukah miracle — his recovery lit the night.
A tiny fish that could have been tossed out was given a second chance by a compassionate young man. Bugsy is holding his own and we are quite optimistic.
We hope he will survive the odds and light our winter nights, as the lamp lit the dark nights of the Jewish people centuries ago. We light the Chanukah candles to keep away the winder darkness and find our miracles where we may.
Couch Quest — Path to Past and Future
Furniture, vital in everyday life, hardly ever plays a large role in art. Henry James’ "The Spoils of Poynton" comes to mind, in which the characters’ inner lives are manifested in their dreadful fight over inherited furnishings, as do stories by Anzia Yezierska, in which the meager possessions of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side come to symbolize both their survival and their salvation. But for the most part, as in much of our lives, tables, chairs, sofas, bureaus, cabinets and the like are taken for granted in art, imbued with little meaning.
In "Divan," a lovely, funny and terrifically moving documentary by Pearl Gluck, the eponymous piece of furniture — a couch upon which several famous 19th- and 20th-century Hungarian rabbis slept — becomes not just a connection to a historical past, but an ironic, and at times contentious, symbol of family fealty and difference. In its 71 minutes, Gluck gives us not just a tale of high family drama, but a serious meditation on the nature of history, memory, betrayal and the significance and insignificance of furniture.
Gluck, who began making "Divan" in 1998 at the age of 27, was born to a Chasidic family in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Her parents divorced when a she was in her early teens. While most of the women in her father’s community were married by the time they turned 18 and never pursued higher education, Gluck went to Brandeis University, got her bachelor’s degree, became a filmmaker and stayed single. When her father voiced a desire for her to marry and move back to the insular world of Borough Park, Gluck searched for a compromise that would repair family schisms but allow her to continue the life she had been leading. In 1996 she was awarded a Fulbright to collect oral histories of Yiddish-speakers in Hungary, where her parents still had many relatives and, before she left, her father gave her a video camera. He asked her, in lieu of returning to Brooklyn, to bring back from Hungary a family heirloom: the divan upon which the famous Kossonye rebbes rested.
While the narrative backbone of "Divan" is Gluck’s quest for the couch — a large, high-backed, cushioned, wooden structure closer to what we today might more likely call an upholstered bench — her story is actually a journey to the past to find a way to live in the future. Gluck has structured the film around two trips to Hungary: The first is her search for the divan and her quest to meet, for the first time, her parents’ relatives who survived the Holocaust; the second is a pilgrimage she takes with her father a year later to visit the burial sites of the founders of chasidism ("20 grave sites, thousands of miles, seven days"). It is on this frame (to stretch the metaphor thin) that Gluck adds the cloth textures and the cushions of interviews with friends — women and men who left chasidic communities and are now in the process of creating lives that fuse aspects of their past with interests that sustain their current spiritual and psychic growth.
This is a lot of complicated and emotionally charged material for just over an hour, and Gluck’s intelligence and subtlety as a filmmaker allow her to pull it off without either condescending toward her father or compromising her own vision, feelings and opinions. There are moving moments here — including a scene in which Gluck visits a memorial commemorating many of her relatives who were murdered at Auschwitz — but she often keeps the tone on the light side. At first this feels odd, and you wonder if she doesn’t understand the somber complexity of her own material. But as the film progresses, this contrasting tonality becomes increasingly powerful. Halfway through the film, when Gluck realizes that she may not be able to retrieve the divan because her more Orthodox relatives don’t approve of her secularism, we viscerally feel her sense of betrayal. Later, in various scenes — when she is asked by chasidic men to cover her arms in a public place while speaking to them, tie back her unruly hair in their presence and not use the video camera — Gluck’s sorrow in attempting to bring together two divergent pieces of her heritage and life become palpable. In many ways, "Divan" is intended as a peace offering to her father, yet he will not allow himself to be shown in the film.
The genius of "Divan" is that Gluck has managed, in both her life and the film, to find creative ways to bridge her past and present. Watching it inevitably brings to mind Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s recent documentary "Trembling Before G-d," in which his subjects are in spiritual and psychological agony over what they feel is their expulsion from their communities. The power of DuBowski’s film stems from the raw, unhealed and apparently irreconcilable pain of spiritual and sexual difference. (Interestingly, while none of the friends interviewed in "Divan" are identified on film as lesbian or gay, many of the issues they speak of as being problematic for their families — remaining unmarried, not having children — are resonant of the subjects in "Trembling" as well.)
While the excruciation of watching "Trembling Before G-d" was unrelieved, Gluck struggles to find common ground and a sense of solace that do not involve compromise. She never really gets her father to accept her completely, and she remains angry at all of the attempts to deprive her of her past, but at the film’s conclusion her father travels from Borough Park to her Manhattan apartment to work with her on editing this film. It is a bittersweet, semi-comfortable coda to complicated lives and complicated journeys. While her original plan to deliver the family’s venerable divan to her father becomes increasingly problematic and entangled, she does deliver this exquisite, often disturbing, but touching film to both him and us.
"Divan" opens May 21 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869 and at the Town Center 5 in Encino, (818) 981-9811.
The Haunted Divorce
She was beautiful. She was sweet, smart and reflective. She was a devoted mother of a little girl, clearly able to love and to carry on a bright, thoughtful conversation. We connected, and, in first moments made drunk by hope, we discovered a shared passion for the poet, Rumi, and told each other favorite lines…
“Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways
to kneel and kiss the ground!”
“Don’t run around this world
looking for a hole to hide in.
There are wild beasts in every cave!”
There was spark between us. There was energy. There was a bucketful of that holy grail of dating … chemistry.
And then the conversation turned to what happened to “the marriage.” I told my sad story. And she told her sadder one — of her tender ex-husband, a loving, charismatic man who also happened to be bipolar. And who, on one bad day, off medication, killed himself.
As a new dater, I suddenly became afraid of ghosts.
Not the transparent kind that say “Boo,” but the opaque presence of lost love, something fleshy that sits in the room between the two of you, crooning to only one of you, “I still love you.”
Setting out onto the yellow brick road of singlehood at 40, I could already see it would be a haunted trail. Those of us, man or woman, who have been married a long time, who have birthed children together, dandled and diapered them together, those of us who thought we were building lifelong partnerships before we were betrayed or bored or desolate or dead inside, cannot help but be haunted.
Clearly, however, there were going to be all kinds of ghosts. To start, married — especially with kids — ghosts feel different than old boyfriend/girlfriend ghosts.
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, marriage is based on the exaggeration of the virtues of one woman above all others. Jewish tradition might put it this way: marriage is a decision to hold before you the purest soul that dwells within your partner — no matter how cranky or depressed he or she may be at times — and by this practice, you will weather the inevitable storms of life, and perhaps touch the Divine.
“Harei at mekudeshet li, b’tabaat zu.” With this ring, I make you holy to me.
With apologies to the Catholic Church, you might say marriage, therefore, makes holy ghosts.
For while love — untended — dissipates, holiness is forever. Holiness hands you the parting gift of a permanent spectral companion who whispers in your ear, “Because you knew me, no matter what you hope or dream or believe about yourself — doubt it!”
By this early date, I already knew that I was accompanied by my own ghost, one made faint by long-palsied love. I would get used to it. But across the table, stoked by love interrupted, hers burned with the chilling luster of still holy love.
It was suddenly very cramped. Me. Her. My fading ghost. Her blazing one.
When I was married and miserable, I never understood why people said they hated dating. It looked like so much fun. Bodies in motion. Now I saw that when it’s more than fun, that when something deeper in you suddenly touches something deeper in another, ghosts come out to call and feed.
Clearly, I was a novice at this dating thing in more ways than one. I knew I wasn’t ready for this table for four, so I didn’t call her back. At least I could curl up with my Rumi, who whispered something more encouraging….
“Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings. Move within,
But don’t move the way fear makes you move.”
It was going to take a lot of practice.
Adam Gilad is a writer, producer
and CEO of Rogue Direct, LLP. He also teaches creative writing based on Jewish
texts at the UJ and privately. He can be reached at email@example.com
It was the perfect day for a wedding. As birds chirped, guests sniffled and the bride and groom exchanged vows, I sat in the back row and reflected on the wedding party, all dutifully standing at attention up front. The bridesmaids, decked out in periwinkle, were my former sorority sisters from college. The tuxedo-clad groomsmen were all my college drinking buddies. And most of the bridesmaids and groomsmen were married or engaged by now — to each other.
Come to think of it, only one groomsman was still single. And, of course, me. (And I had hooked up with that groomsman the night before. What did that say about our group of friends?)
Some people might call our group of friends "incestuous," but the phenomenon of friends becoming lovers had obviously transcended the Northwestern Class of 1997.
After the wedding, I traveled to New York City to visit an old friend from high school. He was in great spirits because he had just fallen in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman. She also happened to be my best friend from high school. Seeing these two, suddenly cuddly, suddenly tender, suddenly optimistic about their future was, well, unsettling. I should have been happy that all my friends are finding love and comfort in the arms of my other friends. But honestly, it freaked me out.
"Why is it," I ranted later to my roommate, "that all my friends are marrying each other?" I took a big slug of whiskey and declared, "It’s a little pathetic. It’s kind of like giving up on the outside world."
My roomie got a guilty look on her face and said, "Well, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I think I want to marry Randy."
I was incredulous, shocked. Randy was our old friend from more than 10 years ago, who she never sees, who has a girlfriend and who lives in another city.
"He just understands me," she continued, "and he has always been there for me."
Great. Now even my roommate was in the enemy camp. I had noticed lately she had been spending a lot of time on the Web site, Friendster. Friendster is kind of like a six-degrees-of-separation dating site, where you can scope out your friend’s friends as potential love interests. Clearly, this "friend loving" is a national trend.
I started to wonder about that old phrase, "you can’t go home again." Maybe, by finding your future through a friend in your past, you really can connect with a simpler time — a time in high school when the future seemed limitless; a time in college when you rallied against impending adulthood. Plus, late-20s growing pains can be harsh — suddenly you have financial responsibilities, friends scattered across the country and insecurities about careers and relationships. Maybe we all felt like better people 10 years ago. And maybe our old friends help us remember that. But is that any reason to marry them?
I flipped through a bunch of old photos, gazing at the new brides and grooms in uncomplicated times — when our biggest problem was misplacing the keg tap. In every photo we were smiling, cuddling, buzzed and delirious. Did all my friends know back then that they were intended for each other? Was their love and devotion always there, but just hibernating?
I began to wonder if there was any one of my friends that I might fall in love with one day. I racked my brain, trying to figure out if I could, someday, see anyone else in a different light. I came up blank. Then, I wondered in reverse, how come none of my friends wanted to marry me? I was momentarily affronted until I remembered that I couldn’t fathom a future with any of them.
I looked up from my photos and around my living room. I did have a house, a dog, a pretty nice television for a girl, a fledgling career, and, yes, lots of friends. Maybe my future has been brighter for being alone. Maybe my future will continue to be enhanced without marring someone that reminds me of my past — who instead reminds me of the present.
As I tucked my photos away I realized something. Here is the thing about friends: whether you marry them or not, they will always be there for you. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Lilla Zuckerman is the co-author of the recently released “Beauty Queen Blowout: Miss Adventure No. 2,” (Fireside).
Schwarzenegger Retracts Waldheim Wedding Toast
California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he regrets his 1986 wedding toast to former U.N. Secretary Kurt Waldheim.
“It was a mistake,” Schwarzenegger told The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. “You can’t go [back]. It’s always easier to be smart in hindsight.”
Schwarzenegger spoke to The Journal during a press conference following a live Sept. 25 town hall meeting on the nationally syndicated radio program “The Sean Hannity Show.” The Republican Jewish Coalition, KABC and Fox News cosponsored the event.
Despite Schwarzenegger’s openness in addressing questions of his father’s Nazi past, the “Terminator” star had until now been less than forthcoming about repudiating the wedding toast he made to the former Nazi officer.
In a Sept. 19 editorial, Jewish Journal Editor Rob Eshman called on Schwarzenegger to “come clean on Waldheim.”
“It may not expedient,” Eshman wrote, but it’s right.”
Waldheim’s Nazi past came to light in March 1986 during his Austrian presidential bid; the former officer participated in an army intelligence unit that committed atrocities while stationed in the Balkans. In 1944, Waldheim approved anti-Semitic leaflets to be dropped behind Russian lines, one of which ended, “enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over.” During Waldheim’s tenure at the United Nations, the international body passed the controversial resolution equating Zionism with racism.
The revelations of Waldheim’s Nazi past led the State Department to bar his entry into the United States. Schwarzenegger, during his May 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver, a niece of John F. Kennedy, took time to toast the absent Waldheim, who had sent a gift.
Schwarzenegger addressed his father’s participation in the Nazi Party after a 1990 investigation by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. A more recent follow-up investigation by the center found nothing to link his father’s unit to Nazi war crimes.
Schwarzenegger has personally donated $750,000 to the Wiesenthal Center and helped raised up to $5 million over the years, the center said.
As far as outreach to the Jewish community, two-thirds of which are registered Democrats, Schwarzenegger doesn’t have a specific plan.
“I think that it doesn’t mater what your background or religion is,” he said. “I think the key is that everyone wants to have economic recovery in California.”wine tasting, boating on the Rio de la Plata and walking tours.
The Price We Pay
Jacob spent 20 long years in the home of his father-in-law, Laban, before he could return to the land of Canaan, his home and homeland.
He had been threatened, cheated, tricked, attacked, injured and orphaned over the course of those years. Certainly, he was hoping to settle down and enjoy the rest of his years in peace. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Jacob’s daughter, Dina, was spotted by Shechem, the prince of the land. He desired her, abducted her, raped her and then, in an odd twist, his aggression turned soft and he sought to make her his wife.
Shechem and Chamor, his father, approached Jacob and preposterously asked for his permission to marry Dina. It could be the start of a new relationship between the locals and Jacob’s family, they reasoned. Sons and daughters would intermarry, they could do business together; it was a win-win partnership for everyone. Jacob and his sons listened incredulously as these men painted such a rosy picture, as if they would happily agree to an alliance with those who perpetrated such an ugly and violent act against their daughter and sister.
Unfortunately, Jacob’s family had the weaker stance in these negotiations. Dina was still Shechem’s prisoner, and their one objective was to bring her home safely. Instead of agreeing to or rejecting the proposition, the brothers devised a plan, and attached an unrealistic condition to the marriage; all of the men in the city of Shechem must be circumcised before they would allow Dina, or any of their daughters, to intermarry. If the men refused, the brothers could take Dina back and be released from any obligation to have dealings with these repulsive people. It was a clever plan, but it backfired. The brothers underestimated the power and persuasion that Shechem had over his people, and all of the males underwent circumcision.
What to do? It seemed that the brothers had backed themselves into a corner. Shimon and Levi, two of Dina’s brothers, decided, independently, to take matters into their own hands. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men were weak and defenseless, they entered the town wielding swords. They killed all of the males, including Shechem and Chamor, took spoils and captives, and fulfilled their main objective, rescuing their sister and bringing her home.
They were successful in their quest, but were they justified? Were they allowed to kill so many people, to risk their own lives, to act with deceit? Their father seemed to think not. Jacob rebukes them sharply, both at the time that they act, and years later at the end of his life. He fears the repercussions of the inhabitants of the land, curses the anger of his sons and disassociates himself from their partnership.
But they have a defense. They have a response to their father’s objection: "Hach’zonah ya’aseh et achoteinu. (Should he treat our sister like a harlot?") Shimon and Levi felt that Shechem acted so brutally against Dina because she was the daughter of Jacob, a Jewish girl. Jews are easy targets because no one stands up to protest when a Jew is attacked. Shechem feared no punishment, no backlash, no consequence to his actions, and, therefore, he was free to do to Dina whatever he pleased. But Shimon and Levi stood up to say an emphatic no. Jewish blood is not hefker (ownerless). It is not free for the taking. We can and will use the full force of our strength to defend the lives and honor of our own, even if everyone else turns a blind eye to the injustices carried out against us.
Is this not the story of our past and our present? Who stood up to defend those who lost their lives in the Crusades? In the Inquisition? In the pogroms? In the Holocaust? Atrocity after atrocity befalls our people, and why? Because the world does not cry over spilled Jewish blood. Thank God for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have, time and again, been blessed with the strength of Shimon and Levi, and showed the world that Jewish blood is accountable. As a nation, we can and will defend the lives of our citizens, and even if the world stands idly by while aggression is unleashed against us, it won’t go unpunished.
For the past two years, daily and deadly attacks have been unleashed against the citizens of Israel, yet Israel gets condemned for exercising her right of self-defense. Women and children are targeted and killed in their cars, their restaurants, their own homes — and the world seems to side with the perpetrators, not the victims. Were Shimon and Levi justified in wiping out the city of Shechem? Is the IDF justified in rooting out terrorists? Not everyone thinks so. The United Nations, the European Union and some in our own American government don’t support the drastic measures Israel must sometimes take to defend her citizens, even her very existence. But despite the protest and the bad press, it is hard to condemn success and security. There is a price to pay for relying on others for help, and there is a price to pay for taking care of ourselves. Shimon and Levi force us to think about which is a greater price to pay.
Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.
The Grandma Moses retrospective traveling around America these days doesn’t tell a story I know about this particular Moses. Nowhere does the story appear in the more than 60 pictures of apple picking, maple sugaring and other pleasant rural scenes by a "primitive" artist whom leading critics are reassessing as an American Brueghel.
New York Observer critic Hilton Kramer says it’s a "scandal" that the show, at the San Diego Museum of Art through Aug. 26, hasn’t found a venue in New York. He’s right, I think. Not only for artistic reasons, but also because Grandma Moses got her start from a bold Viennese dealer who fled to New York from Hitler’s Europe. She then became, in the words of cultural historian Anthony Heilbut (in his book on German-speaking emigrants, "Exiled in Paradise," 1983) an "entrepreneur of images" who taught others how to feel more American just by looking.
I know about this because one of her paintings, titled "Hoosick Bridge," hangs in the house where I grew up in Westchester County, N.Y. Showing a gentle scene of a girl herding cows toward an old covered bridge, its summer daylight glows softly against the pale wall of that plain, colonial-style house just north of Manhattan. It’s a world away from the night of Jewish exile to which Grandma Moses owed her career and to which my parents belonged when they bought the painting after being married in the depths of World War II.
Although Anna Mary Robertson Moses had become a wizened icon by the time she died in 1961, at age 101, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently that the sobriquet "Grandma" demeans a serious artist. Perhaps, but it suits my familial sense of her. Beneath "Hoosick Bridge" — it hangs above the plaster mantel of a stone fireplace — my parents, my brother and I mingled at parties and exchanged birthday gifts. We lived the cycle of Jewish holidays, the ritual games of Passover, the anbeissen, as my German-speaking parents called the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast. Through it all, "Hoosick Bridge" stood as a bridge between Europe and America, the past and the present, over dark waters on which my parents escaped the Nazis.
People I talk to seem surprised that an artist born in upstate New York, whose family could be traced back to the Mayflower (her married last name follows the New England tradition of using Old Testament names) could have a personal significance to my family. But my parents’ attraction to her makes sense: She painted a soothing, ordinary-looking New England paradise far from both the swastikas they feared and the foreign city where they were starting over.
They were young refugees — she was 18, he 22 — who separately managed departures that eluded relatives who would vanish in Hitler’s concentration camps. My mother, Elena Arnstein, reached New York on the elegant Normandie in May 1939. My father, Cyril Jalon, landed at a pier in Brooklyn on a freighter from Barcelona in June 1941. They met here, got married in 1942 and showed up at the Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street on a winter day in 1944 with $300, a wedding gift from my mother’s Uncle Hans.
They didn’t pick the St. Etienne by accident. Refugees leaned on old connections in the New World. A famous émigré dealer from Vienna named Otto Kallir had founded the gallery. That was all I knew about the painting’s past. Seeking more information recently, I was stunned when the woman who answered the phone at the St. Etienne — Hildegard Bachert was the name she gave –declared that she had been working there for so long that she could remember the day my parents came to the gallery. "There is some kind of relationship between your family and Otto Kallir," she said in a firm voice, businesslike and soulful. "Ask your mother."
My mother told me that, yes, her uncle Fritz shared a passion for airplanes with the young Kallir and his two brothers, all of whom met in the attic of Fritz’s childhood home in the Viennese district of Dobling. Fritz went on to become a professional pianist (he spent the war years in an Australian camp with other European Jews deported there by the British), and Kallir became an art dealer specializing in Expressionist painters labeled degenerate by the Nazis: Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimpt, Oskar Kokoschka and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Then, he "made" Grandma Moses — though it was a Hungarian named Louis Caldor who discovered her.
Caldor, who worked as an engineer for the City of New York, had found Moses’ work in a drugstore in the upstate New York town of Hoosick Falls. John Kallir, Otto’s 78-year-old son, hadn’t heard of Caldor apparently. In fact, he feared he might be a Nazi agent, stalking émigrés who, as Kallir did, visibly opposed the Nazis and aided refugees. John Kallir recently told me how, one afternoon when he was in high school, he was summoned by a nervous phone call to join his father on a journey to the Bronx. "It was weird, in the late afternoon, to take the subway to look at some paintings, "he recalled. Father and son left the Broadway local at 138th Street and met the stranger.
"Caldor said, ‘Now we have to walk a bit,’ and he led us up these steep stairs to his car. By this time, it was dark. Caldor handed my father a flashlight and opened the trunk. Inside were the first paintings by Grandma Moses that we saw." The Museum of Modern Art included her in a private group show in 1939 that gave her limited exposure, but Kallir’s new gallery gave Moses her first public one-woman show in October 1940.
It may seem strange that a dealer who represented Expressionists such as Schiele and Kokoschka, dramatists of vibrant inner intensities, should tie his future to the quiet folk art of Grandma Moses. But Otto Kallir "always collected folk artists and what became known as ‘outsider art,’" his son told me. There was not much of a market for Austrian Expressionist art at that time, but Moses quickly ignited interest in émigrés and others. When my mother purchased "Hoosick Bridge," she mirrored in microcosm the attraction this very American artist held for Kallir, other refugee dealers and their clients. "We were not collectors," she said, "but we had this chance to give a fine gift to ourselves." My mother was pregnant at the time, and Kallir personally guided her around his gallery. "I remember how enthusiastic he was about this lady from Hoosick Falls, this lady of 80-something, very old, who painted," my mother said.
One of the paintings on Kallir’s walls was "Hoosick Bridge." Moses had painted it just months before, some time in 1943. "I liked it. Period," recalled my mother, herself a painter, frequently of landscapes. "To me, this was New England," my mother said. "The first time that we went away from New York, 1939, we saw those beautiful covered bridges. There was nothing like it in Europe."
I asked my mother: "Did you consciously feel when you chose "Hoosick Bridge" that you were buying a kind of bridge to America?"
"Yes," she said, emphatically. "Absolutely."
Having made her choice, she called my father at his office, and he soon appeared ("I was never as crazy about it as she was," he said) and helped her select a frame. In the following weeks, while they waited for the painting to be readied for their new apartment, my brother Stephan was born. On March 18, gallery records confirm, my parents walked into the Galerie St. Etienne and took "Hoosick Bridge" home in a cab.
After leaving San Diego, "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century" will travel to Orlando, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala; Tulsa, Okla.; Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore. Otto’s granddaughter, Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne and co-curator of the current show, said that efforts are under way to find the show a site in New York.
Ten Years After the Wall
On a frosty November morning, I walked around the two massive, ruined synagogues that form a unique surviving Jewish complex in Kalvarija, a small, sleepy town in southern Lithuania near the border with Poland.
One of the synagogues was built in the early 18th century. Its roof had fallen in and its bottom windows were bricked up, but it was possible to see arches and other architectural detail and decoration.
The other, built in about 1803, was more or less intact, but crumbling. Between the two stood a red brick building, a former rabbi’s house and a cheder, or Jewish school, with a big Star of David above the door.
As I have done in hundreds of other cities, towns and villages in more than a dozen countries, I took pictures of the synagogues from every angle.
With my eye focused through my camera, I didn’t watch where I was walking. Suddenly, I tripped over a broken brick, half buried in the uneven yard, and went crashing to the ground.
Trying to save my cameras, I ended up twisting my ankle so that I could hardly walk.
The injury took weeks to heal fully, but everyone told me that my spill was beshert — fated — and maybe it was.
Kalvarija is the town from which my great-grandfather, Pesach Susnitsky, emigrated some 120 years ago, ending up in the small town of Brenham, Texas.
In Brenham, Pesach became Philip. He was the patriarch of a huge family of children, including my grandmother, who was born in Brenham, and a pious pillar of the Jewish community.
In Brenham, he helped found a Jewish congregation. The little wooden synagogue that was built in 1894 still stands.
When he left Kalvarija in about 1880, Jews made up more than 80 percent of the town’s population. By 1939, it had dropped to about 25 percent, but still about 1,000 Jews lived in the town.
No Jews live there today, and I must say that given the depressing and bloody history of the town and region during World Wars I and II, and decades of later Soviet domination, I am enormously thankful that my great-grandfather had the courage to leave when he did.
Still, the buildings I was photographing were not just fascinating sites of Jewish heritage in general: they were the places where my ancestors worshiped and studied.
The streets of the town, with their small, mainly low wooden houses, and the central square dominated by a big, white church with two ornate towers, were the streets and square where my ancestors walked.
I had driven there with a friend after spending the night near the Polish town of Suwalki, about 20 miles to the south. Until a few years ago, such a day trip from Poland to Kalvarija would have been difficult if not impossible.
For one thing, American citizens today do not need a visa to enter Lithuania. While Kalvarija is the first town in Lithuania across the border from Poland, the border crossing-point was opened only four years ago.
I didn’t have a real genealogical agenda for my visit — I just wanted to see the town. But I had hoped to spend much of the day walking through the quiet streets, poking into corners and possibly talking to local people.
My injured ankle cramped my capabilities, though — and here’s where beshert comes in.
An old woman told us where the Jewish cemetery was located, on the other side of the little Sheshupa River that winds through the town, and my friend and I decided to drive straight there.
Pesach Susnitsky died in Texas in 1939 at the age of 83. Several years ago, I visited his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Brenham.
I had little hope of finding any Susnitsky graves in Kalvarija, but I was eager to visit the cemetery just to see it.
We found a small, fenced-in, triangular plot of ground right in front of a huge electric grid, which contained several dozen simple tombstones, some of them toppled.
Hobbling, I starting photographing the site. Just then an old man came by, wheeling a bicycle.
“I know everything, everything,” he smiled. All his teeth were capped in gold. “I remember everything how it was.”
He propped up his bike and began to talk. He described how the cemetery used to extend much, much further, stone after stone, all the way down to the river, but the Germans destroyed it, and most remaining stones were stolen.
Now on top of the area, there are ugly, poor barracks where people live — with no indoor plumbing, they have to walk 50 yards or so to toilets. Pigs and dogs frolic around. A man passed by leading a cow.
Of the remaining graves, the only mausoleum, he said, was that of a certain Menashe who was a “millionaire.”
I asked the old man if he remembered the Susnitsky family — and he did.
“Of course! There were a lot of Susnitskys here, a lot.” Particularly, he said, before the war, there were two Susnitsky brothers in town, Alter and Yankel, who must have been nephews or great-nephews of Pesach. “Alter was a big, tall man,” he said. “Yankel was small, curved over and had a hunch back.” He demonstrated, scooping out his own body.
The brothers lived together in a big house on a hill, he said — and then he led us there to see it. Indeed, it was one of the most imposing wooden houses in the village. Undergoing some renovation, it even sported a satellite dish.
Both brothers were killed when the Germans deported the Jews to nearby Mariampole during World War II, he told us.
The old man said all the houses on this street were occupied by Jews, and that Jews lived all over the town. “So many, so many!” He gestured forlornly.
He was clearly nostalgic for past times — and the disappearance of the Jewish community represented for him a change for the worse. Nonetheless, in describing the Jews in town, he used the Polish term Zydek or “little Jew” — a term Jews regard as pejorative.
The Jews in Kalvarija were “good people,” and “wealthy,” the man said, they took care of each other and everyone got on with everyone.
“They were called Yankele, Alterke, Menashe, Meyshke,” he recalled. “They would say, ‘Oy vey, oy vey.‘”
JTA senior European correspondent Ruth E. Gruber is the author of “Upon the Doorposts of thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today,” and “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe.” She has documented Jewish heritage sites in more than a dozen European countries over the past decade.
Living in the Here and Now
When the Chassidic master, Reb Yitzchak Yakov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One got his books and his notes, another his shtender, his study lectern, one his Kiddush cup, another his tallit and tefillin. When it was all distributed, there remained one humble Chassid who had not asked for anything. To him was given the Rebbe’s clock.
On his way home, the Chassid stopped at an inn. But when he discovered that he had no money to pay the innkeeper, he offered the Rebbe’s clock as payment. And so it was that the innkeeper took the clock and installed it in one of the rooms.
A year later, another one of the Rebbe’s Chassidim passed by and stayed the night at the same inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the footsteps of the restless Chassid pacing back and forth in his room. In the morning, the concerned innkeeper confronted the Chassid: “Master, why did you not sleep last night?”
“Where did you get the clock?” asked the Chassid. And the innkeeper related the story.
“I knew it,” responded the Chassid. “This clock belonged to the Seer. It is a holy clock. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past — from where we’ve come. This clock ticks toward the future — toward redemption. And every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminded me how much more there is to do before the future can come, before redemption can be realized.”
It’s all in how we read the clock. We are the heirs and bearers of a rich, powerful and magnificent tradition. We come from a long and remarkable past. And with all we have experienced, there is a powerful temptation to look backward. To count backward. To calculate how far we have wandered from our past.
There is a difference between love of tradition and an obsessive habit of looking backward. There is a difference between reverence for the past and enslavement to the past. But this difference can become obscure because, in looking backward, there is certainty and security. Forward, there is apprehension and wonder. Forward, there is fear. And it is this dreadful fear of the present that grips so many.
It grips the child afraid to begin a new year of school. It shackles the young person afraid to commit to marriage and family. It holds the middle-ager afraid to admit that he’s not 20 anymore. It paralyzes the community obsessed with the way things used to be. It cripples the spirituality that measures our contemporary struggle for faith and wisdom against a mythical ancestry of giants and geniuses. It blinds us to all the possibilities and promises of today and tomorrow.
“Atem nizzavim hayom” — “You stand today, all of you before the Lord your God…to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you today, with its sanctions, so that He may establish you today as His people” (Deuteronomy 29:9-12). This triple reiteration of the word “today” in the opening verses of this week’s Torah reading leaps off the page, embracing us in the present. Today, we are invited to the Covenant. Today, we are invited to share God’s dreams for the world. The choice we make today is the one that counts. Today — with all its wondrous and fearful potential.
A Chassidic master asked his disciples, what is the most significant moment in all Jewish history? In all the experience of the Jewish people, what moment stands out as paramount? And the students answered: The crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of Torah on Sinai, the conquest of Jerusalem. No, taught the master, the most important moment in all Jewish history is right now. We. Here. Now. That’s the only reality.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.