Once in a lifetime

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it up to here with once-in-a-lifetime events.

Katrina was once in a lifetime. The 2004 tsunami was once in a lifetime. This past year’s wildfires were the worst blazes in living memory. Every other month seems to bring an epic rain or snow that is said to be the storm of the century. And don’t get me started on the polar ice cap.

George W. Bush, the worst president in American history, will turn out to be, God willing, once in a lifetime, as will the officially sanctioned use of torture by American interrogators, the subjugation of the Justice Department by a bunch of right-wing 20-something hacks, and the grotesque intervention of Congress into the Terry Schiavo case. If Dick Cheney isn’t once in a lifetime, there is reason to doubt the existence of divine mercy.

The depth of the unfolding recession, for those who did not experience the Great Depression, is now forecast to be once in a lifetime. Bernie Madoff’s breathtaking Ponzi scheme is — one can only hope — once in a lifetime. The demise of Lehman Brothers, founded in 1850, is once in a lifetime, as will be the extinction of Levitz, the 97-year-old furniture chain, and (as is plausible) of Dodge (b. 1914) and Kmart (b. 1962).

Until this recession, India and China were poised to overtake the U.S. economy, which would surely constitute a once-in-a-lifetime development, like the fall of communism, tobacco, butter, girdles and Esperanto.

The impending deaths of the print newspaper, the network evening news and the television networks themselves — like the prior deaths of the buggy, vaudeville and silent movies — are bound to be experienced as once in a lifetime. The demises of slide rules, typewriters, Polaroid instant cameras and VHS tapes each marked the end of an era. TV Guide is going the route of Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Life; when either Time or Newsweek folds, its surviving competitor will doubtless send it off with a once-in-a-lifetime obit.

Sept. 11 was once in a lifetime, unless you lived through Pearl Harbor. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the malicious explosion of a nuclear device is not in the world’s foreseeable future, and if, keinahora, that happens, it will surely be labeled — optimistically — once in a lifetime.

On the upside, the election of a black American president is totally without precedent, and it is not inconceivable that a woman will eventually follow him to the White House, though if it’s Sarah Palin, she stands a decent chance of wresting worst-ever laurels from Bush.

My discomfort at being crowded by this surfeit of once-in-a-lifetime happenings is partly about hype, and mostly about mental hygiene.

The mainstream news media have no vested interest in proportionality. With so many things competing for our attention, the only way for media-owning corporations to capture our eyeballs is to inflate everything to Armageddon dimensions. Every lurid local crime becomes a national melodrama; every flare-up on the planet is depicted as a precursor to World War III; every scandal is Watergate, or something-else-gate. We are inundated with the Ten Worst This and Ten Best That, while long-simmering atrocities truly deserving of notice, like Darfur or the tuberculosis pandemic, barely make it onto the radar screen.

No wonder the world has the jitters. We are daily assaulted by so much hyperbole that it is nearly impossible to know what is important any more. It is undeniable that we live in a time of big change, but if we did not also live in a time of big media, I am not convinced that we would experience our lives as a relentless onslaught of cliffhangers, crises and catastrophes.

To every thing, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a season, but you wouldn’t know it from the media, which know only one season, which is BREAKING NEWS. Real life has natural rhythms; it plays out on many stages, from the personal and private to the public and historical. But the culture of THIS JUST IN homogenizes those differences. Its imperative is to monetize our attention, and the easiest way to do that is to see as much as possible through once-in-a-lifetime lenses.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain of the economic meltdown, or the significance of climate change, or the symbolic breakthrough of the Obama inauguration or the dizzying transformations being wrought by technology. But it does no good for us as citizens if everything is as screamingly urgent as everything else, and it does no good for us as people if our nervous systems are constantly being bombarded by superlatives. How can our leaders set priorities, how will we ever agree on trade-offs, if public discourse only consists of capital letters? How can we linger in the intimacies and mysteries of existence, how will we truly know what’s worth caring about, if shock and rupture is the only language our culture knows how to speak?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

‘Hakuna Matata’ meets tikkun olam

On Jan. 3, 2007 I accompanied my family to what I thought would be a normal dinner at a delicious Mexican restaurant. I was wrong.

That was the night I found out that I would have to leave all of my friends and go away for six and a half months, spending about two months each in Africa, Southeast Asia and Israel, where, as a family, we would be doing a mix of traveling and volunteering.

While everyone around me was telling me how amazing it would be, I was positive it was going to be the worst six months of my life. I was a normal 13-year-old girl who did not want to leave all of her friends, miss her graduation and all of the other perks of finally being a big eighth-grader.

Only two months before we left, I became a bat mitzvah. Along with the typically excessive amounts of jewelry and more money then any 13-year-old should have within her reach, I got one present that really stood out from the rest. It was a letter from family friends Greg and Justine Podell, with a promise to donate $3,000 to an organization I would find on my trip that would touch my heart. I was still relentlessly opposed to going on the trip, but this gift empowered me to feel that I could make a small difference (little did I know how far $3,000 could go in some of the places that I was visiting) and provided a unique way for me to view my experience and understand my responsibilities to myself, my family and the world.

Our first stop was Tanzania, a country in East Africa, just south of Kenya, and one of the poorest countries in the world. While we were there, I spent a lot of time at an orphanage called Matumaini, which means, “hope” in Swahili. I tried to visit the orphanage every day, and I formed incredible relationships with almost all of the kids living there. I loved the kids so much; they were always so happy and hopeful, even though they have close to nothing, not even running water or clothes and shoes that fit. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the money to go to them.

I was able to return to Tanzania during my spring break of 2008 (my freshman year in high school), this time with another volunteer and without my family. Before I left for Africa, I showed my fellow students at Limudim, my religious school at Ikar, pictures of the orphans, and gave them a mini Swahili lesson (who knew that hakuna matata really does mean “no worries”?). I had each of the students write letters to the kids in the orphanage. When I got to Tanzania, in addition to reading the letters (after we translated them), I had the orphans write letters back, which I sent along with a picture of their Tanzanian “pen pal.”

Returning to Tanzania convinced me that I really wanted to use Greg and Justine’s gift for the benefit of Tanzania. Two of my fellow volunteers, who were also moved by their experiences in Tanzania, started nonprofit organizations. I have decided to give the money to those organizations.

The first one is called the Knock Foundation. The primary focus of the organization is to continue to support the needs of the orphans at Matumaini. The money I’m giving to that organization will create a fund that will pay the secondary-school fees for the orphans. While Tanzania offers public education, many kids cannot afford even the very small fees. My intention is to raise additional money for this fund as well as money toward the purchase of books and other school supplies

The second organization is called Team Tanzania, which is dedicated to organizing Americans, primarily young people, in improving lives in Tanzania by partnering with local community development organizations based in the Kilimanjaro region. Team Tanzania aims to motivate Americans to become involved in any number of ways: from donating money to donating time; from traveling to Africa, to speaking to friends, family and neighbors about Tanzania and its people.

This magical gift really brought everything together for me. Greg and Justine’s gift, combined with this trip and preparing for my bat mitzvah, taught me to take a deeper look at the world around me and consider where

I want to take a stand in helping the world become a better place.

Of course, I realize that not everyone will be able to go on the kind of trip that I went on or receive a gift as generous as Greg and Justine’s, but any gift that encourages us to consider tikkun olam in a deep and meaningful way is the best gift of all.

Maya Wergeles is sophomore at Santa Monica High School and a student at Limudim, the religious school at IKAR.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

The Power of Memory

Memory is a multibillion-dollar enterprise these days. I am personally on my fourth PDA and angling for a fifth even sleeker, more efficient model. Reminder cards and scheduler programs abound. Capitalizing on human frailty, the memory industry offers compensation.

For in a world that moves ever so quickly, we dare not forget that crucial meeting nor miss that all-important birthday (anniversary, wedding or bar mitzvah…). If forgetting is a touchstone of our humanity, then the opposite perspective should reign from the Divine. "Ein Shikcha lifnei kisei kevodecha" — "There is no forgetting before Your Divine throne" — is the great theme of Rosh Hashanah and is a vital component of God’s curriculum vitae. Imagine our surprise when we encounter in Parshat Noah the striking concept of Divine memory as the very explanation for the recession of the flood waters:

"And God remembered Noah and all of the animals that were with him on the Ark and God brought a wind upon the Earth and the Waters receded."

And God remembered?

What, pray tell, was God doing until that point? And while this might be the first time we encounter Divine memory, by no means is it the last. God keeps on remembering — be it Sarah, Rachel or Chana in their state of barrenness or the Jewish people as they wallow in the depths of Egypt. The notion of Divine memory certainly deserves our attention. Does God also need a Palm? (I have three older models.)

Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1270) distinguishes between the process of memory and its role. The process of remembering entails bringing an image from the past into the forefront of one’s thought.

Quite apart from its process, memory serves a specific role. Consider the disorientation of the advanced Alzheimer’s patient or the tragic plight of the stroke victim who courageously relearns the fine art of walking, talking and eating. Reflect upon the personal frustration we all feel when we just can’t put the name to the face. Without memory, opportunities for social, physical or intellectual advancement range from minimal to none.

Thus, the role of memory is to allow us to develop proficiency by reflecting upon and refining our previous bits of knowledge. It is in this vein that we speak of national or cultural memory — a knowledge of the past that allows us to advance civilization a notch beyond. 

Surely, God has no need for the process of memory. He never forgets. Yet, the role of memory is acutely relevant to the Divine realm. When the Torah states that "God remembered Noah" — i.e. He bestowed upon him special mercy — it is for a particular higher purpose. Were God not to remember Noah, surely Noah would be reduced to spiritual toast. Similarly, Sarah, Rachel and Chana, as beneficiaries of Divine memory, are enabled to transcend their physical barrenness in order to serve as matriarchs of the Jewish people. In the realm of the Divine, memory is totally purpose-oriented.

Divine memory need not be restricted to God. About three years ago a particularly pious-looking young man walked into our daily afternoon prayer service. His gentle swaying and intense prayer bespoke a refined yet fervent religious commitment. Surely, I had no recollection of this fellow; yet he looked hauntingly familiar. Mentally, I exchanged his formal dresswear with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. My mind’s eye darted back 10 years, the beginning of my teaching career, to recollect a dear high school student who lived life on the wild side — able to rile up an entire school with a single howl; a student whose cresting popularity easily propelled him to the student council presidency. As I conjured up these images, I stared at the prayerful figure in the room, and was stirred by the realization that this was my beloved student — now a responsible, charismatic, intense young man, a newly minted abba to boot. As the two pictures collided, I gained a new appreciation of his personal odyssey. Here was an individual who did not remain stuck in the quagmire of memory, but one who was able to build upon yesterday’s passions to build a prayerful personality.

For some time now, "We will never forget" has been a mantra of the Jewish community. To never forget is not enough. Instead, we would do well to heed Yogi Berra’s comment that "nostalgia isn’t what it used to be."

When Mark Twain wonders aloud: "All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" do we simply smile or do we understand the implied challenge to grow our personal and communal Judaism?

The raison d’être of our collective Jewish memory should not merely warm the heart, but should serve to reorient our perspective on all things past. Divine memory, as a notion, issues a clarion call of renewed obligation, inspiration and energy. Are we listening?

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.

Two YULA Students Picked as Scholars

Having a conversation with Yeshiva University of Los Angeles
(YULA) students Debra Glasberg and Tzvi Smith is like chatting with two
political experts being interviewed on CNN. These two high school students are
among the five Jewish teens chosen for the exclusive Sen. Joseph Lieberman
Scholars Program.

Now in its third year, the program is a joint project of the
Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) and the National Conference
of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). The goal of the Lieberman Scholars Program is to
educate and cultivate future leaders of the Jewish community.

After submitting an extensive application, selected high
school students are notified late in their junior year. The program lasts
throughout their senior year.

Twelfth-graders Smith and Glasberg and the three other
students selected are expected to monitor issues in Congress, work in
government offices at the local level and participate in pertinent educational
programs and seminars.

Glasberg has visited Russia and Australia to teach children
about Judaism and has been participating on her school’s Model United Nations
team since 10th grade. At 17, she has her immediate future figured out: She
will learn at a yeshiva in Israel for a year after high school and then go to
college to study political science. Her goal is to become a political activist.

“I’m concerned about issues that affect the Jewish community
and how we can help American Jews and world Jewry in the political process,”
the Beverly Hills resident said. “I think it’s extremely important that Jews
have a say in American politics.”

Smith, who started an NCSY branch in his community of
Westwood, was inspired to participate in the Lieberman Scholars Program after
spending a summer working for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice). The 17-year-old said
he was asked to look into various policies and outline positions on both sides
of issues.

“I really enjoyed thinking about and seeing where and why
people choose one side of an issue over another and getting down to the bottom
of it,” he said.

Smith is anticipating that the program will expose him to
different points of view. “I’m hoping to get perspective out of it and make my
world a little better,” he explained. “As a teen, I live in a pretty cloistered
environment. I’m hoping the program will give me an opportunity to get in touch
with Judaism in other parts of America and other points of view.”

Like Glasberg, he plans to study at a yeshiva in Israel
before attending college.

In late November, Glasberg and Smith attended the United
Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly in Philadelphia. The conference
provided an opportunity for Jewish community leaders from across North America
and from Israel to meet and exchange ideas. The purpose of the event, which is
one of three major seminars the scholars will attend this year, was to foster
leadership in the Jewish community and promote Jewish awareness.

“Coming from an Orthodox perspective, I was fascinated how
the whole community could come together,” Glasberg said. “We all had this
uniting factor in supporting Israel and learning how to bring community
together to help Israel.”

For Smith, the most memorable part of the conference were
the sessions on outreach. “I do Jewish community outreach, and it was interesting
to see differences in goals and messages between the Orthodox and
non-Orthodox,” he said. “I like to be reminded that the Orthodox opinions are
not the only way.”

“It reminded me that we’re all Jews,” Smith continued.
“There were no conclusive answers, and I thought that was important because so
many backgrounds were represented.”

Josh Sussman, the IPA associate director in Washington,
D.C., is one of the guiding forces behind the program. “Our office hopes to
increase political activism in the community,” he said. “The Orthodox community
traditionally feels the political community is not for them, and there are some
pockets who still feel this way.”

“Anything that gets people involved is a good thing,”
Sussman added. “Hopefully this program is one more step in that direction.”

Debbie Shrier, YULA’s secular studies principal, said that
while both students have vision and drive, the program will give them the
skills to implement their ideas.

“Both of them have the tikkun olam [heal the world] aspect
to make change,” the administrator said. “Now they’ll have the political tools
to make change and have an impact on the community as leaders.”