September 17, 2019

Pearls of Wisdom

In 2005, musician Craig Taubman curated a collection of short writings that attempted to get the reflective juices flowing in the month leading up to the High Holy Days. 

Called “Jewels of Elul,” the writings — which are about 250 words apiece and closely resemble tweets but with greater insight — have since become an annual tradition, save for a two-year gap in 2016 and 2017. Contributors have included Jewish and non-Jewish artists, activists, rabbis, politicians and entertainers, such as former President Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and pop star Lady Gaga.

Taubman penned 29 “Jewels,” one for each of the 29 days of the Hebrew month of Elul, and this year’s contributors were asked to write about the question, “What if?”

“ ‘What if’ is the ultimate dare, the permission to think out of the box and reach for what might, could or ought to be,” Taubman, 60, wrote in the introduction to this year’s offerings on “It is the spice of life and, for me, the fuel that drives me through the day.”

In his contribution, Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert juxtaposes a mundane kvetch with an inspirational insight: “What if the Wi-Fi on airplanes was so much faster?” Lupert writes. “What if instead of using Wi-Fi on planes, we talked to the person in the next seat?” 

Rabbi David Ingber, founding rabbi of Romemu in New York, acknowledges his road rage and his tendency to assume the worst of other drivers. In his piece, he asks, “What if we could give each other the benefit of the doubt?”

“ ‘What if’ he was still alive — becomes our call to action,” writes Jeanne Pepper, the mother of Blaze Bernstein, the Jewish college student from Orange County who was killed on Jan 9.

Other contributors this year include Jewish transgender activist Abby Stein; Orthodox Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn; California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (also a Democratic gubernatorial candidate); comedian Sarah Silverman; her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman; March For Our Lives activist Matt Deitsch; Zionist author Gil Troy; and songwriter Eric Bazilian, who wrote the 1995 Joan Osborne hit “One of Us,” which asks, “What if God was one of us?” 

‘Jewels’ offers ‘bite-sized’ reflections that are also rich and deep in their themes. And the variety of people Craig brings together enables a diversity of perspectives, so everyone can find a voice, or voices, that brings out their own. —Rabbi David Wolpe

Taubman told the Journal in a phone interview he would not be writing “Jewels” were it not for his longtime collaborator, Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe. Wolpe also wrote the foreword to this year’s volume.

“Rabbi Wolpe gave me permission and opportunity to experiment and try new things,” Taubman said.

“What I would say is that ‘Jewels’ offers ‘bite-sized’ reflections that are also rich and deep in their themes,” Wolpe told the Journal in an email. “And the variety of people Craig brings together enables a diversity of perspectives, so everyone can find a voice, or voices, that brings out their own.”

This year’s theme of “What if?” was born out of a lunch meeting a couple of months ago between Taubman and philanthropist Bruce Whizin. Taubman said Whizin asked what it would take for Taubman to bring back “Jewels” this year. “Time and money,” Taubman responded, to which Whizin replied: “What if I gave you the money?” 

“With that ‘What if’ question, I got the theme and I got the money,” Taubman said. 

“What if?” is also the theme of Taubman’s forthcoming High Holy Days services, which will be held at the Pico Union Project in downtown Los Angeles. The project is Taubman’s nonprofit interfaith arts center, housed in the original Sinai Temple building, under the auspices of his congregation, Sanctuary @ Pico Union.

Taubman plans to print and distribute approximately 20,000 hard copies of this year’s “Jewels of Elul,” which will be available in a CD-sized book and printed on glossy paper. Each copy comes with a request for a donation to the Pico Union Project. The writings were released on the Jewels of Elul website on Aug.12, the first day of the month of Elul. 

After announcing this year’s contributors, Taubman said he received a letter from someone angry over the inclusion of Newsom and omission of his Republican opponent, John Cox. Similarly, a person wrote to him to express displeasure that Sarah Silverman, a champion of liberal causes, was included.

Taubman, for his part, said the point of “Jewels” is not to preach politics — though several of the contributors express their dislike of the current president — but to increase civility. 

The point, he said, is to hear from “people who are like you and people not like you.”

You can sign up here to receive a “Jewel a Day.”